President Robert Mugabe was almost frothing at the mouth early this month when he attacked the private media for allegedly trying to destroy Zanu PF by reporting on factionalism that is tearing the party apart.
BY SILENCE CHARUMBIRA
Mugabe berated party members for leaking stories, particularly to The Standard and NewsDay.
However, the 91-year-old leader could have made the statements oblivious of the wider discussions about his contentious succession that is taking place outside mainstream media.
Zanu PF supporters have actually taken their battles to social media whose reach is perverse compared to mainstream media and could prove difficult to silence.
The ruling party has consistently denied reports that it is divided into factions, with Generation 40 (G40) backing First Lady Grace Mugabe and another one supporting Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa to succeed Mugabe.
But discussions on groups created by Zanu PF members on social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter tell a different story.
A series of “coups” against provincial executives, youth and women’s league officials have largely been plotted through such groups.
Harare-based blogger Blessing Vava said Mugabe’s attempts to suppress information about the divisions in the ruling party through censorship were bound to fail in the digital era.
“It is not a secret that many people in Zanu PF are afraid of expressing themselves openly, and the use of social media for some is a demonstration that they have found platforms to express their opinions without much fear,” Vava said
“I think social media is growing and it will be the main tool of mobilisation.
“Social media is the future, especially in capturing the youth vote.”
He said the recent demonstrations that rocked South African universities and forced President Jacob Zuma to reverse an increase in tuition fees demonstrated the power of social media in mobilisation.
“I have been watching how Wits University students have been making use of Twitter in mobilising their protests against fees and the results are there for everyone to see,” he said.
Alpha Media Holdings online editor John Mokwetsi said debate through traditional platforms in Zimbabwe was largely constrained hence people were finding solace on social media networks.
Mokwetsi said social media could prove a potent tool as parties gear for the 2018 elections where Mugabe wants to stand for another term.
“Academic research has consistently found that people who consume more news through the media have a greater probability of being civically and politically engaged across a variety of measures,” he said.
“Politicians understand that the user is shunning other forms of media for various reasons but peers are going where they can share and interact, which is social media.”
A number of Zanu PF officials are active on social media, but only a few such as Higher and Tertiary Education minister Jonathan Moyo can influence debates.
Mokwetsi said it was the presence of such influential people that had a potential to constrain debate, which was beyond the reach of state regulators.
“When that happens, the voice of the citizen is drowned,” he said.
“An elitist voice like Jonathan Moyo’s isolates the citizen who often shies away or becomes an on-looker because there is a highly-opinionated voice that has taken over the space.”
Another Harare-based political analyst Takura Zhangazha said some ruling party officials even exposed the divisions in the party through their posts on social networking sites.
He said in most instances, the officials would claim that they were not speaking on behalf of the party.
“The end effect is that they then say their vision about the party which, however, is not taken further because they cannot challenge official party positions,” Zhangazha said. “It is a little bit like child’s play but it is hinting at division.”
Zanu PF national commissar Saviour Kasukuwere in September warned party supporters against using social media platforms such as WhatsApp to create divisions.
“This WhatsApp business must stop,” he was quoted saying then. “Let’s work with the leadership. In politics you won’t succeed if you don’t respect the leadership.”
In the run-up to the 2013 elections, Zanu PF was shaken up by a phantom Facebook user who went by the name Baba Jukwa.
The account posted detailed reports of meetings of Zanu PF organs such as the politburo, government corruption, assassination plots and alleged strategies to rig elections.
A former United Kingdom-based Zimbabwean who was part of Zanu PF’s campaign team ahead of the contentious polls, Edmund Kudzayi was arrested on allegations that he was Baba Jukwa.
Kudzayi was the editor of The Sunday Mail when he was arrested but he was acquitted.
He lost his job at the State-controlled newspaper and to date, the “Zanu PF” mole remains a mystery.