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Democratisation and digital activism




THE political landscape in Zimbabwe is no different from that in other African contexts. Most countries on the continent tend to conflate democratisation with the holding of general elections.

This is a false narrative. There is more to democratisation than the periodic holding of general elections (Nzongola-Ntalaja, 1998).

Democracy can neither be imported from abroad, nor be handed down to the people on a silver platter by Africa’s rulers. The people of Africa must democratise the continent on their own (Ibid, p2).

Nzongola-Ntalaja’s (1998) views are shared by other African scholars. Wamba-dia-Wamba (1992) defines democracy as a “process of struggles to win, defend and protect rights of people (producers, women, minorities), and individuals against one sidedness (for tolerance, respect of the absolutely other, for example) including the rights of self-organisation for autonomy and not necessarily the right of participation in the state process” (Wamba-dia-Wamba, 1992, p30). Zimbabwe’s former Minister of Information Professor Jonathan Moyo was once quoted in The Chronicle newspaper in 2016, as saying that the ruling party Zanu PF will never reform itself out of power (Tshili, 2016).

This study argues that there is an urgent need to reform the postcolonial state in Zimbabwe to ensure democratisation. The current state still bears many hallmarks of its colonial predecessor, and this includes intolerance and use of violence.

To Hyden (2006) some of the political challenges bedevilling most African countries can be “traced to colonial rule and anti-colonial mobilisation” (p314).

Outside of Ethiopia, modern states did not exist in sub-Saharan Africa prior to colonisation. The states inherited upon independence lacked roots in African society and culture and were generally unable to rule in the sense of shaping social, political and economic activity (Poteete, 2006, p1)

Hyden (2006) raises a very pertinent point. There is ample scholarship that suggests that the root cause of poor governance and corruption in most African countries can be traced to patrimonialism. Pre-colonial societies in Africa did not have nation states (Hyden, 2006).

Most African nation states were an import of European colonialism. As a result, in the pre -colonial era, most transactions were made using relationships instead of formal institutions. These relationships are underpinned by what Hyden (Ibid, p2) terms ‘the economy of affection’.

This state of affairs is still widespread in most African countries in democratic transition like Zimbabwe and this is a major drawback to nation building and democratisation.

Under such conditions, leaders owe their allegiance to their kinship and ethnicity, thereby “rendering formal state institutions ineffective” (Poteete, 2006, p1). To ensure democratisation, there is a need to rethink and reimagine the role of the State in nation building and to “break out of the economy of affection by capturing its citizens” (Poteete, 2006, p2).

Schudson (2008) argues that democracy “is not about maximising popular involvement in decision-making” (p6). Instead, it is about creating an enabling environment for:

. . . popular participation and for popular review of governmental performance within a system of competitive elections, due process, the protection of individual rights, the protection of freedoms of speech, press, petition, and association, and the preservation of a pluralistic culture (Schudson, 2008, pp7-8).

Zimbabwe is still in the early stages of democratisation. Nzongola-Ntalaja (1998) argues that the “internal environment is the primary arena and determinant of the democratisation process” (p1).

Democratisation is thus a political imperative in Zimbabwe if the country is to move forward from its current gridlock. The critical issue is not about “Africanising democracy, but rather, the necessity of democratising Africa” (Ibid.). The country needs to reform the postcolonial State and its institutions as a prerequisite for the democratisation process.

Karekwaivanane and Msonza (2021) argue that the democracy deficit in Zimbabwe is unique. The “inexorable descent into an ever-deepening crisis” has not been consistent over the past two decades (Ibid, p45).

Instead, there has been an alternation between periods of opening and closing of civic space.

However, it is arguably true that there has been a progressive drift away from open, inclusive democratic practices (Ibid.)

Karekwaivanane and Msonza (2021) argue that recent events show that the ruling Zanu PF party will do anything to close democratic space when it feels that its hegemony is under threat. In the past few years, the political outlook has been very bleak and “the predominant trend has been towards shrinking civic space” (Ibid, p47).

Without independent institutions like the media, judiciary and legislature, democratisation will remain a pipedream. In this regard, this study argues that digital media activism has the potential to open space for democratisation in the country.

This argument was supported by a public relations manager for a state-owned organisation in Harare. She said digital media had a critical role to play in the country’s democratisation process (Online Interview with Anonymous Respondent re: XXF36, 12/10/2020).

The respondent said access to information was one of the prerequisites of democracy, and this includes providing access to electoral information for citizens to make informed political choices. She said non- governmental organisations, such as the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (Zesn) and the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), used digital platforms for voter education.

The voter education exercise included information asking voters to register on the national voters’ roll and explaining voters’ rights and obligations during general elections.

However, the relationship between digital media activism and democratisation is not without its inherent weaknesses, especially in countries like Zimbabwe which is ruled by a hybrid regime. A majority of the people in Zimbabwe live in rural areas and have no access to digital media. This is due to the high costs of internet connectivity and data bundles.

Bundles are promotional voice, data and SMS packages with a fixed validity period, offered by mobile network operators at significant discounts to normal, out-of-bundle services. Operators offer bundles in packages valid for a day, a week and a month (daily, weekly and monthly) (NewsDay, 2021, n. p.)

On the other hand, Zimbabwe’s economy is in the doldrums and currently experiencing levels of unemployment, and most people struggle to buy the basic necessities of life. In such a situation, digital media become a luxury.

In addition, some scholars contend that the usage of digital media tends to be lower among marginalised social groups (Menocal, 2021). Menocal (2021) adds:

More generally, research shows that ICTs tend to reinforce the socio-cultural, economic, and gendered environments in which they are embedded, which can entrench discrimination and social exclusion rather than increase accountability to the broader public.

Not surprisingly, active ICT users tend to be urban and educated young men (Ibid, np)

Against such a backdrop, it is not surprising that some people have a negative attitude to the potential of digital media activism to promote democratisation. Does digital media activism have a positive role to play in the democratisation process in Zimbabwe?

Techno-pessimists, like a Zimbabwean foreign correspondent based in Harare (Online Interview with Anonymous Respondent re; XXM9, 26/10/2020), offered a different perspective, and argued that there is no relationship between digital media activism and democratisation. Instead, he argued that digital media activism forestalls democratisation:

I see no correlation between the growth of digital media activism and democratisation. Digital media activism delays democratisation. The tools are not effective in confronting the regime. For instance, #ZimbabweLivesMatter hashtag did not result in reform. On the contrary, the authorities hardened their attitude towards the movement and described the hashtag activists as terrorists who should be flushed out (Online Interview with Anonymous Respondent re: XXM9, 26/10/2020)

There could be some element of truth in these assertions. While there is a lot of activity in digital spaces by Zimbabweans both in and outside the country, there is a glaring disconnection between on and offline activism. That is why it is necessary to avoid the romanticisation of digital media as being a ‘liberation technology’.

This study argues that for digital media activism to be more effective in the democratisation process in Zimbabwe, there is a need to combine on with offline activism. Without that missing link, the nexus between digital media activism and democratisation in Zimbabwe will remain a pipedream.

Mutsvairo (2021) argues that digital media activism in Zimbabwe is not effective due to a weak leadership. There could be some element of truth in Mutsvairo’s (2021) observations. Most of the hashtag movements are rudderless and do not have a hierarchical leadership, while others are a one-man outfit.

Who are the legitimate leaders of the movement? What is their strategy? What exactly is their goal? Zimbabwe’s political terrain remains muddy and bumpy (Ibid, p79).

However, the disconnect between on and offline activism cannot be attributed to one factor. It is due to several factors, and these include weak leadership and the lack of strategies amongst social activists, the deployment of the State’s repressive apparatus, censorship and internet shutdowns. These factors have often been used by most African governments “to blunt the transformative potential of smart phones” (Cheeseman, et al, 2021, p1). To ensure the effective use of digital media activism in the democratisation process, there is a need for activists to restrategise their on and offline activities.

A former managing director of a state-owned newspaper organisation in Harare (Online Interview with Anonymous Respondent re: XXM23, 19/09/2020) offered a more nuanced response. He said digital media activism is a double-edged sword for democratisation.

It can promote democratisation or kill it. It can also promote integration and cohesion among the people. Or it can create divisions. The risks are real because of the unfiltered nature of the information in most digital media spaces. Digital media activism undermines democracy if the information is not factual. Citizens need accurate information to make democratic choices.

Without accurate information, people are not able to make well-informed democratic choices. For instance, some digital media spaces like WhatsApp are good at discussing the superficial. Digital media activism should not dwell on the superficial. It should go deeper and discuss the subterranean issues. For instance, why is the Zimbabwean currency in a freefall? Why is the country in a vortex? Is it because of the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act (Zidera)? (Online Interview with Anonymous Respondent re: XXM23, 19/09/2020)

The Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act (ZIDERA) is an American piece of legislation which was enacted by the United States (US) Senate in 2001, and which later amended, in 2018, placing certain individuals of the ruling elite and companies under targeted sanctions (Matenga, 2021). The punitive measures were also supported by the United States’ allies, the United Kingdom and the European Union, in response to “allegations of human rights abuses and electoral fraud” in Zimbabwe (Ibid, np).

The respondent above raised some important issues. Some of the discussions in digital spaces lack depth and are based on conjecture. The issue of Zidera and targeted sanctions against some members of the ruling elite and companies has attracted a lot of controversy, on some of the digital media platforms, from Zimbabwean State and non-State actors.

The dominant narrative is that the punitive sanctions imposed by Zidera are responsible for Zimbabwe’s current economic woes. It is argued these sanctions are not only hurting the targeted individuals and companies, but that they are affecting the overall performance of the national economy. On the other hand, the counter hegemonic narrative that is often peddled on digital media platforms is that the economic challenges facing Zimbabwe are self- inflicted and have nothing to do with Zidera. It is argued that the economic meltdown in Zimbabwe is due to endemic corruption and misgovernance within the Mnangagwa administration.

Against this backdrop, it is difficult to know where the truth lies. However, non-State actors believe that the truth lies somewhere between the two polarised positions.

Zidera not only imposes targeted sanctions on some members of the ruling elites and companies, it also prevents the country from accessing cheaper lines of credit on the international money markets. Most of the infrastructure in Zimbabwe, especially the national railway and airline cannot access spare parts due to these sanctions.

On the other hand, corruption has worsened under President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government. Although some Ministers have been fired or arrested in recent months for corruption, no one, to date, has been convicted before the courts. Most of the criminal cases have collapsed, due to lack of sufficient evidence.

Dumisani Moyo (2009) raises an interesting point about the “digital public spheres involving Africans”, adding that:

The non-professional journalists are not accountable to anyone, but themselves, and their ‘journalism’ is not guided or constrained by any ethical norms or principles but rather by gut feeling and common sense.

In a crisis situation such as the one obtaining in Zimbabwe after the 2008 election, citizen journalism may worsen things by spreading untruths and half-truths which could lead to panic and disorder (p12) Mano (2010) argues that there “is so much blind fury and anger in the online discussions to the extent that it partly explains the political violence in Zimbabwe” (p67).

However, a senior Zimbabwean journalist for a private newspaper based in Bulawayo agreed that digital media activism had a role to play in the democratisation process in Zimbabwe, but he cautioned that it had its limitations, adding that:

Digital media activism certainly has a role to play in the democratisation process. It has expanded democratic space for political activism. However, there is still a lot of scepticism about its effectiveness. People are sceptical about it. There is this phenomenon of ‘The Big Brother’ is watching you. In addition, digital media activism is mostly concentrated in urban and peri-urban areas. Some people in areas like Hwange and Lupane (Matebeleland North Province) do not even know what digital media means (Online Interview with Anonymous Respondent re: XXM40, 31/08/2020).

It is true that the digital divide still poses big challenges for online activism in Zimbabwe. The country is going through economic woes and most people will prioritise basic necessities before thinking about accessing digital technologies. However, all hope is not lost. This chapter argues that civil society should adopt a holistic approach in ensuring the broader participation of rural people in digital media activism through media literacy programmes and other empowerment initiatives. Such support might help to promote digital media activism in forging a democratic transition.

About the writer: This is an extract from Dr Reward Mushayabasa’s PhD thesis awarded by the University of Westminster, United Kingdom. Mushayabasa is a veteran media trainer.