Zimbabwean Government Extols Free Expression on Social Media While Prohibiting Internet Access

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In late 2017, Zimbabweans, both local and in the diaspora, were elated at the news that they thought would never come to be: Robert Mugabe had resigned from the presidency. South Africans such as myself will know of the joy and hysteria on the streets of Johannesburg. It seemed like Zimbabwe’s woes were finally going away. The process of rebuilding Zimbabwe could begin.

Sadly, more than a year later, Zimbabwe is in a state as bad as it has ever been.

The past few months have seen mass fuel shortages with people waiting in line at gas stations in queues that stretch kilometres. In Musina – on the South African side of the border – masses of people sit at the gas station with jerry cans to take back across to Zimbabwe.

When I was in the capital Harare, I noticed that the price of food and household products was about two to three times what they are in South Africa. This is even worse when one considers how much poorer Zimbabwe is than neighbouring South Africa or Botswana, with likely more than 70% of Zimbabweans living in poverty.

Recent protests were triggered in Zimbabwe following a near 130% increase in the price of fuel, rising to $3,31 per litre ($12,51 per gallon). That’s almost R46 per litre. Such a fuel price increase meant that basic transport became unsustainably expensive and a 3-day strike was called by the Zimbabwean Congress of Trade Unions.

In response to the strike, the ZANU-PF government begun to censor the internet as public demonstrations grew. Initially, social media and messaging services – WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, etc. – were blocked to quell communication which may heighten the demonstrations, but soon thereafter people started using VPNs. The internet itself was then shut down. This caused enormous problems as electronic payments could not be made, leading to electricity blackouts when people could not pay their bills online.

Since abandoning the hyperinflated Zimbabwean dollar, the country has been using a combination of the US dollar, South African rand and Botswanan pula. Zimbabwe has also started issuing the Zimbabwe bond note – legal tender close to money – with an official 1 to 1 exchange rate with USD. However, due to the fact that vast amount of products in Zimbabwe are imported, this bond note has become useless except for domestic transactions. Foreign currency is used to pay for imported products and thus, though the bond note may have an official value of 1 USD, its buying power is not nearly as strong as that of actual currencies like the rand or the US dollar.

The lack of foreign currency combined with the fact of a reliance on imports, resource scarcity and general uncertainty, has all led to the dire economic consequences Zimbabwe now faces.

On 16 January, President Emmerson Mnangagwa issued a statement regarding the protests which was circulated on government social media accounts.

The sheer audacity of this is that it was circulated while the rest of the country had had their internet shut down, leaving the reaction to these statements a barrage of negative comments from some of the millions of Zimbabweans living abroad. The State’s use of social media for public relations to proclaim that “everyone in Zimbabwe has the right to express themselves freely” while blocking the same platform for any of its citizens, shows complete and unrepentant hypocrisy from the ZANU-PF government.

The fact remains that Zimbabwe, although now without Mugabe at the head of the regime, is run by the political party which supported him for 37 years. Though many thought that Mnangagwa would usher in times of change, it has now been shown that he has no ethical qualms against using the similar authoritarian tactics to quell dissent in Zimbabwe. Even now, rumours of police and military brutality are being circulated, but not much can be confirmed yet due to the shutdown of the internet.

It is notable that many Zimbabweans, particularly those in the diaspora, have criticised the South African government for not taking action. There is no doubt that the ANC government has done very little diplomatically to try improve the situation across the border. Under President Thabo Mbeki, South Africa opted for a policy of ‘quiet diplomacy.’ ZANU-PF has been a historical ally to the ANC, which may explain the hesitance of ANC members to criticise the Zimbabwean government. It is also no secret that a disturbing number of left-wing nationalists in South Africa have a liking for Robert Mugabe and his disastrous land reform policies.

With this having been said, I believe that there is little South Africa can do besides make an effort to free restrictions on the trade and movement of people between our two countries. Until Zimbabwe’s economy recovers – and this may take decades – there is little that can be done to help from outside.

But to South Africans, this should also serve as a warning of the decades-long negative consequences of not voting tyrants out of office when the opportunity arises. The ANC government looks at ZANU-PF and admires them, because despite ruining an economy and having citizens flee in their millions, they continue to be voted into power. This, in the eyes of ANC, is success.

No amount of political satisfaction or ideological loyalty resulting from redistributed property will replace being able to put food on the table for yourself and your children. Simple tasks which South Africans take for granted – such as driving to a petrol station and filling up your car – have been made extraordinarily difficult in Zimbabwe because of an economy ruined by central planning.

One can only hope that one day Zimbabwe will rise from the ashes. For now, the frustration of Zimbabweans seeing their government trying to save face on social media while shutting down the internet for ordinary citizens draws a disturbing analogy to George Orwell’s Animal Farm. How long it will take nobody knows, but I can say that after having visited the country myself I, too, long to one day see a successful Zimbabwe.

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