Why social media activists face an uphill struggle in Zimbabwe

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Long considered economically and socially underdeveloped compared with the rest of the world, Africa has in recent years emerged as an important global player in many respects, helped in part by a set of factors including rapid population growth that is expected to reach 1.7 billion inhabitants by 2030 and 2.5 billion by 2050, an expanding urbanization and a growing, tech-savvy youth that is adopting ubiquitous technologies to demand transparency from its political leaders in a bid to improve their lives and communities.

In spite of the seemingly endless prospects, ranging from abundant natural resources to fresh democratic transitions, albeit frequently fragile, a series of challenges remain firmly in place. It is important not only to highlight opportunities associated with digital technologies but also assess the political implications of expeditious technological changes that have dominated Africa’s online space over the last few years. To do that, we need to look no further than nations such as Zimbabwe, a country which has long attracted international attention because of what critics see as a dismal freedom of press and human rights record.

The case of Hopewell Chin’ono

Take the case of journalist Hopewell Chin’ono, who was recently released on bail after spending nearly three weeks in detention for “peddling falsehoods,” a charge that could keep him in jail for 20 years should he be convicted. He is facing two more charges including that of promoting anti-government protests on social media. Chin’ono and his supporters think he is being targeted for exposing corruption on social media, but former Information Minister Bright Matonga disagrees. He told me from his base in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, “Zimbabwe has 1500 registered journalists. Thirty-five of these are foreign correspondents. They criticize the government daily. Citizens share their views on social media each day. They criticize the government, some criticize the president, but no one is getting arrested. The question should be ‘why is he being arrested? – It’s simply because he has a case to answer if you ask me.” Matonga considers Chin’ono an activist rather than a journalist quipping “Political activist? Yes. Journalist? No way. If he is a journalist, show me his stories. Who does he work for?”

Critics have questioned why a government that has been trying to mend ties with several countries abroad would arrest journalists and political opponents. Matonga says engaging members the international community doesn’t not mean those who break the law “should not be held accountable.”

An uphill struggle

It’s clear social media activists in Zimbabwe face an uphill struggle in their attempts to use digital technologies to steer themselves toward the path of democratization. Similar conclusions have been highlighted by other contributors to this series on Decoding Digital Democracy in Africa. Digital access is not guaranteed and shutdowns have emerged as the easiest way to silence dissent.  

In Zimbabwe, some, particularly the die-hard supporters of President Emmerson Mnangagwa even suggest the winds of change are sweeping away decades-old cynicism. They say under Mnangagwa, who took power in 2017, long-criticized draconian laws including AIPPA, have either been repealed or remain under parliamentary review, more citizens are accessing digital platforms and in comparison to the Robert Mugabe era, digital dissent is being tolerated. Chin’ono, opposition officials and their ardent supporters certainly disagree.

Even as the West has openly been pushing Zimbabwean leaders to end decades of oppression, Mnangagwa’s government has argued tyranny ended when the late Mugabe was removed from power in November 2017. Yet critics say Chin’ono’s many arrests and those of opposition officials and other  government critics are a testimony to the limitations of social media as a weapon against digital authoritarianism in Zimbabwe. In spite of his setbacks, Chin’ono continues to criticize the government of social media but to what effect?

Looking beyond the Arab Spring

We need to ask why, despite early signs of optimism particularly during the ‘Arab Spring,’ is social media activism failing to remove the ruling ZANU PF party from power or at the very least make its officials accountable? Firstly, I think many Zimbabweans have a warped view of activism. I have met people, including opposition officials, who equate posting a message of Facebook or recording themselves saying a few words and sharing it with their friends and followers with activism.  Getting ‘likes’ makes them feel good but again that doesn’t threaten ZANU PF’s stranglehold to power. Ugandan opposition leader Bobi Wine perhaps comes close to being a notable flagbearer of outright political activism in Africa even though his date with destiny has also been rocky. He has been directly involved not just on social media but also on the streets head to head, fighting against state-sponsored tyranny. Every political activist in Zimbabwe needs to realize toppling ZANU PF from power requires more than selfies and memes.

Digital activism in Zimbabwe lacks leadership, coordination and in some cases identity. Who are the legitimate leaders of the movement? What is their strategy? What exactly is their goal? Zimbabwe’s political terrain remains muddy and bumpy.  Fuchs, drawing on Habermas, has suggested that the availability of social media, specifically Twitter, has provided a new arena for the public sphere of political communication, which carries, he argues, emancipatory connotations, claiming that social media allows people to openly participate in political deliberations online. However, from the perspective of the African public spheres, it is not immediately obvious whether citizens living in repressive political environments would agree with Fuchs’ assertion given the constrained public spheres they find themselves living in.  Add digital disinformation and misinformation to that, then it becomes clear ZANU PF officials will  not be hurt by digitally-mediated activism.  

While those opposed to the ruling ZANU-PF party consider social media as a godsend tool for potential political emancipation, history has taught us Zimbabwe’s deeply-rooted problems will not be negotiated on social media. Last year, access to social media platforms was blocked amid government denials of digital interference while anti-government digital activists have previously faced treason charges.

Questions of control and censorship, state policing and surveillance of online political participation are all central to a discussion of the role of social media in promoting or denting democratization. It is important to emphasize the importance of empirically-driven research, which should be promoted to potentially give us more answers and capture the realities of this social media-democratization nexus.

Bruce Mutsvairo is a Professor of Journalism at Auburn University in the US.

Further reading

Dietz, T. (2017, September 25). Africa: Still a silver lining. Valedictory Lecture. Leiden University on Monday.

Fuchs C (2014). Social Media: A Critical Introduction. London: SAGE Publications Ltd

Mutsvairo, B., & Ragnedda, M. (2019b). Mapping the digital divide in Africa: A mediated analysis. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

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