The social media craze in Zimbabwe going under the hashtag #ThisFlag has been around for a little over a month now. The campaign is also heavily subscribed by Zimbabweans in the diaspora and by other sympathisers beyond borders.
As of the third week of May 2016, newspaper editorials and opinions have begun to be written about the social media campaign.
Indeed, critical questions around the issues of corruption, abuse of power, economic mismanagement and general lack of good governance are being raised under the #ThisFlag campaign by Zimbabweans and other netizens. Ambassadors and government officials are also part of the showcase.
What is missing and scary about it, is that it has shifted struggles from the streets to the internet. Many brave people whose track record in fighting democratic struggles in Zimbabwe is undoubted, have also regrettably fallen for the exclusive social media campaign and hashtagging.
The campaign, sadly remains an exclusively social media one, without any meaningful offline presence. This raises questions about its real objectives, ideology and program of action.
Respectfully it is a good idea, and an attractive one for social media, photo galleries and for those wishing to exhibit Photoshop expertise.
But for any meaningful struggle against the Zanu-PF government or any government or oppressive system in the world, the social media only works whilst mobilising for real-life protest, campaigns and mobilisation efforts.
This is what the Zimbabweans rallying behind the campaign have failed to grasp. Characteristically, social media without offline presence is a demobilising factor.
2016 is a year of resistance dumped on the internet
Any person who follows protests and believes in them, would have regained hope in 2016 being a year of resistance. There were powerful occupations and strikes at two giant parastatals by disgruntled workers just a few months back.
In February workers stuck camp and occupied the Grain Marketing Board’s (GMB) head-offices in Eastlea. Within a few months, rail workers and their families embarked on another powerful industrial action and occupation of the National Railways of Zimbabwe’s (NRZ) Rugare marshalling yard in March and April.
The country’s biggest opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T), after a long period of sleeping on duty, eventually managed to mobilise and carry out a powerful and massive demonstration in the streets of Harare. The latter action prompted the ruling party’s youth league to organise its own ‘One Million Man March’ in support of the 92-year old president of the Republic, Robert Mugabe.
Hence 2016 was promising to be a year of the streets. Painfully, within a few weeks, all the anger that should have been poured on the streets was relegated to social media. People began to find comfort in tweeting the #ThisFlag hashtag with whatever issues they have and ending at that.
Even the so-called leaders of the #ThisFlag campaign, whom this writer, shares certain WhatsApp groups with, openly declared that the movement was not going to pour into the streets.
In other words, #ThisFlag was going to continue raising issues and expressing grievances with the way government was running the country, but only by using individualistic methods of posing for photos with wrapped flags, and posting the photos on social media.
In a few weeks’ time, street activists and faceless social media accounts began a backward trend of clicktivism over activism.
Social media should supplement, not substitute direct action
Social media had been utilised and achieved great results for physically protesting people (emphasis on ‘physically protesting’) during the Arab Spring uprising in Egypt and Tunisia, the Occupy movements in the United States, the #FeesMustFall campaign in South Africa (which this writer was physically part of and of which he wrote an article on Nehanda Radio), and recently during the campaign of a socialist candidate Bernie Sanders in the United States.
In all these occasions, social media was used to supplement direct action and to mobilise for living campaigns. Never was a government or system removed by clicktivists using the social media alone as their sole arena for resistance as is the case with Zimbabwe’s #ThisFlag social media campaign.
Similar Flag but we are different Zimbabweans
Whilst the intentions of the organisers of #ThisFlag may indeed be noble and innocent, real politics and ideological understanding would show that trying to bunch together fellow Zimbabweans for just being under the same flag, without regard to social classes, is a gross and dangerous misrepresentation of patriotism.
As a poor African, I have more in common with a poor African in another country than I can ever have with a ‘fellow’ Zimbabwean government minister, capitalist or rich pastor or preacher. Hence to bundle all and sundry on the grounds that we accidentally share the same nationalist flag takes us nowhere.
A genuine movement can only be class-based and even transcend borders and not be brought together by a nationalist flag. The world is now a global village and many of our citizens are more concerned with people to people solidarity across borders and not fake comradeship under a flag.
A company director, rich church pastor or a cabinet minister may share the same nationalist, albert same flag with a vendor, a sex worker or a street lawyer like myself, but we can never share the same interests. That is a great error on the part of activists rallying under the #ThisFlag campaign. What we want in life and in politics are different.
Just last year, most of us wept when the Supreme Court delivered an anti-labour judgement, yet other Zimbabwean businesspeople ululated.
It is inconceivable that today we can stand side by side with such ‘fellow’ Zimbabweans, our interests can never be the same just because we share the same flag. As the working class, the poor and radical intellectuals, we will be our own liberators and we will liberate ourselves on the streets not via Wi-Fi.
The Way Forward includes Offline Activism
As a way forward, activists should either get off their backs and smartphones, scrutinise their allies, craft a programme of action backed by progressive ideologies and solidarity with genuine movements within and beyond nationalistic borders, mobilise and get into the streets and face down police baton sticks, teargas and beatings if they want governments to notice.
Otherwise this elitist social media noise only serves to entrench exploitation, alienate activists from the mass of society and demobilise and undermine people who believe in genuine direct action such as NRZ, GMB and opposition grassroots activists.
Unfortunately, Zanu-PF has already seen the power of offline presence over social media with the adoption of the counter #OurFlag hashtag by the party’s One Million Man March organisers. Photoshop, modelling for the camera with brand-new flags and tweeting in the comfort of private bedrooms and offices is a dangerous illusion that must be broken as soon as yesterday.
Having said that, it is indeed naïve to dismiss the strategic role of social media, but it is only strategic as long as it is used to mobilise and publicise real life actions. I am an avid user of social media myself and an advocate for the use of alternative media as opposed to mainstream media, which is usually controlled by financial or political interests, but never once do I fool myself that when I am on social media alone I am fighting a struggle.
Social media is important and democratic, but only when it is used as a support strategy by an action-oriented people. In that regard, I sign off with a quote from UK socialist Chris Bruno. He wrote in a 2012 issue of the Socialist Worker newsletter:
‘As a supplement to, not a substitute for, old tactics, social media plays an important role. It has the ability to reach those who have neither the time nor desire to participate in the existing political infrastructure thus far. It provides another effective way to organize and mobilize for our actions, and it provides a truly alternative media — one that is organically created by the masses and gives us a more complete picture of what’s going on beyond our doorsteps.’ (emphasis mine).
It is important that we acknowledge social media for what it is – a mobilising tool for real life action – and utilise it as such, but to substitute street action with modelling, Photoshop and smartphones as is the current case, is a historical disaster.