The recent uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and now Libya have fascinated many within the pro-democracy groups in Swaziland. By the same token, the ruling regime has been rattled. In an undemocratic country like Swaziland, people have good reason to monitor what is happening in the north and to – a large extent – even aspire to have the same courage and motivation as the revolutionaries. Given the mainstream media's failure to adequately cover these events, Swazi citizens are turning to Facebook to find out the news – and plan their own uprising.
Mainstream media in Swaziland has not paid much attention to the uprisings in the north, let alone pointed out the lessons to be learnt, not not just by the present regime in the country, but also similar by dictators all over the continent. In fact, it has been conspicuously silent on updating the Swazi nation on what is happening in north Africa.
So, for the purposes of today’s discussion, I want to explore the rise of social media in Swaziland and its influence in galvanising the people for political change in this land locked country called Swaziland. The influence – or lack thereof – of social media in influencing political change in contemporary Swaziland still provides plenty of virgin ground for scholars to explore. However, it cannot be denied that in the recent past more young people have been using the internet and social media not just to interact, but also to influence opinions towards change in Swaziland.
The question that should be bothering those of us in the kingdom's mainstream media is the spotlight social media has thrown on our relevance. In a tightly-knit and repressive society like Swaziland, where discussing the political future of the country is the preserve of the royal family and its stooges in government, it would seem that social media has created the necessary impetus to stimulate debate about the need for change in the country.
What is evident today in is that many stories which would ordinarily be published in the newspapers only get “published” on Facebook, one of the most popular social networks in Swaziland. Recently, local newspapers have been reporting on stories that were published on Facebook (at times word for word), which in itself an indication of the new lows that we have sunk to as a profession. The downsides of relying on social media like Facebook and Twitter for factual and balanced reports are well documented and will not be repeated here, but in the case of Swaziland it would seem Facebook has become an alternative form of media for many people.
For example, how do you explain the fact that the story of former minister of justice Ndumiso Mamba’s infidelity with a king’s wife never made it into any of the local newspapers, yet half the country was talking about it? Reading newspapers during those days you could've been forgiven for thinking that you were reading any of the state-controlled Zimbabwean newspapers. Coincidentally, the South African media had a field day running the story, while social networks like Facebook were abuzz with people’s real feelings about the story. In fact Facebook groups ran the story long before any of the South African media picked up on it, and by the time that the was officially made public knowledge, people were yawning for new developments.
Recently, there have been reports that the minister of foreign affairs Lutfo Dlamini has been suspended for allegedly stealing from the king, yet nothing came from mainstream media. Evidence in Swaziland today shows that a new community is being built via social media, where journalism as we know it is distorted. But what choice do the people of Swaziland have when they are being starved of the news they want and need to make informed choices about the political future of Swaziland? Mandla Ginindza, a member of the Facebook group April 12 Uprising makes a similar point. He says they have been forced to rely on social media for information and mobilising for change because local newspapers have, in his views, failed to stand up to the repressive machinery of the state.
“They are cowards. They have succumbed to pressure. They have become bootlickers. I cannot tell the difference from independent and state owned media,” he rants. “Facebook is where we get information now. Of course I am aware that at times this information may be wrong but in a country like Swaziland where the very newspapers you could be relying on for stories could either not have the stories you (are) looking for or when they are published they are in bits and pieces that you cannot make head or tail of everything,” reasons Ginindza, an LLB student at the University of Swaziland.
What the people of Swaziland, particularly the youth, are doing on Facebook is quite amazing. Not only are they mobilising each other for political change but they are also showing their anger at the misrule of the country’s authorities, aptly named the “tribal mafia in some quarters”. The “April 12 uprising” group has a clear aim – toppling the royalist regime. “We pledge, as a group, to create in the next few months the biggest mass movement that the country has ever seen. 2011 will also mark the year when we will topple the royalist regime. Joining this group is a pledge that you will work tirelessly to make this a reality. The date set for our uprising is April 12 2011, the day which marks 38 years of servitude and powerlessness for Swaziland's toiling masses.”
It, therefore, came as no surprise when the police announced that they are now infiltrating Facebook to monitor what was happening in the cyber world, as reported in The Times on 13 February. The state has genuine reason to be worried. A quick glimpse at the comments found in many of the pro-democracy groups, whose membership is mainly drawn from the largely educated yet frustrated youth, give the impression that the people of Swaziland are angry and tired of the regime. However, the challenge still remains in translating the cyber militancy and anger into practical action.
For all this, it still remains to be seen if mainstream media will accept the challenge posed by social media and raise the stakes so far as robust journalism is concerned. Many frustrated young journalist have left the profession – not because they do not like it but because it seems there is an entrenched psyche of self-induced fear and boot-licking in some of the media workers. But it is not hard to understand why we have a docile and reactionary media in Swaziland. To ensure submission, the state dangles an apple from the one hand; a sword from the other. If it cannot recruit certain journalists to eat from the crumbs of the royal table of privilege, the state uses its repressive machinery to whip everyone into line.
The information void that is created by the docility of the media, and its accomplice status endorsing in the political and economic mismanagement of the country, has seen the popular rise of social media. It remains to be seen how far such networks as Facebook can help influence the people of Swaziland towards political change. But the mood and feeling of the people never should be judged based on what the mainstream media reports; instead Facebook could well be more reliable now. Perhaps, as the revolutions of Egypt and Libya have shown, Facebook will play its part in being one of the catalysts towards change in Swaziland. That said, no one should be fooled; Facebook itself will not bring revolution in Swaziland. Instead, as noted by seasoned journalist and astute scholar Richard Rooney of the Swaziland Commentary blog, Facebook can only play a supporting role in assisting the people themselves to bring about a revolution. FAM