Zimbabweans Turn To Hashtags And Pop-Up Protests To Push Out President Mugabe : Goats and Soda It's hashtags vs. Robert Mugabe. Social media is proving a new kind of challenge to Zimbabwe's strong-armed autocrat.

Can Hashtags And Pop-Up Protests Topple A Leader?

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's turn now to a country in southern Africa, Zimbabwe, that's been ruled, since its liberation in 1980, by one man, Robert Mugabe. In the past few months, a proliferation of protest movements has popped up, both on the streets and online, calling on Mugabe to go.

They're called hashtag protests, and the trend started with a pastor and Zimbabwe's national flag and the hashtag #ThisFlag. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports from the capital, Harare.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Wrapped in Zimbabwe's green, yellow, red, black and white flag with an African fish eagle at the center, Pastor Evan Mawarire posted a plaintive Facebook video recording in April, saying he was fed up with the government's failures, broken promises and the crippled economy.

He captured the national mood of discontent with a slogan, hashtag #ThisFlag. The government responded by making it illegal and punishable to use the flag without permission.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in foreign language)

QUIST-ARCTON: Within months, online protests spilled onto the streets of the capital, Harare, and beyond. Mawarire and others led a successful nationwide shutdown in July. They demanded reforms and the departure of 92-year-old President Mugabe. Then followed a series of demonstrations.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in foreign language)

QUIST-ARCTON: Social movements like hashtag #Tajamuka came into their own. Tajamuka means outraged, angry and defiant in Zimbabwe's dominant Shona language. Promise Mkwananzi heads the group.

PROMISE MKWANANZI: We have to do something about our anger. So there has been a shift on the strategy. There's been a shift on the approach. And the focus now is on citizen activism with citizens themselves, like Tajumaka and others - express themselves in a peaceful, nonviolent way.

QUIST-ARCTON: Hashtag activism is a new way of challenging the establishment in Zimbabwe. And it's mainly youthful. Campaigners include unemployed university graduate who go by the name hashtag #ThisGown. They specialize in pop-up protests wearing graduation gowns and caps. Graduate and activist Nqobazitha Mlambo says the message is we have no jobs.

NQOBAZITHA MLAMBO: Because of the nature of the dictatorship that we are under, you are forced to embrace the use of social media. It's not secure - it's not prudent and wise to try and use the tactics that are used in the '90s of demonstrations because what we have witnessed - that we can never match the current government if it comes to violence.

QUIST-ARCTON: In the past, it's been Zimbabwe's traditional opposition Movement for Democratic Change Party. That was the main voice against the government. That changed this year, says Tajamuka's Promise Mkwananzi.

MKWANANZI: The major limitation of the opposition political parties has been that they are straitjacketed. They are rigid. Now we have created platforms where people can operate freely, can participate very easily. One of the major, major, major differences is the centrality of the social media in the whole equation.

QUIST-ARCTON: Backed by chanting supporters, President Mugabe has responded to dissent with a threat.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBERT MUGABE: We know how to deal with our enemies who have been trying all along to bring about regime change the country. We have the means to defend and protect our hard-won freedom. Please stop it.

(APPLAUSE)

LINDA TSUNGIRIRAI MASARIRA: In the streets, they're now using police brutality against us...

QUIST-ARCTON: Linda Tsungirirai Masarira from hashtag #Tajamuka.

MASARIRA: ...Which has found many of us, including myself, thoroughly beaten up, severely assaulted, arrested and all.

QUIST-ARCTON: Like Promise Mkwananzi, she has spent time in prison this year, charged with public violence. Tsungirirai Masarira says Mugabe and his security agents know only brutal force to muzzle critics. Political analyst Earnest Mudzengi says hashtag activism may be a new force. But there doesn't appear to be proper coordination among the groups or with Zimbabwe's established opposition.

EARNEST MUDZENGI: We have hashtag #Tajamuka there. You have the civil servants doing their own thing. So one of the problems is that there is no cohesion between certain online protests and offline activities, extending to the grassroots.

QUIST-ARCTON: However, this new style opposition in Zimbabwe has galvanized the likes of attorney Fadzayi Mahere. She joined in the demonstrations.

FADZAYI MAHERE: I was there, obviously, to voice my discontent and protest. And I think it's important to lend my voice to the choir of discontent. The constitution guarantees us the right to gather, to assemble, to protest, to demonstrate.

QUIST-ARCTON: And Zimbabwe's protesters say they won't give up. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Harare.

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