Social Media Not Everything for Zimbabwe’s Democracy

ImageA MONTH prior to the recently held elections in Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe’s social media space went through an upsurge of activity.  In fact, there was such a hullabaloo around social media with political, civic organisations and mostly Zimbabwean urbanites turning to the medium as if it were also casting votes.

Countless pages cropped up on Facebook focused on the Zimbabwean elections. Baba Jukwa, undoubtedly emerged as the poster child of Zimbabwe-elections related social media activity garnering over 300,000 followers within two months leading up to the plebiscite.

Political parties and civil society also jumped onto the social media bandwagon generating some conversation about their respective agendas. Much of the social media activity related to the Zimbabwean elections occurred within a month of the actual vote. So, in a way, many of the social media actors in Zimbabwe came too late to the table.

Without a doubt, the just-finished elections were the most watched since Zimbabwe won its independence from colonial rule in 1980. Social media played a significant in ensuring the flow of information and keep citizens aware.

However, a key lesson from the just ended elections is it is important not to overstate social media’s potential for transforming governance in Zimbabwe. While it is true that social media websites offer a low-cost and relatively low-risk way for citizens to engage in conversation about democratic governance, Zimbabwe’s technological infrastructure is not sufficiently developed to enable social media with a wide reach, enabling activists to mobilize a mass public.

From a technological standpoint, Zimbabwe is currently estimated to be five years behind other countries in the region. According to estimates, only around 4,1 million Zimbabweans mainly in urban areas or 30 percent of the population can claim they have some kind of internet access. Internet literacy is limited, as is web content that relates specifically to Zimbabwe. Despite a significant rise in the number of website that were established to focus on the elections, access is still limited.

Affordable access to communications networks is a basic requirement for the effective functioning of governance, civil society as well as for economic development.

Social media’s impact in that sense has been largely to expose the Zimbabwe electoral process to the outside world. Among Zimbabweans, social media has had an impact especially on urbanites and the diaspora. Lack of connectivity continues to hamper access to information for many people in rural areas.

In terms of implementation of social media, many of the political and civil society institutions came too late to the table. To make matters worse, efforts to mobilise voters especially were rather disjointed. There was somewhat a knee-jerk approach to the way that social media was utilized. Overall though, the Zimbabwe elections 2013 were by far the most hyper-connected. More youths could have been captured and encouraged to participate in the process if a more holistic approach had been employed.

Suffice to state that, there are about 1.1 million Zimbabweans on Facebook, with most accessing the platform via mobile internet which is still exorbitant.

With regards to content management, most of the social media activities were like shooting in the dark. Take, for example, no one knows how many Zimbabweans are on Twitter despite its huge potential. There was very little measurement of metrics to assist in determining messages to establish a conversation with the electorate. Instead, much of the social media activity was much like a conversation among the converted.

To emphasize, social media did bring a spotlight to the elections but mostly for the benefit of those in urban areas and outside Zimbabwe. Many of the young people still had to rely on traditional methods. There was a need in social media efforts to integrate online and offline efforts. This was certainly not the case. The process of involving more youth in the next electoral process via social media should begin now.

Mobile internet access is growing exponentially. In recent years, there has been significant growth in this sector. Nonetheless, in a country with exponential unemployment, the cost of hand-held devices and web access remains an obstacle to greater growth. The more an individual is income-less the more the probability to be excluded digitally. Digital poverty is more prevalent in rural areas where the majority of the population – approximately 62 per cent of the population – resides than in urban areas.

Many experts believe that democracy in the 21st century will increasingly depend on access to the Internet and technology. But in Zimbabwe, the potential of new technology to influence political governance in still a factor for the future trajectory of politics in the country.

In the future, the internet, and thus social media, is likely to play a greater role in Zimbabwe’s politics and culture. Zimbabwe is being connected to the undersea cable. Fiber-optic infrastructure is being set up across the country. It is expected that the nation will have ubiquitous connectivity and low-cost access to data by 2014. New opportunities are thus likely to arise, in terms of both business and politics.

What social media has shown in the Zimbabwean elections is that sometime in the not too distant future, social media tools like Facebook could facilitate spaces for people to openly express themselves in defiance of censorship, circumventing both state-owned and privately owned media. The tech-savvy younger generation could play a leading role.

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