guest column:Tendai Makaripe

THE #RhodesMustFall protests which gripped Cape Town University in March 2015 have been engraved in the annals of South African history.

RMF initially concentrated on the removal of the late colonialist Cecil John Rhodes’ statue at the centre of the university but the movement later morphed into an all-encompassing drive that sought to address colonial imbalances in education, eradicating institutional racism as well as calling for the decolonisation of the tertiary education system.

Deliberations on these issues took place on several online and offline spaces but at the core of this campaign was social media use, particularly Twitter which enabled students to connect and disconnect from the campaign without having to formerly register their political interests to any political grouping.

The use of hashtags facilitated users’ easy passage to where discussions were being held. Twitter thus functioned as an “information neighbourhood” which friends visit to acquire, share and communicate information.

The continued online information sharing birthed offline activity which manifested itself in the form of protests. After a month of protest action, the statue was removed and fundamental issues underpinning the protest began receiving attention.

This movement is not an isolated case.

The Moldavian “Twitter Revolution”, the Arab Spring, Israel’s tent protests and Iran protests all have one common denominator; social media was an influential tool in mobilising people for offline action.

While people like Mark Pfeifle called for Twitter to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for being a voice of the voiceless, others have downplayed its role in influencing real change.

One such individual is Stanford-based academic Evgeny Morozov, who dismisses social media activism as an ineffective and shallow form of political activism.

He calls this type of activism ‘slacktivism’ in reference to a ‘feel-good’ digital activism that lacks any socio-political impact. The debate on social media and real change has been reignited with the creation of the #ZimbabweanLivesMatter hashtag on Twitter.

The movement, an offshoot of the black lives matter crusade attempts to draw the world’s attention to the socio-economic and political challenges that are suffocating the Zimbabwean populace as well as calling upon leaders to value citizens’ lives.

This hashtag has commanded a global following signifying the power of social media in agenda setting and facilitating information exchange.

Putting this into perspective, one cannot deny the influence the #ZimbabweanLivesMatter movement has had on Twitter, but a question to ponder is: Is this movement enough to usher a change of fortune in the lives of Zimbabweans?

Is it enough to fight institutionalised corruption, economic challenges, poor heath delivery system, acute poverty, cartels of looters among a litany of problems?

Is it any different from other hashtags that have been created in the Zimbabwean context but died a natural death without any change to the status quo?

Can it not be written in the same sentence with other hashtags like #paybackthemoney, #freehopewell, #freengarivhume, among others.

Iranian analysts argue that without Twitter, Iranians would not have felt empowered and confident to stand up for freedom and democracy as they did in the 2009 election protests.

Can the same be said about the #ZimbabweanLivesMatter? Does it have the same influencing effect on Zimbabweans?

A senior lecturer in communication in Namibia, Admire Mare, believes the movement is capable of turning into something big.

“It is a successor to #ThisFlag movement, so it is likely to unite Zimbabweans beyond political affiliation hence it may metamorphosise into something bigger than previous hashtag movements which focused on urban livelihoods,” said Mare.

“This one is cross cutting and has received support across the political divide.”

However, Mare is of the view that certain fundamentals have to be satisfied before the movement can be really successful as an offline force.

“It is possible for the movement to be transformed into offline action but it depends on a number of factors. It is up to the virtual leaders to start having grassroots structures at the ward, district, national and diaspora levels. However, that is easier said than done given the fear and mistrust factors that punctuate Zimbabweans’ predisposition to political action,” said Mare.

Concurring with Mare is Prolific Mataruse, a senior politics and administration lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe.

Mataruse is of the view that the #ZimbabweanLivesMatter: “Signals a continued or rising radicalisation of the Zimbabwean populace wherein social media is a carrier of a consciousness or political subjectivity that has potential to grow into something big.”

“The most dangerous person is a vulnerable one and in the Zimbabwean case it is essentially everyone. This movement then is a reflection of the desperation in the country and this desperation breeds a dangerous type of politics called nihilistic politics. If the status quo does not change, it will not be surprising to see a lot of things happening offline,” said Mataruse.

To him, this movement is a replica of past movements that took place around 2016 which did not bring immediate results but set the platform for other agents to deliver change as was the case with 2017’s military intervention.

The #blacklivesmatter started online in the United States in 2013 following the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting to death of African American Trayvon Martin in 2012 but morphed into offline protests this year.

Its seven-year gestation period might imply that online movements do not offer instant glory but take time to influence political action especially in Zimbabwe.

How the State apparatus normally deals with protests in Zimbabwe can be cited as a reason behind the ineffectiveness of social media to contribute to socio-economic change in Zimbabwe. There have been reports and images of protesters being beaten up while some are incarcerated to send a statement to wannabe protesters.

For instance, the August 1, 2018 shootings were a huge deterrent to any social movement that can be organised to address issues affecting Zimbabweans.

While the right to demonstrate and petition is a constitutional right as enshrined in Section 59 of the Constitution, people are afraid of freely exercising this right. This partly explains why despite its popularity on Twitter, the July 31 call for protest action did not bear fruit.

Political science lecturer Lawrence Mhandara argues that hashtags do not contribute to any socio-economic or political change in the Zimbabwean context.

Said Mhandara: “Beyond the moral pressure, a meta-analysis of similar attempts in the past shows that hashtags do not change anything on the ground. At least this is true to Zimbabwe.

The trending occurs but the situation remains as it was after that.”

He added: “No benefit comes for Zimbabwean politics at all other than intensifying the polarised political situation. Therefore, the only change likely to come is hardening of political positions and intolerance for the simple reason that polarisation and intolerance march together and social media hashtags provide the fuel.”

This is a view which resonates with the ideas of writer Malcom Gladwell who reasons that social sites like Twitter and Facebook are weak and unlikely to motivate the types of commitment and sacrifice that are required to sustain a protest movement.

Whether the #ZimbabweanLivesMatter will contribute towards real socio-economic change remains to be seen but an undeniable fact is that the lives of Zimbabweans matter.

In the words of American philosopher Judith Butler, all lives are “grievable”, unfortunately a number of Zimbabweans are living non-grievable lives; “one that cannot be mourned because it has never lived, that is, it has never counted as a life at all.”

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