Zimbabwe's data drama offers unpopular minister chance to play hero

2017-01-14 13:30
Picture: Duncan Alfreds, News24

Picture: Duncan Alfreds, News24

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Harare - He's being called Zimbabwe's "superhero". But Supa Mandiwanzira is no protest pastor Evan Mawarire, who made his name opposing President Robert Mugabe's authoritarian government last year.

Mandiwanzira is Mugabe's IT minister. Until the middle of this week he was enjoying (like his boss) a more-than-a-month-long vacation "out of the country", as he revealed on Twitter. He didn't say where he was - which is also just like Mugabe, who keeps Zimbabweans clicking between flight tracker apps and Asian news reports to work out where the soon-to-be-93-year-old is.

Hoped to see out holiday in peace

The minister had clearly hoped to see out his holiday in peace. But that was before the shrill anger of Zimbabweans over massive data price increases jolted him into action - and gave him a chance to play hero by reversing the hikes.

What some Zimbabweans are asking is: Was this drama engineered by the authorities with this aim in mind?

One-time journalist Mandiwanzira lost any sympathy Whatsapp-and-Facebook loving Zimbabweans might have had for him last May when he threatened protest pastor Mawarire. The outspoken MC had just been a guest on a talk-show aired on ZiFM, a (sort of) independent radio station owned by the minister. Though forced to share the platform with a Zanu-PF invitee, Mawarire had acquitted himself well - and Mandiwanzira was furious. 

Minister threatened #ThisFlag pastor

Footage sneakily taken outside the radio studio showed the minister threatening to have the pastor "removed" from social media. Mandiwanzira didn't gain in the popularity stakes when he went on to champion new restrictions to social media in the form of the Computer Crime and Cyber Crime Bill. He told the New York Times in November: "The problem comes when you use social media to promote anarchy and civil disorder. That’s illegal, and legal consequences will naturally follow.”

The Whatsapp-er's saviour

Thursday's late-night statement reversing the data tariff hikes has allowed the minister to recast himself as the good guy. Accusing telecommunications company Econet of "gluttonous corporate greed" (Econet had effected hikes that were well above the "floor price" for data set by state regulator Potraz), the minister reframed himself as the Whatsapp-er's saviour, fighting on behalf of cash-strapped Zimbabweans desperate to stay connected with family and friends. They responded with gratitude. Tweeted one Zimbabwean: "I'm sure it feels good to actually [have] done something for the good of the masses. Keep it up." Another praised Mandiwanzira for "ending this madness." For once, Zimbabweans' anger was directed away from the ruling party, with Econet founder Strive Masiyiwa coming in for flak for his New York "penthouses".

Questions remain

But when the anger dies down, Zimbabweans will be left with questions.

Did Potraz, an arm of the state, precipitate this crisis, deliberately leading Econet into the frontline, as the company suggested in a statement on Friday?

Earlier this week Zanu-PF's Jonathan Moyo, the higher education minister, had already got approval for speaking up against the price hikes. Was Mandiwanzira, who has in the past been linked to an opposing faction of Mugabe's party, keen to stop party rivals getting all the goodwill? After all, every Zanu-PF official's decision must be weighed in the light of two things: elections in 2018 and the inevitable end of Mugabe's rule.

As several have noted, Mandiwanzira's statement still leaves open the possibility for data hikes in the future. As Nqaba Matshazi of the pirvately-owned Newsday tweeted: "The sad thing is that Zimbabwe's only superhero, SUPA MAN-diwanzira says data tariffs will go up, what he's against only is Econet's margin."

For now, the minister has come out of this debacle looking good. 

How long will the shine stay on?

Read more on:    zimbabwe  |  internet  |  southern africa

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