Opinion | International

Silence is complicity — whether it's #BlackLivesMatter or #ZimbabweanLivesMatter

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Can the American-led Black Lives Matter movement trigger an African awakening?

This is a question that Moky Mokura, the Executive Director of #AfricaNoFilter, posed on CNN in early June after the death of George Floyd sparked protests against racial injustice across the United States.

Moky, whose organization gives voice to new narratives in Africa, said, "despite progress on the continent there are too many examples of injustices perpetrated by black people towards other black people, with little attention, and almost no outrage - no headlines, few hashtags and no movement to call out the injustice."

Two months later, I found myself lured back to Moky's provocative words as the violent crackdown by government forces against peaceful protestors in Zimbabwe gave way to the viral Twitter campaign, #ZimbabweanLivesMatter.  

BBC commentary went so far as to ask, "if a social media hashtag - tapping into the energy and anger of the global #BlackLivesMatter phenomenon - could help achieve in Zimbabwe what years of street protests, strikes and political campaigns have so clearly failed to do?"

Zimbabwe has been in tragic decline for decades, ruled for 37 years by the authoritarian Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's first president, who finally relinquished office in 2017, owing to an intra-party squabble of the ruling ZANU_PF that gave rise to a coup d'état.

It was hoped that Mugabe's departure would open the door to the country's first legitimate democratic election and give an opening for the country's 14 million people to look forward to a better future. But that didn't happen. A disputed electoral process handed victory to the ruling party's presidential candidate Emmerson Mnangagwa.

The new government showed no interest in political accommodation, no effort at national reconciliation - the politics of Zimbabwe remained a zero-sum game, and Mnangawa's claim to be a reformer proved to be a falsehood.

Today, Zimbabwe is facing "an economic crisis, with inflation of 737 percent, food and fuel shortages and a collapsing currency." Near 90 percent of Zimbabweans are without formal employment.

Into this mix, add the COVID-19 pandemic, which has collapsed the country's fragile healthcare infrastructure and created a food security crisis, while government officials wrest control of the medical supply chain to enrich themselves. 

So people took to the streets in protest - and the government responded with brute force, labeling the activists "rogue" elements, "dark forces," and "terrorist opposition groups," vowing to "flush them out."

Enter #ZimbabweanLivesMatter.

South African hip-hop star AKA, set off the Twitter crusade by posting a picture of himself draped in the Zimbabwean flag. Other celebrities and artists in South Africa soon weighed in, followed by U.S. musicians Ice Cube, Lecrae and Tinashe. By Aug. 4, there were more than 700,000 tweets.

The campaign called out the arrests, abductions and torture of activists, including the incarceration of journalists Hopewell Chin'ono and Jacob Ngarivhume, and Tsitsi Dangarembga, the Booker prize long-listed author. Tsitsi has since been released, but Hopewell and Jacob remain in prison. Human Rights Watch estimates that more than 60 persons have been detained.

700,000 original tweets, plus the retweets, plus all the likes, that's a lot.

But expressions of outrage on a social media platform that have gone viral - however triumphant it may feel - will have little impact in and of itself.   

There must be African peer pressure on the government of Zimbabwe to release its chokehold on the country; and to get its knee off the neck of the Zimbabwean people. Or else, as Tsitsi and others warn, the nation could collapse.  

Since the protests began, civil society groups across the continent, along with Human Rights Watch, Transparency International and others, have been petitioning the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union (AU) to denounce the brutal crackdown.

Some, like Moky, point out the AU's hypocrisy, in that it quickly denounced the killing of George Floyd and the racial injustice in the United States, but sits silent toward the abuses on its doorstep, appearing to be muted when there are political consequences for the organization, with comments from member states like, it is "not... tradition to censure a fellow revolutionary party."

Finally, on Aug. 7, one week after much of the world had already weighed-in, the AU issued a statement, "encouraging the government of Zimbabwe to uphold the rule of law allowing for freedom of the media, freedom of assembly, freedom of association and the right to information." It promised to send off special envoys to "deepen democracy."

A step forward, for certain, but "encouraging" is far cry from a "denunciation," and it was noted that the AU had long missed the news cycle.

African 'so-called' solidarity with revolutionary parties belongs in the dustbin of history.

In its place must go the most important political development in Africa of the past generation, the rise of an activist generation: young people empowered through education and technology demanding that their voices be heard. It is their peer pressure that matters now.

Americans should be encouraged by what's happening in this southern African nation. The #ZimbabweanLivesMatters phenomena shows that even when America's cache and prestige around the world is at a low point, others continue to be inspired by our image, and are willing to fight and die for the ideals of democratic freedom that the United States was founded upon.

NOTE: This post has been updated from the original to correct the hashtag.

K. Riva Levinson is president and CEO of KRL International LLC, a D.C.-based consultancy that works in the world's emerging markets, award-winning author of "Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa's First Woman President" (Kiwai Media, June 2016). You can follow her @rivalevinson

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