“We have degrees in violence”: a multimodal critical discourse analysis of online constructions of electoral violence in post-2000 Zimbabwe

Allen Munoriyarwa


On 29 March 2008, Robert Mugabe, the then President of Zimbabwe, was defeated in a presidential election by his long-time arch-rival, Morgan Tsvangirai. Both the mainstream and the private media did not report on the election results as they had not been made official. Section 66 A (1) of the Zimbabwe constitution criminalizes the announcement of election results by any person or organization other than Zimbabwe’s election body, the Zimbabwe Election Commission (ZEC). By then, ZEC was presided over by George Chiweshe, a serving Brigadier in the Army and Mugabe’s erstwhile close lieutenant. ZEC refused to release the results within eight days as stipulated by the law, arguing that it was undertaking “meticulous, verification of the results” (Makumbe 2009). The official results were announced four weeks later.

Despite ZEC’s dithering with the results, online platforms - ranging from personal blogs and civil society organizations’ websites - were awash with the news of Robert Mugabe’s defeat. The ‘official’ results showed that Mugabe, the incumbent at that time, had garnered 43% of the vote and his opponent had amassed 48% (Sachikonye 2011). There was need for a re-run election as Zimbabwe’s Constitution, Section 87 states that the winner should have 50+1 votes to assume power. Mugabe, humiliated by defeat, mobilized for a comeback during the re-run election. ZANU-PF, led by Mugabe and security service structures, mobilized youth militias, and its war veteran structures to start the campaign (Sachikonye 2011). They rolled into the locations and villages in an operation codenamed “Operation Makavholera papi” (For who did you cast your ballot), to crush the opposition structures ahead of the election (Human Rights Watch 2008). Mugabe allowed his most trusted friends, including the general, Constantine Chiwenga, who would topple him from power nine years later, “to separate the chaff from the wheat and restore the lost dignity of the country” (Sachikonye 2012, 23). In further preparation for the re-run election, Mugabe kicked out election observers from the United States of America (USA) and the European Union (EU) - the so-called “hostile nations”. In order to maintain a veneer of legitimacy to the elections, Mugabe cherry-picked observers from countries that he deemed friendly.

When ZEC finally announced the official results of the first election on 20 April 2008, Mugabe’s violent machinery was ready to go. The re-run was penciled in for 27 June 2008. What happened after the announcement of the re-run election has been characterized as one of the worst episodes of electoral violence (Compagnon 2011). Electoral violence is defined as an act, acts or threats of coercion, intimidation, or physical harm perpetrated to affect an electoral process or that arises in the context of electoral competition, such as efforts to delay, disrupt or derail a poll - and to influence the outcome (Sisk 1988, 12). Statistics put the number of the dead at 3,500 and the number of displaced at more than 500,000 (Human Rights Watch 2008). Operation Makavholera papi was a strategy of political attrition meant to decimate the opposition support base by displacing them from their constituencies and disrupt the opposition’s structures (Compagnon 2011; Sachikonye 2011). Mugabe summed up the strategy when he declared, in his first appearance after the defeat, “We have degrees in violence... and its time we should make our numbers count... by striking fear in the hearts of the white men and his running dogs of imperialism...” (Mugabe’s speech quoted in The Sunday Mail, 24 April 2008).

Despite the global attention it attracted, this violence did not receive attention in the area of critical discourse studies. Researchers to date have focused on the effects of the 2008 violence on Zimbabwe’s structures of governance (Compagnon 2011; Tsarwe and Mare 2019). Munoriyarwa (2019) looked at this phenomenon from a peace journalism perspective. Tsarwe and Mare (2015) looked at this phenomenon focusing on the absence of peace frames in leading mainstream newspapers. There is need to explore the multimodal nature of its expression through the theoretical lens of discourse theory and the analytical lens of MCDA.

Online websites as empowering platforms for political engagement and discussion

Online platforms, like websites, have become strategic for political communication (Lilleker and Vedel 2013). In Africa, they have become valorized as governments either crack down on mainstream media or tightly control them to exclude alternative voices. Websites are spaces where users challenge authoritarian leadership (Moyo 2011). They are spaces of the articulation of people democratic aspirations (Moyo 2010, 2011). Nitschke, Donges and Schade (2014) note that the major advantages of websites is their interactivity and inherent abilities to offer robust political engagements by involving many non-elite voices. These platforms, according to Nitschke et al. (2014), allow for both vertical and horizontal communication involving political elites amongst themselves and elites with their supporters and opponents. Thus, on such websites, the subaltern - those who are rendered mute by the dominance of hegemonic discourses (Spivak 1988), can speak back to power with little fear of reprisals and gatekeeping as experienced on mainstream media platforms. However, Nitschke et al. (2014) note that the type of political engagement possible on websites platforms comes with added costs and social pressures to use these spaces in an appropriate way, and the costs may limit involvement.

Papacharissi (2008) and Nitschke et al. (2014) raised two crucial points about political websites. First, they assert that such spaces generate a multitude of responses and reactions from citizen users. Because websites are basically a convergence of technologies that sustain multiple technologies - videos, memes, images and texts - they can be useful and simultaneously detrimental, depending on how and where they are appropriated for political communication. Thus, in environments where the mainstream media are extremely regulated, like in Zimbabwe, these platforms can offer a viable platform for political communication. Papacharissi (2008) agrees, asserting that web-based communication has significantly reconfigured the traditional public sphere by creating an online public sphere — a networked public sphere that allows citizens to engage more directly with specific and pertinent issues without the institutional rituals of the old media. Brundidge and Rice (2008) concur that online platforms have provided rich political news and exposed people to politically dissimilar others. Papacharissi (2008) hazards a precaution, noting that web platforms may still be influenced by- class - with other classes still having no access to those spaces, effectively limiting their participation on the spaces and the discourses on these spaces. Lilleker and Vedel (2013) assert that websites have generally enhanced, enriched and widened access and participation.

Issues of access remain a specific concern in Africa (Internet World Statistics 2016). About 6 million of Zimbabwe’s 14 million people have access to the internet (Internet World Statistics 2016). Windeck (2010) argues that, “there are considerable impediments to internet use in Africa and the use of websites for political communication. In addition to technology, the user must have the requisite financial means to be able to afford internet connection”. However, Windeck (2010) acknowledges that websites have begun to exert significant influence as platforms of political communication. Windeck (2010) notes that the increasing ferocity with which African governments are clamping down on these platforms is testimony to their increasing importance as platforms of political communication. Scholars (see Lamont 2016 and Martin 2016) agree that web-based political communication in Africa, inasmuch as it is still limited due to connectivity issues, has presented numerous opportunities for citizens to challenge political elites. Martin (2016, 2) sees web-based political communication in Africa as creating what she calls “the new normal” - where citizens are now empowered to ask questions to authorities and criticise them - an era that contrasts with the past where political leaders assumed God-like reverence.

Scholars (see Kim and Kim 2018) argue that we have entered a post-text era where the word is no longer the principal mode of communication. The future is visual as Kim and Kim (2018) argue. Images are easily remembered, recalled and recognized. Web-based political communication in some parts of Africa has started to embrace multimodality. Despite these changing modes of communication, current research on the mediation of political violence in Zimbabwe (see

Chuma 2007; Moyo 2010; Willems 2007; Tsarwe and Mare 2019) has focused on textual content while overlooking the role of visuals. Electoral violence performances and representations are reproduced through language - both lexical and visual. There is, therefore, need to critically analyse how electoral violence was constructed on web spaces, which allow for multiple modes of communication.

The website, Kubatana, started in 2001 by a few independent bloggers based in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital city. Within two years it had more than 100,000 visitors across the country. It is now a famous website that has assumed a central position as a space for political news especially with regard to Zimbabwe’s elections since 2000. Currently, it has more than a million visitors on its website and more than 15,000 contributors to the stories on its website (Kubatana 2018). Its contributors straddle across the rural and urban spaces of Zimbabwe. In the recent past, the website has won many global accolades for its activism, participatory journalism, or what has become known as ‘citizen-generated media’, 4ve media’ or ‘grassroots media’, which attempt to hold the state and its various institutions answerable to the people (Dakroury 2006; Hamelink and Hoffmann 2008). These accolades include, the Knight News Challenge Winner (2008) for its coverage of the 2008 elections in Zimbabwe and the World’s bravest website (2011) for its contribution to Zimbabwe’s democratic aspirations since 2001. Moyo (2011) says Kubatana website neatly fits the tag of an alternative media platform because, “It serves the community, offer counter-hegemonic discourses to the mainstream and is autonomous from the state and market influences”. Because it is a website, it basically transcends the limits of both time and space. The website enables social participation by allowing citizens to produce, disseminate news and other information largely on elections. This website is popular (Moyo 2010; Mpofu 2016) for four main reasons: it carries information that resonates with Zimbabweans’ daily experiences - political and economic; it has a huge number of visitors and email subscribers; it’s a trustworthy alternative to the daily propaganda of other state and party - linked websites; and lastly, it allows subscribers and visitors to post content on top of accessing what others have generated. This study looks at the representation of both victims and perpetrators on this website via a multimodal discourse approach — how perpetrators and victims are positioned through texts and visuals.

Theoretical positioning: discourse theory

Discourse theory encompasses many diverse insights, assumptions and concepts that, over a period, have emerged across a range of disciplines (Potter 2005). Discourse has a dual character — of theory and method. Its recent popularity is attributed to “the linguistic turn” (Potter 2005) in the fields of social sciences and humanities. Discourse theory asserts that the way people, in any given community, speak and write is basically governed by the structures of power relations within that society (Hirch 2009). Discourse theorists recognize that every society is characterized by struggles and conflict, and these struggles manifest themselves in language use. Chilton (2004, 16) defines it as, Potter (2005, 105) says it is, “talk and texts as parts of social practice”, while van Leeuwen (2005,6) says it is “social cognitions, socially specific ways of knowing social practices”. Discourse theorists agree that it is about how language use within communication is treated as the matrix of linguistic knowledge. Thus, for discourse theory, language harbours different potential meanings that can be discovered and learnt by partaking in that particular social life in which it is used.

How discourse represents our social and mental realities and helps construct these realities now include a mixture of texts and images - an approach to discourse called multimodal discourse (Machin and Meyer 2013; van Leeuwen 2005). Hardy (2002) asserts that contemporary discourse theory now incorporates exchange of meanings not only through texts, but other ways like spoken words, gestures, symbols, images, films and other expressive cultural artefacts. Discourse can help to construct “a social reality that is taken for granted and that advantages some participants at the expense of others” (Phillip and Hardy 2002, 15). Within this broad conceptual framework, diverse approaches can be identified. This chapter derives its interest from a multimodal discourse - that encompasses analysis of both images and texts.


MMCDA is used to explore how texts and other non-linguistic elements on a media-rich website do combine to produce meaning on the subject of electoral violence. The website chosen, K'ubatana, offers a melange of texts, photographs and other visual elements like videos relating to political developments in Zimbabwe. Online archival research was carried out to obtain the images. Since there was a huge corpus of these images, purposive sampling was utilized. Texts and images were supposed to meet the following criterion: (1) they were about the 2008 elections, (2) they were about the election violence of the run-off election and (3) they should have been uploaded between 31 March and 27 June, the period of the re-run election. Articles were also chosen for being multimodal in nature - encompassing pictures, photographs and words. Texts and images were read in their entirety by the author for potential strategies, detailed points of interests and features within the data. The search for themes involved two complementary processes. There was a search for textual data and then for visual data.

Texts are basic to MMCDA - that is the words used and those avoided - what is referred to as lexical choice. Fowler (1991) calls it a lexical field, a map created by the author of the text leading us to a particular location or subject. It was, however, noted that the texts always accompanied the images - which means the texts complemented the images. About 46 images were purposively sampled, which ended up yielding the same information. At the same time, about 25 news texts were subjected to analysis. It was also noted that on top of images, testimonial narratives by eyewitnesses of violence, victims and ‘defecting’ perpetrators dominated the website. All images used in this chapter were mined from the website, Kubatana, with their permission.


The researcher found three overarching strategies that were supported by both images and texts uploaded on the website Kubatana. These discursive strategies were:

  • • Constructing election violence as a domain of the extreme, the extraordinary and the exceptional
  • • The ‘Zanufication’ and individualization of election violence
  • • Foregrounding violence as an atrocity tale and ‘the violence of purification’

These strategies served the broader interests of the organization, Kubatana, as a liberal, reformist website that supports a free and fair election, opposed to the ruling ZANU-PF party’s overt reliance on violence for electoral victory.

Constructing election violence as a domain of the extreme, the extra-ordinary and the exceptional

The website constructs a harrowing picture of electoral violence in Zimbabwe. Images posted on testify to extreme application of exceptional forms of violence by perpetrators, that border on sadism. Images analysed made viewers question the mental predisposition of the alleged perpetrators. There are posted images of mutilated bodies and incidences of necrophilia narrated by eye-witnesses. For example, there are many images of cannibalized bodies and burnt bodies like the ones below:

Image I7.I A 70-year-old woman died from her wounds after being burnt by ZANU-PF supporters in Zimbabwe.

Source: Kubatana, reproduced with permission.

Image 17.2 The body of missing Joshua Bakacheza, MDC driver from Mashonaland West, was discovered late on Saturday the 5th ofjuly 2008, decomposing in a secluded bushy area on a farm in Beatrice.

Source: Kubatana, reproduced with permission.

These images confirm stone-age brutality by perpetrators. On top of these images, some eyewitnesses also posted texts that still confirmed the extreme application of violence in this election. For example, the following statements were posted on the website:

It is with profound sadness that we announce the passing away of Malcolm Francis who was so brutally assaulted together with his daughter Catherine on their Guruve farm last week by a marauding gang of Zanu PF war veterans.... Informed sources said police officers who responded to the crime picked up knob-kerries with metal heads at the murder scene, where condoms were also recovered. Catherine was reportedly gang raped by the marauding thugs...

Another text on the website by an eyewitness read:

Another murder here in Matabeleland... commercial farmer and MDC activist found dead with wounds yesterday. A post-mortem confirms that she was sexually abused after death. ZANU PF murderers are looting the house right now.. ..Kubatana!

The website clearly foregrounds dead bodies and tales of extreme violation because the subject of death itself conjures up fear and anxiety especially when it is a violent one. Reference to necrophilia underlines the extremity of election violence in this period. It should be noted that these discourses (of necrophilia and violated bodies) are not commonly discussed nor entertained in African cultures. These discourses and images reinforce Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party’s violent grip on the polity and their ability to subjugate and control the disempowered. Through images and texts on the website, its visitors possibly re-imagine the plight of the victims and interrogate what has always been the pertinent questions with regard to Zimbabwe’s elections - their freeness and fairness amidst rampant violence by the ruling party of Robert Mugabe. More so, the images enable visitors to the website to visualize the often extreme, but variegated forms of political authoritarianism obtaining in other political spaces of post-colonial Africa. Kubatana becomes, in this instance, a space where the ‘sacred’ subject of election violence can be discussed in a context of a tight grip of the mainstream media (Lamont 2016).

The ideological message of these images reveals its anti-ZANU-PF stance as a website. They also highlight the degree of violent manipulation of the electorate by the elite in the ruling party ZANU-PF. Thus, they reveal both political exploitation and injustice and how both happen in novel ways in post-colonial Zimbabwe. Images and texts on the website become visual resources for bearing witness and bringing into view the suffering and vices of both victims and perpetrators respectively in the communities affected by violence. Multimodality enabled the website to construct and expose such political injustices and exploitation (Flamelink and Hoffmann 2008). The website played a crucial role in undermining and disrupting the preferred ruling party narrative of a seamless, flawless and peaceful election. Through the use of multimodal visualizations, Kubatana enabled the propagation of what Jameson (1988, 12) refers to as “cognitive mapping” - the acquisition coding storage decoding and recalling of information, and the formulation of a “social totality” of the discreet and semi-discreet violent strategies ZANU-PF employed during the run-off election.

Images of “ordinary” victims posted on the website are evidence of the website’s “community” orientation - as a platform for the many whose voices are crowded out in the mainstream. The presence of burnt bodies on the webpage reflects a general trend towards negative representation and what Scalvini (2011, 223) calls “the discourses of sickness”. Furthermore, the harrowing images reflect the demotic and personalized nature of the platform as a space for political communication, since the images and the texts are in many instances informal, in the sense that they may not be used in mainstream media without violating journalism ethics. Thus, the brutalized images are a reflection of the uncensored nature of the platform (relative to mainstream media platforms).

It should be noted that visuals of injured or dead opposition supporters on the website are bigger in size compared to other visuals, like those of supporters attending rallies or those of contestants - Mugabe and Tsvangirai. The size possibly reflects a high level of salience. For example, the study notes that some of the biggest images were the following:

The researcher notes the dark background colours on the images often contrasted with the bright colours of the victims’ images. The bright colours make the victims ‘visually accessible’ and the contrasting representations increase their

Image 17.3 The photograph above is that of an MDC sympathizer beaten by ZANU-PF supporters.

Source: Kubatana, reproduced with permission.

Image 17.4 This is an image of ZANU-PF militia at a rally in Bindura. This image was captioned: ‘Mugabe goes to war’.

Source: Kubatana, reproduced with permission.

Image 17.5 This woman’s buttocks were burnt by ZANU-PF supporters during the 2008 election violence.

visual illustration. Focus, therefore, is transfixed on the victim because of the visuals surrounding them. Focus is a tool to draw attention and stipulate the subject of importance in the text (Goffman 1959) - which, for instance, is the image of the woman being dragged in the case of the picture above. Focus as a discourse strategy is important for validation and authentication of the issue at hand (Goffman 1959) - the violence being perpetrated on the opposition supporters. Thus, through focusing, victims are positioned as traumatized exemplars of political indifferences, desperately in need of assistance to be saved from a rapacious (ZANU-PF) force that has lost both its legitimacy and its moral campus to govern. Victims’ bodies are expropriated as a spectacle to push an anti-ZANU-PF agenda and draw viewers’ sympathy to them.

The ‘Zanufication’ and individualization of election violence

Images and texts posted on the website presented election violence as a natural ZANU-PF phenomenon. Election violence is individualized, with clear perpetrators, but orchestrated by party (ZANU-PF) coordination. The ruling party is almost always depicted in relation to this violence in the process, obscuring the subculture contribution of other parties in the violence. The following text posts on the website illustrate the point (Table 17.1):

234 Allen Munoriyarwa

Table 17.1 Texts discourses on the website that blame ZANU-PF (Reproduced with permission from Kubatana)


Factional competition over succession

Crackdown on anti-government protest activity


  • • Members of either the Lacoste or the G40 faction of ZANU-PF Members of the Zimbabwean army and Central Intelligence Organization aligned with either faction
  • • ZANU-PF-linkcd youth militia groups
  • • Civilians supporting or perceived to be supporting either faction Rural communities in ZANU-PF strongholds
  • • The Zimbabwean Army and Central Intelligence Organization
  • • ZANU-PF-linkcd youth militia groups

• Target groups

  • • Civilians supporting or perceived to be supporting either faction
  • • Rural communities in ZANU-PF strongholds
  • • Organizers of and participants in protest activity
  • • Opposition political leaders and party members
  • • Mainly urbanites

• Tactics

  • • Targeted killings
  • • Forced displacement
  • • Targeted killings
  • • Widespread torture
  • • Forced disappearances

• Warning signs

  • • Signs of continued uncertainty surrounding Mugabe’s succession (e.g., elite support split between factions; no resolution of constitutional ambiguities)
  • • Relative parity of force between competing factions
  • • Public disputes between ZANU-PF factions in the run-up to the 2018 elections
  • • Signs that protests are perceived to pose severe threat to ZANU-PF rule (e.g., increased frequency, geographic scope, popular reach of protest activity; extreme verbal threats by ZANU-PF leaders)
  • • Failure of less severe and non- lethal repressive responses to quell protests
  • • Protesters use more confrontational tactics (e.g., street demonstrations vs. stay-aways)
  • • Opposition political parties form a coalition that poses an electoral threat in 2018

• Triggers

  • • Mugabe’s incapacitation or death
  • • Major decisions at ZANU-PF party conferences
  • • Escalating protest activity
  • • Overt manipulation or rigging of 2018 elections

Portrayal of violence as a ZANU-PF phenomenon is a reductive approach, but this reductionism is historical too. ZANU-PF has been a political party tainted by violence even during its formative years (Sachikonye 2011). This explains why political violence in Zimbabwe is always attributed to the party. A post by an eyewitness read as follows: “ZANU-PF militia targets infant in terror campaign” “Mugabe Kills”.

Mugabe’s own pronunciations during the re-run election were extensively quoted and posted on the website. It should be noted that Mugabe’s vitriolic rhetoric was central in urging perpetrators (Sachikonye 2011; ZPP 2008). In the case of the re-run election of 2008, Mugabe’s rhetoric was useful in othering opposition supporters and segmenting his opponents, which made them vulnerable to violence by his supporters. For example, Mugabe blamed the remaining whites for supporting and sponsoring the opposition, and he made them targets of his wrath. He also tailor-made his party ideology to resonate with his anti-white rhetoric, a toxic belief in itself as it fuelled hatred against the racially different others. On Kubatana website, his infamous election speech is quoted: “Our party must continue to strike fear in the heart of the white man, our real enemy!”

Mugabe targeted his opponents in his fiery rhetoric as not belonging to Zimbabwe. In other speeches, opposition supporters were referred to as “running dogs of imperialism”. The use of dichotomies of whites versus blacks helped Mugabe to create out-groups and in-groups. Miller (2003) asserts that

Image 17.6 In 2008 Mugabe informed his ZANU-PF supporters to “strike fear in the hearts of the whitemen, our real enemy...”. This call unleashed violence on the remaining white farmers who were accussed of supporting the oppsotion MDC.

dichotomies create a sense of identification with one’s social, relational and material surroundings. On Kubatana website, Mugabe’s violent excerpts are posted in huge and bold texts. This is possibly strategic as this may highlight his supposed omnipresence and (supposedly) unlimited powers over others, presenting him as having exclusive political power in the country, which, in this case, ought not to be challenged without risking violence. ZANU-PF youth and war veterans are frequently presented as ‘weapon-wielding rubble-rousers of the party’. They, thus, become the “physiological markers” of violence. On the website, they emerge as party-linked notorious perpetrators of election violence. Commentators on the website refer to ex-combatants as “axe- combatants”. Generally, Mugabe becomes the face of the violence as posts on the website narrow it to him — personalizing or individualizing it to him. Narratives of brutality on the website point to Mugabe as the monster, aggravated by his loss. Thus, the narrative discourses - both images and texts — foreground Mugabe as an existential threat to his political enemies, and to a free and fair election in the country.

Constructing atrocity tales and the ‘violence of purification’

One feature of this website is that it allows images and texts by those in support of the violence to filter through its space. Images of those in support of violence sustained a counter-narrative that understood the violence as a ‘violence of purification’. However, the opponents sustained an oppositional narrative of election violence as an atrocity tale. Bromley, Shupe and Ventimiglia (1979, 52) assert that for violence to qualify as an atrocity tale it should satisfy three basic aspects. It should (a) evoke moral outrage by specifying and detailing the value violation, (b) authorize implicitly or explicitly, punitive sanctions, and (c) mobilize control efforts against the perpetrators. A pure case of atrocity story should contain each of these three elements. Multimodal construction of election violence on the website fulfilled the three positions of an atrocity tale in that electoral violence images and texts on the website evoked moral outrages. For example, the following statements were posted on the website:

  • • Mugabe’s sadists in cannibalism storm
  • • ZANU-PF youth target the blind

The grotesque images and details of violated bodies are meant to further raise the issue of morality on the whole discourses of election violence. Second, there is a frequent reference to the law by website discussants. There are calls for the international community and regional bodies to intervene. For example, the website administrators posted a comment headlined: As Mugabe goes to war with his citizens, where is SADC? (SADC is a Southern African regional body). Other posts encouraged sanctions to be imposed on perpetrators. Third, there are also calls for mobilization of efforts that seek to punish alleged perpetrators and instigators. Out of this atrocity, three generalizations emerge: one, that ZANU-PF has embraced strange political behaviour and bizarre electoral tactics; second, that participants, especially the war veterans and youth, are equally a strange group; and third, that possibly some are hoodwinked and brainwashed into participating.

The images conjure up a moral revulsion and signify the collapse of psychic normalcy. Frankfurter (2008) argues that such images, in social terms, constitute a perfect tableau of impropriety that can be officially repressive and threatening because they unjustifiably relegate other human beings to inhuman objects. Thus, the images articulate local fears and anxieties of huge scale. The crisis is situated within domains of (political) wickedness as perpetrated by ZANU-PF. Thus, Kubatana as a website assumes the role of a ‘moral entrepreneur’, articulating the inchoate positions and anxieties along moralist-legalist discourses.

Juxtaposed in opposition to atrocity tales of violence, were discourses of violence as a form of political purification. While atrocity tales’ constructions situated violence within a broad immoral, unethical paradigm that required intervention and aroused commonsensical outrage, discourses of ‘political purification’ regarded it as necessary to cleanse the country of an ‘opposition sickness’, ‘a diseases’ threatening to “give back the country to former colonisers” (Mugabe quoted in Sachikonye 2012, 54). Mugabe’s discourses rest on a fetishized form of nationalism, an ultra-nationalistic vision that demarcates Zimbabweans between those who belong - the nationalists like him - and those who do not - the opposition. This discursive construction of the opposition has violent implications on the opposition as it renders them vulnerable to attacks on grounds of them being ‘unpatriotic’. And when Mugabe urges his supporters to “strike fear in white men’s hearts... our real enemies...” he is reframing violence as a duty, a moral obligation for his supposed nationalist supporters. Hirsch (2001) observes that framing violence as a duty and moral obligation in defence of an abstract objective has always been a popular technique of instigators to legitimize violence. One can look at Hitler and his brutal treatment of the Jews as “backstab- bers” (Arendt 1993), or the Hutu in Rwanda calling the Tutsi “cockroaches” (Des Forges 1999). For example, one pro-violence participant posted the following image with the caption:

Another participant posted a picture with the caption: Chipangano will deal with sell-outs and clen them up (sic); VIVA Gushungo! (Chipangano is a notoriously violent pro - ZANU-PF militia based in the capital Harare, and Gushungo is Mugabe’s clan name).

ZANU-PF appeals to nationalism because the latter basically creates an egotistical in-group cohesion. Tajfel (2017, 3) remarks, “... [It] plays upon a fundamental aspect of human social cognition: the tendency to categorize individuals into groups. Even when the basis of social categorization is trivial, people tend to discriminate in favour of in-group members against out-group members”. Thus, the victims first acquire some undesirable identities that warrant violent

Image 17.7 A day out with MDG ‘sell-outs’.

Source: Kubatana website, reproduced with permission.

Image 17.8 MDC-A Leader Nelson Chamisa lies in a pool of blood after being assaulted by ZANU-PF youth militias during the 2008 election.

Image 17.9 An MDC supporter violently burnt by youth militias, amongst them the notorious Chipangano.

annihilation. For example, “sell-outs”, “running dogs of imperialism”. Their mystical suffering is a culmination of the conspiracy which they are supposedly part of — the conspiracy to sell Zimbabwe to the Western powers. Discourses of selling-out have a long history in Zimbabwe’s politics. During the liberation struggle, between 1962 and 1979, those who have supported the colonial white minority have been referred to as ‘sell-out’ (Masunungure 2009). Thus, by referring to his enemies as ‘sell-outs’, Mugabe was evoking memories of the liberation war. In the process, he was mining memories of fear amongst the population. Lumping together victims and perpetrators accounts of electoral violence enabled Kubatana to circumvent the problem of selection and exclusion that mainstream media representations of news are always confronted with.

Discussion and conclusion

The multimodal newsification of election violence on the Kubatana website produced variegated discourses. Narratives of electoral violence were largely presented as an atrocity tale. Frequently juxtaposed to atrocity tales, were discourses of election violence as ‘violence of purification’. Images on the website evoked discourses of moral outrage and frequently presented election violence as a runaway phenomenon requiring greater and broader international attention than it was already receiving

(Makumbe 2009). Simultaneously, the images evoked the image of a lawless polity governed by fear and coercion. While the role of ZANU-PF as the major cause of election violence remains largely true (Masunungure 2009; Sachikonye 2011), the contribution of other political parties should also be noted. More so, in foregrounding ZANU-PF as the major player in election violence, there was a tendency to pinpoint much of the violence on two dominant groups related to the ruling party: the war veterans and youth militias. It was noted that Mugabe rhetoric, which was also largely featured on the website, was anchored on nationalist discourses of‘sellouts’ - discourses that can be traced back to the liberation struggle. In addition, it was based on exclusionary and racist discourses of us and them, which treated nonblacks as opposition supporters, bent on ‘re-colonizing’ the country.

In violent-ridden political contexts like Zimbabwe, online websites like Kubat- ana have transmogrified modes of political engagements by shifting discussions of important aspects like violence, often muted in mainstream platforms, onto online spaces. It became a platform where Mugabe’s power, legitimacy and the violent culture of his former party were exposed. Considering how media is strictly policed in Zimbabwe, Kubatana provided a platform that connected victims and perpetrators fostering an exchange of experiences amongst them. These connections enabled by the website superseded localities and capitalized on the difficulties of the regime to regulate the space. Ultimately, the website allowed citizen connection on a subject that remains a taboo in the mainstream.

This research has applied an MMCDA analysis to understand election violence in the Zimbabwean context. It has also added to an understanding of electoral violence outside mainstream media institutions based on discourse theory rather than political theories. Hence, its major contribution is a multimodal reading of election violence in Zimbabwe on popular websites. Future research may interrogate whether the discursive strategies noted in this chapter are prevalent across most websites on this subject in the country. Future research may also benefit by undertaking a spread of media approach to the study of electoral violence using MMCDA. It is recommended that media researchers ought to continue to question the characters of visuality in discourse in whatever form and dimension they manifest themselves as they are crucial in the mediation of important political issues like electoral violence.


For more images visit www.kubatana.net/index.htm Kubatana did not disclose its funding sources


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