Harare - As President Robert Mugabe's party tries to woo young, urban voters ahead of elections in 2018, popular protest movement #ThisFlag is turning its attention to Zimbabweans living in rural areas, where support for the long-time president has traditionally been strongest.
In a new video posted to Facebook on Monday, #ThisFlag founder Evan Mawarire urges Zimbabweans in the country and abroad to forward videos and information to relatives living out of town to "tell them that people are now speaking out".
Mawarire, who began his protest against corruption and poverty on social media in April and has now become a thorn in the Zimbabwean ruling party's side, said: "You've got a relative who's somewhere out in the rural areas. Your job is to forward them videos. Your job is to forward them information."
Meanwhile, Mugabe's Zanu-PF party is promising housing stands to urban-based youths. The 92-year-old president told a housing conference earlier this month that the current 1.25 million housing backlog presented an opportunity for investors, according to The Patriot, a Zanu-PF newspaper.
Since the Movement for Democratic Change was founded in 1999, voting in this southern African country has been sharply split between support for the opposition in urban areas and for long-time leader Mugabe in the rural areas, where most Zimbabweans live.
The MDC says intimidation and rigging are rife in these areas. Villagers often have to "answer" for their votes after polling day - as was seen in the violence meted out by pro-Mugabe militias when the president lost the first round of elections in 2008. Analysts point out though that many beneficiaries of the land reform programme live in the rural areas, and may vote for Mugabe for fear they would lose their plots if the opposition should win.
Lured to march with promises
An initiative has been launched online to try to replace outdated 2G phone handsets still being used in the rural areas with smartphones capable of supporting social media apps like WhatsApp.
A website, thisflag7millionsmartphones.com, encourages urban and diaspora-based Zimbabweans to pledge to "empower an adult relative" by sending them money to buy a smartphone within the next week. The site has not been officially claimed by #ThisFlag, which does not back any political party in Zimbabwe.
Some have suggested there may already be more smartphones in the rural areas than is thought. One Zimbabwean tweeted on Monday: "Now most [have] got Smart phones trust me I have seen it ...[They are] using Samsung S6 powerful phones Sony etc let's send msg out."
Thousands of people who took part in a pro-Zanu-PF march in Harare last week had been lured with the promise of urban plots on which to build houses, it later emerged.
Local Government Minister Saviour Kasukuwere was quoted as saying that housing stands would be distributed to youths and women.
"I do not want to hear of any woman, widow or even girls, who will be lodging [claims] come 2018. Everyone must have a roof over their head," the Daily News quoted him as saying in May.
Earlier this month, state prosecutors wanted to charge Mawarire, 39, with trying to unseat the government. He was later released. Mugabe says the pastor is sponsored by foreign countries.
- News 24