If you are active on social media, the biggest Zimbabwean joke has become the ageing President Robert Mugabe. At 92, the man who was once a fire brand revolutionary is now a butt of jokes. He will forever be remembered for what he destroyed than for what he created.
The nonagenarian now suffers from old age problems, reads wrong speeches, travels to countries and cancels trips while he is already there and at least $15 billion worth of diamonds is stolen under his watch. These are just a few examples.
Though he is determined to be life president, Zimbabwe’s mostly young population have found ways of undermining him. It is still risky business. There is a law that forbids undermining the authority of and insulting the president. Since 2010, at least 150 people have been charged for insulting the president.
In a country where there seems to be no alternative, how then do you dissent? The answer is simple — making fun of the individuals and systems that are oppressive.
I have recently been reading a book called Can Jokes Bring Down Governments? Memes, Design and Politics by an Amsterdam-based design collective specialising in politics and aesthetics founded by Daniel van der Velden and Vinca Kruk. The biggest lesson I picked from the book is that protest has new strategies. Enter the internet meme.
In early 2015, Mugabe fell, sparking off a chain of viral memes that were shared globally. The joke for the world was not so much that the old man fell, but that even strongmen like him who are known for being brutal, also have human frailties.
In Can Jokes Bring Down Governments? Metahaven asks: “Is it possible that jokes have an untapped political power, which was historically always present but never so useful and necessary as now?” The joke, as identified by them, is one of the only escape routes from the spell of authoritarianism. As something which “removes itself from the political-discursive frame”, the joke breaks through the enigmatic hold of power by introducing an unpredictable, playful and contingent factor to political life.
The first thing we notice about the book is its deep implication in information technology and network culture. Social media has been an outlet for people to express their frustrations and hope. Because of the Mugabe memes that became viral, mercurial propagandist, Jonathan Moyo, then Information minister, was forced to join Facebook and Twitter. It was a case of “if you can’t beat them, join them.”
Instead of being heard and listened to, Zimbabwean people are continuously told they have no idea of the magnitude of the threat that is underway — which is a manner of silencing them and enforcing a frame of reference. Mugabe’s ultimate problem is not the targeted sanctions from the United States government or the European Union, but ordinary Zimbabweans.
Can we laugh out loudly at those in power that they fall? Can jokes, in fact, bring down governments? Yes, they do. For Zimbabwe’s “born-free” generation, Mugabe is nothing but a joke, and it’s a matter of time before he is forever out.