Digital media has opened up space for people to freely discuss issues and run away from aggressive confrontational governments especially in Africa.
However, many African governments are still threatened by the existence of digital platforms, hence they are not so keen to open up the cyber space.
Recently, Nigeria shut down the microblogging site, Twitter.
Uganda did it in the run-up to their presidential election.
Zimbabwe is not new to the tricks and currently South Africa is in the process of tracking down those alleged to be instigators of violence, apparently through digital media.
The truth is the digital space has become the new public sphere where people can express themselves with little suppression.
More often than not, social media has been attributed as the prime cause of the Arab Spring.
Digital media can be toxic, can be dangerous especially now that anyone can create content.
The advent of fake news, misinformation and disinformation has been necessitated and exacerbated by the digital space.
In Zimbabwe, people have used the digital space to express displeasure over the economic, political and social delinquencies.
Zimbabweans have on numerous occasions turned to the digital space to criticise government’s unfavourable actions and decisions and sometimes with success as some decisions have been reversed.
There are remarkable instances where social media has recorded historical events, to a point where the government would resort to shutting down the internet.
People were mobilised to protest against human rights violations, security services brutality and government inactions on critical policy issues.
This flag movement was Zimbabwe’s accidental movement for change initiated by pastor Evan Mawarire who decided to record himself in 2016 expressing his frustrations using his smartphone.
“When I look at the flag it’s not a reminder of my pride and inspiration, it feels as if I want to belong to another country,” he said.
Mawarire had also been frustrated by mainstream media in particular, where the owner of a private-owned radio station, who is linked to Zanu PF, allegedly force-marched him out of the studios since he was regarded as a government critic.
Mawarire’s digital activism was first declared as a five-day movement in which the flag was in effect symbolising hope and patriotism, but it was then extended to 25 days by popular demand.
Zimbabweans were speaking with one voice “#ThisFlag, Hatichada”. The hashtag trended for almost a month.
Frustrated and angry Zimbabweans mobilised themselves on social media platforms particularly WhatsApp and Twitter to protest in January 2019 following a 130% increase in the price of fuel imposed by the government of Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Thousands of Zimbabweans were posting pictures and videos of what was happening in their locations with the hashtag “#ShutDownZimbabwe” in protest at the price increase, along with increasing levels of poverty, the poor state of the economy and declining standards of living.
“Pray for Zim. I’m now in a town called Chitungwiza, queuing for my turn to use the Internet, I’m Number 4 000 in the queue and each person gets 5 Min Internet coverage for 2 Social media updates, irrespective of the amount of airtime you have in your phone. #ZimbabweShutDown,” a Zimbabwean tweeted.
The hyperbolic language employed in this tweet conveys humour in explaining how there was traffic on social media following the hashtags that were trending in Zimbabwe.
Zimbabweans looted supermarkets drawing the attention of international media and the government had to impose a “total internet shutdown” as a strategy to hide growing reports of a violent crackdown on protesters.
In January 2021, the Ugandan government blocked social media ahead of a tense election. The authorities ordered telecoms to shut down social media and messaging services, just two days before the presidential election.
The July 31 Movement was a nationwide anti-government demonstration that was scheduled to take place across Zimbabwe on a Friday in July 2020.
The protests were organised on social media by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions and other activists to coincide with a general strike against the deteriorating socio-economic situation in the country.
However, the movement was unsuccessful since the police arrested the leader of the Transform Zimbabwe opposition party who was behind the July 31 Movement. Ngarivhume was arrested together with freelance journalist Hopewell Chino’no whose social media presence has an impact in community mobilisation.
The July 31 Movement was meant to denounce government corruption and to demand the resignation of Mnangagwa.
“Dear MDC-Alliance, we are 6 days away from the #July31stMovement. We need covert operations to make this day a success. Please use part of our funds in paying torch-bearers, food & transport. #ItsNowOrNever #ZimbabweProtests,” Nymeria tweeted.
The Obadiah Moyo must resign campaign was initiated by Chino’no on Facebook and Twitter in which interested Zimbabweans were supposed to respond with the hashtag “#ObadiahMoyoMustResign”.
This went viral since the Twitter application allows users to follow what’s happening through hashtags.
Mnangagwa later fired Moyo, who was accused of looting millions of dollars meant for medical equipment following social media protests by Zimbabwean citizens.
The Zimbabwean Lives Matter movement was a digital protest that was directed towards the government of Mnangagwa, who took over power from the late former president Robert Mugabe through a military coup in November 2017.
Social media community mobilisation still causes sleepless nights to the Zimbabwean government.
Protests against the economic crisis, arrests and human-rights abuses in Zimbabwe moved on social media with a trending hashtag that plays on the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
The movement garnered support from prominent figures around the globe and Zimbabwean footballers even joined in.
“It is my utmost desire to see a Zimbabwe that’s prosperous, peaceful, productive and progressive in all sectors, tolerant and full of Love, Faith and Hope, let us continue to pray for our beautiful Zimbabwe #ZimbabweLivesMatter,” Zimbabwean International footballer Marshall Munetsi tweeted.
Another dramatic social media campaign was that of the former vice-president Kembo Mohadi who resigned amid a sexcapades scandal following social media attacks by Zimbabwean citizens who demanded that he should step down due to his improper sexual affairs with married women, including one of his subordinates.
The 70-year-old Mohadi denied the accusations before tendering his resignation, saying this was part of a political plot against him.
- Evans Mathanda is a journalist and development practitioner who writes in his personal capacity. For feedback email: firstname.lastname@example.org or call 0719770038 and Twitter @EvansMathanda19.