When a crackdown prevented protests, a hashtag gave them a voice

Why We Wrote This

When Robert Mugabe’s rule ended, Zimbabweans celebrated the start of a new chapter. Three years later, many say it’s only more of the same. Today, online protest keeps reformers’ hope alive as other sources are extinguished.

Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP
A truck carrying police enters a neighborhood in Harare on July, 31, 2020. Zimbabwe's capital was deserted as security agents vigorously enforced the country's lockdown amid planned protests.

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It’s a protest movement that feels custom-built for 2020: online, borderless, and inspired by the #BlackLivesMatter movement ricocheting around the globe. 

This is #ZimbabweanLivesMatter, a hashtag gathering strength since late last month, when the Zimbabwean government prevented planned in-person protests over corruption. And like #BlackLivesMatter, the hashtag has become a megaphone to express grief, anger, and resistance – and to attract a global audience. 

Zimbabwe was gripped by an economic crisis even before the COVID-19 pandemic. The collapse was especially painful because it happened less than three years after Robert Mugabe was unseated from his 37 years of rule. New President Emmerson Mnangagwa had promised to open the struggling economy to the world. But the backslide has continued, along with repression to rival the former regime’s.

Ahead of planned protests July 31, the government imposed a new curfew, allegedly to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and began rounding up critics. Instead, many Zimbabweans have taken to social media to protest. But the #ZimbabweanLivesMatter movement is also a cautionary tale about the real-life consequences of online activism. Several people have been arrested for social media posts, according to activists, and a cybersecurity bill has raised concerns that room for online dissent could shrink.

When Zimbabwean activists began planning mass protests against corruption in mid-July, the country’s authorities turned to a familiar playbook to shut down their opposition.

They began rounding up government critics and arrested a prominent journalist, Hopewell Chin’ono, who had exposed a corruption scandal around the government’s purchase of personal protective equipment for health care workers. A new curfew – allegedly to prevent the spread of coronavirus – slid into place, preventing movement after 6 p.m. And on July 30, a day before the proposed marches, the police warned that participants would “be regarded as terrorists.”

The next morning, the streets were empty.

Government, it seemed, had won.

But online, it was a different story. In and outside Zimbabwe, the hashtag #ZimbabweanLivesMatter was gathering strength, first among Zimbabweans airing grievances with their government, and soon, by people around the world expressing solidarity.

“The key aspect from the #ZimbabweanLivesMatter is that people are finding a safe space online where they can express themselves without the usual violence that they see on the streets,” says Fadzayi Mahere, a lawyer and activist with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change Alliance, who livestreamed her own arrest on July 31 after she posted photos of herself on Twitter staging a small protest in her neighborhood. (She is now out on bail.)

In many ways, #ZimbabweanLivesMatter feels like a protest movement custom-built for the year 2020 – online, borderless, and in the orbit of the #BlackLivesMatter movement still ricocheting around the globe. And like #BlackLivesMatter, #ZimbabweanLivesMatter has become a megaphone to express grief, anger, and resistance – and to give those sentiments a global audience. 

“Globally, we have a situation where COVID-19 is highlighting inequalities in societies all around the world, and at the same time the BLM movement is showing the ways in which Black lives are not valued in many different societies,” says Asanda Ngoasheng, a South African political analyst. “So people are already primed to understand what this movement [#ZimbabweanLivesMatter] is all about.”

But the movement is also a cautionary tale about the real-life consequences of online activism. Several demonstrators have been arrested for their social media posts, according to activists, and the Zimbabwean government is working on a cybersecurity law that critics say will further shrink the allowable space for online dissent.

Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP
People carry buckets to fetch water past a police checkpoint in Harare, Zimbabwe, on July, 31, 2020. Police and soldiers manned checkpoints and ordered people seeking to get into the city for work and other chores to return home amid a lockdown.

Compounding crises

Scrolling #ZimbabweanLivesMatter on Twitter or Instagram illustrates why Zimbabweans are so outraged. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic began earlier this year, the country was gripped by a deep economic crisis. Inflation had climbed into the triple digits, and many staple goods like basic food, gasoline, and soap were either prohibitively expensive or simply unavailable. Eight million people – half the country’s population – needed food aid.

The economic collapse was especially painful because it happened under the watch of President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who unseated Robert Mugabe after 37 years of rule in November 2017, promising to open the country’s struggling economy to the world. Instead, the backslide continued, along with political violence and repression to rival anything Mr. Mugabe’s regime had meted out.

So when the pandemic arrived in March, it hit a place already suffering deeply. In a country where the majority of the population works informally, restrictions on movement and markets left most people out of work overnight, with little or no government aid. Health care workers walked off the job, arguing they were risking their lives, often without protective gear, for a salary of less than $100 a month.

In June, Mr. Chin’ono wrote a series of tweets alleging government officials were siphoning off money destined for protective gear for health care workers by purchasing it at heavily inflated prices.

The investigations helped lead to the arrest of Obadiah Moyo, who had recently been fired as minister of health and child care. Mr. Chin’ono soon began making allegations that the president’s son, Collins Mnangagwa, had been involved in corruption as well, causing a spokesperson for ZANU-PF, the ruling party, to caution journalists against attacks against the first family.

On July 20, Mr. Chin’ono was at home when a group of men broke into his house and announced that he was under arrest. He live-tweeted the arrest, and it quickly went viral. Mr. Chin’ono, who has been denied bail, now faces charges of inciting public violence for supporting the demonstrations.

In the days that followed, a wave of other activists tweeted their own protests and arrests.

Turn to the web

But those who stayed off the streets weren’t out of danger. Since the #ZimbabweanLivesMatter campaign began, several people have been arrested for posts on Twitter and WhatsApp, a messaging application, according to Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights. (Back in January 2019, amid protests over fuel prices, Mr. Mnangagwa’s government turned off internet access entirely.)

Meanwhile, government is at work on the Cyber Security and Data Protection Bill, which it has said will provide direly needed regulations for the country’s information technology sector. But critics say the law contains provisions that could be used to crack down on activists.

Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters
Police officers patrol the street ahead of planned anti-government protests during the coronavirus outbreak in Harare, Zimbabwe, July 31, 2020.

Chris Musodza, a digital communications expert formerly with the Digital Society of Zimbabwe (now known as the Digital Society of Africa), which provides digital security support to activists, cites sections on cyberbullying and publishing false information with intent to harm, which he says could be used to punish government critics for social media posts.

Still, experts say the #ZimbabweanLivesMatter hashtag has given critics of Mr. Mnangagwa’s rule something they desperately needed: international attention.

“When you see [South African President Cyril] Ramaphosa appointing a special envoy to Zimbabwe, or the African Union chairman raising concern about what’s happening in the country – all those kinds of actions are related to the high publicity that’s come with this campaign,” says Dewa Mavhinga, the southern Africa director for Human Rights Watch. “It’s feeding on and amplifying the voices of activists on the ground.”

Moses, who declined to give his last name for safety, works as a gas station attendant near Harare. He says he tried to get into Harare’s downtown on July 31 when he was turned back by a police roadblock.

When he got home, he logged online, and saw the tide of voices calling for change on social media.

“I am just relieved that we are now using social media to protest against the hunger, poverty, and persecution we are suffering in Zimbabwe,” he says.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story misstated Chris Musodza’s affiliation with the Digital Society of Africa.

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