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From YouTube To The Streets: A Zimbabwean Uprising Starts Online

President Robert Mugabe, 92, seems unable to stop a popular protest movement against his authoritarian government

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A supporter of the anti-government protest movement in Zimbabwe — REUTERS
Aug 03, 2016 at 4:11 AM ET

Over the past four weeks, Zimbabwe has been rocked by the biggest street demonstrations the country has seen in decades, with citizens protesting rampant government corruption, unpaid civil servants’ salaries and rising poverty levels on the back of a currency crisis. A drought has exacerbated the situation, raising concerns that the country’s stability might be at risk.

Last week, the New York Times reported that Vice President Phelekezela Mphoko and his wife had spent over 600 nights staying in the presidential suite of a luxury hotel while their $2 million mansion was renovated—at the government’s expense. Meanwhile, ATMs were empty of cash and the government had not paid the salaries of the army or the police force for two months. No wonder, then, that protesters surrounded the hotel and invaded the lobby.

In a recognizable echo of the Egyptian uprising of 2011, the ongoing protests took shape when a charismatic activist uploaded a video call to action on Facebook, mobilizing a movement that is organized and reported on social media. But the people of Zimbabwe do not seem to be calling for Mugabe to resign. Instead, their message seems to be a call for positive change.

On July 4, Pastor Evan Mawarire uploaded a video that shows him draped in the flag of Zimbabwe as he makes an impassioned statement of patriotism, which he opens with the words “this flag,” before launching into a call for action. Mawarire recorded the video following weeks of haphazard protests in Zimbabwe to protest unpaid salaries and rising prices; his video went viral and gave birth to the Twitter hashtag #thisflag.

The government has attempted to quash the movement, first by blocking Whatsapp in a fruitless attempt to prevent a demonstration, and then by detaining Pastor Mawarire. The latter led to a vigil and demonstration outside the courthouse while charges against Mawarire were heard. But a judge dismissed the government’s case against the pastor, ordering him released three days after his arrest; and the protest had already been planned by the time the social media platform was blocked. It went ahead on July 6, shutting down the capital city of Harare for an entire day.

President Robert Mugabe, 92, was a leader of the struggle for his country’s independence from Britain during the 1960s and 1970s. In 1980, after the British left and Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, he was elected president. But democracy did not last long. In 1987 Mugabe made himself executive president, and in recent years his government has become increasingly authoritarian and intolerant of dissent.

Still, Mugabe seems unsure of how to stop the current protest movement. On the one hand he ordered Whatsapp blocked, in a fruitless attempt to prevent the July 6 demonstration, and later gave a speech lashing out against the protesters and their foreign supporters; but on the other hand he has not blocked access to other social media platforms. Nor has he ordered mass arrests of protesters.

Jacquelin Kataneksza, a Zimbabwean ex-pat in New York who is a contributor to the blog Africa is a Country, points out in her comprehensive summary and analysis of the ongoing protests that the lack of a leader uniting this uprising could make it vulnerable.

In a phone conversation with Vocativ, she described the ongoing protest movement as “momentous,” adding: “People are getting a whole new idea of citizenship and civics in ways that have never happened before.” But, she said, there is a “lack of strategic thinking” and this could cause the movement “to fizzle.”

“And that,” she said, “Would be so disappointing.”