Social media and the prospects for functional democracy in Zimbabwe
With the 2023 general elections looming in Zimbabwe, there are two front running political parties. On the one hand, there is the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC), an emerging opposition political party asserting its readiness to take over and to make the necessary changes in the country. On the other hand, there is the ruling Zanu-PF political party which is equally determined to win the elections and retain its power. Zimbabwe today is therefore in election mode, as can be seen clearly in the hive of social media activity from both opposition and ruling party supporters. This study explores the ways in which social media is being used to construct ideas about democracy within the context of a volatile election season. Such an exploration is important because the trending social media not only frames everyday reality, but it also frames political ontology. Many take for granted the assumption that the advent of social media in Africa has provided the necessary democratic tools for pushing back against nationalist driven ruling political parties. While this may be true to a certain extent, the nature of the “push back” and its effect on ideas about democracy requires further analysis. The lines between democracy and autocracy continue to be blurry despite the assumed autonomy of the social media space. Zimbabwe has for a long time been in a state of political turbulence and social media discourses can reveal those political tensions and turbulence. I am thus interested in understanding the constructions of democracy emanating from these existing tensions.
Ademola Kazeem Fayemi’s theorization of democracy underpins this study’s exploration of the constructions of democracy on social media. I am particularly drawn to Fayemi’s conceptualization of democracy not just as an idea or concept, but also a method of government that allows citizens the freedom to decide their desires (2009:103). Accordingly, I use the term democracy to broadly refer to a people centered government which is characterized by peaceful transfer of power which is regularly sanctioned through elections. Still, such a definition will be used with caution and qualification because as Fayemi highlights, holding elections alone does not constitute democracy. A democratic government is also seen by how it guarantees its people civil and political liberties which enable them to freely express themselves without fear. A truly functional democracy “… emphasizes that values should not be forced upon any people” (Fayemi, 2009:105).
Fayemi’s characterization of functional democracy takes the debate further by problematizing the taken-for-granted Western standards of democracy and their applicability to African political systems. In doing so, he points towards the urgency of an African centered theory of democracy which takes into consideration the traditional ways of doing democracy within diverse African contexts. This argument is crucial to the realization of the objectives of this study because while Zimbabwean democracy largely takes its cue from Western democratic values, there are some democratic practices steeped within Zimbabwean indigenous traditions that persist and that should not be ignored.
Data and Methods
Steven Wilson (2022) emphasizes the validity of social media as social science data, arguing that social movements draw from the bulk of the population leading to the growth of contemporary ways of data mining. Wilson rightly observes how social media makes it easy for citizens to have cheap access to considerable political information and to quickly exchange that information. As a result, vibrant political debates and a wealth of research data has been made available through social media.
Wilson’s observation informs my selection of Twitter posts from purposively selected official accounts of known CCC and Zanu-PF enthusiasts. I have also selected Tweets from non-partisan accounts. I downloaded Tweets that were specifically posted in the year 2022. The main reason for selecting 2022 Tweets is because it is the year when the main opposition party CCC was formed. This is also the year that political parties and citizens went in to full election mode as the date of the Presidential election approached. The selected Tweets were downloaded using the keyword of interest #Zimdemocracy.
The dataset of Tweets was analyzed using the Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) methodological tool. CDA is a special approach to Discourse Analysis which focuses on discursive components and consequences of power and abuse by dominant groups (van Dijk, 1995). CDA thus examines patterns of access and control over contexts, genres, text and talk, their properties as well as the discursive strategies of mind control. CDA studies discourse in society and the ways in which forms of inequality are expressed, represented, legitimated or reproduced in talk and text. Norman Fairclough (1995) views CDA as a method aimed at systematically exploring language as it relates to the wider, social and cultural structures and how they are shaped by relations of power and struggles over power. CDA is a practice of representing the world as well as signifying the world, hence, constituting and constructing the world in meaning.
CDA is a crucial methodological intervention well suited to analysing the constructions of democracy as envisaged and expressed on social media, because CDA is not restricted to the description of linguistic forms but is also committed to the purposes or functions which the linguistic forms are designed and serve in human affairs. As van Dijk (1993) argues, CDA analysis involves an elaborate relationship between text, talk, social cognition, power, society and culture. This means that my analysis is not merely observational or descriptive but rather involves the effectiveness and relevance of these constructions and the extent to which they contribute to an understanding of democracy in Zimbabwe.
Findings and discussion
This project’s findings are not conclusive because Zimbabwe’s general elections are expected to be held in 2023 even if the exact date has not yet been released. This means that there will be a lot more elaborate political discourses and debates on social media and if these are followed continually, a more expansive conclusion may be available. However, the discourses on Twitter thus far already attest to the political divide in contemporary Zimbabwe. The Tweets make visible, legible and intelligible citizens’ constructions of democracy. They show how the existent and irreconcilable political differences between the two opposing political parties have crippled the democratic project and may present a huge challenge to the management of elections.
There are four related themes derived from selected Tweets:
1. Democracy as a failing trope
Generally, the language that is used in connection with the idea of democracy in Zimbabwe is laden by cynicism and distrust. An overriding pessimistic tone pervades public opinion about the democracy. Pessimism refers to a state of mind that constantly expects the worst. It is the tendency to see the worst aspects of things and the conviction that the worst will happen. Pessimistic political attitudes and discourses usually exist within a framework of continued disillusionment. Thus, the pessimistic discourse about Zimbabwean democracy suggests that the story of democracy in Zimbabwe is that of continued failure.
Such discourses work to communicate information to the state about the bridge between the citizen’s democratic expectations and the state’s constant failures to fulfill those expectations. For example:
The ruining party Zanu-PF is fond of making headlines for the wrong reasons. It is running the country like a tuck shop. Zimbabwean democracy is the biggest scam I have witnessed #CCC is the alternative that can bring freedom, a better economy and rule of law in Zimbabwe (@ZimboFella, 26/02/22)
The range of responses to this particular post reveals citizens that are plagued by a deep sense of pessimism with the idea of a Zimbabwe that is truly democratic. Citizens expect, for example, that Zanu-PF in suspected collusion with the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), will fail to make sure that the political playing field will be level for all the political parties. The citizens’ previous experiences with the ZEC explains why they expect that it will defraud the elections and rob Zimbabwe of a peaceful and just transfer of power through elections. This is typical of public opinion concepts, as citizens derive their attitudes from their previous knowledge and experiences with elections in Zimbabwe. Twitter provides them with a relatively safe window through which they can freely express their disappointment and suspicions.
For as long as Zanu-PF is in power, these citizens have no faith in a electoral route to true democracy. However, there is also a sense in which even as they expect the worst they also cautiously hope for the best outcome. This is because, unlike popular perceptions about pessimism, pessimistic discourses are not useless to political thought, instead, pessimism goes hand in hand with optimism. This is because it is a rhetoric strategic that communicates to the state, the citizens’ expectations and forces the state to be accountable, while also keeping the citizens grounded and away from the wilder utopian promises of politics. At the center of the failing narrative of functional democracy in Zimbabwe is the Zanu-PF political party and one of the central constructions of democracy is a Zanu-PF problem.
2. Democracy as a Zanu-PF problem.
The general sentiment on Twitter is that the ruling political party is too autocratic to be able to foster democracy in Zimbabwe. Since the formation of CCC, there have been a series of Tweets alleging that CCC supporters are experiencing politically motivated violence from the Zimbabwean police and Zanu-PF supporters. For example on the 9th of May, @Hurungwefarmer posted pictures of members of the Zimbabwe Republic Police with the caption:
This is the Zimbabwean story
Vote ED out
Vote for human rights
Vote for a corrupt free president
Vote for clean hands
The Tweet suggests that the problem of democracy in Zimbabwe is a Zanu-PF problem. Zanu-PF is solely burdened by the failure of upholding democratic practices in Zimbabwe. This sentiment is shared across Twitter posts by CCC supporters and activists. The message that comes across is that Zanu-PF ruins democracy especially because of its violent history under the leadership of the late Robert Mugabe.
While it is evident that the sentiments shared on Twitter undoubtedly point to Zanu-PF as the white elephant in Zimbabwe hindering the achievement of democracy, the sentiments are encumbered by underlying fear and anxiety which are communicated through covertly anxious discourses. Generally, anxiety refers to reactions that come about as a result of feeling threatened. In volatile political contexts, anxiety is predicated upon ubiquitous cultural dispositions of insecurity. Thus, citizens’ anxiety becomes an all-encompassing force that dominates and informs the citizens’ public attitudes and perceptions of political phenomena, in this case the phenomenon of democracy. For example, @ZHRO_Zimbabwe recently posted:
As we celebrate Heroes day, let’s not forget the injustices and suffering that Zimbabwean are being subjected to by Zanu-PF. Zanu has failed good governance, rule of law, democracy and human rights. (08/08/22)
Most of the responses to this post seem to concur with the post and are similarly characterized by political anxiety is caused by a deep sense of vulnerability and fear that the continued rule of Zanu-PF sustains anti-democratic practices such as bad governance, lack of rule of law and the suppression of human rights. CCC naturally becomes the anti-thesis of Zanu-PF. The flip side of presuming that CCC naturally translates to functional democracy is that citizens fail to be objective. Yet, a closer analysis of some Twitter posts reveals that democracy is as much a CCC problem at it is a Zanu-PF problem.
3. Democracy as a CCC problem.
Generally, Twitter posts by CCC activists and supporters presume that the party is the foundation of a flourishing democracy and it is its burden to lead Zimbabwe towards change and freedom. I however observe from this narrative some political blind spots around change and democracy. For example, recently Professor Jonathan Moyo through his Twitter handle has been taking CCC to task about its lack of political structures and reforms. There has been a lot of backlash from CCC supporters who are quick to dismiss Moyo because of his links with the ousted Zanu-PF government led by the late Robert Mugabe. Examples of this backlash are many and varied but a one stands out because of the huge engagement that it receives:
Satan knows all bible verses. He even has the intellect to engage Jesus pound for pound using scripture. But his quoting scripture does not mean he wants heaven for you! So when they raise issues like constitution, structures etc. their elaborate intent is not for a CCC win! (@freemanchari 04/07/22)
For Chari, a seasoned political activist, to blithely dismiss the legitimacy of Moyo’s observations is counterproductive to the attainment of democracy. It is as if CCC and its supporters are saying they want democracy in theory but are uncomfortable with democracy’s outcomes in practice. The functional political structures and reforms to which Moyo alludes, and which Chari attempts to make light of, are part of the democratic outcomes that CCC must clearly spell out.
While democracy (lack thereof) is overtly a ZanuPF problem because of its violent history, it is not just good for Zanu-Pf to be democratic, it is also good for CCC. The fact that CCC supporters and activists are at the center of attacking Moyo’s legitimate concerns reveals the many instances where CCC is dismissive of dissenting voices which are quickly labeled a Zanu-PF agenda. For both political parties there is an urgent need to think outside the immediate box of winning elections and to deal with the democratic limits, paradoxies and incoherences within their political parties. Otherwise the prospect of functional democracy in Zimbabwe will remain a narrative of failure.
4. Democracy as collective effort
Since the acrimonious 2018 elections and within the current context of political tensions while preparing for the upcoming elections, there has been no real dialogue between the two main opposing political parties. The lack of meaningful dialogue has also meant that CCC and Zanu-PF activists and supporters have also not meaningfully engaged with each other online and offline. What seems to be evident on Twitter are polarized political posts that degenerate into hate speech, intolerance and political insults. The poverty of dialogue and healthy political engagement reflects how the two parties are unwilling to abandon their respective voices and to listen to opposing voices. Yet, this ability to listen is a necessary virtue in democratic politics.
There have been noticeable Tweets that have pointed to the necessity of dialogue and collective effort in trying to achieve democracy in Zimbabwe. Thus, democracy is not just the burden of politicians and their political parties, but is the burden of every Zimbabwean citizen. This is aptly captured by @STimburwa when tweeting:
Our democracy seems to be teetering on the brink of a crisis rooted in a fundamental contests between two opposing visions of what Zimbabwe is, what it should be. It is the crisis that has left the body politic divided, angry and distrustful (20/04/22).
Other tweets have also stressed the urgency of dialogue in the current Zimbabwean political crisis, without which, the 2023 elections will repeat the cycle of violence and instability (@MKomichi 06/04/22).
I argue that re-thinking functional democracy in Zimbabwe and in Africa as a whole, requires the kind of politics that allows the existence of a multiplicity of voices. Komichi’s tweet rightly alludes to “Inclusive National Dialogue” as the driver of a successful democracy. I agree with Komichi’s stance because it helps politicians, supporters and activists to grow in perspective and to foster a common political consciousness that is driven by the need to achieve a common goal that surpasses differences.
The bulk of dialogue on democracy as it is expressed on Twitter is essentialist. Either a person is pro-Zanu-PF or pro-CCC, anything in-between is not seen as valuable. This kind of essentialism presents a challenge because it is used as a weapon by both political parties to silence those with different views.
Re-thinking functional democracy in Zimbabwe: Concluding remarks
As has been mentioned earlier in the study, the effects of social media were often framed on the perspective of a total revolution, a democratic revolution and politics and public governance, or of a technological fix for basic problems of political activity and the trust of citizens in government (Hacker and van Dijk 2000). However, looking at the examples from the Zimbabwean situation, this view of internet and democracy is utopian. The truth is social media’s outcomes may either be democratic or autocratic. While we see some functioning of democracy in as far as people’s opinions are robustly expressed on Twitter, their opinions on what and how democracy should be, come with paradoxes, limits and inconsistencies based on their political party preferences.