Social Media Not All That Hot In Zimbabwe

By Chief K. Masimba| AfroFutures.com Global Editor At Large

IN the wake of the political protests in North Africa, Vikas Mavhudzi made history by becoming Zimbabwe’s first “Facebook arrest”. He had posted a comment on Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangierai’s Facebook page on February 13. It read: “I am overwhelmed, I don’t want to say Mr. or PM what happened in Egypt is sending shockwaves to dictators around the world. No weapon but unity of purpose worth emulating, hey.”

A Facebook user told the police about the comment. Officers found the comment on Mavhudzi’s mobile phone, which he had used to post the message, and arrested him. He was accused of “advocating or attempting to take-over government by unconstitutional means”. Mavhudzi was incarcerated and a court case was filed against him. He is currently out on bail, after being held for over 35 days. The government’s response shows that it is taking no chances on social networking sites.

Social networking websites obviously fuelled the political protests inNorth Africa and other Arab states. As a result, oppressive governments have become suspicious of new media technology. At the same time, experts say that that democracy will increasingly depend on access to the Internet and technology in the 21st century.

In Zimbabwe and other African countries, however, one should not overstate social websites’ potential for transforming governance. While it is true that they offer a low-cost and relatively low-risk way to engage in protest, Zimbabwe’s technological infrastructure is not sufficiently developed to make web-based expressions of dissent reach many people. According to the World Bank, only around 1.5 million Zimbabweans – 12% of the people – have some kind of internet access. Internet literacy is underdeveloped, and there is not much web content that relates specifically to Zimbabwe.

Access to the net, moreover, is largely urban-based. Most people in the cities, however, can only use computers at their workplace, which obviously restricts their scope for independent action. In terms of technology, Zimbabwe is currently estimated to be five years behind other countries in the region. The main reason is the lack of investments in technology in the past 10 years.

Too slow

Mobile internet access, however, is beginning to make a difference. In recent months, there has been exponential growth in this field. Over 600,000 people can access the web via their mobile phones now, and their number is growing daily. Nonetheless, the cost of hand-held devices and web access remains a limiting factor. Moreover, internet connections tend to be too slow to support video or podcast streams.

The internet is likely to play a greater role in the future. Zimbabwe is being connected to the undersea cable. Fibre-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.

The most popular website among Zimbabweans is Facebook. Sometime in the not too distant future, this sort of social media tool could facilitate spaces for people to openly express themselves in defiance of censorship, circumventing both state-owned and privately-owned media. The tech-savvy young generation could play a leading role.

But we are not there yet. At the moment, Zimbabwe’s technological infrastructure does not facilitate social media with a wide reach, enabling activists to mobilise a mass public. So far, the internet poses no real challenge to the status quo. It has not changed habits and patterns of news consumption and information sharing. Basically, the government still controls what information people get.

History of suppression

Zimbabwe’s government has a track record of suppressing dissent. It is likely to pass laws to allow it to cut off communication services. The arrest of Mavhudzi not only showed that the government is prepared to quash dissent on social networks; it also proved that technologies like the internet and mobile phones are useful for spying.

Governments can interfere with websites and e-mails. They even possess the power to switch off the internet, as was briefly done in Egypt before the old regime fell. The New York Times reported that governments in North Africa used communications technology to track down activists. It stated that Facebook accounts were hacked in Tunisia and that Egyptian authorities used technology that turned mobile phones into furtive listening devices.

A crucial issue for democratic change is whether people dare to speak up. In Zimbabwe, fear is quite common, however. People may shy from using social media for protest purposes because they think they may be under surveillance. The memory of brutal violence during the various election campaigns of 2008  is still very much alive. Unless such fears are overcome, there will be no democratic change. In Egypt, the people had to brave tanks and guns in Tahrir Square to topple their dictator, and that was certainly not an exercise in virtual reality.

To complicate matters in Zimbabwe, leaders in the pro-democracy movement have not always been adept at providing clear positions and leadership. Tsvangirai promised democratic change when he was running against President Robert Mugabe in 2008. Mugabe only prevailed in office because he unleashed unprecedented violence, and afterwards an odd coalition of the  adversaries was formed, brokered by other African leaders. It is not a good omen that Mavhudzi ran into trouble because he posted a message on Prime Minister Tsvangirai’s Facebook page.  This is, after all, the leader who says he is the alternative to the autocrat.

The internet and social network sites will not suffice to bring real democracy to Zimbabwe. Active citizens are necessary to achieve that goal. The opportunities for using up-to-date communications technology are likely to improve in Zimbabwe, and they are likely to give some scope to activists. But unless there are courageous people to grasp such opportunities, things will not change.

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Quote of the Day

We are at the very beginning of time for the human race. It is not unreasonable that we grapple with problems. But there are tens of thousands of years in the future. Our responsibility is to do what we can, learn what we can, improve the solutions, and pass them on.

 Richard Feynman (1918 – 1988)

Mugabe’s Wrath of the State

President Robert Mugabe’s ruling Zimbabwe African National Union has, in recent days, embarked on a warpath against civil society organizations.

 Robert Mugabe

 President Robert Mugabe: Africa’s strongman

Ordinary citizens with political views that favor the opposition political party, Movement for Democratic Change, have also not escaped the wrath of the state.

 Mugabe’s government accuses civil society organizations of both working in cahoots with the MDC and being funded by Western countries.

In Zimbabwe today, the venom of the state machinery, including the military, the police and the state-owned media, is being unleashed against anyone perceived to be connected to the opposition, which won the parliamentary elections in March — a first in Zimbabwe since it attained independence from British rule in 1980.

Since 1980, ZANU-PF has won all the parliamentary and presidential elections by any means possible — fair, foul or murderous.

Incumbent President Mugabe, who narrowly lost to opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai 43.2 percent to 47.9 percent in the March election, blames Western forces (as he has glibly done for the past eight years) for his loss of popularity.

Ahead of a runoff election scheduled for June 27, Mugabe has invoked all the state machinery’s hell against his people, and is determined to win by any means necessary.

Throughout the country, opposition supporters have been abducted and discovered with limbs, private parts, ears and tongues chopped off in scenes reminiscent of ritual killings.

“It’s a desperate situation,” said Keith Mazonde, a Harare-based nongovernmental organization worker in a Skype interview, “But the old man [Mugabe] is going nowhere.”

“I think he will win, but if you get me right, it’s a different kind from the win we know,” added Mazonde.

The clampdown of civil society organizations by Mugabe’s government comes in the wake of an order barring humanitarian aid organizations from distributing food and agricultural aid to impoverished Zimbabweans.

Mugabe has accused humanitarian aid organizations of using food handouts to campaign in favor of the opposition. NGOs have been ordered to re-apply for operating licenses.

According to Zimbabwe’s National Association of Nongovernmental Organizations, HIV patients will likely die as a result of the ban on food aid because they rely on NGOs for home-based care and antiretroviral medical assistance.

“The country has become a bedlam for people seeking an honest means of living. It looks like it will get better if only Mugabe goes, and a government of national unity is the way forward,” said Obert Sherera, an NGO worker.

UNICEF estimates that a total of 185,000 children are likely to miss the essential support they need, including healthcare and nutrition, and labels the government ban against NGOs a “human rights violation.”

“One day it will all come to an end but for now people are living in fear,” said Nornia Dumare, a political activist in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital city.

Already, political analysts are saying that under the current circumstances it will be impossible for Zimbabwe to hold a free and fair presidential election.

According to a Human Rights Watch report, the Zimbabwean government’s campaign of violence and intimidation against the opposition MDC has extinguished any chance of a free and fair presidential runoff on June 27.

The report titled “‘Bullets for Each of You’: State-Sponsored Violence Since Zimbabwe’s March 29 Elections,” said that 36 politically motivated deaths and 2,000 victims of violence have been recorded in the run-up to the June runoff election.

“Since the runoff was announced the violence in Zimbabwe has gotten even worse,” said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Zimbabweans can’t vote freely if they fear their vote may get them killed.”