How Robert Mugabe became a generation's joke

FOR A GENERATION, the biggest joke in Zimbabwe has become the ageing Robert Mugabe. At 92, the man who was once seen as a firebrand revolutionary is now a subject of endless jokes and memes passed around on social media platforms - Facebook, Twitter and Whatsapp. He will forever be remembered for what he destroyed than for what he created.

Mugabe now suffers from old age problems. He read a wrong speech in its entirety in parliament, subconsciously announced that Morgan Tsvangirai won more than 73% of the vote in 2008, sleeps at podiums, hobbles as he tries to move around, and even publicly admits he is abused by his young wife into submission. These are just a few examples.

Though he is determined to be life president, Zimbabwe’s mostly young population have found ways of undermining his power. The last census count in 2012 estimates 70% of the population in the country to be under the age of 35. Of course, it is still risky business to make fun of Mugabe. In fact, there is a law in the country's constitution that forbids undermining the authority of and insulting the president who ZANU PF liken to Jesus, 'the messiah.'  Since 2010, more than 150 people have been charged for insulting the president.

In a country where there seems to be no alternative, where to aspire to become president is treason, how then do people dissent? The answer is simple — by making fun of the individuals and systems that are oppressing them.

In early 2015, Mugabe fell after walking down some steps after delivering a speech to a handful of supporters at the Harare International airport, sparking off a chain of viral memes that were shared globally. The joke for the world was not so much that an old man of 92 fell, but the joke was in that even strongmen like Mugabe whose public persona is that of a brutal and invincible leader, they are vulnerable and also succumb to common human frailties.

In the book, Can Jokes Bring Down Governments? Metahaven asks: “Is it possible that jokes have an untapped political power, which was historically always present but never so useful and necessary as now?” The joke, as identified by Metahaven, is one of the only escape routes from the spell of authoritarianism. As something which “removes itself from the political-discursive frame”, the joke breaks through the enigmatic hold of power by introducing an unpredictable, playful and contingent factor to political life.

A recent picture of Mugabe's hands circulating on social media. AP Photo.

In Zimbabwe, social media has emerged as an outlet for young people to express their frustrations and hopes. Because of the Mugabe memes that became viral, mercurial propagandist, Jonathan Moyo, then Information minister, was quickly forced to join Facebook and Twitter. It was a case of “if you can’t beat them, join them.”

Instead of being heard and listened to, Zimbabwean people are continuously told they have no idea of the magnitude of the threat that is underway from enemies in 'the West' — which itself is a manner of deflecting responsibility and enforcing an external frame of reference to the source of prevailing problems. Mugabe’s ultimate problem is not the targeted sanctions from the United States government or the European Union, but ordinary Zimbabweans.

The hashtag revolution is gaining momentum. It started as simple private monologues - #thisflag, #tajamuka, #myzimbabwe but these digital epithets are gradually translating into widespread street protests. The government spin has been to label these ,mass agitations as foreign sponsored activities, feeble attempts to ignore that the country has reached a breaking point.

Mugabe has, however, warned all and sundry, there will be no 'Arab spring in Zimbabwe.' Yet the victory for this fledgling movement is not merely in toppling him, it is in that young people in Zimbabwe have found the power to speak truth to power where before it was near impossible. According to a report, Zimbabwe's young people consider the mainstream media to be 'sources of disinformation.'

This is not surprising. The Zimbabwe government owns as much as 80% of the 'public media.' Zimpapers, is effectively the propaganda arm of ZANU PF, with titles such as The Herald, The Chronicle, The Sunday Mail, The Sunday News. The company has after all turned out to be the biggest satire platform in the country. While its mission is to promote the anodyne nonsense that Mugabe and his acolytes spew day after day, the ridiculousness in their political coverage and denials of the obvious has become a source of amusement for many. 

Mugabe's regime will masterfully continue to make use of every form of media available to reinforce their position, foster the cult of the leader, denounce real and perceived enemies, control the population, demand subservience and justify threats of war.

Can a population laugh out loud a government from power? Can jokes, in fact, bring down a government? Yes, yes. For Zimbabwe’s “born-free” generation, Mugabe is nothing but a fossil of jokes, and it’s a matter of time before he is bowled out for good and none of Zimbabwe's young people will miss him.

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