Technology is not the answer
© Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters
The security forces are in control: Police escorting political activists from court after they were granted bail in March. The activists had tried to start protests online
In the wake of the political protests in North Africa, Vikas Mavhudzi made history by becoming Zimbabwe’s first “Facebook arrest”. He had posted a comment on Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirais Facebook page on 13 February. It read: “I am overwhelmed, I don’t want to say Mr. or PM what happened in Egypt is sending shockwaves to dictators around the world. No weapon but unity of purpose worth emulating, hey.”
A Facebook user told the police about the comment. Officers found the comment on Mavhudzi’s mobile phone, which he had used to post the message, and arrested him. He was accused of “advocating or attempting to take-over government by unconstitutional means”. Mavhudzi was incarcerated and a court case was filed against him. He is currently out on bail, after being held for over 35 days. The government’s response shows that it is taking no chances on social networking sites.
Social networking websites obviously fuelled the political protests in North Africa and other Arab states. As a result, oppressive governments have become suspicious of new media technology. At the same time, experts say that democracy will increasingly depend on access to the internet and technology in the 21st century.
In Zimbabwe and other African countries, however, one should not overstate social websites’ potential for transforming governance. While it is true that they offer a low-cost and relatively low-risk way to engage in protest, Zimbabwe’s technological infrastructure is not sufficiently developed to make web-based expressions of dissent reach many people. According to the World Bank, only around 1.5 million Zimbabweans – 12 % of the people – have some kind of internet access. Internet literacy is underdeveloped, and there is not much web content that relate specifically to Zimbabwe.
Access to the net, moreover, is largely urban-based. Most people in the cities, however, can only use computers at their workplace, which obviously restricts their scope for independent action. In terms of technology, Zimbabwe is currently estimated to be five years behind other countries in the region. The main reason is the lack of investments in technology in the past ten years.
Mobile internet access, however, is beginning to make a difference. In recent months, there has been exponential growth in this field. Over 600,000 people can access the web via their mobile phones now, and their number is growing daily. Nonetheless, the cost of hand-held devices and web access remains a limiting factor. Moreover, internet connections tend to be too slow to support video or podcast streams.
The internet is likely to play a greater role in the future. Zimbabwe is being connected to the undersea cable. Fibre-optic infrastructure is being set up across the country. It is expected that the nation will have ubiquitous connectivity and low-cost access to data by 2014. New opportunities are thus likely to arise, in terms of both business and politics.
The most popular website among Zimbabweans is Facebook. Sometime in the not too distant future, this sort of social media tools could facilitate spaces for people to openly express themselves in defiance of censorship, circumventing both state-owned and privately-owned media. The tech-savvy young generation could play a leading role.
But we are not there yet. At the moment, Zimbabwe’s technological infrastructure does not facilitate social media with a wide reach, enabling activists to mobilise a mass public. So far, the internet poses no real challenge to the status quo. It has not changed habits and patterns of news consumption and information sharing. Basically, the government still controls what information people get.
History of suppression
Zimbabwe’s government has a track record of suppressing dissent. It is likely to pass laws to allow it to cut off communication services. The arrest of Mavhudzi not only showed that the government is prepared to quash dissent on social networks; it also proved that technologies like the internet and mobile phones are useful for spying.
Governments can interfere with websites and emails. They even possess the power to switch off the internet, as was briefly done in Egypt before the old regime fell. The New York Times reported that governments in North Africa used communications technology to track down activists. It stated that Facebook accounts were hacked in Tunisia and that Egyptian authorities used technology that turned mobile phones into furtive listening devices.
A crucial issue for democratic change is whether people dare to speak up. In Zimbabwe, fear is quite common, however. People may shy from using social media for protest purposes because they think they may be under surveillance. The memory of brutal violence during the various election campaigns of 2008 is still very much alive. Unless such fears are overcome, there will be no democratic change. In Egypt, the people had to brave tanks and guns in Tahrir Square to topple their dictator, and that was certainly not an exercise in virtual reality.
To complicate matters in Zimbabwe, leaders in the prodemocracy movement have not always been adept at providing clear positions and leadership. Tsvangirai promised democratic change when he was running against President Robert Mugabe in 2008. Mugabe only prevailed in office because he unleashed unprecedented violence, and afterwards an odd coalition of the two adversaries was formed, brokered by other African leaders. It is not a good omen that Mavhudzi ran into trouble because he posted a message on Prime Minister Tsvangirai’s Facebook page. This is, after all, the leader who says he is the alternative to the autocrat.
The internet and social network sites will not suffice to bring real democracy to Zimbabwe. Active citizens are necessary to achieve that goal. The opportunities for using up-to-date communications technology are likely to improve in Zimbabwe, and they are likely to give some scope to activists. But unless there are courageous people to grasp such opportunities, things will not change.