LAST week in the wake of the Zimbabwean presidential elections, Twimbos (Zimbabweans on Twitter/social media) woke up to a cracking spread of the #ChigumbaChallenge. These were memes around Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec) chairperson Justice Priscilla Chigumba.
Guest column: Precious Simba
Their visceral comic focus being the person of Zec chair: her features, her outfits, tone and mannerisms displayed during the harmonised election results announcements. Some people were quick to brand the memes as lacking in netiquette, disrespectful and sexist, given Chigumba’s whatever accomplishments and gender. While the challenge has the usual off-centre qua sexist highlights, the circumstance warrants a deeper understanding of what the real issue is here.
First, we need to ask ourselves what warrants netiquette in order to get to the bottom of the contentions around the memes’ issue. While the issue of memes — or formally imimemes — dates back to the 19th century, it is generation Z that has taken the baton and made it go viral.
Could it be that Justice Chigumba has simply been caught in a global-cum-capitalist spread trend? Is that what could explain the personal, brutish nature of the memes making rounds on every social media platform since last week?
As I told my friend and argue here, I believe the contentions over the #ChigumbaChallenge run deeper than meets the eye. We must consider that while the hashtag on Twitter began mid-July this year, it’s not until August 3 that it went viral among Twimbos. The link between the presidential election results announcements, violence around Zimbabwe, especially Harare central business district and the death of civilians at the suspected hands of armed forces is too strong a correlation to sidestep. It could be that in the wake of a result that the urban youth do not resonate with, coupled with a sense of powerlessness against the establishment, young people have gone to the one place where their voices and actions count — social media.
It is plausible then that with an election decision that seemingly supports the old guard, the Twimbos resorted to social media meme, making to air their frustrations. Also, if you have spent some time in Zimbabwe or with Zimbabweans, you will notice an uncanny and comic stream that makes jest of the vilest matters — possibly a survival tactic in the vein of Maya Angelou’s poetry that marks laughter as a survival apparatus. All the above, however, do not explain why the memes target Justice Chigumba specifically. Certainly, there are a number of key players in this election that could have gone equally viral — from the presidential candidates (winner(s), losers and the 1-2:1-2s candidates). Why Justice Chigumba? It could be that the #ChigumbaChallenge is — as is common on social media — a fluke that took hold and in the absence of any other relevant jest became a ragging primeval comic fire.
It could even be that she is the only prominent elections player that Twimbos are not emotionally and politically invested in. Or, it could be that she is a woman. Not just any woman, she is a woman in power.
It could be, just like in any patriarchal society, people (not just men) feel they can talk about a woman, especially her body, in derogatory ways without a consequence; that her parts are socially available for anyone’s pickings. The fact that other women participated in the challenge is of no consequence to me because patriarchy has no gender and not the preserve of men.
History has repeatedly shown us that when social attack is targeted at women, it is usually brutal and personal. Think in the region of the way Twimbos went to town on any issue related to former First Lady Grace Mugabe. While any one of the above could have hand-picked Justice Chigumba to be the latest Twimbo sacrifice, I am persuaded that the truth of why Chigumba has been candidate to the latest online jest is the intersectionality of most of the above issues.
Because the #ChigumbaChallenge represents more than political jest, more than misogyny and more than media being social — more than anything, it represents deep feelings of disenfranchisement and strains of patriarchy — there is need to intertwine netiquette with ubuntu/hunhu. I speak of ubuntu/hunhu, not in the watered down sense of ubuntu/hunhu = humaneness/respect, no. I see ubuntu/hunhu not as a cultural artefact of Southern Africa, but more as the vibranium of its people.
It is a philosophy and a framework of engaging with the Other, a standard that places a premium on human life, a way of interacting and distributing power — yes I said it, distributing power. It is not just about age or respecting elders, the exercise of ubuntu/hunhu is about relationality, the raison d’etre being to establish ubuhlobo/hukama/relations. It is about navigating encounters, exercising power and bringing those who are on the outside into our inner circle – women, youths, political rivals, civilians and others.
In a post-election environment charged with extreme partisanship, violence, uneven exercise of power, feelings of disenfranchisement, disappointment and depression, there is a need to re-think and re-distribute power — not just in the political sense. We must consider what the memes around the person of Justice Chigumba are telling us about perceptions of and anxiety around powerful women in our society, the powerlessness of young and ordinary people and the trauma that the events in the past week and years leading into the week are telling us about the state of our nation-State.
While #ChigumbaChallenge is a dicey intersection of unfortunate events culminated on a single hashtag and person there are deeper conversations that we need to have as a nation beyond netiquette. There is, certainly, a need to once again reconsider ubuntu/hunhu, to consider those on the margins of power or the norm, a need for love, respect and honour. And more than ever, there is a need to once again place a premium on human life.
Precious Simba is an Ubuntu scholar, feminist, educator and PhD candidate at Stellenbosch University, South Africa