Twitter revolutions: Boots still needed on the ground

Stir The Pot :Paidamoyo Muzulu

THE year 2011 redefined the African Arab world. The world witnessed what generally became known as the Arab Spring. The revolutionary demonstrations were in the main led by tech-savvy youths on their smartphones and Twitter. The winds tore and uprooted dictators in Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt.

In Egypt, the biggest Arab/Muslim country in that region that is supported by the United States, the demonstrations were massive. They were a wave after wave, hundreds of thousands packing the Tahrir Square each evening demanding that military dictator Hosni Mubarak step down.

It took nearly a month for Mubarak to step down. The dictators’ disgraceful toppling had many intrigues. The military took over temporarily and organised elections that were won by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Egyptians celebrated the end of an era, but only briefly. The Muslim Brotherhood that was instrumental in the demonstrations had a brief stay at the top. Soon, it was accused of terrorism and the government was removed in a coup by Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, an army general.

The Brotherhood tried to push back, but the United States had made a decision to back the military again for its own strategic reasons. Egypt was back to square one on democracy — the military was back on the perch.

Enter Zimbabwe July 2020, the opposition and civil society started a “revolution” online with the hashtag #July31 and #ZimbabweLivesMatter. The day came and passed, but there were no thousands in the streets. Yes, the military had clamped down on protests — sealed suburbs and the CBD — but the fact still remains the online campaign and offline activities were as different as day and night.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa, in an unprecedented media address just before a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday, proved why the military was crawling all over the place. He hinted at dark forces fomenting chaos in the country.

Mnangagwa said: “The reforms, opening up, liberalisation and modernisation we began shall continue with accelerated pace. Those who promote hate and disharmony will never win. The bad apples that have attempted to divide our people and weaken our systems will be flushed out. Good shall triumph over evil.”

Let us for a moment revisit the successful “revolutions” — #ArabSpring, #OccupyMovement and #BlackLivesMatter. These were successful to a great extent because they were groups that were organic, structured and had grassroots mobilisers.

They exist all the time, they explain their issues, they teach people and they stay in the communities. When an issue arises, they simply activate their cells or structures.

They are more than hashtags. They use online tools to amplify their activities. The medium is neither the message nor the movement structures. The online activities complement what they are doing offline. This is a lesson that Zimbabwean movements have to learn unless they are seeking collective catharsis through demonstrations.

It takes us to the new fad — #ZimbabweLivesMatter. The hashtag has received celebrity endorsements across the globe. It has trended on Twitter with over 500 000 tweets within the first 48 hours after it was posted.

However, the question remains: Is the movement structured, coordinated and have membership on the grassroots? Without boots on the ground supporting it and mobilising recruits in the hoods, streets and offices, it will die as an internet fad.

Compare the #ZimbabweLivesMatter to the #BlackLivesMatter campaign. Mercedes Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton has not only endorsed it, but has gone on to live it. Hamilton wears a racing suit branded #BlackLivesMatter and speaks to the media about racism at every race and any other opportunity he gets. Is there any #ZimbabweLivesMatter celebrity who can stand up and say the same?

The power of organised structures amplifies issues. For example, the Economic Freedom Fighters in South Africa is confused by many in Africa and the world as the official opposition in that country. They have well-structured grassroots community organisers, take time to teach people about their ideas and sell a vision of their leadership. To that end, they have thousands ready to take to the streets on issues they believe in like land, poor service delivery and public and private corruption.

The sooner the movements realise the need to have structures albeit how loose, the better. Movements should be built around real issues rather than personalities – an agenda bigger than any personality that the movement may have its own life and survive long after founding members have died or resigned. Many in Zimbabwe would remember Evan Mawarire’s #ThisFlag movement that became an overnight sensation, but wilted in the noon heat of the Savannah.

The movements need organisers — consummate organisers — people who understand community organising and volunteers.

Secondly, the movement should have clear-cut objectives that can be easily shared and understood by communities and last, but not least important — that a revolution is not the medium but an idea and people who believe it and stand ready to effect it. Anything else would be seeking a celebrity moment in the sun.

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