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#ZimbabweanLivesMatter: Reflections on a brief Twitter mo(ve)ment

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#ZimbabweanLivesMatter: Reflections on a brief Twitter mo(ve)ment

Fungai Machirori

29 Sep 2020

6min min read
  • Political development
  • Mass media and international relations

On Monday 3 August 2020 at 11.22 am, Sir Nige, a Zimbabwean influencer with over 100 000 followers, tweeted to his audience, “I'm just following the #ZimbabweanLivesMatter hashtag. How did this hashtag start?” The responses to his tweet offer a range of suggestions, but what is evident is that the origins of a hashtag that would momentarily capture international attention aren’t entirely clear. According to a report by TechZim on that same day, #ZimbabweanLivesMatter had garnered almost 300 000 tweets by the time of their writing; a moment of collective online action reminiscent of the #ThisFlag movement of 2016.

Earlier that Monday, at 8.07am, South African politician Mmusi Maimane had used the hashtag in a tweet to his 1.5 million Twitter followers, and called on other South African influencers such as Trevor Noah to speak on the Zimbabwe situation. One of those Maimane called on was rapper, AKA, who did not use #ZimbabweanLivesMatter in his tweets, but began to reference the political volatility of Zimbabwe to his over 4.5 million followers and quote accounts using the hashtag. The externalisation of the hashtag into South Africa’s Twittersphere, with its larger user base, created significant momentum and visibility for #ZimbabweanLivesMatter. Later that same day American rapper, Ice Cube, retweeted a Zimbabwean user who had posted an archival video of military brutality alongside the hashtag. In the following days, western media outlets including the Guardian and the BBC would also report on the hashtag.

By the next Monday, however, the hashtag’s activity and visibility had significantly diminished. Nonetheless, it had offered important insights into political activism in Zimbabwe; some of which I shall analyse in tandem with the more prolonged activities and events of the #ThisFlag movement which lasted a few months.

Two hashtags, two approaches

#ZimbabweanLivesMatter differed from #ThisFlag in a range of important ways, one of the more significant being that unlike its precursor, it was a leaderless hashtag movement. After a viral video in which an impassioned Evan Mawarire speaks of the symbolism of the Zimbabwean flag, #ThisFlag grew into a popular social media movement seeking to reinforce national pride and active citizenship, employing the Zimbabwean flag as its emblem. But what had been the strength of the movement – the centrality of Mawarire – would quickly become its undoing. Distrust of Mawarire rapidly grew after he briefly fled to the United States. Mawarire had been arrested – and then released – on charges of state subversion and cited safety concerns as his main reason for his departure.

Secondly, #ZimbabweanLivesMatter did not make any overt offline demands or requests, whereas #ThisFlag sought to have citizens make political statements of solidarity, such as moving around with the Zimbabwean flag in efforts to reclaim its perceived meaning(s). It can further be argued that #ThisFlag had long-term impacts such as playing a crucial role, alongside other movements like #Tajamuka, in the national shutdown of 6 July 2016, which is seen as representing, possibly, the greatest anti-government protests in the country since the late 1990s.

Another significant moment in the life of the #ThisFlag movement occurred a week later when Zimbabwean citizens turned out in their numbers at the Harare Magistrates’ Court in solidarity with Mawarire after his abrupt arrest on charges of state subversion and incitement of public violence. In contrast, #ZimbabweanLivesMatter largely functioned as a means of indexing conversations about Zimbabwean strife, exacerbated by growing human rights violations and corruption in the management of COVID-related resources, and thus calling for global solidarity and action. While #ThisFlag was more internally or locally focused, #ZimbabweanLivesMatter had a more external global mission.

The context of #ZimbabweanLivesMatter

It would be remiss to not situate #ZimbabweanLivesMatter within its broader context. The Friday before the hashtag came to prominence, a protest with poor turnout – popularly referred to as the #31July Movement – had led to the arrest of a few highly visible figures in Zimbabwean society, including Fadzayi Mahere, the MDC Alliance’s national spokesperson. Most recognisable among those arrested – at least globally – was Tsitsi Dangarembga, the author of the internationally acclaimed novel Nervous Conditions who had just been announced on the longlist of the Man Booker Prize for her latest novel, This Mournable Body. July had also seen the arrest of journalist Hopewell Chin'ono, who had increasingly become visible on Twitter in the months since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic for his exposés of state mismanagement of funds in the national response to the virus outbreak. And with a curfew introduced by the government, ostensibly for the containment of the pandemic but generally viewed as a means of suppressing mass action, a collective and alternative outlet for citizens’ increasing frustrations seemed inevitable.

Why #ZimbabweanLivesMatter went viral

In my analysis, a range of intersecting factors made #ZimbabweanLivesMatter the short-term viral success that it was. Firstly, just as with the #ThisFlag movement, it presented itself as a non-partisan and citizen-oriented mass action; something crucial to ensuring uptake by the average Zimbabwean Twitter user. In July #ZANUPFMustGo, a hashtag that had hitherto appeared erratically on Twitter, began to develop some traction. And while used simultaneously with #ZimbabweanLivesMatter by some, it failed to garner the same individual reach and appeal. I believe that this is, in part, because of its hypervisibility as a message against the state within a digital arena of surveillance, and therefore self-censorship. But I believe it is also because of the inference it makes within a nation of troubled binary politics; if ZANU-PF must go, then it follows – intuitively – that the MDC Alliance, riven by factionalism and its own instability, must replace it. It bears noting that Nelson Chamisa, the leader of the MDC Alliance, did not engage at all on Twitter during the peak of #ZimbabweanLivesMatter; the reason given for this being that he was still mourning the sudden loss of his mother who had died early in July.

'#ZimbabweanLivesMatter presented itself as a non-partisan and citizen-oriented mass action; something crucial to ensuring uptake by the average Zimbabwean Twitter user.'

Secondly, an analysis of the social capital of the key actors in this moment is crucial. Unlike most local journalists with limited influence beyond Zimbabwe, Chin’ono is a former Fellow with the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, as well as a previous CNN MultiChoice African Journalist Award winner. Dangarembga, as already mentioned, is a globally recognisable literary figure. In the same way that the #ZimbabweanLivesMatter hashtag developed significant virality through entry into the South African Twittersphere, I argue that figures with local credibility (by virtue of being seen as ‘apolitical’ citizens in the same mould as Mawarire before them) and international social currency (to invoke global empathy and action) were pivotal to its sustained virality and reach, given its external orientation.

Thirdly, and as I have partially discussed, #ZimbabweanLivesMatter did not have any specific goals or make any overt demands. Through garnering international attention, its generally understood objective was to put pressure on ZANU-PF to make urgent and radical reforms; or to at least get regional bodies like the African Union to make these demands of the ruling party. However, neither of these were articulated targets of this hashtag movement which appeared to grow intuitively in its shape and agenda. In the same week of the hashtag’s emergence, President Emmerson Mnangagwa gave a speech in which he referenced “dark forces” and “rotten apples” as seeking to destabilise the country. Soon, many Twitter users appropriated this language, referring to themselves as dark forces tweeting ‘destabilising’ messages through using the #ZimbabweanLivesMatter hashtag and in so doing, creating a sense of collective dissent and agency.

For a shortlived period of time, #ZimbabweanLivesMatter served as a convening point for Zimbabweans on Twitter – or Zwitter as they are locally called – to vent and create collective focus in many of the same ways that #ThisFlag sustained over a longer timeframe. Nonetheless, it also revealed the fragility of such solidarity, especially in a social media space in which only a small minority, seen as ‘elites’, participate. Similar arguments have been made about why Mawarire’s #ThisFlag movement – which galvanised the urban middle class who are significant users of social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram – developed the online virality that the 2014 #Occupy movement steered by Itai Dzamara, not associable with similar class interests, had been unable to.

In many ways, it would appear that #ZimbabweanLivesMatter mirrors its offline predecessor and catalyst, the #31July Movement, with its small turnout of protesters and predominance of the urban middle class. In so doing, it highlights the increasing political visibility of the disgruntled urban and/ or middle class, historically deemed to be protected from general Zimbabwean strife by their privileges.

As Zimbabwe’s socio-political environment further degenerates, it appears that strategies to galvanise global attention will necessarily become more reliant upon a class of Zimbabweans not previously visible within active politics. How this intersects with the interests of historically political groups, such as workers’ movements and unions – as well as Zimbabweans who are not online – will be the true test of this iteration of Zimbabwean political organising.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.

(Main image: Ekesai Njikizana/AFP via Getty Images)