For the past five years, entrepreneur and media mogul Trevor Ncube has advocated for a “Third Way” in Zimbabwean politics. Disillusioned and disappointed with Zimbabwe’s two largest political parties, Ncube envisions a grand political party, made up of the best men and women across the political divide, business community, and civil society. Ncube’s vision sadly remains unfulfilled in the political realm, but has gown roots in Zimbabwe’s budding social media world. Thirty-something accountant Nigel Mugamu (a.k.a. “SirNige”) has succeeded where political leaders have failed, by building a substantive policy forum, inclusive of Zimbabweans across geographic, ethnic and political divides, and he is doing it all on Twitter.
SirNige can best be described as the Larry King of Zimbabwe’s Twittersphere. Every Tuesday, SirNige hosts a debate via @263Chat on Twitter. His thematic topics, which range from road safety to the role of technology in shaping the economy, are informed by suggestions from his followers and news headlines. His online success has made him a well-recognised figure at many political, business and cultural events.
During the day, SirNige manages one of his family’s bookstores. His friendly face, spectacles and a shiny bald head are familiar to many booklovers in Harare’s northern suburbs. Wherever he goes, SirNige has several electronic gadgets in his pocket and is constantly connected to the internet. Despite his Australian education and modern views, SirNige is still deeply traditional and proud of his roots. Earlier this year he negotiated lobola for Rachel, the love of his life, whom he met on Twitter.
Zimbabwe’s population is small (12.75-million people) compared to South Africa (50.9-million), and while internet penetration is growing rapidly, it is still low (in 2012, it was estimated that 17.1% of the country’s online population use it, compared with 41% for South Africa). Despite this, Twitter is fast becoming popular in Zimbabwe to the extent that Zimbabweans active on Twitter have their own moniker, ‘Twimbos’.
As one of the leading Twimbos, SirNige has a 7 117 strong following on his personal account while on @263Chat he has another 7 304 followers. Earlier this year, he began hosting TweetT@bles (i.e. Twitter roundtables) with the Dutch Embassy in Harare and reached over 100 000 accounts at a time.
Many Zimbabweans are clouded by party politics and the ‘you are either with us or against us’ attitude is common. Those who criticise or question their party positions or party leaders are often deemed traitors. By and large, partisan politics is also emulated in civil society, which in some way is what is holding back critical public discussions and advocacy on central issues. Some members of civil society organisations therefore criticise government officials on the basis of their party membership rather than the principles and values that they practice.
What makes SirNige unique is his non-partisan approach when interacting with his Twitter followers, many of whom are tired of being associated with a particular political party. They want to judge each issue for the value that it represents to them as individuals. SirNige works hard to stay outside the confines of Zimbabwe’s partisan political spectrum; he actively seeks to be the man in the middle. “I have been accused of being ZANU-PF and MDC on the same day,” he says. As a result, SirNige’s followers include people from across the political, racial and ethnic divide.
Anyone who has lived in Zimbabwe knows that there is the “Hararefication” of issues; that is, Harare is the centre of attention while other regions remain secondary. SirNige’s Twitter dialogues bring issues from all over the country to the table, from the periphery to the centre. He also engages the Zimbabwean diaspora, a group of people who are frequently ignored and neglected yet who are important for their potential to invest in Zimbabwe.
SirNige’s information sharing temperament is also one of his greatest strengths and contrasts with the culture of secrecy which prevails both within government but also civil society in Zimbabwe. SirNige loves sharing information, he thrives on facts, and relishes the opportunity to re-tweet things he opposes followed by tweets on why he chooses a different perspective.
Everything in Zimbabwe is not as black and white as is often depicted in both the Zimbabwean and international media.The plurality of SirNige’s followers and the tweets which they contribute to @263Chat discussions remind the country and the world that Zimbabwe is a diverse nation with a strong yearning for debate and freedom of expression.
SirNige grew up in a post-independence Zimbabwe. Recognising the importance of the past, he believes what matters most is the present and the future of his country. SirNige is a leader for today’s “born free” generation in Zimbabwe. He stands for the country, not a political party, as the man in the middle with a keen sense of business, politics, and issues affecting Zimbabweans far and wide. For the time being, the Third Way will remain on Zimbabwe’s Twittersphere.