Stayaway protests display rising power of social media in Zimbabwe

Source:Xinhua Published: 2016/7/10 19:08:00

Social media played a major role in the staging of a mass job stayaway called by civil society throughout Zimbabwe last week, despite an unexplained interruption in services.

In addition to the private media which reported extensively on the proposed stayaway, thousands of workers heeded calls made by organizers largely through WhatsApp and Facebook and did not turn up for work.

In public places and offices, people exchanged information obtained from social media regarding the pending action to protest the deterioration of living conditions and corruption, with some arguing for and others against it.

Some schools also used media platforms to advise parents to make a choice between either sending their children to school or keeping them at home.

People were also giving nationwide updates via social media on the situation on the ground, with a few skirmishes reported in Harare's Mufakose suburb and in the country's second biggest city of Bulawayo in the south.

Among the organizers are a group rallying behind the name #ThisFlag led by Pastor Evan Mawarire and another calling itself #tajamuka (slang for "we are protesting").

Spokesman for #tajamuka Promise Mkwananzi was quoted by Byo24News as saying that the stayaway was "the beginning of a historic process in ensuring the transformation and regeneration of our country."

"We will no longer be divided by the politics of our country but we shall be united by the dreams of our children," Mawarire said in a message spread on WhatsApp and Facebook.

The 39-year-old pastor has said that he started the #ThisFlag movement as a result of the frustrations he was enduring because of the harsh economic environment prevailing in the country.

He made a video of himself in early May explaining the meanings of the Zimbabwean flag's different features and how its aspirations have not been met and posted it on social media.

This marked the beginning of a cyber citizen protest, which has found sympathy among many people who have rallied behind him and want to see the government improve their living conditions and fight corruption.

The government has however dismissed him, saying that he is an attention seeker and warned that all those who "abuse" social media will be dealt with.

Suspicions were rife that the government was responsible for the four-hour disruption in Internet services on Wednesday as it sought to curtail the flow of messages via social media platforms.

Mawarire said the disruption was not accidental and had shown that the government had been shaken by the proposed stayaway.

However, Information and Communication Technology Minister Supa Mandiwanzira quickly dissociated the government from the hiccup.

Government-owned fixed line telephone and Internet provider TelOne acknowledged that its Internet service was down for most of the morning and apologized to its customers.

The country's largest mobile network Econet also confirmed that WhatsApp was down in the morning but would also not explain why.

As people suspected that the Internet had deliberately been blocked, they engaged each other and shared information on how they could bypass the problem by installing VPNs on their smartphones.

The authorities have issued a strong warning against using social media to cause social upheaval.

The Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe and service providers said they had noted with concern "the gross irresponsible use of social media and telecommunications services" through their platforms.

"We would like all Zimbabweans to know that we are completely against this behavior 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," the statement said.

They warned it would not be difficult to apprehend culprits since all sim cards are registered in the names of the users and so they could easily be identified.

Techzim, a local news blog, said with an increasing use of social media for politically minded discussion, all politicians needed to start cultivating strategies around the more popular platforms.

"This could be anything from starting a page, joining Twitter and answering questions or shooting videos to pass on that vision that has been articulated on paper," it said.

"The landscape has changed and whoever wants to be crowned king in their own domain cannot afford to overlook this (social media revolution)," it added.

The article is a commentary from the Xinhua News Agency.

Posted in: Voices, Viewpoint

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