Source: Upenyu Makoni-Matenga
In 2011 I did an interview with Professor John Makumbe at the University of Zimbabwe. He was an interesting man, and we discussed many things including the evil genius of Jonathan Moyo. That, in fact, was why I had wanted to do the interview in the first place, to confirm my suspicion and who better than a renowned academic and fierce critic of the government to validate my theory Professor Makumbe was generous with his reading of political events and shared his opinions on the gamut of the Zimbabwean political experience at the time from Mugabe to land reform to the election looming in 2013.
One of my questions was about online activism. Earlier that year an anonymous person or group attempted to organise a protest calling for the Government to step down. After years of being bullied and beaten into submission it appeared that someone was finally willing to take the risk. Since the Arab Spring, speculation was rife that a similar mass protest would happen here. As if in answer a post originating on Facebook called for a protest against the ZANU-PF side of the government and an end to the GNU. It was widely commented, liked and shared. However, no one came to Africa Unity Square on the appointed day. When I asked him for comment Prof Makumbe said:
It is when people organise through cyberspace in Zimbabwe so that the cyberspace communication is reinforced by clandestine [meetings] on the ground [and] assurance that things will happen. People are very keen to do it, but they will not do it without knowing someone who is going to be part of it, or someone who is organising it, or someone to whom they will cry if things don’t go well. And it must be someone local. (Kubatana Blogs, 2011)
We didn’t spend much time talking about it. The fact of protest against the Government in 2011 was more theoretical than realistic. The GNU was two years old by then, the memory of 2008 still fresh in our collective mind and trigger happy securocrats refused to fall in line behind an MDC-T co-Minister of Home Affairs. If we protested, we would be jailed or worse.
The French say everything changes yet it remains the same, so it is in Zimbabwe. In 2016 we still have the same Police Commissioner and President, but a different Prosecutor General. The Public Order and Security Act remains much the same as it was then, but we have a different Constitution. According to POTRAZ, Internet penetration had reached a level of 48.1% in December of 2015 (TechZim, 2016), compared to 12.7% in early 2011 (POTRAZ, Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe, 2011). The Whatsapp messaging platform did not exist then as it does now. Finally and most crucially we as Zimbabweans have changed. That demonstration in 2011 failed, however 2016 has gained significance in our country’s history as the year a critical mass of citizens, rather than opposition parties, began to speak back to the government through protest.
Let go of your romantic notions of protest, this isn’t a free state
Demonstrations are the most visible way to influence change and win support for an action or cause. Ideally, they function as an expression of the sovereignty of the people and a way for citizens to assert their power over the political leadership. Section 59 of the Zimbabwe Constitution (2013) guarantees the right to demonstrate and present petitions, and Sections 58 and 61 protect the fundamental Freedoms of Assembly and Association, and Expression respectively. In Section 67(2) the Constitution even goes as far as to make extensive provision for the protection of political rights, which include the right to:
- form, to join and to participate in the activities of a political party or organisation of their choice;
- campaign freely and peacefully for a political party or cause
- participate in a peaceful political activity; and
- to participate, individually or collectively, in gatherings or groups or in any other manner, in peaceful activities to influence, challenge or support the policies of the Government or any political or whatever cause.
As political actions, demonstrations are a precious and unwieldy tool in the armoury of oppositional political organising in Zimbabwe. This is unsurprising given the difficulty of obtaining official sanction and hopefully thus protecting protesters from State interference and intimidation. Organisers also face the more challenging problem of mobilising the critical mass of people needed to effectively deliver the message of popular dissent.
In order for a demonstration to be lawful, the Public Order and Security Act mandates the notification of a ‘regulatory authority’, usually the Zimbabwe Republic Police, of a geographic area. While this seems simple enough, the term ‘notification’ is deceptive. In practice, the police have the power to reject such notification and prevent demonstrations from taking place. This was the case in the NERA demonstration which took place in September of this year, where the police, having been advised of the action refused to allow it to take place citing the anticipation of an overwhelming number of participants.
“They only responded today (yesterday), discouraging us from going ahead with the march in the central business district, saying they could not manage the numbers. But we said no thank you because they are not qualified to give us that legal advice. We have approached the courts and we have no reason not to be expectant because there is precedence already,” Mwonzora said. “We recently had a one-million-man march that they allowed to go ahead and now the police cannot say they cannot manage a mere 150 000 expected peaceful demonstrators” he added. “We appreciate that it’s going to be a challenge to get a police clearance, so we are approaching the courts first and from there we will take it with the police because we are determined to make a statement tomorrow (today)” (Daily News Zimbabwe, 2016)
The second hurdle lies in mobilising a critical mass of relatively informed people to gather in protest. Organisers need to inform their publics enough to motivate support and action for their cause. In an age of high mobile phone penetration rates, wide access to the internet and social media, spreading information has never been easier. In Zimbabwe, Facebook and Whatsapp have become crucial in sharing information about political activities, and with functionality that enables discussion and debate, these tools also allow participants to critically engage with issues. Contrary to the assertions of digital optimists, however, social media is not essential for success in getting people to show up for a protest, after all, protests and demonstrations happened long before mobile phones and the internet were invented. As Professor Makumbe stated, communication in cyberspace needs to be reinforced by meetings on the ground and assurances that demonstrations will go ahead. This is especially critical in an environment where the law is selectively applied and social activists have occasionally been abducted and tortured. In his essay Small Change, Malcolm Gladwell writes “activism that challenges the status quo- that attacks deeply rooted problems—is not for the faint of heart”, the people who participate in this kind of activism do not do so because of the strength of the arguments presented or even ideological fervour, but because they possess strong social ties with each other and the organisers (New Yorker, 2010). This is the reason why demonstrations organised by political parties have been so successful in mobilising large numbers of people to participate. Parties possess the necessary offline machinery and structures which are used to establish trust, a sense of loyalty and solidarity with their constituencies so that in effect no one is alone when they attend a demonstration.
A picture is worth a thousand words
Motivation requires much more than information; it demands an understanding of the audience, their beliefs and values in order to influence their behaviour. Zimbabweans are afraid of openly expressing an opinion that is political. In a repressive environment fear is a much bigger motivator than anger over yet another failure in governance, making messaging a crucial activity in organising.
Your poster in your last newsletter was excellent. But does it send the right message? A lone protester facing the onslaught of riot police – and dark foreboding clouds on the horizon – gives activists an adrenalin rush, but it scares most ordinary citizens who would like to register their protest against bond notes. If we want to be inclusive and build up numbers – and safety in numbers – I would suggest a safer, more peaceful and convivial image in future. The main thing citizens want to know it that the march has got police clearance. – Kubatana subscriber
A lone man draped in a Zimbabwe flag, facing an intimidating line of police armed with baton sticks, shields and helmets, and in the background, the Reserve Bank standing monolithic against a dark cloudy sky. The poster itself was violent. The State’s reaction was unsurprising. Demonstrations in Zimbabwe, whether or not they are legitimate in their cause, constitutional in their action and lawful according to the Officer-In-Charge that day trigger irrational over-reactions from the State. These are facts that cannot be argued or altered. In a hostile environment where miscomprehension can and did indeed lead to beatings and hospitalisations, shouldn’t organisers be careful in how and what is communicated? That poster said the organisers knew what they were getting themselves into and were prepared to fight fire with fire.
It didn’t matter how many times the organisers said the protest was supposed to be peaceful. It was never going to be that way. It was naïve to assume that the State and even would-be protesters would take #NoToBondNotes protest organisers at their word. What is known for certain is what happened at the last demonstration which was also meant to be peaceful. It devolved into violence, with businesses in the vicinity of the protests being looted, a ZBC OBU van being burnt and riot police getting their money’s worth from tear gas, water cannons, baton sticks and combat boots. We’re gun shy as citizens, and we have good reason to be. We all know or know someone who knows someone who has been beaten, abducted, or tortured. We still have questions about the location of Itai Dzamara. We’ve witnessed his family’s pain, the risks they’ve taken to get answers, and so much time has passed we are afraid to admit we think he is dead.
See things for what they were, not what we wish them to be
The protest that took place on July 5th and 6th was the first successful mass stay-away since 2007. This has been wrongly attributed as #ShutDownZimbabwe organised by the #ThisFlag Movement. A misconstruction of events that culminated into the first stay-away failed to take into account other protests and mass actions that were happening at or around the same time. These include:
- Riots which broke out in Beitbridge after the Government declared the implementation of the Statutory Instrument 64 of 2016 banning imports(Newsday, Zimbabwe, 2016).
- Commuter omnibus operators who had been engaged in disputes with police at roadblocks, these lead to a public transportation strike begun on the 4th of July. (Herald Zimbabwe, 2016).
- Various constituent bodies of the Apex Council, which represents all civil servants including doctors, nurses and teachers, had been in dispute with government over unpaid June wages and the moving of pay dates. Having reached a stalemate, the Council declared a mass stay-away from the 5th to the 7th of July(The Zimbabwean, 2016).
- Other actions including the Occupy Africa Unity Square protest as well as #Tajamuka’s demonstration against Vice-President Mphoko’s extended stay in one of the capitals luxury hotels at a significant cost to the tax-payer which occurred prior to July.
From the above, it may be seen that the political and social environment in Zimbabwe at that time was ripe for a mass protest. The stay-away was effected by grassroots organising leveraging the strong-tie associations of members in the Apex Council’s constituent organisations. As the single largest body of citizens employed in the formal economy civil servants have enough economic muscle to make the Government listen. Further, the commuter omnibus strike which featured running battles and blocked roads prevented anyone without alternative transportation from travelling from city outskirts into the Central Business District on those days.
Pastor Evan’s call to action for the stay-away, uploaded to Facebook on the 4th of July (Mawarire, 2016), was announced after the Apex Council had declared dates for their strike on the 2nd of July (The Zimbabwe Daily, 2016). Further, Apex Council Chair, Cecilia Alexander later denied any links between the action by civil servants and actions organised by social movement’s online saying:
“The Council informs the employer and the nation that the current civil service job action is completely non-political and non-partisan and should in no way be associated with the cause by other political and social groups whose agenda have nothing to do with our labour disputes with Government. May it also be noted that civil servants are staying at home and not in the streets as a result of incapacitation. The Apex Council regrets the coincidences and timing. Our action will run its full course as advised up to 7 July.” (Herald, Zimbabwe, 2016)
Indeed, a follow-up August 31st protest organised by #ThisFlag and #Tajamuka, both movements based on social media, failed to mobilise a similar response from citizens.
#ThisFlag lacks the focus, structures and hierarchies necessary to turn online activism into an offline demonstration. The movement consistently depends on the skill of a passionate and charismatic leader in place of establishing trust and solidarity with members, and building a community of motivated and informed activists. This structural deficiency is evident when the movement has to stand on its own as in the case of the failure of the August 31st protest and more recently by the #NoToBondNotes protest which reportedly drew 40 people to Africa Unity Square. Of equal concern is the crisis in confidence the movement suffers when a leader leaves. Not only does this damage the credibility of the movement itself, but it hinders the possibility of future organising by other movements.
Celebrate the win
Despite the flaws, #ThisFlag succeeded in reframing the conversation about nationalism and identity for a young, urban citizenry. Since independence ZANU PF has actively conflated the State with itself through its narrative of patriotic history. The Zimbabwean identity has been co-opted to legitimise and perpetuate the ruling elite’s monopolisation of State resources, to maintain its hold on power resulting in the poisonous and deleterious binary of patriot or sell-out. Complicity with the State is thus framed as an act of patriotism, while dissent is framed as selling out. #ThisFlag attacks the premise that to be patriotic one must be a veteran of the independence war (having fought on the side of the native majority), or failing that a ZANU PF party card wielding supporter. By confronting the fallacy of the ruling party as the State, and illustrating the argument through the use of national symbols, #ThisFlag separated the State from its rulers, and asserted that it was possible to be patriotic and oppositional at the same time.
Since Pastor Evan published his first video, thousands of Zimbabweans have practiced patriotic opposition by posting pictures of themselves with the Zimbabwe flag captioned variously with ‘I love my country, I don’t agree with the status quo’. Online has translated to offline with the flag being displayed in homes, offices, vehicles and on bodies. The flag is a national symbol, and #ThisFlag has destabilised the certainty that national symbols, and the State itself, belong solely to one party or group of people. It has succeeded in a theatre where organised opposition parties and civil society have failed. Moreover it has sown seeds of the idea that it is possible to be proud of one’s country and heritage but disagree with the power that rules. Better than any demonstration #ThisFlag has effectively disrupted the system by attacking the ruling party’s claim to legitimacy and revealing the structural inadequacies of the party’s hold on power.
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Daily News Zimbabwe. (2016, August 26). Mega demo going ahead. Retrieved November 23, 2016.
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Herald, Zimbabwe. (2016, July 7). Strike heeded, shutdown ignored | Civil Servants protest delayed salaries | opportunistic shutdown calls ignored. Retrieved November 26, 2016.
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Source: Upenyu Makoni-Matenga