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“We really believe social media will drive change in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe”

AP/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi
Zimbabwean pastor Evan Mawarire, holds his national flag whilst addressing supporters at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa on July 28.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

While it was Mohammed Bouazizi in Tunisia, a little known inspirational fruit vendor who set himself alight and started the Arab Spring, in Zimbabwe the revolution has been sparked by a pastor with a flag and a series of selfie videos. He started posting the selfie videos on Facebook and they went viral overnight.

Evan Mawarire posted a video on Facebook after he struggled to raise the school fees for his children, he held the Zimbabwean flag and felt let down by his country and the government. The promise that this flag stood for and the reality on the ground could not be reconciled. His video resonated with many Zimbabweans who adopted the flag as a symbol of protest flooding social media with images of the Zimbabwean flag. The video inspired many Zimbabweans and has quickly grown to become Zimbabwe’s biggest form of protest in over a decade

“We call it civil disobedience powered by the use of social media.”

#ThisFlag movement in Zimbabwe differentiates itself from other uprising in Africa in the way that it is a completely non-violent approach to demanding change. It takes a leaf from Martin Luther King and advocates for a social political change instead of regime change only.

The movement completely abhors violence which makes it difficult to justify any crackdown against it. It also makes it appealing to a wider cross section of people from different races, religion, ethnicity and demographics. While in Tunisia, Egypt and other nations the uprisings spurred national protests, violence and reaffirmed the stereotype that Africa is prone to war. #ThisFlag has done the complete opposite advocating for mass “stay-aways” resulting in complete shutdown of the country over the past weeks where people just don’t pitch up for work. We call it civil disobedience powered by the use of social media.

Not knowing if the leaders of the movement will change their approach in the future but so far it has be a Martin Luther King-style civil rights movement aimed specifically at resisting the introduction of bond notes (a form of currency being introduced by the government), police brutality, rampant corruption, import bans on goods and failure to pay civil servants amidst a crumbling economy. This movement is aims to avoid the pitfalls of a violent uprising which often leave a leadership vacuum and devastation of the economy.

On Wednesday 13 July, Zimbabweans peacefully demonstrated in front of the Magistrates Court in Harare. 5,000 people turned out in protest to demand the release of Mawarire who had been arrested the day before ahead of a scheduled #ThisFlag 2 day national stay-away protest in Zimbabwe, Everyone who turned up for the protest received the information either via Facebook, Twitter or Whatsapp. The state-controlled media had little to no information about the case. Protesters stayed from 8am to 8pm as the wheels of justice turned ever so slowly until his final release of the leader of the movement.

WhatsApp replaced what would have been ordinary mobilization strategies of meetings and traditional media campaign strategies.

The events of the past week and others preceding it show how social media can be harnessed by citizens to organize an effective campaign against oppressive governments. The are two million Zimbabweans on the internet and 600 000 of them use mobile internet and largely reside in urban or peri-urban areas. In Zimbabwe, Whatsapp makes up over 34% of the data usage strongly followed by Facebook with 3%. WhatsApp replaced what would have been ordinary mobilization strategies of meetings and traditional media campaign strategies—TV and Radio. Social media has become the new meeting place for having critical conversations about the future of the country. People feel safer communicating on Whatsapp than they do in real life.

The removal of fear is the first step towards having citizens who are involved in democratic processes. In the words Evan Mawarire if you can force the government to change you must inspire the citizens to be bold. Whatsapp’s recent feature which allows end to end encryption of conversations in chats has also provided a security bracket for people to be able to communicate without fear. What stops people from sharing information is the fear that the information they share will be used against them. Despite Zimbabwe’s government attempts to threaten citizens with arrests, dissenting information continues to be shared across the platform. Zimbabwe has one national television broadcaster and the radio stations that are there all have linkages to the state.

The only source of credible, unbiased and up to date information about what is happening outside the state controlled media is social media. Zimbabwe owes much of the development of access to the internet largely to private owned telecoms operator Econet and its subsidiary company Liquid which owns and controls the majority of internet infrastructure in Zimbabwe. Not surprising the founder of the company Strive Masiyiwa lives in exile in the UK as he has crossed swords with the government several times in his bid to create his empire. This is another reason why it would be difficult for the government to do a complete shutdown of the internet as we see in other other countries ruled by oppressive regimes. Unlike other countries Zimbabwe’s Econet has a slightly upper hand on the government which is always battling to gain access to the infrastructure setup by the Econet Wireless.

It would be difficult for Mugabe’s government to shut down the internet because Zimbabwe’s Econet has a slight upper hand on the government.

To a large degree social media has played a critical role in Zimbabwe’s uprising because of the privately-owned network operators who have zero-rated Twitter completely and offered data plans for Whatsapp and Facebook. This move has enabled many middle class and poor communities to be connected to the world wide web and enabled the uprisings being witnessed in Zimbabwe to be driven by a combination by the urban middle class communities and Zimbabweans living in the diaspora who have tapped into the power of social media.

Stay away

Social media which has made it easier for information to be shared. The middle class during Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle would not participate in protests, but now they are directly affected by the economic challenges of the day. Globally the middle class citizens influence change and our government is bound to fears that. But now the Zimbabwean Government is broke and struggling to pay its civil servants on time. Even the military, which it has relied on in previous times to squash uprising is growing impatient. Last month’s “stay away” campaign was largely successful due to the participation of civil servants,  teachers, doctors and nurses..

#ThisFlag’s non violent approach is an effective strategy as it avoids direct confrontation with the military but hits the government where it bleeds the most—bringing the whole nation to a halt without the loss of lives. Even in the event that the government where to use the military, It can’t be everywhere at the same time and it can’t go door to door to every house forcing people to come out and go to work. The coordinated stay aways in-part achieves two things. It registers a message with the government and ensures the safety of its participants against flying bullets and teargas.

This growing citizen uprising is forcing the government to come to term with state of affairs and ensures that any future government that replaces it post 2018 elections will have an enlightened citizen that will hold it to account to have the citizens interests at heart and not one bent towards a particular party. The risk of a violent uprising as exemplified by Libya is that you may end up in a worse situation tor with a more repressive regime than you had in the beginning. Non-violent approach as practised by Martin Luther King achieves a broader, long term social change instead of an immediate political gain. A hashtag may not change a nation but it can inspire citizens to be bold demand change from a government that has lost touch with its people.

📬 A periodic dispatch from the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly in NYC.

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