By Tariro Nyamuda
The understanding of democracy has been in most cases limited to the election of office holders or a government through the ballot. In other words and according to the dictionary definition democracy simply means a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections.
However, given the above, democracy will be insufficient and unsustainable if despite the people or citizen’s supreme power there is corruption, lack of accountability and transparency by office bearers, lack of judiciary independence, lack of fundamental human and civil rights and provision of basic services such as education, health water and sanitation. These are the fundamental pillars of a true and sustainable democracy and any government or country that fails to meet and respect the aforementioned is far from being democratic.
Having said that, many governments, especially in Africa, Latin America and Asia have been at loggerheads with their citizens as they fight for democracy, a wholesome democracy. However, and unfortunately repressive means have been employed to silence the dissenting voices, and these include abductions and torture by state security agents, unlawful detentions, and in worst cases killings. These human rights violations by the governments in a bid to silence the opponents often go uninvestigated and set a bad precedent, especially in authoritarian and military regimes, as those who wield power can take life “willy nilly”. As the world celebrates the World Youth Democracy Day, a day set aside by the World Youth Movement for Democracy to celebrate the contributions of young people world over in their fight for democracy it is important to take stock of the strides and achievements made by different governments across the world in promoting and upholding the fundamental human and civil rights in their countries.
Back home, the struggle for democracy started in the wake of the 21st century when Zimbabweans challenged Mugabe’s longevity to power, maladministration and most importantly his dictatorial tendencies. Various tools of engagement, lobbying, advocacy and mobilization were used but faced Mugabe’s ruthless hand. To that effect draconian and repressive laws impinging on the people’s fundamental freedoms and rights were drafted, these include the Access to Information and Privacy Protection Act (AIPPA) and Public Order and Security Act (POSA) among others. Brutal force was used to deal with those who dare challenged the system and this has resulted in many especially from the opposition being abducted, tortured and detained on trumped up charges. The operating space for the civil society shrunk and civil liberties were stolen. However, with the emergency of social media, and following the 2010 and 2011 Arab Spring Uprisings that saw the toppling of some of the world’s famous dictators like Muammar Gaddafi, Zimbabweans, especially social movements in Zimbabwe, adopted that tool as a mobilizing one. Through social media, ordinary Zimbabweans could mobilize, coordinate and even engage their leaders and criticize the government on critical issues with less or no censorship. Thus social media has removed the barriers of fear, violence and torture always meted by the ruling party to dissident voices. It has created a new horizon of democracy that has seen citizens whose levels of expression were relieved and liberated to the extent of scaring the government.
Social media platforms (Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram) have shifted from merely being a source of entertainment and business to platforms for political ideologies and building political consciousness of younger Zimbabweans. With leaders of political parties being active on these platforms, it has given the citizens the power to shape the democracy they deserve and have a meaningful voice on politics. Quite interesting was the use of social media by political parties during the run-up to the July 2018 elections as they cajoled for votes especially from the younger generations. Hashtags and catchy phrases such as #EDPfee, #EDHasMyVote and #GenerationalConsensus have been coined to that effect. However, despite the fact that elections have come and gone, these hashtags are still used as they left an indelible mark on the minds of the young generation.
The November transition, in which President Mnangagwa with the aid of the military overthrew Robert Mugabe brought a lot of positives especially with regards to freedom of expression. Whereas during the Mugabe era it was a punishable crime to publicly ‘criticize’ the president, especially on social media, the new administration, however is somewhat tolerant to diverse views and ideas. The presence of Emmerson Mnangagwa, and other government officials, especially ministers and their ministry on social media, though less engaging on critical issues is a testimony to that. The Mugabe era had a constricted, harsh and muzzled media space in which ordinary people and even the press were afraid to report or comment on serious issues affecting them in their daily lives.
Consequently, social media has become the new face of democracy in the post Mugabe era, and it has been critically during the run-up to, during and post July 2018 elections. Unlike the yester elections, citizens, civil society groups and even the electoral management body, Zimbabwe Electoral Commission made use of social media to give real time updates of what was happening on the group. Community Based Organisations especially those in the rural areas would use social media in its entirety, (Twitter, WhatsApp, Facebook, YouTube, etc.) to unmask the gross human rights and other related election anomalies as they happened on the ground, pre, during and post elections.