Philip Brookes

Money, Media, and Mugabe: Zimbabwe’s Tech Crossroads

The latest string of clashes which have simmered in Zimbabwe in the past months is the abduction and beating of six prominent activists by riot police in capital city Harare on Friday 18 November, in advance of a planned protest against President Robert Mugabe and his government. The protest (referred to as #MunhuWeseMuRoad) was intended in opposition of recent governmental efforts to print new ‘bond notes’ currency equivalent to US dollars – a policy which, though an attempt to combat Zimbabwe’s crippling cash shortage and ‘encourage exports and plug foreign currency leakages,’ nonetheless has many citizens frightened. To Zimbabweans, this policy echoes resoundingly of the wave of hyperinflation which struck the country a decade ago. The government ultimately abandoned the Zimbabwean dollar in 2009 in favour of leaning heavily on the US dollar as well as more informally on neighbouring currencies such as the Botswana pula and the South African rand. With banks already short on cash, customers have been forced to wait in lengthy queues, cap their withdrawals at $50 per day, and many have made ‘panic withdrawals’ or begun hoarding banknotes in case of a cash drought. Currency, of course, is merely the tip of the iceberg in the nation’s recent struggles, which include governmental corruption and repression of freedom of speech, unemployment rates reaching approximately 90 per cent, insufficient public services, and a myriad of other problems. President Mugabe has enjoyed political autonomy for 36 years with an increasingly despotic death grip despite his advanced age and his political party, Zanu-PF, which has maintained power since the nation gained independence in 1980, has a well-documented history of human rights abuses. Mugabe has been implicated in the Gukurahundi mass killings in Matabeleland in the 1980s, the 2008 Murambatsvina campaign, and other atrocities.

Philip Brookes
Image courtesy of Philip Brookes, © 2015, some rights reserved.

Revived action against the dictatorship erupted in late Spring 2016 after Zimbabwean pastor and citizen activist Evan Mawarire posted a video on Facebook in which he wears the tricoloured Zimbabwean flag as he calls for reform of the nation’s issues. The ‘This Flag’ video, which quickly went viral and spawned an eponymous hashtag, sparked protests in Harare and Bulawayo, and peaked on 6 July with a national strike. Since the beginning of these protests, social media has been a vital tool for organisers, activists, and ordinary citizens seeking to get involved – much as it has been in other popular sociopolitical uprisings such as Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. And technology has rendered obsolete the old pro-government narrative falsehood that the nation’s rural population are predominantly pro-Mugabe and that urbanites have shallowly prioritised their current issues with the administration over the ‘ultimate crime against the country that was colonialism.’ With facts like 97 per cent of Zimbabweans have mobile phones, it is clear that such technology has connected urban and rural Zimbabweans with one another; Whatsapp’s end-to-end encryption is also proving crucial in protest efforts. It is plain to see the overall population of Zimbabwe does not support the current regime.

As such, Mugabe and his government have made aggressive steps to curb social media usage. WhatsApp (which comprises 34 per cent of Zimbabwean mobile data usage), Facebook, and Twitter are all targeted by Zanu-PF’s prospective Computer Crime and Cyber Crime Bill, which seeks to severely curtail social media’s rising role in the uprisings and would allow the government to intercept communications, confiscate laptops and smartphones from citizens, and even imprison those suspected of ‘abusing’ social media for protest purposes. If the bill were to pass it would lead to a sharp limitation of the freedom of speech and an obstacle for activism.

Ironically, technology might, in other ways, be a solution to some of Zimbabwe’s problems: an uptick in use of digital banking and mobile payments can help mitigate the ramifications of the country’s financial crisis. Though at present, cash is still a necessity for the informal sector, Zimbabweans are increasingly engaging in technology-based payments; approximately three quarters of the population now have mobile banking accounts. In the longterm, says Brookings fellow Laurence Chandy, a cashless society can only serve as a band-aid fix if the population does not start to trust financial institutions – something which, in the current climate, is difficult to ensure.

So what’s next for the embattled nation and its relationship with tech? Ideally, governmental reforms ought to be made to encourage foreign financial interaction. Exports and foreign investors would revitalise the economy, making it stable and secure enough for a cashless system to thrive and for the informal economy, rather than sliding into the black market, to be successfully absorbed into the formal one. Further, mobile technology has been shown to aid in employment for rural Zimbabweans, and employment is a key issue around which much of the current clashes are centred. Josham Gurira, an economist at the University of Zimbabwe, notes that ‘Access to information and communication technologies is now considered a basic human right and mobile phones have offered the best opportunity to enhance the digital divide which could have prevented it. The use of mobile technology has empowered many people and is regarded as a key tool in helping alleviate global poverty.’ Authoritarian constraints on technology would, from Mugabe’s perspective, be effective in curbing social media activism, but it also would heavily impact employment and the financial sector; Mugabe, therefore, cannot have his cake and eat it too.

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