Zimbabwe: ICTs and Democratisation Ahead of Polls

opinion

FOR the past decade or so information and communication technologies (ICTs) have been widely used as crucial platforms and tools to bring about social change around the world, particularly in Africa, the Arab world and Eastern Europe.

Given the socio-economic and political problems that have bedevilled Zimbabwe since Independence in 1980 but particularly after the chaotic land invasions starting in 2000, and the crucial elections expected this year, it is important to explore the potential capacity of new media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and mobile phones in the democratisation of Zimbabwe.

These portals have not been ineffective, but a new invigoration far beyond the jokes carried by some of these platforms can turn them into serious tools for democratic mobilisation for empirical political and quantitative governance changes.

The argument that ICTs could be critical instruments for democratisation is backed by concrete facts. The Arab revolutions, especially in Tunisia and Egypt, are examples of how people were mobilised using ICTs, especially the mobile phone short message service (SMS). This is not to say that what happened in the Arab world can be replicated in Zimbabwe, but to acknowledge the positive use of the new media for social and peaceful democratic struggles during political transition in the country.

Strategic policy documents by reputable organisations such as Unesco, the United Nations Development Programme and the World Trade Organisation suggest ICTs can enhance the lives of citizens as well as empower them to take part in social change programmes. In Zimbabwe, the development of ICTs is no longer a new phenomenon. Their development has opened up new opportunities for journalism and the ordinary people to practise citizen journalism and with almost 100% mobile telephone coverage in the country, new media can substantially enhance democratic participation. Most importantly, ICTs have hugely empowered civil society and non-government organisations and other change agents with unfettered platforms to freely express themselves and to challenge sterile hegemonic political discourse associated with the old and repressive political order in Zimbabwe.

The new and urgent challenge for the democratic contingent in Zimbabwe as the country prepares for the next elections is to create organised multiple media platforms, open up new spaces where change agents and activists and public intellectuals can share messages, and strategies for democratic political discourse and networking which makes it difficult for the oppressive elements in government to crack down on them. This could be possible because of the nationwide increase in ICT proliferation especially the mobile phone across social strata. It is imperative to have these linkages among civil and change agents because as Zimbabwe heads for possible elections this year, the democratic space is likely to be shrunk as Zanu PF and President Robert Mugabe seek another term in office.

If properly organised, these ICTs spaces and platforms will provide political parties and civil society organisations broader contra-movement and private citizens legitimate democratic platforms to mediate the problems associated with Zanu PF's electoral shenanigans in order to ensure violence is curbed and electoral fraud kept in check. But it is important for the democratic forces to understand the critical roles that ICTs and the media in general play in a democratic process such as the one Zimbabwe is grappling with. Understanding these critical roles demands that change agents appreciate the numerous negative factors working for and against political change in Zimbabwe.

The growth of internet usage in Africa is predicated on the increased use of the mobile phone to the extent of outnumbering landline phones, thereby increasing the scope of the communication sector in Zimbabwe.

Citizens can be mobilised to vote through SMSs, report cases of electoral fraud, political violence and circulate election results at polling centres before they are possibly manipulated.

The platforms can be used to evade the draconian electoral law that criminalises publication of results by anyone except the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission as pseudonyms and pseudo-accounts could be created. Electoral information from mobile phones can be passed on to other platforms like e-mail for wider circulation.

The adoption of mobile telephony in Africa and Zimbabwe in particular has transcended class and economic organisation of society thus it brings social change through sharing information necessary to mobilise the population for robust social change, and not as platforms for light social exchanges and connections.

The platforms can also provide citizens with alternative forms of citizen interaction as physical gatherings are usually outlawed by authoritarian regimes such as the one in Zimbabwe. This could prove to be critical for citizens and those in the diaspora where they can meet in virtual space to discuss ideas and strategies. The implications of new technologies are huge and their influence for social change, development and the democratisation process in oppressed and underdeveloped societies such as Zimbabwe are important as they empower citizens to have control of democratic processes without the state's overbearing presence and regulation.

ICTs, as part of the democratised media that remains untapped for broader social democratic struggles in Zimbabwe, are critical as the country prepares for elections because they allow largely unregulated access for citizens or voters to electoral participation, watch the activities of political actors and expose electoral and human rights transgressions without waiting for old media such as newspapers, radio and television that are largely state-controlled.

Ruhanya is a PhD candidate and director of the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute.

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