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Social media headache for Mugabe’s regime

In a WhatsApp video that has gone viral, a dreadlocked man satirically asks President Robert Mugabe how many pairs of spectacles he needs to see clearly that he is destroying the economy and the livelihoods of millions of Zimbabweans.

By Hazel Ndebele

He insinuates that although Mugabe wears glasses, which should enhance his eyesight, he is blind to the plight of the impoverished masses and has no vision for the country.

Combining English and Shona street lingo, the unnamed middle-aged man — who interestingly wears spectacles — satirically captures the frustrations and anger of Zimbabweans who are wallowing in the depths of the current socio-economic crisis.

In the video, he touches on several subjects, among them the rampant high-level corruption and Mugabe’s unwillingness to combat the scourge; injustice and police brutality; unemployment as well as the deteriorating social service delivery.

“You wear spectacles, but you can’t see. How many spectacles do you need to see that you are destroying the country?” the man rhetorically asks Mugabe.

“Ninety percent of people in the country — able-bodied, educated people — are unemployed and do not contribute to the economy because you can’t provide jobs. People are dying in hospital queues and yet you throw teargas in houses where children are sleeping. You are assaulting children and women; you are assaulting children for expressing their heartfelt disappointment because of your misrule.

“We are tired of that. Do you hear what I am saying? … we are tired. You are also tired. We have seen you falling asleep on the podium. Why then don’t you want us to express our tiredness? For a long, long time we have been telling you to fix the economy and stop running the country like your tuckshop. We are going to shut down the tuckshop so that you also go hungry like us, because as long as the tuckshop you call Zimbabwe is open, you, your family and friends will continue benefitting while the rest of us suffer. We are tired of that.”

The man questions Mugabe on why he is quick to arrest those who protest against corruption instead of taking action against corrupt ministers.

“By arresting people whose voices we concur with, you are looking for trouble. You are not even helping the situation. Instead of arresting people who are looting public funds — your ministers who are building mansions while hospitals are collapsing — you are arresting those who are telling you to act against corruption,” says the man.

“We are tired of corruption, we are tired of police brutality, we are tired of the stupidity with which you are running the economy.”

The dreadlocked man is just but one of many other ordinary Zimbabweans who are using social media to communicate directly to Mugabe and senior government officials. Social media is growing in popularity as a platform for conveying messages to government and public officials.

Mugabe is not easily accessible to ordinary citizens, but Zimbabweans have not let the President’s unavailability stop them from delivering their concerns, thanks to social media.

Political parties and protest movements have also found social media to be a useful tool in mobilising people to participate in demonstrations aimed at forcing the government to introduce political, electoral and economic reforms.

The power and ubiquity of social media means people do not have to rely on traditional media such as television, radio and newspapers for information — and this makes State propaganda less effective while empowering citizens.

Government, threatened by the massive popularity of social media, has activated draconian laws to limit the free flow of information, including the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act which was enacted in 2002 to regulate the operations of print and electronic media in the country.

The Interception of Communication Act (ICA) of 2007 also gives the government significant powers of surveillance over the communications of its citizens. Under ICA, internet service providers are required to install at their own expense the hardware and software required for the state to carry out surveillance.

Zimbabwe has drafted the Computer and Cyber Crime Bill which will enable the government to remotely install spying tools onto citizens’ communication devices.

Mugabe, his ministers and state security service chiefs have lamented what they claim is the abuse of social media.
The Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (Potraz) in July warned citizens against abusing social media as people increasingly vented their anger via various electronic platforms.

“We would like all Zimbabweans to know that we are completely against this behaviour and, therefore, advise that anyone generating, passing on or sharing such abusive and subversive materials which are tantamount to criminal behaviour will be disconnected and the law will take its course,” Potraz said in a statement, largely seen as an attempt to muzzle freedom of expression.

“All SIM cards in Zimbabwe are registered in the name of the user. Perpetrators can easily be identified. We are, therefore, warning members of the public that from the date of this notice, any person caught in possession of, generating, sharing or passing on abusive, threatening, subversive or offensive communication messages, including WhatsApp or any other social media messages that may deemed to cause despondency, incite violence, threaten citizens and cause unrest, will be arrested and dealt with accordingly in the national interest.”

Early this month, an agitated Mugabe challenged Zanu PF youths to use social media to defend and promote the ruling party as well as for the development of the country.

“In promoting the party, our youths should use social media to defend the party and promote the party and develop Zimbabwe through ICTs (information communication technologies). You all have a role to play in promoting our production and ZimAsset brand, Zimbabwe. Brand Zimbabwe, the image of Zimbabwe, a Zimbabwe that is democratic, hardworking and peaceful,” said Mugabe.

“That’s the image, the brand of Zimbabwe you should project outside and also to defend it from its detractors. Our youths should learn from the youths in China, Cuba and Russia that economic success stories have resulted from proper and constructive use of ICT.”

Mugabe’s concerns on social media prove that the medium is a dictator’s nightmare.

With the advent of the social media, the influence of state and official propaganda has been severely limited as vast sources of information which are beyond government control are now accessible to ordinary people.

Social commentator Maxwell Saungweme said the beauty of such videos is that they reach a lot of people easily and this form of expression is much safer than going to the streets.

“Satire has been used over generations to get the message across to rulers and members of the public. With the advent of social media and advancement in mobile technology, people can take politically satirical videos and drive the message home in a different way.”

Saungweme said the increased use of such videos among Zimbabweans can be attributed to the worsening problems people are facing.

“These videos will continue and it is safer for people to use these than going to the streets where they will be assaulted or harassed,” he said.

Takura Zhangazha, a social commentator, said: “It is a good thing that many more Zimbabweans are able to receive, impart, feel new information as it relates to how they perceive their own realities,” he said.

“With social media, it is a combination of the reality that one experiences or wants to experience that urges people to use these platforms with new vigour and energy so much so that government has issued serious threats against those that would use it for human rights activism or even political ends and purposes such as calling for the resignation of the current president.”

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