How Zimbabweans Navigated Their Way Around An Internet Shutdown

By Kudzayi Zvinavashe

It’s almost midnight in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare and a few colleagues casually joke how they spent their day in different parts of Europe over drinks. It’s a conversation that could be a perfect fit in a billionaire’s club except that these chaps are typical Zimbabweans; struggling to make ends meet against a turbulent economy and having a torrid time checking in on their loved ones.

“I was in German today” says one fellow in a bragging tone. The other interjects, “I could have been in Russia with the President today” with a grin on his face. This sums up how my fellow countrymen have found their way back onto the internet during Zimbabwe’s internet shut down.

Zimbabweans have been using VPNs as the government pushes the country through a fully blown and partial internet shutdowns. The situation has been dire and Zimbabwe has been like a patient who slides between consciousness and unconsciousness as governments switches on and off the internet at will.

As the ups and downs unravel on the digital space, a mere drop of connection or depletion of internet credit send one on an inquiry spree whether if government has shut down the internet once more.

The few Zimbabweans who have successfully sneaked back online consider themselves fortunate and the enlightened class in the citizenry.

As expected the comical side of Zimbabweans has been evident, one Zimbabwean posted,

Day 3 without internet, I have just realised that I have a young brother and he is quite a funny young man”.

The past week has been characterized by a violent stay away, a military backed heavy handed response to the protests, hundreds of arrests and massive name calling across the political divide on who is to blame for the current crisis. The military presence in the streets of Zimbabwe is the first since the August 1 shootings that resulted in the death of 6 citizens, according to the Montlanthe commission.

Government has been quietly shutting down internet making use of the Interception of Communications Act giving directives to internet service providers to shut down internet fully or to block some social media networks. Citizens have had to rely on the biggest mobile network operator (%51 local market), Econet which has been surprisingly transparent, keeping its customers updated as the directives from government come in. The silence of their competitors, Netone and Telecel which are government owned has been very telling.

Econet’s initial notice to its customers read, “Further to a warrant issued by the Minister of State in the President’s office for National Security through the Director General of the President’s Department, acting in terms of the Interception of Communications Act, Internet Services are currently suspended across all networks and Internet Services Providers. We are obliged to act when directed to do so and the matter is beyond our control. All inconveniences are sincerely regretted”.

Some legal minds strongly feel Econet’s update is its bid to protect itself from a potential nasty legal litigation that may follow post the internet shutdown phase.

Government on the other end has not been spared of the legal action by active citizens in the country who feel their human rights and that of their fellow countrymen has been violated. Journalists, Columbus Mavhunga, Philemon Jambaya, Godwin Mangudya and Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) have begun legal action against government.

As the days goes by, uncertainty hovers over the nation. Those online tread with caution, without knowledge of what may follow. Meanwhile internet activity is subdued, the once vibrant #Twimbos  community as Zimbabweans on Twitter are popularly known is now a pale shadow of its former self.

In the past, Zimbabweans have pushed for dialogue on social media with relative success. The latest is that every Zimbabwean with smartphones you can think off have had their phones reduced to mere shells or low budget phones widely known as Mbudzi for their limited functions. Let it be in books of history that Zimbabwe’s longest shutdown according to Econet, was requested by the Minister of State in the President’s office for National Security, Owen Ncube.

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