In Zimbabwe, a woman is getting ready to take part in a protest. But she is not attending a mass demonstration. Instead, she takes a selfie. She is careful not to include anything in the shot that would allow people to tell where she is, and to hold her placard so that it covers her face. Anonymity is crucial — if her identity is revealed, she could face state intimidation, harassment and arrest. The placard reads #ZimbabweanLivesMatter.
She sends the picture to people she knows are engaged in the struggle against the Zanu-PF government. They share it on Twitter, and an individual act of faceless protest has become another brick in the wall of opposition to President Emmerson Mnangagwa. What was a personal statement has been transformed into a very public call for change.
The woman is not unique. Across Zimbabwe, many others have also taken pictures, some showing their face, others disguising themselves.
Earlier in the year, youths in neighbouring Zambia took to the bush on the outskirts of the capital, Lusaka, to e-protest against the worsening erosion of civil liberties and rising levels of corruption in the government. In this way, repressed people can protest together, alone.
Bush protests and anonymous resistance is not so much a tool of choice, but the only option left to those facing brutal, authoritarian regimes. But how effective are these protests? And can they ever hold leaders to account?
The push from the bush
In June, several youths in Zambia’s capital gave a seven-day notice to the police of plans to hold a peaceful protest against bad governance on June 22, in compliance with the Public Order Act.
The protesters, mainly artists, were unhappy with the shrinking democratic space, police brutality and economic failure of President Edgar Lungu and his governing Patriotic Front (PF). Fearful that the protest would embolden the opposition and expose government incompetence, the government shut down the plans.
The minister of home affairs ordered the inspector general of police to “activate your troops and deal with non-law-abiding citizens accordingly”. An MP from the PF urged the police to deal with protesters forcefully, and “break their bones if possible”.
On the day of the protest, riot police patrolled the streets of Lusaka, hunting for activists. Defiant, the placard-carrying youths — 13 in total — retreated to an undisclosed location in the bush, from which they broadcast their demand for change over Facebook Live.
Their e-protest lasted 43 minutes and was watched by at least 30 000 people — a wider audience than they could have attracted in a physical protest, even without Covid-19 restrictions. As well as outsmarting the police and bringing global attention to the restrictions on public assemblies in Zambia, the protest demonstrated the capacity of social media to challenge authoritarian behaviour.
The anti-corruption protests scheduled for July 31 in Zimbabwe were meant to bring together a broad range of people. The focus on corruption created a theme that was both unifying and avoided explicitly calling for the overthrow of the Mnangagwa government.
But, despite this, the protests were shut down with efficient brutality. Protesters were not allowed to congregate in city centres and a number of higher-profile critics of the government were arrested.
Unable to congregate, citizens wrote their own placards, stood in their own spaces and took pictures. Some were well-known political leaders and lawyers, who ventured out in public, but many were ordinary citizens determined to speak truth to power. Shared with hashtags on Twitter, the messages and pictures of these “personal protests” combined to form a rich patchwork quilt of opposition. Even those who maintained their anonymity contributed to the growing public anger with the waste and mismanagement of the Mnangagwa government.
Some also highlighted the increasingly repressive nature of the regime by recording and sharing their own arrests on Facebook Live and repeating the names of those who had been detained. Against this background, the emergence of #ZimbabweanLivesMatter as a unifying slogan helped to internationalise the protest, while emphasising the high stakes involved.
Personal protest power
There is nothing radically new about “solo demos” or people coming together on social media to support a cause. Zambia has a long history of personal protest. At the height of the nationalist struggle in March 1960, Julia Mulenga Nsofwa, popularly known as Julia Chikamoneka, stripped at Lusaka International Airport before a visiting British colonial secretary as a protest against colonial rule. And, since the advent of Facebook and Twitter, the world has seen a number of social media campaigns, from anti-bullying efforts to #BlackLivesMatter.
What makes the Zambian and Zimbabwean cases distinct is that they are taking place in countries in which coronavirus restrictions and authoritarian governments mean that other forms of protest are not possible. This is both their strength and their weakness.
The strength comes from the greater focus of society and the international media on digital platforms during the pandemic. Social media campaigns can act as “windows of transparency” that reveal just how unpopular a dictator really is. In this way, they are similar to the celebrations that erupted in Zambia during a failed coup attempt in 1990. Although the coup was put down, the premature celebrations demonstrated just how unpopular the regime had become, and so encouraged more people to fight against the system, which ultimately collapsed. Presidents Lungu and Mnangagwa know this history well: they will become increasingly repressive as they feel their grip on power fading.
The weakness is that social media campaigns are far more effective when they go hand in hand with traditional forms of protest. As Bruce Mutsvairo has recently argued, only a minority of Zimbabweans are on Twitter. The Lungu and Mnangagwa governments have at times sought to improve their domestic international reputations, but not to the extent of relaxing their grip on power.
In Zambia, the government responded to the bush protest by announcing initiatives aimed at placating artists and young people. A presidential arts development scheme worth $1.7-million was launched on June 25, followed by a $23.5-million Youth Empowerment Programme. But Lungu still intends to manipulate the 2021 elections through intimidation, censorship and excluding his main rival from the ballot.
In Zimbabwe, prominent prisoners such as journalist Hopewell Chin’ono and opposition leader Jacob Ngarivhume were granted bail on September 2 after growing outrage at the legal manipulations being used to keep them behind bars. But both men remain on trial on trumped-up charges, while many others continue to languish in jail.
Achieving more substantial change is not an impossible dream though — and when bush demos and patchwork protests are buttressed by strikes, a united opposition and greater international pressure, their true potential as a force for accountable government will be revealed.