CHIREDZI, Zimbabwe (Reuters) - Deep in Zimbabwe’s drought-stricken rural district of Chiredzi, news of the biggest protests against President Robert Mugabe in a decade reached Peter Mufaro only after a week.
The demonstrations in Zimbabwe’s towns and cities are being organized through social media that few people have access to in remoter villages such as Malipati, where Mufaro works as a carpenter and part-time farmer.
“When you catch up with the news, it feels like you are not part of the country,” he said of last month’s ‘stay at home’ demonstration when urban Zimbabweans vented their anger at Mugabe’s handling of a failing economy.
“People here are focused on the hunger, we do not hear about demonstrations. I rely on the radio for news but they don’t report everything,” the 32-year-old father of two said.
Malipati, 500 km (300 miles) southeast of the capital Harare, is generally cut off from the internet - and the disparate social media-based groups mobilizing the protests - by a poor telecommunications system and the high cost for those lucky enough to get a connection.
The two thirds of Zimbabweans who live in the countryside largely rely on state media that are tightly controlled by Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party, but the news still filters through.
Many urban residents come originally from the villages and return home to visit family and friends, bringing with them tales of what’s happening in the cities. Use of the WhatsApp mobile phone messaging system is also spreading, despite the low internet penetration in the countryside.
The rural vote is the mainstay of support for Mugabe and ZANU-PF, which liberated Zimbabwe from white minority rule in 1980 after fighting a guerrilla war. But were it to turn against Mugabe, this would pose the gravest challenge to his 36-year grip on power at a time when he has fallen out with his war veteran allies.
Gauging the rural mood is difficult. There are no opinion polls and villagers are frequently anxious about expressing anti-government views in public.
But history shows that support for ZANU-PF there isn’t unconditional, and Mugabe needs look no further than 2008. Then he was defeated in the first round of presidential elections by main opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, and ZANU-PF lost its parliamentary majority for the first time after some rural voters rejected the party at the height of an economic crisis.
For years ZANU-PF has retained rural support partly through its history as a liberation movement. However, it has also used coercion, an elaborate patronage network that rewards respected traditional chiefs, violence and threats to return to the 1970s bush war, which was largely fought in the countryside.
Movements such as #ThisFlag and #Tajamuka have used Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp to rally Zimbabweans against the leadership of the 92-year-old Mugabe, but this has been mostly targeted at citizens in urban areas, where internet use is high.
Mugabe has a long record of cracking down heavily on anti-government street protests, but the new wave of demonstrations taking place almost weekly is proving harder to suppress and is stretching the government’s standard response of teargas, boots and baton sticks.
Mugabe’s government blames all of Zimbabwe’s economic ills on sanctions imposed by Western countries, which they also accuse of sponsoring the latest protests.
The internet and mobile phone apps have given people a sense of anonymity, helping to create an army of activists expressing anger against high unemployment, an acute shortage of cash, poor public services and corruption.
Activist pastor Evan Mawarire first posted a video on Facebook in April draped in Zimbabwe’s flag and lamenting its economic problems. The video captured the frustrations of many citizens, giving birth to #ThisFlag movement.
Political analysts doubt the social media movement will topple Mugabe because it does not enjoy support from the military and has yet to win nationwide backing.
The rural population has remained spectators on the sidelines, but this could change, said Prosper Mkwananzi, leader of the militant group #Tajamuka - slang in the Shona language for defiance.
The group has formed an offshoot, #ZimbabweYadzoka, (Reclaiming Zimbabwe), which seeks to engage the countryside.
“#ZimbabweYadzoka is designed for the needs of the rural folks. We are using that and drafting a strategy to penetrate the rural areas in terms of social media use,” Mkwananzi said.
“In the next three or so months you will see some action because despite all the perception, WhatsApp is very strong in the rural areas and we would like to capitalize on that.”
Many people use WhatsApp to pass political messages on family, friends and church group chats.
In some villages closer to Harare, citizens are catching up with the social media messages of defiance.
“Thank God, we don’t have to rely on their (government)propaganda to know what is going on,” said 25-year-old Samuel Samanyanga in Bindura, a farming town 80 km north of the capital, as he read a WhatsApp message from a city-based friend.
But further north in Mount Darwin district, Samanyanga was sure his friends were not aware of latest political events.
In Zimbabwe, the main users of social media are youths born after independence. They make up the majority of the population and constitute the bulk of the frustrated jobless.
Mugabe is the only ruler they know and if he gets his way in elections due in 2018, the president - who will be 94 then - will be seeking to extend his rule to more than 40 years.
“On WhatsApp, I get to see and know what is happening, and how people are organizing themselves. I am connected with friends and family,” said Tichaona, Samuel’s friend, who declined to give his surname.
The government is drafting a Computer Crime and Cyber Crime Bill, which will allow authorities to seize phones and laptops, seen as an attempt to curb the use of social media in organizing anti-government demonstrations.
“We are not going to give you free rein to undermine the party and president the way that you are doing,” ZANU-PF national political commissar Saviour Kasukuwere told a recent party rally.
“We are going to fight you and we are going to stop you,” said Kasukuwere, nicknamed Tyson after the ferocious former boxing champion Mike Tyson.
Editing by James Macharia and David Stamp