In the United States last week, cell phone videos made sure that Alton Sterling and Philando Castile’s names were heard. In Zimbabwe, WhatsApp and Twitter have kept a civil society leader wearing his nation’s flag around his neck out of a prison cell (for now).
Back in April, Pastor Evan Mawarire went to his bank to withdraw money to pay for his children’s tuition — and couldn’t. That’s not uncommon in Zimbabwe. The country’s financial sector is under so much strain (mostly because of the government’s own decisions) that banks are running out of U.S. dollars, the currency they have relied on since 2009, when hyperinflation reached such extreme levels that a billion Zimbabwe dollars could be used in a single trip to the store.
Mawarire decided to speak out following his experience, so he made a YouTube video in which he grips the Zimbabwean flag with both hands and says, "When I look at the flag, it’s not a reminder of my pride and inspiration. It feels as if I just want to belong to another country." He posted the video to Twitter, using the hashtag #ThisFlag — and unofficially launched a movement that is standing up to a 36-year-old regime. "A lot of people have got to a place," he said in an interview, "where, like me, they didn’t know what to do, but they really just want Zimbabwe to work."
In 1980, Zimbabwe gained its independence from Great Britain. Then–Prime Minister Robert Mugabe was a worldwide star, invited to speak at the White House and at the historically black Howard University. But after nearly four decades of increasingly repressive rule, citizens are demanding much-needed change in Zimbabwe, including an end tocorruption, bribery, graft at police checkpoints, the recent import ban, and the long-term mismanagement of the country’s financial sector. And they’re doing it with the help of the internet, despite the government’sthreats.
Social media, particularly WhatsApp, has been vital to the #ThisFlag movement. For Americans, WhatsApp is a platform for sending messages and making calls. In Zimbabwe, as #ThisFlag has grown, it’s become a lot more. People once afraid to protest in the streets can take a stand online. And the government knows it. In response to this digital unrest, the Zimbabwean government attempted to shut down social media during the protests, and released a statement saying that it could identify protesters by the SIM cards in their phones. Anyone sharing "subversive" messages, they said, risked arrest. But activists using VPNs (virtual private networks) were able to get online anyway.
Zimbabwe’s move to block WhatsApp is not an isolated incident. The UN Human Rights Council recently passed a resolution condemning the blocking of the internet as a human rights violation, yet citizens ofUganda, Republic of Congo, and Chad have already endured social media blackouts during each of their elections earlier in 2016, and when voters in Ghana and Zambia go to the polls later this year, they are likely to experience more of the same.
It’s not just elections that are triggering key apps to be jammed, either. On July 9, the Ethiopian government moved to block access to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram after questions that were set to appear on national university exams were leaked online. Across the continent, social media and internet access in general are being seen as threats to law and order— and to long-standing regimes.
"You’re starting to see this happen routinely," Jeffrey Smith, executive director of the Vanguard Africa Movement, told MTV News, "because social media is such a powerful tool." But there are still limitations: Any encrypted WhatsApp group chats, used to coordinate #ThisFlag supporters, can still be read if you are stopped at one of Zimbabwe’s plentiful police checkpoints. "Now they stop [you] and check your phone,” said Smith, “who you’re messaging, what pictures you’re sharing."
In the last year, the government has tried to ban mass protests, and some of those who have spoken out have been "disappeared." After leading protests and calling for a mass "stay-away" to close stores and businesses in protest, Mawarire himself was arrested on July 12 and charged with "inciting public violence." His house and church were searched and his mobile phone was allegedly seized. Before his arrest, Mawarire posted another video, half in English, half in Shona. "You are watching this video because I have either been arrested, or I’ve been abducted," he said. "Maybe we shall see each other again, or maybe we shall never see each other again. Maybe we succeeded, or maybe we failed. Whatever the case, you and I have stood to build Zimbabwe. Hold this government to account. Never let them get away with anything."
When Mawarire appeared in court on July 13, the prosecutor announced that he would instead be charging the pastor with subverting a constitutional government, which carries a 20-year prison sentence. Doug Coltart, a Zimbabwean lawyer, told MTV News that the charges were baseless. "The Zimbabwean government has, for decades, thrived on creating a climate of fear," he said. "This is intended to intimidate Pastor Evan, to force him to stop speaking out against corruption and injustice, and to send a message to the Zimbabwean people that anyone who challenges the status quo will be crushed."
The internet responded, demanding that Mawarire be freed. Nqaba Matshazi, a Zimbabwean journalist and blogger, was outside the courthouse in Harare along with thousands of Zimbabweans from across Harare who had coordinated online to gather where Pastor Mawarire was being held, sharing photos on Twitter of prayer vigils and protest. "Many know he actually advocated for peace,” Matshazi told MTV News, “so the new charges of (violently) subverting the government actually don’t make sense. There is a great feeling of injustice."
Mawarire was set free that afternoon, after the lawyers that showed up to defend him — more than 100 of them — successfully argued that the altered charges against him violated his constitutional rights. Matshazi told MTV News that the mood outside of the court was one of joy, optimism, and disbelief, with thousands of people holding candles and singing late into the night. Videos shared across social media showedscenes of jubilation. "Quite a surreal and emotional moment for some. Great ruling," Matshazi said, adding that many thought that the massive crowds outside the courthouse played a role in the decision.
After his release, Mawarire addressed the crowd, telling them, "this country we are building is ours." He posted a new video to Facebook and Twitter, and called for continued protests. On Thursday, Zimbabweans marched on their embassy in South Africa, demanding change.
Just three or four years ago, Mawarire might have been locked away indefinitely, or even disappeared. But, leveraging the power of social media, hundreds of Zimbabweans outside the courthouse and millions watching online made sure that the pastor could not be and would not be forgotten. They shared videos and memes and they stood up and sang for their country. In a thank-you video to the nation, Pastor Mawarire said, "my safety is in the citizens." That's true. And the movement he started with a video and a hashtag might change his country and the region in a way that barely felt possible — until now.
After his release, Pastor Mawarire wrote on Twitter that he had seen something that he never expected to in his lifetime: "a nation bolted together by a desire to see a better Zimbabwe." The thousands of people who waited outside the court together, and the millions more watching the protests grow online, would agree.