HomeOpinion & Analysis#Zimbabweanlivesmatter iconography

#Zimbabweanlivesmatter iconography

By Phillip Santos

Having endured almost two decades of Zimbabwe’s multi-pronged crisis, the country’s citizens counter-intuitively celebrated the removal of president Robert Mugabe through a military intervention that many accept was, to all intents and purposes, a coup.

The assumption was Zimbabweans from across political divide and all walks of life had reached the common realisation that there was need for reconfiguring socio-economic realities to restore the dignity long lost for the greater part of the population.

However, since then, the situation has all but deteriorated across all social fronts and despite pronouncements by government officials to the contrary, an ordinary Zimbabwean citizen’s lived reality has been worsening, and reports about rampant corruption have been on the rise, all this in a context of a devastating pandemic whose toll on the country is rapidly escalating.

These developments have not gone unnoticed especially among the country’s Twitterati.

Judging from conversations on social media, particularly Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, one of the key sources of frustration has been the indifference of the regional body Sadc and the African Union (AU) towards the circumstances and experiences of ordinary Zimbabweans as well as their calls for some kind of intervention.

This frustration has been taken a notch higher following the arrest of investigative journalist and anti-corruption crusader Hopewell Chin’ono in addition to the increasing harassment and brutalisation of human rights activists as well as opposition politicians.

This led to the establishment of the #Zimbabweanlivesmatter movement, which has redefined political expression and attracted widespread attention across the continent and the world over.

A key feature of this movement is its use of imagery to appeal to the emotions of its addressees and resonance with the American civil rights movement, Black Lives Matter.

It uses visuals that represent a range of emotions from expressions of love for the country, national solidarity, to despair, suffering and hopelessness.
The discursive traction gained by this movement thus far is arguably linked to the emotional capital it generated through its use of imagery to represent, at once, nationalistic fervor and distress.

This is a significant development given that, unlike many attempts before, the #ZimbabweanLivesMatter movement managed to break through the usual indifference towards complaints about the Zimbabwean government’s excesses towards its citizens.

For instance, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa sent envoys to consult with the Zimbabwean government as the AU implored for the observation of human rights in the country.

Opposition political parties and civic organisations in Botswana, South Africa and Namibia made very strong statements against the extra-judicial emasculation of citizen and civic activities in Zimbabwe to say nothing of celebrity support in South Africa and beyond.

This arguably evinces not only the persuasive force of visual representations, but their appeal to people’s emotions.

In other words, it is arguable that the images that are used by the #Zimbabweanlivesmatter movement to represent the current Zimbabwean crisis are operating rhetorically to appeal to a range of audiences expected to have some positive influence on developments in the country.

But to understand how these images operate rhetorically, it may be necessary to revisit Aristotle’s formulation of rhetoric.

Aristotle defines rhetoric as “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion” and is usually directed at a “hearer” who “must be either a judge, with a decision to make about things past or future, or an observer” (2008, 11).

For him, there are three types of rhetoric: forensic, ceremonial and political.

Forensic rhetoric is concerned with the past and is used to defend or attack the subject in question.
Ceremonial rhetoric is concerned with the present and is used to praise or censure somebody depending on their responsibility for the way things are at the moment.
In this piece I want to dwell more on political rhetoric, which is concerned with the future and “urges us either to do or not to do something” (Aristotle, 2008, 18). Further to these types of rhetoric, Aristotle also identifies three modes of persuasion used in rhetorical communication.

The first is the ethotic mode which uses character and reputation as persuasive devices.

The second is pathos which uses emotion to persuade audiences, and finally logos which uses reasoned argumentation as a persuasive device.

The images used by the #Zimbabweanlivesmatter movement operate mainly in pathotic terms.

Firstly, the use of the national flag or colours frames the movement’s message in non-partisan terms which potentially appeals to Zimbabweans of most political, cultural and social shades.

One image seems to represent national unity which suggests that the movement’s political agenda is cast in terms of citizenship which transcends partisan politics and thereby increases its acceptability by most Zimbabweans and external formal institutions that may not be eager to get involved in party politics.

The image of a woman carrying a child on her back, that of a child praying while holding a flag and the one showing a group of boys, again donning and carrying the national flag, represent the dialectic between love for country and suffering.

It also places a moral obligation on the reader to sympathise with the children whose future is at stake.

Also, the emotional appeal of a woman’s show of despair in one of the pictures is amplified by the innocence of the child she is carrying and the readers’ knowledge that this child is completely dependent on her despondent and helpless mother.

Despite their show of love for Zimbabwe, the group of boys in one of the pictures is visibly impoverished.

The #ZimbabweanLivesMatter movement has invested in a lot of emotionally charged iconography, which potentially evokes feelings of disgust against the government and sympathy for ordinary Zimbabweans among readers.

l Phillip Santos is senior lecturer in the Department of Communication at the Namibia University of Science and Technology. This article, which was first published by The Accent, an initiative of the Media Alliance of Zimbabwe expresses his personal views.

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