Over the last few months a new type of politics has been brewing in Zimbabwe. Fed up with the mainstream parties, people have been taking to social media to express their demands. The most prominent has been the #ThisFlag movement, adopting the national flag as the symbol to rally around.
Led by a pastor – Evan Mawarire – it has generated massive interest, both in Zimbabwe and in the diaspora, and resulted in a successful stay-away in early July. Other movements, linked by social media, include: Occupy Africa Unity Square and Tajamuka/Sesjikile, as well as numerous bloggers, Twitter commentators, Youtube channels and Facebook accounts. Will this make a difference?
Some say this is the start of a ‘Zimbabwean spring’, echoing the movements that toppled governments in the Arab world a few years ago. But we need to be cautious about such parallels. There have been some excellent, reflective commentaries on this emerging phenomenon from Alex Magaisa, Miles Tendi and Brian Raftopolous in recent weeks. Let me highlight some key points made.
Genuine grievances are being expressed as the economy nosedives
Corruption, repression and lack of economic opportunity certainly are real concerns in Zimbabwe today, particularly among youth and urbanites. The riots discussed last week were an expression of this among vendors, taxi operators and others working hard to make a living in the ‘informal economy’
On Twitter, the core demands are stated, thus: “#ThisFlag will continue to be a civil rights movement driven by its citizens against: Poverty, Injustice, Corruption”. Most would sign up to this. But how does it translate into a political project, beyond the demands? This requires reaching out to wider constituencies.
This is an urban phenomenon, but Zimbabwe is largely rural
Only 34 percent of Zimbabwe’s population is classified as urban by the World Bank. This is far less than say Tunisia where the Arab spring started, where 68 percent is urban. This makes a big difference, as Twitter, Facebook and other social media are not active in many rural areas. People are of course engaging through multiple routes, and Whatsapp connections reach further. But most activists live in the major towns and are young, and hashtag activism doesn’t reach older generations, or people in rural areas where the majority live.
Rural people certainly have grievances against the government, but they are different. Many got land during the land reform, but they want state support to help make their farms productive and their rural economies grow. These are different demands, and different people; coalitions across the whole electorate will be vital in any future election. ZANU-PF, by both fair and foul means, have been past masters at assuring a vote.
The commentaries make this point, but only in passing. Miles Tendi asks: “where are the voices of Zimbabwe’s rural youth, who despite their numerical majority, have played a marginal role in online activism? Alex Magaisa comments: “The new citizens’ movement which has made waves in recent weeks has been concentrated in the urban areas. In this regard therefore, it is not very different from the traditional political opposition and organised civil society.”
To my mind this is the crucial issue, meaning this will remain a protest movement, but not one that brings change, unless wider alliances are built and a rural agenda is forged – something that opposition groupings coming from trade union backgrounds have singularly failed to do in the past. A failure to engage with rural politics by the urban and diaspora commentariat along with activist organisers is a big mistake.
If hashtag activism is not linked to civic movements and structures on the ground it will not result in change
Raftopolous comments on the new type of politics: “This movement is different to earlier forms of civic activism in a number of ways. First, it does not appear to be driven by any particular political party. Second, since the demise of the structures of the labour movement in the first decade of the 2000s, the forms of organisation in the informal sector have become much more fluid. The result is that this form of activism is more difficult for the state to track, but it also makes such interventions more fragile and more difficult to sustain. Third, the modality of protest appears to have drawn from forms used in South African protest movements. These include the burning of buildings, such as the torching of the Zimbabwe Revenue Service building at the Beitbridge border between South Africa and Zimbabwe, and the burning of tyres in the streets”.
Raftopolous argues that we may be witnessing “a change in the idea of citizenship” in Zimbabwe, as new people engage in politics. But Tendi argues, “These predictions of Mugabe’s imminent downfall are wrong….. social media activism can never substitute for organized political activity on the ground”. He continues: “it is not enough for Zimbabwe’s urban youth to simply oppose the status quo through social media. Let’s say that a successful youth uprising were to remove Mugabe from power tomorrow: Who would take over in his wake? What sort of political and economic agenda would this new leader have? Most of Zimbabwe’s social media activists have yet to give lucid answers to these important questions, while the few who do are plagued by a lack of consensus about who would lead a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe and what that leadership’s agenda should be….If social media activists want to make a successful contribution to political change in Zimbabwe, they need to work in sync with traditional civil society groups and, crucially, effective opposition political parties”.
The problem, as Alex Magaisa, comments is that opposition parties are not effective, and civic movements are poorly funded and have over the years fallen into “the rigid confines of donor-demarcated programmes”.
The opposition parties are in turmoil
Alex Magaisa’s always-informative Big Saturday Read this week has dissected the recent announcements of the MDC-T president, Morgan Tsvangarai, with two additional vice-presidents appointed in the party. This was spun as preparing for the next election, but does it represent an attempt to control an unseemly succession struggle, or a clever route to cooption of different factions? Tsvangirai has revealed that he has colon cancer, so the party requires a new strategy. A recent statement tried to link itself to the #ThisFlag movement, but the connections through to local party structures are not clear. The wider movement has a broad political base, rooted in disaffection with the status quo, rather than any particular party loyalty, so it may be difficult to connect new citizen activism to opposition politics and votes.
Repression and control of social media and protest is likely
ZANU-PF has always been effective at suppressing dissent, both within the party and within the country. It has used violent means in the past, and will do so again. And of course there’s tweeter-in-chief, Prof. Jonathan Moyo MP, Minister of Higher and Tertiary Education, Science and Technology Development, with an impressive 78k followers. Cyber security has risen up the agenda, and there will be attempts to monitor and restrict social media for sure. The Central Intelligence Organisation has had much advice from Israel and others, and blocking online activism is certainly possible.
As Magaisa argues: “We are likely to see more arrests of activists in the citizens’ movement. Ordinary members of the public will also be arrested and prosecuted as examples to others. There will also be new laws to criminalise conduct on social media and other similar spaces. There will be further statements and warnings from the coercive elements of the state, all designed to deter and scare people from using social media to challenge government. In this regard, the citizens’ movement will find that its struggle is really not very different from the struggle which the traditional opposition parties and organized civil society have faced in the past. The question is whether this new citizens’ movement has devised new tools to overcome or get around these impediments”.
Key to the unfolding story, as Tendi explains, will be the role of the military. Also divided but held in check by webs of patronage and control, if any group breaks loose, then the dynamic changes immediately. Not paying the army on time is clearly unwise. But as Tendi says the hashtag activists have no route into these military-security networks, and have paid such issues little thought, a “fateful omission”, he argues. He explains, “Mugabe maintains his hold on power largely because of the army’s internal divisions, particularly among the senior officers….. He has also used the intelligence services to sow divisions and maintain surveillance among the generals. Unless Mugabe’s opponents can develop a strategy to bring a decisive majority of senior military officers over to their side, even the most effective social media campaign will be for naught”.
Tendi concludes his Foreign Affairs piece, looking forward: “Young people, urban and rural, do not seem to be discussing among themselves whom they should support in the 2018 election, or what sort of political and economic agenda they want to see for their country. What Zimbabwe needs now, most of all, is a well-thought-out and pragmatic approach to the 2018 election — one that will unite civil society, the opposition parties, online activists, and urban and rural youth. That is the key to finding a new path ahead”.