The social media president

The social media president
Published: 23 February 2018 (507 Views)
The English language is full of phrases attesting to the human inability to change: 'A tiger cannot change his stripes'; 'the leopard cannot change his spots'; 'you can't teach an old dog new tricks', to list just three. This ideacan even be traced back to the Bible, and the classic ode to conservatism in Ecclesiastes 1:9, "What has been will be again,what has been done will be done again;there is nothing new under the sun."

This sentiment has been evident in abundance over the last few weeks, as Zimbabweans and foreigners alike have debated to what extent Zimbabwe is truly changing in these heady times, or whether the revolution we all experienced is just a mirage that will never truly materialise. In particular, the desire and ability of our new president, a septuagenarian lest we forget, to embrace a new era has been questioned.

Considering these questions, and acknowledging that President Mnangagwa has been in office less than three weeks, it must be said that the initial signs are positive. The government's first budget was well received, and there is already evidence that some of the measures to ensure liquidity are beginning to work. The initial noises about corruption struck the right note and there is certainly a sense that a new, transparent government is in the making. And in terms of democracy, President Mnangagwa has missed no opportunity to assure us all that the 2018 elections will be free, fair and on time. Of course, the public has a right to be cautious and to reserve judgement, but there is definitely room for optimism.

We must all acknowledge however, that policy changes take time, especially for their effects to be felt. And so perhaps the most immediately evident change enacted by the new president is not in substance, but in style. For a member of the liberation generation, and one who has been in politics for a long time, the transformation in President Mnangagwa's approach and communication style over the past few weeks has been quite remarkable.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the social media. If you were to have asked a young Zimbabwean a month ago which politician is the least likely to have become an avid social media user, Emmerson Mnangagwa would have been right up there.

Yet a few weeks into his presidency, that is exactly what has happened. He operates extremely active accounts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, which are constantly being used to help him to communicate with the youth, and to listen to the people.

This was first in evidence during the furore over his cabinet selection. The president heard the criticism of his choices m in the social media, and instead of ignoring it, took to Facebook to explain his rationale. In a post a few days after his initial decision, he wrote: "This is a new Zimbabwe with a new way of doing things. I vow to be a listening president, one that puts the people first. I urge everyone to be patient as we build a people's government that will work for all Zimbabweans, young and old, rich and poor, male and female."

Ten days later, he addressed the issue head-on, writing, "I know there was some disappointment about my cabinet choices and I understand the frustration. This is a crucial period for Zimbabwe's democracy and economic recovery, and we must balance the need for new faces and ideas with the need for stability. It was always my intention to supplement the cabinet with additional representatives, in particular young people and women, and I will announce additional consultative bodies in due course."

What is more remarkable is that the latter quote comes from a post written by the president to "report back on some of the things we have achieved in our first two weeks." Just imagine if a month ago you were told that a Zimbabwean president took to Facebook to clarify and explain a controversial decision, and to update the public on progress!

The desire for this type of open, engaged presidency is evident in the response. President Mnangagwa's Facebook page is growing rapidly, with thousands of additional followers each day, and the comments on some of his posts run into the thousands. Scanning through them, the overriding sentiment is one of appreciation that finally Zimbabwe has a president who is willing to listen to and engage with the people, and most of all, to explain his actions head-on to those who may disagree.

While the necessary, substantive changes to Zimbabwe's economy, society and democracy will take time, these stylistic changes are what gives us hope that real change is on the way. President Mnangagwa is showing that while clearly not of their generation, he understands the youth and wants to represent them. They say a tiger can't change his stripes, but when you see the crocodile on Facebook, you may just have second thoughts.

- Charles Munganasa


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