The Glass Fortress: Zimbabwe's Cyber-Guerrilla Warfare

By Mavhunga, Clapperton | Journal of International Affairs, Spring-Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

The Glass Fortress: Zimbabwe's Cyber-Guerrilla Warfare


Mavhunga, Clapperton, Journal of International Affairs


Contrary to the gun battles we are accustomed to, we now have cyber-warfares fought from one's comfort zone, be it bedroom, office, swimming pool, etc., but with deadly effects.

--Dr. Olivier Muchena, Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, Secretary for Science and Technology (1)

The Maxim gun and the Martini-Henry rifle ushered anglophone Africa into 20th century colonialism. The Cold War, in turn, presented a moment for black political elites to acquire weapons (the AK-47 in particular) with which to define and present themselves as African nationalists fighting--with all the material ramifications of this word--to end colonial rule. Could information technology--specifically radio, the Internet and cell phones--be the Martini-Henry, Maxim and AK-47 of the 21st century?

Zimbabwe offers an example of the way ordinary citizens in Africa are using these information technologies to express and demand genuine individual freedoms. Words and information are a kinetic process. To control words is to control mobility; when mobility is frozen, so too is information. This essay examines the technologies that enable and transform the mobility of words into weapons of resistance--by the state against its own citizens and by citizens against the state.

Using the lens of mobility of words (specifically those that contest state versions of truth and falsehood), this essay traverses the last ten years of newspaper, radio, computer, Internet, telephone and cellular technology in Zimbabwe. These technologies have enabled people to fortify their right to freedom of expression, to both minimize and maximize the value of their movements in search of better politics and to assemble resources and personnel to challenge the state. The state has responded with control mechanisms like surveillance, interception, physical violence and propaganda. Twenty-first century information technology has enabled individual citizens to become cyber-guerrillas, using their smart phones, laptops, and desktops to perforate the fortress of a ruler still caught up in the 20th century from their own homes, vehicles, rural villages, in the country or in the Zimbabwean diaspora.

Zimbabwean users have designed a new use for technologies of communication: to address the question of liberation and the tension between national freedom and personal freedom. The Internet, e-mail and radio waves have become instruments to challenge the late 20th century metanarrative of the so-called father figure who built the nation--that big man of courage who liberated his people--that anchors the dominant state-centric idea of Africa. (2) This status entitles him to rule the people permanently and rapaciously, whether they want him to or not--hence Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's proprietary (as opposed to patriotic) declaration that "Zimbabwe is mine.'" (3) It gives the fullest meaning to his rebuff to then British Prime Minister Tony Blair: "Keep your England and let me keep my Zimbabwe." (4)

According to Giorgio Agamben, the "fighting" and "loss of blood," the stuff that "liberating" is made of, was supposed to be a process of profanation--sacrificing or spilling blood to cleanse the country of the demon of white privilege so that the ordinary black person could decide on his of her government. Guns were supposed to clear the path to allow the pen of ballot to govern. Instead, the opposite happened in many African countries, including Zimbabwe. Many leaders of liberation struggles, once in power, used the sacrifice of spilled blood to elevate themselves to the status of gods. (5) The media--television, radio and newspapers--was used as a personal, party and state instrument for this transformation. In many states, a strict censorship system was installed to barricade any counternarrative--to filter what was heard, silence what might be said, and if necessary, shut the ears of those who might hear.

Interestingly, the pervasive power of the Internet and its use as an instrument of profanation--as an instrument to challenge the metanarrative of leaders who sacrifice their citizens and exploit the history of liberation for self-deification-mimics the dual capacity of the AK-47 to both install and challenge power. …

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