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In rural Zimbabwe, a group of grandmothers counter election intimidation using WhatsApp

Citizens Coalition For Change activists looking at WhatsApp messages on phone. They've been campaign remotely.   -  
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Cleared / AP


64-year-old Elizabeth Mutandwa is part of a group of digital actvists. The elderly women on a smartphone in Zimbabwe’s rural Domboshava area - about 40 kilometres from the capital, Harare - are actively campaigning.

They're pushing information to promote their party - the Citizens Coalition for Change - in their locality, to counter intimidation and truncated new reports by state media.

"Everyone around here knows we are opposition activists, so some people are too afraid to openly associate with us. But it's not a problem anymore, we talk to them through WhatsApp, and they can participate in the campaign from the safety of their homes and on election day to vote for (Nelson) Chamisa," Mutandwa hopes.

Elizabeth Mutandwa posted a viral video showing a troop of baboons tearing ruling party campaign posters apart to several community WhatsApp groups, along with other campaign information and news stories plucked from various online sources, before walking several kilometres to a rally addressed by main opposition leader, Nelson Chamisa.

While several hundred people attended Tuesday's rally (Aug. 15), many more from the neighbourhood stayed at home because they were too afraid of intimidation or didn't hear about it from the state broadcaster.

Major shift from past rural political campaigns

To counter the intimidation and dearth of information, rural townspeople are increasingly turning to social media and instant messaging apps such as WhatsApp to get their message across.

Such technology was previously widely used in urban areas but has been making inroads in rural areas where word of mouth or state-run radio are usually the primary sources of information.

Opposition leaders have claims that meetings are either banned or too risky to conduct regularly due to intimidation and biased state media.

Mutandwa was taught by her grandson how to use a smartphone as well as create and administer WhatsApp groups.

The women administer close to 10 WhatsApp groups, some dedicated to specific age groups for targeted messaging.

This is a major shift from past rural political campaigns, where parties often use community meetings, rallies and even funerals to reach voters, said Rejoice Ngwenya, a strategic communications expert based in the capital, Harare.

"Online messaging is a very urban thing," said Ngwenya.

"But because of poor radio coverage, WhatsApp messaging has assumed a very high impact phase," he added.

The opposition and human rights groups have repeatedly accused state media of being partisan towards the governing ZANU-PF party, a concern shared by various election observers, including those from the African Union, in previous elections.

According to the European Union observer mission report for Zimbabwe’s 2018 elections, state-controlled public television dedicated 85 percent coverage to ZANU-PF during the election period and just over 80 percent coverage went to the governing party on one popular state-controlled public radio station monitored by the mission.

Increased mobile phone and internet penetration is helping plug the gap in the current election.

Hoping for a snowball effect

According to the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe, the mobile penetration rate in the southern African country of 15 million people stands at just over 90%, although just about half the population have smartphones that can access applications such as WhatsApp.

Mutandwa and her group lack the technology, expertise or financial resources to send bulk SMS texts to people who don’t have smartphones and can’t receive WhatsApp messages, so they encourage people to read and share messages with neighbours who don’t own smartphones.

Internet penetration stands at 65% in Zimbabwe, although much of it concentrated in urban areas, a situation that poses a challenge to the opposition’s rural online campaign.

Ngwenya said that while messaging apps are popular in rural areas, it can be difficult to source charging systems and data.

For Mutandwa and her group of grannies, it’s better than nothing, and they hope for a snowball effect that can help spread the word to others. 

Zimbabwe heads to the polls on August 23 to elect the president and legislature in what analysts expect to be a tense affair, marked by a crackdown on dissent and fears of vote-rigging.

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