The internet is being celebrated as a medium for the subaltern, writes Gugulethu Mthethwa in her academic paper. The subaltern here refers to groups of people marginalised on the basis of gender and age, as well as ethnicity, especially in Africa, and race in Europe and the Americas in the West.
Gugulethu Mthethwa writes for Jouurnalism.co.za:
The internet is being celebrated as a medium for the subaltern (Van Zoonen, 2002). The emergence of social media allows the marginalised the space to air their views in a media field previously dominated by media giants, corporations and moguls, favouring the powerful voices in society. The subaltern here refers to groups of people marginalised on the basis of gender and age, as well as ethnicity, especially in Africa, and race in Europe and the Americas in the West. In this study, the use of social media by three political parties– the Movement for Democratic Change: MDC-N (led by Welshman Ncube), Mthwakazi Liberation Front (MLF) and Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Zapu) is under scrutiny. The paper focuses on these three marginalized Zimbabwean political parties and examines how they use facebook, twitter and blogger.com to get into the mainstream space.
In his columns in The Herald, columnist Nathaniel Manheru has claimed that Zapu, MDC-N and MLF are not only regional parties but are tribal as well. This labeling and name calling is meant to marginalise the parties and deny them space in the country’s mainstream politics. It must be pointed out, however, that MLF has made it clear that its interests rest in Matabeleland and the Midlands. The other two parties however emphasize that they are national parties.
It has become the norm in Africa that marginalised groups, especially smaller ethnic groups, women and youth find themselves in the margins of political discourse and unable to take on the power bloc. This has raised the need to use new media, especially the social media networks, to push their agenda. The revolutions that have taken place in the Arab world since the beginning of 2011 are good examples.
Mthwakazi Liberation Front
The Mthwakazi Liberation Front (MLF) is a relatively new political party launched in Bulawayo on 27 December 2010. It operates from South Africa. The party advocates for secession as a solution to the under development of the Matabeleland region. It wants to pull Matabeleland and the Southern region out of Zimbabwe. According to its press statements, issued through various websites and its facebook page, MLF has a myriad of grievances against the Zimbabwean government, which it argues is dominated by the sensibilities of one ethnic group, and more importantly they believe a solution lies in secession (MLF Information Department, 2011). MLF therefore has used facebook to communicate and has set up a page that uses the name, Mlf.mthwakazi, a blog: ikhonaindaba.blogspot.com, mthwakazination.com and a twitter page @mlfmthwakazi to promote their agenda.
The MDC was formed in Bulawayo in 1999, from the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) and academics. When it split in 2005, it was along tribal lines, with the Welshman Ncube faction finding itself reduced to a Matabeleland party and the Morgan Tsvangirai faction into a Mashonaland based party. The party also created blogs, twitter and facebook accounts: hararesunset.wordpress.com, themdcpresidentspeaks.blogspot.com, @mdczimbabwe and www.facebook/mdczimbabwe.
The Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Zapu) was formed in 1961 after the banning of its predecessor, the National Democratic Party (NDP). The party is currently trying to re-introduce itself to the Zimbabwean electorate (Sibanda, 2011). Bashed as a tribal and regional party, it has found that its political space is so small (Sibanda, 2011) and therefore has had to turn to the guerilla media of the internet and has found the social network of facebook a good avenue. It has set up numerous pages on the social network with another one dedicated to Zapu women.
Social Media as a public sphere
The virtual public sphere created by alternative media, can also be used as counter hegemonic tools, which seek to challenge or question political and cultural control of the masses by the elite, but also demystify the ruling elite’s social engineering that is usually projected as natural and common sense by the mainstream media. The concerns of most of the issues raised in the MDC-N, MLF and Zapu social sites’ pages locate Zimbabwe’s internet within a counter-hegemonic framework that presupposes the development of a nascent – albeit enduring – subaltern space for ideological resistance.
As a counter hegemonic tool
Cascao (2007) argues that hegemony is the attainment, maintenance and consolidation of the status quo while counter-hegemony is the resistance, the confrontation and/or opposition to existing status quo and its legitimacy.
The parties under study use Social Networking Sites (SNSs) to provide a public sphere to be used to counter the hegemony spread through the mainstream media. These alternative online media platforms have created a forum where the underrepresented parties produce and disseminate information. These spaces are also seminal to public discussions and thus became informal counter-hegemonic public spheres where public opinion could be formulated, nurtured and sustained (Moyo, 2007). As is normally the case in authoritarian environments, social media in Zimbabwe has became the platform through which most of these subaltern or anti-state discourses are articulated and exerted.
Needless to say, alternative media is mostly oppositional to dominant worldviews and their social orders. They also often represent ideologies of the underdog. These rarely form part of the mainstream discourse in the elite media. For example, where mainstream media demonize and disqualify the MLF, who fight for separation of Matabeleland from Zimbabwe, alternative media run by the marginalized become the bastions of their rights, demystifying ideologies representing the oppressed and exploited as extremists and tribalists (Kavada, 2005).
While Zapu and MDC led by Ncube seek to push their politics within the boundaries of Zimbabwean nationalism, for MLF’s seeks to challenge the status quo and question why Matabeleland should play second fiddle and run by the dictates of Zimbabwean nationalism. The latter to them is Shona ethno-nationalism. MLF, therefore, exhibits outright counter hegemonic qualities, while the other parties attempt to hide that. However, they have all been confined to the social media, which are seen as counter hegemonic.
Content analysis showed that the parties use social networking sites to respond to negative publicity and write their own stories thus counter the media’s pre established ‘agenda’ while concurrently allowing them to address issues covered in mainstream media. They have created blogs to publish their own stories and respond to stories in the traditional media. MDC members have created blogs such as mdcyouthassembly.blogspot.com, a forum to discuss issues pertinent to the party’s youth league. There is also mdcpresidentspeaks.blogspot.com,where MDC president Welshman Ncube speaks about his party’s agenda, policies and developmental goals for Zimbabwe. The MLF has mthwakazination.com, ikhonaindaba.blogspot.com that promotes the Mthwakazi nation, which is envisaged as a sovereign nation, not part of Zimbabwe, comprising of the three Matabeleland provinces – Matabeleland North, Matabeleland South and Bulawayo – and the Midlands province.
How these parties use Social Networking Sites (SNSs)
Content analysis shows that all three parties used social media to disseminate information. Facebook, for example, is used to combine party followers into groups, spread political ideas and reach broader audiences. Twitter is mostly used for reaching journalists and fast delivery of party messages.
Information provided through networking sites include speeches, or extracts from speeches, as well as information on different activities the parties are undertaking. All the three parties announce upcoming party gatherings and also review what would have transpired in those gatherings. The Ncube led MDC-N usually posts pictures of their gatherings, for example, their rallies in Dzivarasekwa, Kezi and Lupane.
Apart from announcing party activities, MLF uses social media platforms for publicising speeches and disseminating press releases. Examples include a speech posted on Facebook on 29 December last year on the commemoration of the party’s first anniversary, a press statement by Ncube in response to a story by the Herald entitled Plot to smuggle Ncube as GPA Principal Exposed, which was published on 19 of August 2011.
Representatives of the three parties seem to feel that the ability to disseminate this type of information is benefiting their causes. Mduduzi Mwelase Khanye, one of the administrators of the MLF Facebook page, said social media is fast proving to be the most handy and effective way of promoting democracy in the world as it affords people the rare opportunity to network and express themselves with little or no state censorship.
Party representatives say due to their interactive nature, social networking sitespromote better connections between citizens and intermediary organisations, including political parties, social movements, the news media, as well as with public officials.
According to the parties’ leadership, where parties like the MDC-T (led by Morgan Tsvangirai) and Zanu-PF have the traditional media as a platform for organising party structures, the three marginalized parties, MDC led by Ncube, Zapu and MLF, used social media for the same purposes. Ngqabutho Nicholas Dube, a Ncube led MDC representative in South Africa, felt that through social media, his party had been afforded the space that it never got from traditional media.
According to Dube, MDC has experienced underrepresentation in the past, and the platforms offered by social media have given the party a chance to represent themselves. As far as he is concerned, this means these tools have emancipated the marginalised. This is in line with scholars who believe that social media platforms allow ‘subordinated groups … to produce non-conformist and sometimes counter-hegemonic representations of the views of those marginalised, misrepresented and underrepresented in the public sphere’ (Bailey et al., 2008: 17). Therefore social media has created a space for people to learn about these communities from the real people who live in them.
Marginalised parties therefore regard social media as a useful tool for spreading information fast. Research findings show that political parties have found social media also to be useful for stimulating political debates. These debates raise many issues, some of which could not be discussed in the traditional media. These include tribalism, secessionand Gukurahundi.
However, scholars who argue for the possibility of social media in expanding democratic culture also point to significant factors limiting open and reflexive debate online, including inequalities in access and participation, un-reflexive communication, corporate domination of online attention and state surveillance and censorship, Dahlberg (2007).
Many are cautious of the virtual public sphere and warn that it could become just another medium used and possibly manipulated by elites to voice their opinions and enhance their own ideas and beliefs that may lead to undemocratic tendencies such as greater political fragmentation and incivility.
Cascao, A, E. 2007. Resistance and counter hegemony in counter-trans boundary river basis. III Workshop on Hydro-Hegemony, 12-13 May, London.
Dahlberg, L. 2007. Rethinking the fragmentation of the cyber public: from consensus to contestation. New Media & Society. Sage Publications Vol 9 (5): 827–847
Moyo D. 2007. Alternative media, Diasporas and the mediation of the Zimbabwe crisis. Ecquid. Novi 28(1–2): 81–105. Sage Publications.
Van Zoonen, L. 2002. Gendering the Internet: Claims, Controversies and Cultures. In the European Journal of Communication, Vol 17(1): 5–23.
www.facebook/mdczimbabwe.com accessed on 24-10-12
www.facebook/mlfmthwakazi.com accessed on 24-10-12
www.facebook/zapu.com accessed on 23-10-12