Armed with smartphones and memes, Zimbabwe's protesters find their voice online

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Zimbabwe’s protest movement is gaining momentum as social media provides citizens with the collective courage to speak out against president Robert Mugabe’s government.

Online discontent has been growing since April after Zimbabwean pastor Evan Mawarire posted a video rant about his economic struggles using the hashtag #ThisFlag.

A movement was soon born as thousands joined Mawarire in tweeting their frustrations about Zimbabwe’s tanking economy directly at Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party, which has led the country for more than 35 years and is known for its intolerance of dissent.

The protesters then organised a strike last week using the hashtag #ZimShutdown2016, and are promising another two-day shutdown if their demands are not met.

So why have Zimbabweans started speaking out? And is a new form of protest politics emerging in the country? We asked activists to share their stories.

‘Breaking point’

Kudakwashe Pfende from Harare says he has been tweeting to “let the establishment know that we are not voiceless. Everyone has reached breaking point [and there is] no going back, only forward,” he says.

Lindani Chirambadare, also from the capital, says the popular mood has fundamentally shifted, and that “the people’s psyche is now collectively conditioned for revolt.”

Another resident, who asked to remain anonymous, says that before “everyone was frustrated but afraid to speak out. But this gave us courage. Now most people won’t care if they get arrested, beaten or abducted... [we’d] rather die for a better tomorrow for our children than to make them go through the same suffering.”

For cyber activist Fuzzy Goo, the sharing of memes and images mocking the country’s leaders in a new weapon against the regime.

“Their usual strategies don’t work because the weapon of mass destruction is a smartphone, plus wifi or data bundle that only cost $1,” he says. “Social media has opened democratic space where we can directly confront officials and disseminate information quickly.”

There were reports of government attempts to shut down social media sites last week, but citizens quickly started sharing details of VPN (virtual private network) sites and encryption methods to get around the alleged ban.

Some activists have set up specific Twitter feeds to record and share what is happening.

One of these is Concerned Zim Citizen. The activist behind the account explains that this movement is different because “we are not a single group... we have many unhappy Zanu-PF supporters behind #ThisFlag”, who are all united by the fact that “things have hit rock bottom”.

From the streets of Harare, where civil servants haven’t been paid this month, to the rural areas where farmers are struggling to survive one of the worst droughts ever seen in southern Africa, the protesters’ demands are wide ranging but rooted in a failing economy they say is caused by corruption at the heart of government.

One Harare resident told the Guardian: “I am well educated but I’m struggling to take care of my small family because of the selfishness of a few people who are architects of our country’s failure.”

Amanda Atwood, who also lives in the capital, said the city is grinding to a halt due to the financial crisis. “There is no cash in the banks and we have to queue for hours to get $100 of our own money. There are no jobs [and] police roadblocks stop us everyday and make up things to fine us for,” she says.

But the most frustrating thing, according to Atwood, is that the “government seems more interested protecting themselves than in actually doing anything to attract investment, build productivity, restore infrastructure or protect the poor.”

The hashtags
Like many others, Atwood talks of being “humbled” by the collective power of the the #ZimShutDown2016 action, “organised over social media, with barely 48 hours notice and not called by a political party, trade union or civic organisation, but by a collection of citizen voices.”

Others were keen to point out that, in stark contrast to the government’s record on brutal crackdowns, the mood has been that of peaceful defiance.

“Our demonstration was 100% peaceful and it will stay that way,” promised one protester from Victoria Falls. “[It] is now the time to stand up to the government and eliminate this poison peacefully,” the protester added.

Other hashtags that have also been capturing the public mood, explains the Concerned Zim Citizen.

“We have #Tajamuka which means ‘we are now awake’, referring to the fact that as Zimbabweans we are now aware of our rights. #Hatichada, meaning ‘we no longer want’ which refers to how we feel about our government. And #Hatichatya meaning ‘we are no longer afraid,” the activist explains.

There is also a growing sense of the power of the collective voice. Concerned Zim Citizen adds that “they have posted many threats of arrests but it doesn’t work anymore. We protest knowing that our lives will be in danger because the idea of dying does not sound bad when you think of continuing in Zimbabwe as is.”

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