Zimbabwe goes to the brink

The "Big Man", last of the independence leaders, never seriously contemplated defeat writes Alec Rus

As starry-eyed supporters of the Zimbabwean opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) queued to vote on Saturday 29 March there were far too many police around for them to dare make their feelings plain. So, instead, a series of irreverent text messages hummed from polling station to polling station across the country.

"Bob 23 verses one to five," started one, a spoof of Psalm 23. "Mugabe is my shepherd I shall not work. He makes me to lie down on park benches. He leads me to be a thief, a prostitute, a liar and an asylum-seeker. He restores my faith in MDC. He guides me in the path of unemployment. Though I walk in the valley of Zim I shall still be hungry!!!"

"Do you know anyone with a pick-up truck?" ran another. "I have a client who I want to move. He is moving this weekend from State House to Kutama [Mugabe's rural retreat]."

For almost 24 hours the same giddy mood prevailed among supporters of the MDC. Few celebrated publicly. Most in Harare walked home from the polls - almost everyone walks in Zimbabwe these days to save the cost of a standard bus fare, Z$40,000 or about US$1, equivalent to a tenth of a standard labourer's monthly wage - keeping their voting preference to themselves and their close friends. But increasingly people dared to dream that, after 28 years in power - and three disputed elections in the past eight years - the "old man" was finally on his way out.

Such optimism reached fever pitch after a pre-dawn press conference on the Sunday morning following voting, when Tendai Biti, the puckish secretary general of the MDC, strode to a podium and informed bleary-eyed diplomats and journalists that his party was comfortably ahead. But, for watchers of state television, it all came to a juddering halt a few minutes before midnight on Sunday night. ZBC was playing an unbelievably bad movie premised on Jim Hawkins running into Long John Silver in the Caribbean 20 years after the Treasure Island escapade and falling in love with his daughter.

Suddenly Long John et al vanished off the screen to be replaced by the expressionless features of a correspondent at the state-appointed Zimbabwe Election Commission (ZEC).

The presenter quickly introduced Judge George Chiweshe, chairman of the ZEC. He had last been seen that same day as he was chased across the lobby of a Harare hotel by outraged MDC supporters demanding to know why he had not released any results. This time he was on safer ground. He was in the election command centre in central Harare.

People who were complaining about the time it was taking to verify the results should be patient, he told the nation. "It's an involving and laborious process. It takes time for results to filter through." And as for "stakeholders" (read the MDC) who had ventured to release early results: "The commission would like to reiterate that it and it alone is the sole legitimate source of all results."

Innocents in the world of Zimbabwe's ruling Zanu-PF party might have struggled to understand the import of what developed into a 20-minute ramble. To the MDC, however, the message was all too stark. After 24 hours of seemingly being stunned into silence, the authorities had returned to the fray: Mugabe and Zanu-PF were not going to go easily.

Party insiders say that Mugabe was startled by the initial returns from polling stations, which made it clear he was heading for defeat.

For the previous 12 months his senior aides had stacked the odds in his favour. In March last year they gave orders to agricultural equipment companies to have large numbers of rotivators, and rather smaller numbers of tractors, ready for March 2008. These were duly rolled out with great fanfare to small farmers in impoverished rural communities in the weeks leading up to the 29 March vote. Food aid was doled out to party supporters and, according to a dogged Human Rights Watch researcher, Tiseke Kasambala, denied to MDC supporters. The ZBC churned out endless encomia to the president, or the Fist of Empowerment, as he is called on election posters.

Meanwhile, day after day, giant rallies of happy, smiling people greeted him on the campaign trail, presumably reassuring him that the opposition talk of economic implosion had not been accepted by his loyal people.

As the New Statesman went to press it was clear that despite Zanu-PF's advantages it was all but impossible for it to deny the MDC had won and also that insiders in the ruling party were realising there was no way to massage the outcome. A projection by an independent survey group underlined the difficulty the ZEC would have in issuing results giving Mugabe victory. The findings gave Morgan Tsvangirai's MDC 49.4 per cent, with Mugabe 41.8 per cent.

This suggested that the MDC leader was below the 50 per cent-plus-one vote mark he needed to avoid a run-off, but the MDC's results suggested he had enough votes to avoid a run-off. In short, Mugabe had been beaten.

He was not going to go without a fight. On Sunday night he met the "securocrats" of the Joint Operations Command, the body of security, intelligence and military chiefs who in recent years have increasingly dominated policymaking. According to some accounts of the meeting, some dared to take a "dovish" stance and suggest that the veteran autocrat should consider reaching an accommodation with the MDC.

The ultra-hawks urging an immediate declaration of a state of emergency were believed to have been talked out of such a drastic response. But what is widely believed to have been the final decision was hardly conciliatory. It was to stall for time, order the ZEC to dribble out results slowly and see if they could not end up "fixing" the election in the counting process, a senior former Zanu-PF official said. Not long afterwards, the ZBC interrupted Treasure Island 2 or whatever it was and introduced Chiweshe into Zimbabwean living rooms.

The phenomenon of a long-serving independence leader being rejected by his people has been seen before in Southern Africa. Kenneth Kaunda, the veteran Zambian leader with a penchant for waving handkerchiefs, was unceremoniously dumped by the electorate in 1991. Then, in 1994, Hastings Banda, the eccentric Malawian tyrant, suffered a similar ejection from State House. Both ultimately accepted their lot.

In recent weeks both Tsvangirai and Simba Makoni, Mugabe's other challenger, a former finance minister, have tried to tempt Mugabe to bow out gracefully. Both indicated to me in interviews that they would not seek to humiliate the former hero of the independence era if he lost.

Clinging to power

But while Mugabe was unwilling to follow the lead of these regional predecessors - Harare legend has it that he laughed scornfully when he heard that Kaunda had lost power through the ballot box - increasingly, as the days passed after the elections, MDC optimism grew that a deal would be struck with some of the more conciliatory generals loyal to his regime. They would then, the MDC hoped, aided by support from regional leaders, persuade Mugabe to step down.

The smart money among diplomats and regional analysts is betting that even if Mugabe does finagle his way back into power and cheat Tsvangirai of his apparent victory, he cannot hope to last long in office. Makoni's defection, while not backed in public by many senior cadres, reflects an increasingly mutinous sentiment within Zanu-PF. While inflation on paper is a "mere" 100,000 per cent, economists expect it may be 500,000 by the end of this month.

Whatever happens, Mugabe's aura of invincibility has been destroyed by the dramatic events of the past week.

An extension of his rule, even by, say, six months, would be a disaster for Zimbabwe. Yet more desperate people would flee across the southern border to join the between one and three million who have already crossed into South Africa. Infant mortality, illiteracy and all those other statistics that made Zimbabwe in Mugabe's early years in power the envy of sub-Saharan Africa would continue to rise.

In short, the spoof Psalm 23 would suddenly seem rather unfunny. At the time of writing it was still possible that Mugabe would try to dig his heels in one last time. But there was a sense that one of the last of Africa's "Big Men" independence leaders was on his way out.

Alec Russell is Southern Africa correspondent of the Financial Times

Zimbabwe in numbers

100,000+% rate of inflation

Z$100,000 = £1.70

Z$6.6m official cost of a loaf of bread

Z$15m black-market cost of a loaf of bread

37 average life expectancy

80% unemployment rate

15.6% of population is infected with HIV/Aids

75% of doctors emigrate after earning medical degree

45% of Zimbabweans are malnourished

5.9m registered voters

9m ballots printed by Electoral Commission

Research by Jax Jacobsen

This article first appeared in the 07 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, British jihad

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Tweeting terror: what social media reveals about how we respond to tragedy

From sharing graphic images to posting a selfie, what compels online behaviours that can often outwardly seem improper?

Why did they post that? Why did they share a traumatising image? Why did they tell a joke? Why are they making this about themselves? Did they… just post a selfie? Why are they spreading fake news?

These are questions social media users almost inevitably ask themselves in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy such as Wednesday’s Westminster attack. Yet we ask not because of genuine curiosity, but out of shock and judgement provoked by what we see as the wrong way to respond online. But these are still questions worth answering. What drives the behaviours we see time and again on social media in the wake of a disaster?

The fake image

“I really didn't think it was going to become a big deal,” says Dr Ranj Singh. “I shared it just because I thought it was very pertinent, I didn't expect it to be picked up by so many people.”

Singh was one of the first people to share a fake Tube sign on Twitter that was later read out in Parliament and on BBC Radio 4. The TfL sign – a board in stations which normally provides service information but can often feature an inspiring quote – read: “All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you.”

Singh found it on the Facebook page of a man called John (who later explained to me why he created the fake image) and posted it on his own Twitter account, which has over 40,000 followers. After it went viral, many began pointing out that the sign was faked.

“At a time like this is it really helpful to point out that its fake?” asks Singh – who believes it is the message, not the medium, that matters most. “The sentiment is real and that's what's important.”

Singh tells me that he first shared the sign because he found it to be profound and was then pleased with the initial “sense of solidarity” that the first retweets brought. “I don't think you can fact-check sentiments,” he says, explaining why he didn’t delete the tweet.

Dr Grainne Kirwan, a cyberpsychology lecturer and author, explains that much of the behaviour we see on social media in the aftermath of an attack can be explained by this desire for solidarity. “It is part of a mechanism called social processing,” she says. “By discussing a sudden event of such negative impact it helps the individual to come to terms with it… When shocked, scared, horrified, or appalled by an event we search for evidence that others have similar reactions so that our response is validated.”

The selfies and the self-involved

Yet often, the most maligned social media behaviour in these situations seems less about solidarity and more about selfishness. Why did YouTuber Jack Jones post a since-deleted selfie with the words “The outmost [sic] respect to our public services”? Why did your friend, who works nowhere near Westminster, mark themselves as “Safe” using Facebook’s Safety Check feature? Why did New Statesman writer Laurie Penny say in a tweet that her “atheist prayers” were with the victims?

“It was the thought of a moment, and not a considered statement,” says Penny. The rushed nature of social media posts during times of crisis can often lead to misunderstandings. “My atheism is not a political statement, or something I'm particularly proud of, it just is.”

Penny received backlash on the site for her tweet, with one user gaining 836 likes on a tweet that read: “No need to shout 'I'm an atheist!' while trying to offer solidarity”. She explains that she posted her tweet due to the “nonsensical” belief that holding others in her heart makes a difference at tragic times, and was “shocked” when people became angry at her.

“I was shouted at for making it all about me, which is hard to avoid at the best of times on your own Twitter feed,” she says. “Over the years I've learned that 'making it about you' and 'attention seeking' are familiar accusations for any woman who has any sort of public profile – the problem seems to be not with what we do but with who we are.”

Penny raises a valid point that social media is inherently self-involved, and Dr Kirwan explains that in emotionally-charged situations it is easy to say things that are unclear, or can in hindsight seem callous or insincere.

“Our online society may make it feel like we need to show a response to events quickly to demonstrate solidarity or disdain for the individuals or parties directly involved in the incident, and so we put into writing and make publicly available something which we wrote in haste and without full knowledge of the circumstances.”

The joke

Arguably the most condemned behaviour in the aftermath of a tragedy is the sharing of an ill-timed joke. Julia Fraustino, a research affiliate at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), reflects on this often seemingly inexplicable behaviour. “There’s research dating back to the US 9/11 terror attacks that shows lower rates of disaster-related depression and anxiety for people who evoke positive emotions before, during and after tragic events,” she says, stating that humour can be a coping mechanism.

“The offensiveness or appropriateness of humor seems, at least in part, to be tied to people’s perceived severity of the crisis,” she adds. “An analysis of tweets during a health pandemic showed that humorous posts rose and fell along with the seriousness of the situation, with more perceived seriousness resulting in fewer humour-based posts.”

The silence

If you can’t say anything nice, why say anything at all? Bambi's best friend Thumper's quote might be behind the silence we see from some social media users. Rather than simply being uncaring, there are factors which can predict whether someone will be active or passive on social media after a disaster, notes Fraustino.

“A couple of areas that factor into whether a person will post on social media during a disaster are issue-involvement and self-involvement,” she says. “When people perceive that the disaster is important and they believe they can or should do something about it, they may be more likely to share others’ posts or create their own content. Combine issue-involvement with self-involvement, which in this context refers to a desire for self-confirmation such as through gaining attention by being perceived as a story pioneer or thought leader, and the likelihood goes up that this person will create or curate disaster-related content on social media.”

“I just don’t like to make it about me,” one anonymous social media user tells me when asked why he doesn’t post anything himself – but instead shares or retweets posts – during disasters. “I feel like people just want likes and retweets and aren’t really being sincere, and I would hate to do that. Instead I just share stuff from important people, or stuff that needs to be said – like reminders not to share graphic images.”

The graphic image

The sharing of graphic and explicit images is often widely condemned, as many see this as both pointless and potentially psychologically damaging. After the attack, BBC Newsbeat collated tens of tweets by people angry that passersby took pictures instead of helping, with multiple users branding it “absolutely disgusting”.

Dr Kirwan explains that those near the scene may feel a “social responsibility” to share their knowledge, particularly in situations where there is a fear of media bias. It is also important to remember that shock and panic can make us behave differently than we normally would.

Yet the reason this behaviour often jars is because we all know what motivates most of us to post on social media: attention. It is well-documented that Likes and Shares give us a psychological boost, so it is hard to feel that this disappears in tragic circumstances. If we imagine someone is somehow “profiting” from posting traumatic images, this can inspire disgust. Fraustino even notes that posts with an image are significantly more likely to be clicked on, liked, or shared.

Yet, as Dr Kiwarn explains, Likes don’t simply make us happy on such occasions, they actually make us feel less alone. “In situations where people are sharing terrible information we may still appreciate likes, retweets, [and] shares as it helps to reinforce and validate our beliefs and position on the situation,” she says. “It tells us that others feel the same way, and so it is okay for us to feel this way.”

Fraustino also argues that these posts can be valuable, as they “can break through the noise and clutter and grab attention” and thereby bring awareness to a disaster issue. “As positive effects, emotion-evoking images can potentially increase empathy and motivation to contribute to relief efforts.”

The judgement

The common thread isn’t simply the accusation that such social media behaviours are “insensitive”, it is that there is an abundance of people ready to point the finger and criticise others, even – and especially – at a time when they should focus on their own grief. VICE writer Joel Golby sarcastically summed it up best in a single tweet: “please look out for my essay, 'Why Everyone's Reaction to the News is Imperfect (But My Own)', filed just now up this afternoon”.

“When already emotional other users see something which they don't perceive as quite right, they may use that opportunity to vent anger or frustration,” says Dr Kirwan, explaining that we are especially quick to judge the posts of people we don’t personally know. “We can be very quick to form opinions of others using very little information, and if our only information about a person is a post which we feel is inappropriate we will tend to form a stereotyped opinion of this individual as holding negative personality traits.

“This stereotype makes it easier to target them with hateful speech. When strong emotions are present, we frequently neglect to consider if we may have misinterpreted the content, or if the person's apparently negative tone was intentional or not.”

Fraustino agrees that people are attempting to reduce their own uncertainty or anxiety when assigning blame. “In a terror attack setting where emotions are high, uncertainty is high, and anxiety is high, blaming or scapegoating can relieve some of those negative emotions for some people.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.