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Published On: Mon, Aug 29th, 2016

Converting tweets into feet: can Zimbabwe’s social media activism oust Robert Mugabe?

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epa05467925 Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe (C) stands as the national anthem was being sung at the National Sports Stadium in Harare, Zimbabwe, 09 August 2016. The Zimbabwe defence forces held their 36 th commemorations at the stadium and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe addressed thousands of people who gathered. EPA/AARON UFUMELI

epa05467925 Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe (C) stands as the national anthem was being sung at the National Sports Stadium in Harare, Zimbabwe, 09 August 2016. The Zimbabwe defence forces held their 36 th commemorations at the stadium and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe addressed thousands of people who gathered. EPA/AARON UFUMELI

Protests against the rule of Zimbabwe’s ageing president, Robert Mugabe, have become commonplace in recent months. In one of the latest incidents on August 24, police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse a “Mugabe Must Go” protest in the capital Harare.

In April, Evan Mawarire, an unknown pastor, inadvertently started a wave of online activism when he started the #ThisFlag movement in a pleading Facebook post. Within hours, copycats had appeared online and the ZANU-PF regime found itself party to an upsurge in online and offline criticism.

Since then social media activism in Zimbabwe has ignited. WhatsApp, a mobile messaging service that is frequently subscribed to in a prepaid form in Zimbabwe, has been widely used as a tool to mobilise. It accounts for 34% of all mobile data use in Zimbabwe. Facebook reports 260,000 daily users, of 890,000 Zimbabweans online, but this only accounts for 3% of mobile broadband usage in the country. Newsday Zimbabwe, an independent news outlet, increased its Twitter network by 10,000 followers in the past month alone.

The ruling ZANU-PF responded to this upswell by drafting new legislation, the Computer Crime and Cyber Crime Bill, to control online activism. But it might find it difficult to keep track of services such as WhatsApp, which now operate with end-to-end encryption making them very hard to keep track of.

Social protest

Protests coordinated on social media have emerged in recent weeks throughout the country addressing issues from socio-economic governance, to the introduction of bond notes (a cash substitute in the country which no longer has its own currency), corruption, and