Zimbabwe: Using New Technologies to Fight for Democracy

In countries such as Zimbabwe where media freedom is extremely restricted, new technologies have become powerful tools for political campaigning, communication, advocacy and mobilisation.

Since Robert Mugabe turned the country into a dictatorship, bloggers and civic organisations have resorted to using new tools and applications such as blogs, Flickr, Facebook, SMS, YouTube and mashups to fight for democracy, media freedom and good governance.

If you are in Zimbabwe and your phone rings, you might be receiving news headline from SW Radio, election update from Kubatana.net or a political joke about Robert Mugabe. Widespread mobile phone access in Africa has made SMS a powerful and useful tool for activists.

Zimbabweans are using SMS to send each other political jokes. Comrade Fatso writes about this particular use of SMS:

Anyone know someone with a truck? There's a guy wanting to move all his stuff from State House to Zvimba. The jokes spread as text messages refer to our aged dictator relocating to his rural home. People really do believe this is a general election – because our generals decide who gets elected. Another joke walking the streets of Harare is that the only difference between an election and an erection is that you can't rig the latter.

The UK-based SW Radio uses SMS to send news headlines to mobile phones:

We now have an SMS news headline service sent to mobile phones.
If you have a friend or relative in Zimbabwe who would like to receive this service please email their mobile phone number to: talk@swradioafrica.com

Kubatana, an online community of Zimbabwean activists, uses FrontlineSMS to send election news to their SMS subscribers and facilitate conversations:

Join the Kubatana SMS Subscriber list!
Kubatana uses a variety of technologies to communicate with Zimbabweans – SMS is one of them. We send out notifications of public events, inspiring quotations, selected comments from current and past articles and statements and we convert some of our web site content into thought provoking tasty 160 character messages.
What we really value is getting to know what you think, and to facilitate this you can respond to any SMS we send out. Democracy is a two way thang!
Often we take some of what you say and share it on the Kubatana Blog Site so that more people benefit from the conversation.
Let's get together, and message together.

The organisation has also used FrontlineSMS to run its campaign, “What we want in Zimbabwe?” The organisation posts messages from subscribers on Kubatana blog so that more people can benefit:

In addition to inviting email contributions, we also asked our many SMS subscribers what a new Zimbabwe looks like to them. Read some of their ideas below, and text your dreams for a new Zimbabwe to +263912452201

Amanda Atwood writes, “Text messages for change”:

As announcements by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission have been trickling out, we’ve been forwarding them to our SMS subscribers, many of whom do not have access to television or radio, or who are hit by Zimbabwe’s persistent electricity shortage.

FrontlineSMS is a text messaging system designed to meet the needs of the non-profit sector. FrontlineSMS was also used by the Nigeria Mobile Election Monitors last year. Ken Banks, the creator of Frontline SMS writes:

Back in the summer of 2006 I was fortunate to spend three weeks in Zimbabwe working with them. A local NGO seeking to promote human rights and good governance, Kubatana were the very first users of FrontlineSMS when it launched back in 2005, starting a trend which has seen the software used for similar activities in a number of other countries around the world. In their own words, FrontlineSMS finally opened up the possibilities for text messaging in their work, and I knew they had plans to use it during the 2008 elections. This is what they've been doing.

Last year, Kubatana sent out an SMS soliciting public opionion about the the Stay Away, which was called by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions. They published some of the reponses on their blog:

In advance of the Stay Away called by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) for Wednesday and Thursday, 19 and 20 September, we at Kubatana sent out a text message and email asking our subscribers what they thought of the stay away, whether their workplace would be participating, and what their friends and neighbours were saying about it.
We were flooded with emails and text messages expressing a range of opinions, from eager support for the stay away and a commitment to stay home even if their work place was open, to others who questioned the usefulness of the tactic or whether it would make any difference on the ground.
Here is just a small sampling of people’s responses:
Don’t think it will be a success. People are tired of stay aways.
Supporting it, not coming to work, enough is enough.
Yes and all my friends want to stay away in order to make a statement.

In addition to their SMS service, Kubatana uses listserv, email newsletter and electronic activism campaigns:

Our regular electronic activism campaigns encourage Zimbabweans and other visitors to our web site to mobilise, lobby and advocate. Being involved lessens one’s feeling of despair while helping us to keep inspired.
As Joan Baez said: Action is the antidote to despair.
Our email listserv and regular email newsletters keep thousands of Zimbabweans and regional and international subscribers informed. Kubatana also helps Zimbabwean civil society to strengthen their use of Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) through email, Internet and motivational training workshops. We often spend a day with a group of information activists teaching them how to use ICTs more effectively either in their organisations, or as individual activists.

Electronic Cards
Sokwanele-Zvakwana is another pro-democracy civic organisation using new media tools to fight for democracy and rule of law. Its website offers free e-cards as part of its non-violent campaigns for change.

Sokwanele's Zimbabwean e-cards can be used, for FREE, to help Zimbabweans campaign for non violent peaceful change in Zimbabwe.

The cards are organised around different themes:
Bob Must Go:

Bob Must Go! It's as simple as that.

Elections and democracy:

Parliamentary and presidential elections are set for 2008. You can get ready and start campaigning using our e-cards. Zimbabweans want elections that are genuinely free and fair, and we want a return to the rule of law, and a life free of violence and intimidation.

Memories of Zimbabwe:

A set of e-cards evoking whimsical and fond memories of our beloved Zimbabwe. Use these for any occasion, or simply to send quick notes to friends and colleagues. Do you have an image that would make a great memory e-card? If you'd like to share your special memory with everyone by turning it into an e-card – contact us and let us know.

Economy e-cards:

Zimbabwe's economy is in free-fall and it's no laughing matter. Spread a bit of cheer by sending a humorous e-card, or send a card to alert someone of the reality of our country's economic state.

They have posted a video of the e-cards on Jumpcut.

Sokwanele created a Google map for mapping election rigging using data from their Zimbabwean Election Watch series:

Explore the map and then consider whether elections held in this context can ever be considered ‘free and fair’. Information on how to use the map, the map data limitations, and the background to how we mapped the data is provided below the map. Please visit our Zimbabwe Election Watch section, and explore our database for a comprehensive look at the many ways the articles listed in the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections have been breached by the Zimbabwean government.


YouTube and Flickr
Sokwanele has a channel on the popular video-sharing site, YouTube and a Flickr account. Visit their Album of Terror to see the extent of state brutality against the opposition.

There is a Flickr account with Zimbabwe Playing Cards:

On the outside this looks like an ordinary set of playing cards. But take them out, it is a fantastic political weapon – against hte murderous, corrupt, hypocritical regime of ‘Robber Mugabe’.

Facebook and MySpace
Various groups have established their presence on social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace. There is “Remove Robert Mugabe from Zimbabwe” group on Facebook:

Creating international awareness of how one man is completely destroying an incredible nation, causing millions to suffer. For everyone who believes Mugabe should no longer be in power.

And “Revive Zimbabwe”:

1. To Keep the Nation of Zimbabwe strong even without the Boundaries of the Country
2. Boycott the Hippocracies
3. Stand together to make the affliction more widely known, in order for the people to be freed, by the notification of others (world publicicty)!

There is also a group supporting Dr. Simba Makoni.

Sokwanele is also on Facebook. A cultural activist network, Magamba!, has a MySpace page where they publish blog posts about the situation in Zimbabwe. The most visible member of the group is Comrade Fatso who keeps a personal blog at Vox.

MAGAMBA! THE CULTURAL ACTIVIST NETWORK is a movement of Zimbabwean spoken word activists and creative rebels who use the word as a weapon.

Mobile Phones

The South African based election result monitoring group, The Independent Result Center, set up a website to publish independent election results. During the elections, their trained agents in Zimbabwe were sending information to South Africa via satellite phones and mobile phones.

This is how their agents obtained information:

In terms of Zimbabwean election law upon closure of the polling station counting must begin immediately, and the result must be displayed outside the polling stations to public view. Candidates and their polling agents should be in attendance during the counting process.
ZimElectionResults.com obtained the results using polling agents who were specially trained to obtain data officially displayed. This information was transmitted to a results centre in South Africa using cell­phones and satellite phones to the centre which was manned by call centre operators.

Since election results were displayed publicly, the agents were able to take photos of the actual results:

Polling agents were also equipped with a camera to photograph the actual official results posted by the ZEC. These will be archived on this web site later as forensic evidence. The polling agents also counted the number of people entering each polling station.

Immediately after Mugabe started muzzling the media, Zimbabwean bloggers became one of the key sources of information and commentary on the political and economic situation in the country. Visit our Zimbabwe Elections 2008 page for links to posts written by Zimbabwean bloggers.

Online Political Jokes

Robert Mugabe is twittering! He joins the Kenyan President, Mwai Kibaki, on the popular microblogging site, Twitter:

meetings, meetings, meetings. very boring. 12:03 PM April 04, 2008 from web
Ooooo, nervous morning. Sending the wife shopping. She is getting on my nerves. Thinking of shutting the electricity down for laughs. 09:21 AM April 01, 2008 from web
Thinking of live blogging the election results. Good idea? 06:42 PM March 31, 2008 from web
Forcing people to eat election posters. Hey, at least they get fed this week. :) 01:49 PM March 29, 2008 from web
just voted. Guess who I voted for? 01:49 PM March 29, 2008 from web

Zimbabwe Democracy Now has a Zimbabwe Humour page on its website:

A selection of cartoons, movie posters and e-cards about Zimbabwe. These images are presented in the belief that the designers want to reach a wider audience. Thanks to everyone who contributed, you know who you are…


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