Opinion Zimbabwe

#ZimbabweanLivesMatter: Can the democratic struggle be digitalised?

The struggle will be hashtagged: the #ZimbabweanLivesMatter hashtag trended across the globe, receiving celebrity endorsement from global pop stars.

The advent and growth of the internet revolutionised the way we communicate, interact, socialise and network. Accordingly, information and communication technologies (ICT) have become a fundamental tool and oxygen for the highly globalised and information saturated 21st century.

One of the areas in which ICT has had transformative and far reaching changes is in the spheres of civic and grassroots engagements and civic republicanism. Therefore, the internet and its software and hardware artefacts such as smart phones, social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp, have spawned what is called “Liberation technology”.

Liberation technologies have become platforms for bottom up vertical accountability whereby the citizens(netizens) democratically expose electoral malpractices, governance shenanigans and commissions and omissions by their governments.

Some of the key issues that have been mostly exposed by citizens to date include corruption, electoral theft and other decays in governmental operations. Moreso, liberation technology has provided a distinct platform for netizens to express opinions, organise and mobilise protests, scrutinise governments, entrench participation and enlarge the boundaries of freedom. Therefore, it is within this context that the democracy and freedom starved Zimbabweans have decided to utilise the power of liberation technology in their elusive quest to pushback against entrenched dictatorship.

Accordingly, Zimbabweans are not new converts to liberation technology. Their first experience with serious online activism or clicktivism was with the #ThisFlag campaign which was spearheaded by Pastor Evan Mawarire between April 2016 and August 2016. However, in August 2020 the #ZimbabweanLivesMatter hashtag announced its entry as a mobilising, organising and accountability hashtag against the authoritarian excesses of the ZANU PF government. The #ZimbabweanLivesMatter spread like a wildfire in dry savannah and attracted global attention and prominence.

Therefore, this opinion piece attempts to analyse the efficacy or lack thereof of #ZimbabweLivesMatter as a dialectical voluntarist digitalised instrument of confronting the entrenched crypto fascist autocracy in Zimbabwe. That is, whether liberation technology can be a potent democratic weapon in confronting the intolerant and paranoid illiberal tyrannical regime in Harare. Moreover, whether liberation technology can be the last line of defence in the increasingly shrinking democratic space in Zimbabwe.

Dialectical voluntarism of Hashtagism

The historical trajectory of insurgent citizenship in Zimbabwe can be traced back to #Thisflag movement which was spearheaded by Pastor Evan Mawarire. In that brief four months period where #Thisflag movement was hogging the limelight, the deinstitutionalised subalterns of Zimbabwe had an epiphany moment of grasping the potential and power of mobile smart phone and social media platforms as a form of accountability technology. In the absence of traditional organised opposition, #ThisFlag movement became the people’s parliament as it was able to hold to account the increasingly aloof and arrogant government of Robert Mugabe. Despite the slacktivism of #ThisFlag movement after its figurehead Pastor Mawarire went into self-imposed exile after having faced substantial threats to his life, it had nonetheless opened the floodgates of online activism or hashtagism. This was demonstrated by the proliferation of insurgent netizens in the form of #Thisgown movement, #Thisflower movement and beat the pot campaign.

From #ZANUPFMustGo to #ZimbabweanLivesMatter

Corruption is endemic and institutionalised within the socioeconomic and political fabric of Zimbabwe. The kleptocratic regime of Emmerson Mnangagwa has conspired to preside over unprecedented state sanctioned venality and grand sleaze of public resources and state coffers. Unsurprisingly, when Jacob Ngarivhume organised the anti-corruption march and protests which were pencilled to take place on 31 July 2020, the netizens began to suffix their twitter and Facebook postings with the #ZANUPFMustGo hashtag.

The symbiotic conflation of #ZANUPFMustGo with the 31 July anti-corruption march was a reflection of the fact that the endemic and cancerous pilfering and peculation of state resources is inextricably linked to the dirigiste extractive systems of the Zanu-PF government. Therefore, #ZANUPFMustGo was an indictment of this entrenched neopatrimonial system, wherein the patrimonial profits of grand sleaze are distributed and privatised within the Zanu-PF prebendal elite food chain, to the detriment of the national economy and ordinary taxpayer.

Thus, #ZANUPFMustGo was the apt metaphor of netizens using liberatory technology demanding the institutional overthrow of an irredeemable corrosive kleptocratic system of government. As the zero hour of the 31 July anti-corruption protest slowly approached, true to its modus operandi – tinpot autocratic brinkmanship – the Zanu-PF government immediately launched a pre-emptive attack on the organiser of the 31 July anti-corruption protest movement and one of its ardent supporters.  Jacob Ngarivhume and investigative journalist, Hopewell Chin`ono were both arrested on trumped up and frivolous charges of attempting to overthrow a Zanu-PF government.

The arrest of these two set the tone of a blitzkrieg fascist like arrests and detention of pro-democratic forces, who in their individual capacities decided to carry out individual protests on 31 July. This callous mass incarceration of pro-democratic forces was reminiscent of the infamous mass detention without trial of anti-apartheid activists at the infamous John Vorster Square police station in Johannesburg, South Africa. This neo-apartheid style of detention without trial of pro-democratic forces in the aftermath of the 31July peaceful protests, had the domino effect of galvanising the freedom loving progressive global constituency against the repressive government of Zimbabwe.

 Accordingly, Mmusi Maimane the erstwhile Democratic Alliance leader invoking the letter and the spirit of the global appeal and resonance of #BlackLivesMatter, especially in light of the public lynching of George Floyd by white police officers in Minnesota, opined and tweeted that #ZimbabweanLivesMatter was a call that the progressive and freedom loving world could not afford to ignore given the plight of long-suffering Zimbabweans whose socioeconomic and human rights were under siege and faced existential threats from a callous and autocratic regime in Harare.

That single tweet from Maimane went viral on social media and became a global rallying cry for the fight against state sanctioned injustices and violations of human rights in Zimbabwe. Thus, prominent international figures such as the rapper Ice Cube, international reggae group Morgan Heritage, former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, actresses Thandie Newton, Pearl Thusi and South African radical left-wing opposition party EFF solidarized with the #ZimbabweanLivesMatter movement. This unprecedented multidimensional global pushback against the authoritarian excesses of the crypto fascist regime of E.D Mnangagwa demonstrated the fact that despite the regime in Harare having contracted the democratic space by preventing peaceful demonstrations to take place across Zimbabwe on 31 July, the global outreach and resonance of #ZimbabweanLivesMatter had massively delivered some devastating blows against the authoritarian Frankenstein of E.D Mnangagwa`s government.

Accordingly, the regime did not anticipate the global appeal of #ZimbabweanLivesMatter. The regime was immediately put on the back foot as it lost the battle of hearts and minds. Thus #ZimbabweanLivesMatter managed to become the promethean searchlight that spotlighted the democratic deficits, breakdown of rule of law and human rights violations in Zimbabwe. Having, detained Ngarivhume and Chin`ono the regime thought that it had managed to contain and neutralise dissent without attracting international condemnation to its autocratic heavy handedness. Nonetheless, #ZimbabweanLivesMatter outflanked the regime in the battle of the wits and managed to put it in a fire fighting mode as it attempted to do damage control.

The global trending of #ZimbabweanLivesMatter became a thorn in the flesh for the regime. The regime was confronted with an invisible foe which it could not brutalise with baton sticks or teargasses. This was nonetheless exerting tremendous pressure on the repressive apparatus of the regime. Accordingly, the repressive state apparatus became overstretched to the point that they could not deny bail on the first bail applications for pro democratic actors such as Fadzai Mahere, Tsitsi Dangarembga and others. Furthermore, during the 45 days both Ngarivhume and Chin’ono were remanded in custody awaiting the much elusive bail, #ZimbabweanLivesMatter remained an effective liberatory hashtag that continued to amplify, propagate and continue to shine the light on the plight of prisoners of conscience whose fundamental rights were under siege and were increasingly trampled upon.

Conclusion

Despite being politically charged, hashtags are by their very nature afflicted by short-termism and slacktivism. Nonetheless, #ZimbabweanLivesMatter, contrary to conventional wisdom on the reservation around the effectiveness of online activism, indeed effected visible change. The #ZimbabweanLivesMatter demonstrated that liberation technologies are an equally effective means of exercising vertical democratic accountability on authoritarian regimes. It proved that the insurgent netizens could also be equally as effective as insurrectional street power in executing the democratic fightback against entrenched autocratic systems. Thus, the deterritorialization and the trans-nationalisation of #ZimbabweanLivesMatter demonstrates that insurgent netizens are an indispensable ally of democratic resistance.

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