Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai
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Probably taking a cue, but on a lesser scale, a number of Zimbabwean politicians have taken to social networking in the hope of gaining an extra edge over their rivals.

With the growth of internet penetration and the advent of mobile internet access in Zimbabwe, observers maintain that social networking may one day define the next Zimbabwean leader.

As with the American situation, it is argued that there is a growth in the number of young voters who have regular access to social networking sites.

The country’s sole mobile service provider, Econet claims to have at least 400 000 subscribers on its broadband platform, while internet penetration, rated at more than 14% is said to be among the highest in Africa.

MDC politicians like David Coltart, Nelson Chamisa, Obert Gutu, Gorden Moyo, Welshman Ncube, Tendai Biti and Jameson Timba are among a host of politicians with Facebook pages, while Prime Minister, Morgan Tsvangirai has a fan page.

From Zanu PF, Tourism and Hospitality Industry minister Walter Mzembi and Youth Development, Indigenisation and Economic Empowerment minister Saviour Kasukuwere are the only ones who maintain regular presence on the world’s largest social networking site.

Ncube and Coltart are the only politicians who regularly post comments on Twitter, while a number of videos have been posted on YouTube.

Renowned Zimbabwean blogger, Chris Kabwato reckons that social networking is a great avenue for politicians, considering the number of people who have access to the internet.

“They are an educated lower to middle class urban population,” he said of the demographics of people who have access to the internet.

“This is a group who influence the main ideas in society.”

While acknowledging the power of social networks, Kabwato advised that an online strategy could not supplant the strategy of mobilising people through rallies and other media.

“You need to use a strategy that uses all forms of media from word-of-mouth to print,” he said.

But Thamu Dube, a social media trends analyst, begged to differ, arguing that despite the popularity of social networking sites their worth as an electoral strategy was still distant.

“The level of internet penetration is not just the issue, there is also the issue of slow user adoption as most people do not see the benefits of the use of social networks,” he argued.

“So the dual effect of the lack of a reliable internet infrastructure and a small user footprint on the greater social networking landscape by Zimbabweans impacts greatly on the effectiveness of the politicians’ presence on their chosen platform.”

Amanda Atwood, who runs popular website Kubatana concurred, saying any internet-using communication tactic in Zimbabwe had to be measured within the context of Zimbabweans’ limited internet access.

“It is essential that you look at a communications strategy holistically, so if you are talking about how Zimbabwean politicians use social networking tools, you also have to ask how they are using other ICTs, and also traditional media, to communicate with their constituents,” she said.

On the other hand the analysts observed that the presence of Zimbabweans on Facebook, for example, may be deceptive in the sense that most of them were in the Diaspora and when it came to elections might not have a say in the final result.

But Dube was optimistic, saying that it was not a lost cause and advised ambitious politicians to continue using the platforms, as this strategy would bear fruit in the future.

“Used as a part of a well planned strategy of engagement, politicians can for instance use a social network site like Facebook as a point of contact by publicising it through traditional methods of information,” he said.

Dube noted that Diaspora was a severely fragmented environment whose interests were not homogenous, whereas the local population of internet users could easily be targeted.

Kabwato said Zimbabwe’s internet infrastructure was growing and with people now being able to access Twitter and Facebook on their mobile phones, social networking will prove to have a priceless contribution in Zimbabwean politics.

“So social networking by any politician is not in vain as long as that person has a clear communication strategy,” he said.

Atwood added that it was important for Zimbabwean politicians to recognise the importance of communication, with the internet audience being a key constituency, as it was well resourced.

“Politicians could take advantage of these more resourced constituents and leverage them to be volunteers, influence shapers or opinion makers in their campaigns,” she said.

“But to do so they first have to stop seeing Zimbabweans as voters and start seeing them as the people who employ them.

“They need to start valuing individual opinions, energy, contributions, feedback and time.”

Ever so optimistic about the intrinsic value of the social networking in Zimbabwe, Dube said the work done by the government and the private sector in creating a robust telecommunications infrastructure will be telling for future generations.

“Political strategists will become aware of the need to shift emphasis to energising and engaging an increasingly younger electorate through these technologies,” he said.

The social media analyst advised that the secret of the success of social networking, however, lies in understanding its place in people’s lives and applying discretion in its use, especially for politicians where they might run the risk of appearing to ‘try too hard’.