The Harare News annual survey last year revealed that 80% of 143 respondents, all in Harare, are avid WhatsApp users. This is a huge figure, dwarfing even Facebook use at 21%, and Twitter at 9%. Backing this up, a recent report from online tech news site TechZim reported that around 5.2 million Zimbabweans are on WhatsApp making it far and away the biggest mobile phone app in the country.
Overall, most Zimbabweans are now starting to use the internet more often and for a wider variety of reasons. With Internet banking growing in popularity since the cash crisis seized the nation, these numbers are likely to continue to rise. Some banks, such as NMB, insist that all personal banking is done online, and no longer offer paper-based RTGS facilities in their banking halls.
Social media is also playing an increasingly important role in formal and informal communication in Zimbabwe. For most Zimbabweans who use Twitter, Professor Jonathan Moyo’s account shows up on their timeline time and again whether you follow him or not. He is undisputedly the most active social media user among government officials with 124,000 followers. Ministers Supa Mandiwanzira and Saviour Kasukuwere also have accounts that come to life from time to time.
For Harare residents, Facebook and Twitter accounts belonging to Mayor Ben Manyenyeni can be a good way to communicate around service delivery issues. The mayor now uses his social media accounts to deal with city matters as it is convenient and familiar to residents to air their views online.
Taking it even further is MP for Harare West, Jessie Majome, who has created a virtual notice board for Harare West residents on Facebook where she publishes updates from parliament, and engages Harare West residents on a variety of service delivery, human rights and legal matters. Her efforts have won her much praise from residents who feel that a new degree of transparency has been achieved.
Councillor Loveness Gomba of Ward 36, Mufakose and New Marima, said that Whatsapp is a very cheap and convenient means to communicate with her constituents.
“I live in my ward, but cannot be everywhere at the same time. Whatsapp updates from residents allow me to keep in touch especially with those who cannot afford to call,” she said.
Being able to communicate any time and very cheaply helps Councilor Gomba increase her efficiency and residents feel that they can hold her to account more easily.
However, Job Mbadzi, councillor for ward 24 which covers part of Highfields and New Ardebennie, says social media is only convenient for residents who know how to use the various platforms.
“Being in one of Harare’s oldest suburbs most of my residents are the elderly and are not on social media,” said Mbadzi, who explains how they have to combine social media and the council newsletter to cater for the different demographics.
All told, effective communication will include a variety of methods, with online forums playing an increasingly important role. The Harare News survey revealed that 60% of residents don’t even know the name of their councillor, and had never been to a council meeting, highlighting how crucial it is to formulate more modern strategies to foster engagement. Because people are busy trying to earn a living, offering quick methods of engagement can plug the gap where apathy has set in.
Uses include gathering reports and feedback about services and policies, sharing the findings and resolutions of meetings with the wider community, publishing public notices about road closures, water shutdowns, and other public service announcements. There is also little doubt that social media will play an absolutely critical role in any successful political campaigns for local government spots, especially in urban areas where smart phone penetration is high.