Social media alone won't bring change in Zimbabwe

By Bruce Mutsvairo | 13 Aug 2020 at 21:00hrs
EXACTLY four years ago, in an opinion piece run by The Guardian, I argued that social media activists in Zimbabwe faced an uphill struggle finding momentum to steer themselves towards the path of democratisation.

My position hasn't changed.

On the ground in Zimbabwe, plenty has changed though. Emmerson Mnangagwa is now the president, long-criticised draconian laws, including Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa), have either been repealed or remain under parliamentary review, more citizens are accessing digital platforms and in comparison to the late former President Robert Mugabe era, digital dissent has largely been tolerated.

But critics say the government fell off the carousal of progress when opposition leader Jacob Ngarivhume and other activists were recently arrested.

They face charges of inciting public violence. He had openly been vocal on Twitter and Facebook urging the masses to rally against the government during the now foiled July 31 protest, which officials said was illegal.

While those opposed to the ruling Zanu-PF party consider social media as a godsend tool for potential political emancipation, history has taught us Zimbabwe's deeply-rooted problems will not be mediated on social media.

Last year, access to social media platforms was blocked amid government denials of digital interference while anti-government digital activists have previously faced treason charges.

And as educators and students across the world are discovering that online-based teaching is a great alternative during the ongoing global Covid-19 pandemic, it, however, cannot replace face-to-face teaching.

Even as the West has openly been pushing Zimbabwean leaders to end what they consider as decades of oppression, Mnangagwa's government has argued tyranny ended when Mugabe was removed from power in November 2017.

Yet the arrest of prominent activists is itself a testimony to the limitations of social media as a weapon against digital authoritarianism in Africa.

All governments have ways to protect their interests. By arresting these campaigners, the Zimbabwean government wants to remind everyone that it's them, who is still in charge. Not social media and not even these activists.

While arresting Ngarivhume and others is likely to scare off investors, some Zanu-PF hardliners have already given up engaging with the international community. They don't even care what the international community says. Some don't even know what ‘international community' means anyway. They want to protect their interests. That's all.

Digital activism has the potential to change African politics, but we should also know that pro-government campaigners and secret agents have also been diving into the deep waters of the web along with citizens. Whenever they feel threatened they will act.

Hashtags such as #ZimbabweanLivesMatter are important insofar as drawing world attention to Zimbabwe's ills.

While everyone agrees Zimbabwe needs urgent solutions, the biggest challenge is not everyone agrees on what the real problem is. Before you seek a solution, you need to be on the same page in identifying your like-minded problem.

Zimbabweans rarely agree on anything. So what needs to happen before the Zimbabwean lion can roar again? My take isn't the most popular one.

It is certainly not what anyone opposed to Zanu-PF wants to hear - engage them. Zanu-PF is part of Zimbabwe's problem, but it is also part of the solution. They simply cannot be wished away. Digital activism will shake them, but removing them from power is a different ball game. That is the harsh reality.

The "Arab Spring" uprisings, which began in December 2010, were touted to bring a wave of democratisation across the Middle East and North Africa. Ten years later, as research in the forthcoming issue of my discipline's leading journal, Digital Journalism, is telling us, authoritarianism hasn't disappeared.

Worse still, many Zimbabweans can't be bothered anyway. They prefer social media gossip or comedy to digitally-supported political protests. Besides, it's often those in the Diaspora urging friends and families back home to risk their lives by taking to the streets.

A lot of Zimbabweans are facing dire economic conditions and their priority is not to fight a government they know will deal with them decisively, including sending in the army, if they choose to protest on the streets.

Mutsvairo is a Professor of Journalism at Auburn University in the United States. A social media research expert, he has published eight books including Digital Activism in the Social Media Era: Critical Reflections on Emerging Trends in sub-Saharan Africa. A shorter version of this article was published in The Mail and Guardian's Continent.

He can be contacted via



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