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Social media creates new space for activism in Zimbabwe

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  • Zimbabweans are learning to utilise social media to speak about their repressive government and fight for better policies.

ZIMBABWE – a country previously led by Africa’s longest ruling dictator, Robert Mugabe – has always had a closed media environment. Currently the country has one TV station and most of the print media is polarised.

The majority of the population of about 15 million still lives in rural areas and relies on radio as its main source of the news and information.   

“For people to be literate and to be able to use and critically analyse trends in their country, there has to be a broad range of information. Critical political analysis from different angles is needed, whether you’re for or against the current establishment. We haven’t had that,” states Koliwe Majama, a digital rights activist working for the Association for Progressive Communication.

However, with the proliferation of the internet and liberalisation of ICT product imports during the inclusive government period (coalition government between the ruling party ZANU PF and opposition party Movement for Democratic Change MDC) between 2009–2013, social movements utilised the window of opportunity to establish pro-democracy and online-reliant social movements and spaces in Zimbabwe.

Koliwe Majama is a digital rights activist working for the Association for Progressive Communication in Zimbabwe.

In Zimbabwe, the lack of properly fact-checked and non-biased media has created a space for social media; that’s where people analyse what happens in the government, talk about developments and give criticism – something that the Zimbabwean government does not traditionally take well. 

“I think social media has been very important in creating a space in which people are able to engage with one another and also with their elected representatives. It serves as a useful barometer in the country. It does not, however, represent the whole of society, since it’s a disproportionally urban and young crowd that use it,” says a human rights activist and lawyer Doug Coltart.   

Doug Coltart

For Coltart himself, Twitter has served as a useful platform for disseminating information about his legal and advocacy work.

Coltart has been recently representing an award-winning Zimbabwean journalist Hopewell Chin’ono, who was arrested in August by the Zimbabwean Republic Police, after publishing a series of investigations into corruption in Zimbabwe.  

Chin’ono was held in an overcrowded cell in the maximum-security Chikurubi Prison for almost six weeks pending trial on charges of inciting violence. He was freed, but arrested again at the beginning of November and accused of breaking his bail conditions, but freed again on 20 November.  

Chin’ono has more than 170,000 followers on Twitter. The journalist has been actively using social media as a tool to shed light on rampant corruption, human rights violations and unconstitutional court rulings.  

The arrest of Chin’ono was part of a wider crackdown on dissent in Zimbabwe, during which between 50 and 100 opposition party officials, writers, labour activists and others were arrested.  

Coltart thinks social media is a real driver for social change.  

Zimbabwean journalist Hopewell Chin’ono.

“The response of the regime to how activists, journalists and trade unionists use social media indicates that the regime understands its importance and its power, although it’s not sufficient in itself. But here in Zimbabwe with the oppressive conditions, it’s difficult for people to take action on the ground,” says Coltart. 

Hashtags and the campaigns behind them made Zimbabwe’s problems known to the world 

Regardless of the challenges of converting social media–sparked campaigns into real action, the country has been seeing a rise in powerful social media campaigns since 2013. #thisflag was one of them.  

Zimbabwean pastor Evan Mawarire started #thisflag in May 2016. Mawarire posted a video that created a domino effect and launched an on-going campaign using the hash tag #ThisFlag, using it as a means to expose and protest about President Robert Mugabe’s government.  

Mawarire started posting videos with a flag wrapped around his neck. The videos bemoaned government corruption, national leadership ineptitude and poor service delivery. His videos went viral and thousands of Zimbabweans in the country and diaspora around the world joined his movement.  

On 6 July 2016, #ThisFlag and its counterparts organised a mass stay away in an act of civil disobedience. Citizens were asked via social media to stay at home and shut down the country. The message code–named #ZimShutDown trended on Twitter and Facebook. The majority of Zimbabweans heeded the call to shut down Zimbabwe , and the BBC reported on the day: “Zimbabwe’s main cities are deserted during a nationwide stay away to protest at the lack of jobs and unpaid wages.” 

Trust is a challenge when organising online against a repressive government.

A similar stay-away was executed this year when Zimbabweans took the fight for democracy online with the hashtag #ZANUPFmustgo. Human rights lawyers, journalists, labour unionists and ordinary citizens alike protested online – and some peacefully on the streets – against corruption.  

The police arrested dozens of people who tried to hold low-key protests, amongst them prominent author and Booker-prize nominee Tsitsi Dangarembga as well as Fadzayi Mahere, spokeswoman of the main opposition MDC Alliance party.  

MDC Alliance spokesperson Fadzayi Mahere

These demonstrations paralysed the country and most of the business activities for days.  

In 2016, in reaction to the shutdown, state officials panicked and arrested #ThisFlag’s leader, Evan Mawarire. On 13  July, massive crowds carried Zimbabwean flags and gathered outside the courtroom in Harare in solidarity with Mawarire. The judge sensed public anger and pressure, and released Mawarire to his jubilant supporters. 

“Ewan Mawarire and others have used social media to mobilise people online for action offline. We have done the same with our satirical show”, says Samm Monro, the founder of Magamba Network and a host of a political satire shows Zambesi News and the Week. 

Magamba Network is Zimbabwe’s leading creative organisation focusing on the arts, digital media, activism and innovation.  

Samm Monro is the founder of Magamba Network, an organisation using creative forms of youth activism to open up democratic space in Zimbabwe.

Samm Monro is the founder of Magamba Network, an organisation using creative forms of youth activism to open up democratic space

One of the most popular and broadly noted campaigns, #Zimbabweanlivesmatter was fashioned after the Black Lives Matter global protests staged since the killing of George Floyd by a US police officer in May. This campaign, which originated in South Africa in August, was number 1 on the list of trending topics on Twitter at the beginning of August. 

“The government had been in denial that there was a crisis happening in the country. Then people started to share content under #Zimbabweanlivesmatter and it started trending in Zimbabwe and South Africa. Celebrities and politicians around Africa and US started reacting and sharing,” says Munyaradzi Dodo, responsible for Magamba network’s communication. 

Activism online can lead to action offline  

#Zimbabweanlivesmatter eventually forced the South African government to send a delegation to Zimbabwe. Although the delegation only met with government officials and was not really allowed to engage with opposition or civil society groups, the people of the Magamba network got a chance to meet with the head of the delegation to discuss about the situation on the ground in Zimbabwe.   

South Africa recognised that there was a crisis in Zimbabwe in the midst of the COVID pandemic, with lack of access to basic services such as health care and food security.  

“There are several examples of things happening in Zimbabwe, such as #Zimbabweanlivesmatter, that have ended up on social media, and even made it to the international press. That’s what digital activists do.

“They raise awareness of what’s happening in Zimbabwe and try to get the word to the international press, then the international press can make it into a big deal in their countries. Then governments might start to put pressure on Zimbabwe,” Dodo explains. 

Now the Cyber Bill is labelling people as  terrorists, even if they’re just bloggers.

However, Dodo, Majama, Monroe and Coltart all underline that social media activism is becoming increasingly hard in Zimbabwe due to censorship and surveillance.   

“Trust is a challenge when organising online against a repressive government. The extent to which it’s possible for people to effectively have conversations that meaningfully influence action by the citizens is very, very minimal, because we’re dealing with a government that uses force,” Majama says.  

Majama also emphasises that the challenge with social media movements in Zimbabwe is that they have been heavily centred on individuals.   

“Social media needs to be complemented with a strategy that is sustained, with more than one person at the head and also with a level of awareness and appreciation by people who may not be involved in the struggle,” Majama says.  

Social media activism faces a plethora of challenges 

In Zimbabwe, where internet data is the most expensive in the world, one major challenge for people is access to the internet.  

“Social media users are mainly in urban areas, so conversations on Twitter might just represent an echo–chamber. The conversations are had with people who have access to data and devices,” Dodo reminds.

Munyaradzi Dodo believes that social media has brought a new generation of people online to discuss and engage in politics.

Munyaradzi Dodo believes that social media has brought a new generation of people online to discuss and engage 

And then there’s the Varakashi. According to a research paper entitled Social media, civil resistance, the Varakashi factor and the shifting polemics of Zimbabwe’s social media “war” by Charles Moyo, the Varakashi have fundamentally poisoned and polarised the social media political landscape, and are responsible for misinformation, disinformation, deception and the spread of  sexism, racism, and tribalism. 

In other words, the Varakashi are pro-regime trolls, encouraged by Zimbabwe’s president Emerson Mnangagwa himself to fight for the regime online. Coltart has been a victim of Varakashi’s trolling, as have the Magamba network and countless human rights advocates, journalists and civil society group members alike.  

“The Varakashi have been assigned to my timeline for about one year. There have been attacks on my person, wrapped in falsehoods, up to the invented role of my father in the liberation struggle. From time to time, I receive death threats in my e–mail,” says Coltart. 

The learning of social media skills is growing 

Zimbabweans have clearly gone online to speak out and tell one another and the world about the human rights violations, food insecurity, arbitrary violence against civilians during the COVID-19 pandemic and rampant corruption in Zimbabwe. People have been learning how to harness social media platforms to fight for democracy.

With this fight, the spreading of misinformation and fake news is a massive challenge.  

According to Coltart, the teaching of social media skills is happening, but to a limited extent. People might call out fake news in WhatsApp by sharing proper news and sources.

Monro says that, during COVID, all civic and other organisations moved online, because they had not been able to organise things like workshops physically. This has required learning how to use social media platforms more effectively. 

In Zimbabwe, where internet data is the most expensive in the world, one major challenge for people is access to the internet.

Dodo explains that social media has brought a new generation of Zimbabweans online to talk about politics.  

“It has brought a new means of activism. Guys who would have never gone to protest, suddenly they’ve realized that it matters to them. It’s made them more aware. Hashtags are a good way of tracking what young Zimbabweans who are moderately well educated are talking about, and to learn what their issues are.” 

In response to increasing social media activism and people harnessing different platforms to fight for change, the Zimbabwean government has introduced a new bill, ‘the Cyber Bill’ to shut down dissent. If the bill is approved by parliament, it will criminalise any communication between individuals or organisations and foreign governments – it is a bill that can be interpreted very broadly. 

“We’ve been running awareness campaigns about the Cyber Bill. Because of  #zimbabweanlivesmatter, the government introduced the Patriot Bill, then amendments to the Criminal Code. Now the Cyber Bill is labelling people as  terrorists, even if they’re just bloggers,” Monro says.  

With the new bill, the importance of Zimbabweans teaching each other the critical skills of media literacy, data protection and how to use social media to inform about what’s happening inside the country is becoming even more important. ■

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