Onlookers often critique Digital Activism, (ironically from their own digital devices) because they interpret it to be nothing more than a bunch of #hashtags constrained to Instagram filters and 140 characters. Digital activism, however, extends beyond that. Social media, tweets, and WhatsApp groups were instrumental to the organisation of protests within the Arab Spring. Whilst social media wasn’t obviously the only factor that led to the civil action within these protests; it most certainly played a massive logistical role which would have been unachievable several decades ago. The same can be said for this #ThisFlag uprising in Zimbabwe. Whilst the protests in Zimbabwe were nowhere near the to the scale of those in the Arab Spring; they served as an important reminder that digital activism can genuinely create solidarity within civil action.
The objective of this very short post isn’t to assess whether #ThisFlag protests were successful or not. The objective is to simply shed light on the civil action which was spurred in Zimbabwe after digital activism. The recent uprisings in Zimbabwe started after Pastor Evan Mawarire recorded himself venting frustrations and grievances he had against the Zimbabwean government. In his vent, Pastor Mawarire wore a Zimbabwean flag around his neck and spoke on a number of issues. The unscripted video called for civil action amongst other Zimbabweans who had shared his feelings but had not been vocal. As indicated by the jailing of the teenager blogger Amos Yee in Singapore; its typically very dangerous to vlog oneself speaking negatively against a pseudo democracy (P.S I am fully aware that these two cases are vastly different but they share the commonality of vocalizing grievances against governments in areas whereby free speech is limited). Pastor Mawarire’s vlog was very courageous considering he received threats of being forcibly abducted as well as being strangled by the flag around his neck. Furthermore, such threats are not empty as indicated by the forced abduction of Itai Dzamara. Dzamara protested peacefully against the government and was later forced into an unmarked vehicle and has not been seen since. Photos have leaked suggesting where he is and it remains unclear whether these were intentionally leaked in order to scare people from being vocal. Regardless, it’s evident that free speech is limited in Zimbabwe and Pastor Mawarie was very courageous in speaking up.
Some, however argue that Pastor so and so was somewhat shielded by ‘digital activism’ – in this instance – a hashtag. There is merit to this argument. The protests he inspired included a national ‘shutdown’ of activity whereby everyone would stay indoors in order to stop the cogs of society from running. In not doing anything, government is pressured to make changes because the country is at a standstill. Whilst this was happening, Pastor Evan Mawarire keeps on vlogging and inspiring people to post their own videos or photos with the hastag ‘this flag’. By doing so – there is constant surveillance on the protests from Zimbabweans in diaspora as well as Zimbabweans in Zimbabwe. When he was eventually arrested for ‘inciting violence’; thousands of Zimbabweans marched to the courts in demand of his freedom and human rights. His charges were dropped and part of that was due to his support which spurred from a hashtag.
The hashtag shield, however, did not last forever. Pastor Evan Mawarie ended up fleeing the country when he received more threats and urban uprisings became violent. Whilst some argued that he turned his back on the protesters – what is evident in hashtag is that Zimbabweans have a new found solidarity amongst them which was, in my opinion – lacking.