By Rich Mugobo
We have a new breed of Zimbabwean activists in town, a new age of lazy politicians. They spend most of their time online, clicking away topical issue after issue, following trending hash tags, posting viral pictures and images, retweeting tweets and liking anything in their interests – usually sponsored in nature. They are part of a new phenomenon on social media, from political activists, academics, artists, students, professionals and unemployed youths. They form a clique of a connected group of people in and outside Zimbabwe. They often have unfettered access and at other instances borrowed access to the internet. Their dominant presence online is unquestionable but does it translate to any meaningful presence in the daily lives of ordinary Zimbabweans. The power of social media is undeniable but it is often exaggerated.
The practical realities of Zimbabwean or African politics show that physical presence is essential in any electoral contestation. You don’t necessarily need to be visible in the media, but you need an obvious grassroots following offline. So far, no single African government can justifiably claim their political power came as a product of social media campaigns. It’s not a given that social media membership will vote otherwise. For most, social media in Africa remains a form of entertainment and passive protests coalescing on short-lived hashtags. Real political mobilisation is staged in the streets not via tweets.
Social media activism or online political activism is often a superficial engagement, often generating false membership. If you ask an ordinary vendor at Mbare Musika who Fadzayi Mahere is you are likely to be answered by blank confused stares. Fadzayi Mahere is the social media political activist plotting an orange revolution in Mt Pleasant. Call it the Mt Pleasant spring if you may. Online she has a multitude of followers but offline she is a nonentity. If you ask a villager in Mt Darwin who Saviour Kasukuwere is they will recall the last time he visited not the last tweet he shared. Can tweets translate to votes? That’s a very big illusion.
Clicktivism, a pejorative term to describe armchair activists on social media. This term aptly describes the kind of opposition political activists that have emerged in Zimbabwe over the last decade. The case of Baba jukwa was perhaps the most notable example of the increasingly growing online political activism in Zimbabwe.
The year 2016 saw an unprecedented wave of online socio-political protests that later spilled into the streets. #Thisflag, #tajamuka and many other social media movements gave the Zimbabwean government headaches and prompted the executive to immediately draft a cyber-bill aimed primarily at regulating the usage of social media and curbing what has generally been referred to as cyber terrorists.
However, the potential of clicktivists making tangible political and social progress outside the internet is very minimal and often a subject of exaggeration. The case of #thisflag movement is a case in point. Yes, it ruffled feathers but that was it .The social media phenomena in Zimbabwe and indeed in Africa has caught the continent by storm, but it seems to be a moderate storm. The real political power play seem to be residing on the ground for the moment, with physical door to door campaign being the most realistic way to garner support that translate to actual votes.
Likes and retweets tend to exaggerate the magnitude of support. Most of the people who are active online tend to be politically inactive. The result being that we have a small group of online activists usually talking amongst themselves about the same issues and the same trajectory. It’s a false illusion and it will be too much to call it a movement. Evan mawarire went viral and got everyone talking but where is he now? Social media tends to be a liberated space that does not reflect the harsh realities of the political landscape.
In a way, social media tends to be reductive by oversimplifying complex issues into short messages. For instance Evan Mawarire collapsed the Zimbabwean situation into #thisflag, a concept with a wide appeal to the social media followers but in reality is of little meaning or relevance to an ordinary old woman in Dotito. Social media has certainly made participation easier but it does not reflect the reality on the ground. The illusion of popularity on social media hides the fact that most online activists or slacktivists are communicating amongst themselves .they are often a group of academics or professional in civic society, tertiary institutions and international institutions. That sphere is closed to the masses who have a bigger participation in national politics .in the end the electorate votes for tangible deliverables not hashtags and viral tweets.
Political mobilisation is a bit more difficult than online activism. That does not mean online success cannot be duplicated in the political arena. There a lot of positives to be gleaned from social media’s soft power. However real political accomplishments in Africa in general and Zimbabwe in particular, do not come from Twitter, YouTube or Facebook but is a derivative of effective engagement on the ground. Real political transformation will not come through likes and shares. Not in this lifetime. Social media remains symbolic action with no real power. Social media’s soft power is often a subject of embellishment. Real power will remain in the hands of those who hold the apparatus of governance.
- Richard Mugobo is a writer, blogger, researcher. Email |firstname.lastname@example.org