On Wednesday 6 July, thousands of Zimbabweans participated in a peaceful ‘stay-at-home’ protest against the ruling Zimbabwean African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). Without staff, many businesses were forced to close, including foreign banks and department stores.
Twitter was alive with protest hashtags #ZimShutDown2016, #ThisFlag, and Shona slogans #hatichada #hatichatya (‘we’ve had enough, we are not afraid’) and #Tajamuka (‘we strongly disagree’). Pictures of Harare’s empty streets circulated on social media and international news outlets. It was one of Zimbabwe’s most impressive anti-government mobilisations in recent times.
A week later, on Tuesday 12 July, protest organiser Pastor Evan Mawarire was arrested and charged with ‘inciting public violence’ – but the charge was amended to ‘subverting constitutional government’ in court the next day. In a show of solidarity, more than 100 lawyers gathered in the packed courtroom to represent him while outside, crowds draped themselves in the nation’s flag as a symbol of his message. Mawarire was released to cheering crowds that evening and was soon back to promoting the non-violent campaign against a government seen to have failed millions of Zimbabweans.
These events unsettled the ruling party, and are an inspiring story of grassroots mobilisation in the context of a stifled and suppressed active civil society. But it remains unclear whether the movement has traction beyond the urban area, and how it intends to bring about real political change. Mawarire insists he does not aim to bring about regime change, while the ruling ZANU-PF is hard-lined in their response to protest. The party also retains paramount control in Zimbabwe’s rural areas, where almost two-thirds of the population live.
Furthermore, apart from two parliamentarians from the Movement for Democratic Change – Tsvangirai (MDC-T), who wore the national flag around their necks in session, there has been little indication to date that the opposition intends to endorse or associate with Mawarire and the movement as a political platform ahead of the 2018 elections.
Whether it’s due to fear of state reprisal or playing into exactly what President Robert Mugabe wants (any grounds to criminalise and implicate MDC) – or because there is hope that Mawarire will himself form a new party – the lack of support by the opposition could limit the medium- and long-term impact of the protests.
Trends in riots and protests in Zimbabwe, according to the Armed Conflict Location Event Data Project (ACLED) show that spontaneous riots and protests have been increasing; particularly since 2010.
Source: ACLED Version 6 (1997-2015) and ACLED Real Time Data 9 July 2016
Historically, landmark protests in Zimbabwe have come in response to disputed elections, inflation and state-led violence. In 1998, mass protests against inflation led by the National Constitutional Assembly (the foundation of the MDC), attracted tens of thousands of participants. High activity was also seen in 2005 and 2009.
The activity in 2005 reflects the public response to Operation Murambatsvina, which saw over 700 000 people forcibly removed from informal settlements in the capital and protests related to the contested parliamentary elections. The spike in 2009 is largely attributable to the hyperinflation and near economic collapse at the time. This was also in the context of political bargaining within the ZANU-MDC power-sharing agreement framework.
Since 2013 and the national elections that effectively returned Zimbabwe to one-party dominance, civil society’s ability to mobilise has been significantly curtailed. Nevertheless, 2014 and 2015 recorded the most protest events in Zimbabwe’s recent history. In 2016, heightened protest activity has been driven by cash shortages, long queues at ATMs, corruption allegations and an import ban.
In May, the MDC-T held major protests against ZANU-PF in Harare and Bulawayo, which gathered upwards of 10 000 participants. In response, ZANU-PF mobilised an estimated 200 000 people for its Million Man March. The above graph shows that at only halfway into 2016, the 67 protests and riots already surpass each of the annual totals since 1998 – suggesting that 2016 could be the most active year of protests yet.
Momentum for the #ThisFlag movement has grown significantly since Mawarire launched his widely viewed YouTube video in April. In June, he led a protest against the Reserve Bank’s introduction of new bond notes, which are to serve as a non-convertible but United States dollar-pegged local currency in an attempt to counter the currency crisis.
By 1 July, Beitbridge – the border point with South Africa that sees an estimated 15 000 people pass each day – was host to a number of road blockages and the burning of a warehouse. Shortly thereafter, a taxi driver protest in Harare turned violent and coincided with a number of smaller and more peaceful mobilisations by nurses, doctors and teachers, all demanding overdue salaries.
ZANU-PF’s response to public dissent and opposition is swift and repressive. The 1998 mass mobilisation was met with military deployment. Similarly, in July 2005, the protest in Harare’s informal settlements by labour strikers was forcibly squashed as part of Operation Murambatsvina. In 2007, Amnesty International condemned the violent arrests of the key organisers of the stay-away protest against inflation. In the last month, over 300 protestors were believed to be arrested, and many beaten.
In a country where mobile phone penetration is at 95% and Internet penetration at 50%, it is no surprise then that online protest is effective. As an alternative to state media, blogging websites such as Kubatana have been a platform for public discussion since the early 2000s. In the run-up to and during the 2008 elections, over 31 of its bloggers called for the end of Mugabe’s rule and shared their experiences in trying to withdraw much-needed cash from ATMs, along with victims’ accounts of police brutality.
On 6 July, in the middle of the stay-at-home protest, instant messaging service WhatsApp was mysteriously shut down – effectively preventing protestors from communicating and mobilising. With the president unable to pay the police and military on time, the state’s ability to physically control protest is limited, which may have led the government to act more creatively.
It is well known that behind the public dissatisfaction is a sad story of 36-year dominance by Robert Mugabe and ZANU-PF; the suppression of opposition; and a near-permanent economic crisis. After years of negative growth, the economy experienced nascent recovery in 2010 to 2012. However, year-on-year GDP growth has fallen to around 1.8% in 2015 and there is a similarly dismal expectation for 2016, due to unsustainable expenditure shored up by budget deficit funding.
The economic crisis is exacerbated by the severe drought that has ravaged the region. According to the Zimbabwean government, one third of the population is in need of food aid.
Furthermore, the country is in serious debt. Over the past year, discussions between the Zimbabwean government, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the African Development Bank have culminated in an agreement to pay back nearly US$2 billion in order to secure new short- to medium-term loans.
But, according to the IMF, any new loan will likely come with conditions to reduce the public sector payroll and reform the controversial land policy. This would have policy implications that are likely to exacerbate the public’s existing grievances, and catalyse new tensions between factions within the ruling party in the run-up to the presidential elections in 2018.
Mawarire’s movement highlights growing impatience with the never-ending economic insecurity. It also highlights the dearth of leadership options for Zimbabweans going forward. With the 92-year-old president’s questionable health; a fractured and weakened MDC; and growing tensions within ZANU-PF – particularly between the executive and the security sector – there is little certainty about the candidates and key messages we are likely to see in the 2018 race.
Yet there’s no doubt that Mugabe and ZANU-PF face unprecedented challenges ahead of 2018. The non-violent protest movement, including the social media activity to support it, is just one example of the new levels of civic engagement that appear to have outsmarted the current regime’s ability to counter dissent. Both in terms of the economic situation and protest movement, the next weeks and months will be crucial in determining the country’s trajectory.
Ciara Aucoin, Researcher, African Futures and Innovation, ISS Pretoria