Academic research on the influence of Social Networking Sites on democratization-processes in autocratic regimes in Africa is often centered on the bottom-up, citizen-driven possibilities of social media, arguing that these factors enforce processes of mobilization and free information-access, ultimately resulting in a form of democratization. Drawing conclusions from the Arab Spring, the prediction was made that Zimbabwe could follow the same course of action. So far however, decisive democratic change there has not yet been observed. This study brings forward the argument that the absence of this democratic change can be explained through the presence of four conditions, namely a digital divide, the particulars of Zimbabwean political society, the online/offline-aspect in Zimbabwean socio-politics and the Zimbabwean media-landscape. Building on primary data and secondary literature, this thesis aims to bring nuance to the discussion concerning the interplay between communication-technologies and socio-political developments, in the specific case of Zimbabwe but also in a larger African- and global context.
In the case of Zimbabwe, social media seems to have failed in being ‘the weapon’ used by citizens to enforce bottom-up processes of democratization and political change. Instead, social media is now being used against them. Coming back to the protests in January 2019, the conclusion is justified that things have not changed for the better. Having spoken to my Zimbabwean contacts, I hear the fuel-situation is even worse than before. People are not getting to work because of transport-issues. The worth of the US-dollar has dropped further, as it now stands 1:10 in bondnotes. Companies do not have money to pay their employees. Despite all this, the people I have spoken too are not thinking about protesting again. President Mnangagwa and his ZANU-PF have issued numerous warnings about possible repercussions since the protests in January, and Zimbabwe’s citizens seem not willing to oppose.
However, a few positive conclusions can be drawn also. The first concerns the effects of social media on the concept of ‘space’ under Zimbabweans, or better said; the increased lack of it. This in itself is not positive, yet social media in Zimbabwe does create ways of connecting with and learning of other systems and practices over the globe. Zimbabweans are thus able to compare their socio-political system to that of others and by doing so, learn about the ‘potential of space’. They are forced to acknowledge that they themselves cannot use this space and that this space is being taken away from them. Consciously or un-consciously, they have become aware of this ‘suppression’. It is not so much the process of forming democratic online and offline space, as it is the awareness of the absence of this space that may create more political agency in Zimbabwe. Secondly, although I have concluded that democratization via social media has not happened in Zimbabwe currently – I acknowledge that there is a ‘potential for democratization’. This potential can possibly be reached if the four factors discussed in this research change. However, this is not likely to happen easily; democratizing processes in Zimbabwe’s current situation still seem far away.
Lastly, issue’s concerning social media and autocratic regimes in the bigger context of Africa – and other parts of the globe- must be discussed. The tendency of shutting down social media in authoritarian systems has been happening more frequently over the past year. This is worrisome, as - in the era of continuous globalization and the importance of implementing SDG’s - basic principles of freedom must be safeguarded in order to reach global sustainable development. It is therefore necessary to follow these developments closely.
The course was useful to me, especially in relation to the ways of storing data during my internship in Zimbabwe. The course put the emphasize on the digital, and this brought me to storing my data online - in an online archive on wordpress. In one of my blogs, I wrote: "When I started using WordPress at the beginning of my internship, my intent was just to showcase some of the items I had been working on at NewsDay. But I soon came to the conclusion that the site was very useful in creating my own archive. It would keep my items in one place and would make it easier to organize and access my data when I will start my thesis in April. The WordPress-page will also function as my final product. It will be a virtual gallery, showing my reflective pieces and products from my internship in Harare."
These can all be accessed via http://masterseries.voice4thought.org/author/linde-rozemeijer94/
Links to Social Media
Date: 29th of october 2019
Disclaimer: Please note that this thesis and its outcomes are dated in June 2019. Its findings may differ from the current situation in Zimbabwe.