An unprecedented rebellion by usually docile members of Zimbabwe’s ruling Zanu-PF party and anti-government riots in the capital Harare this week have exposed gaping fissures in the previously monolithic edifice of President Robert Mugabe’s 17-year-old regime.
Delegates to a Zanu-PF conference in the eastern city of Mutare refused point blank last Friday to approve a government proposal for tax increases stemming from Mugabe’s belated pledge to pay gratuities to veterans of Zimbabwe’s liberation war.
“Hatidi [we don’t want it],” delegates chorused when Mugabe put the proposal to them. The unanimous defiance of 5 000 key party officials came as a rude shock to a leadership accustomed to grassroots obedience and reflected extensive public dissatisfaction with levels of taxation among the highest in the world.
The government has already seen its tax initiative stalled at a parliamentary roadblock when normally obedient MPs recently rejected increases in sales tax and taxes on fuel and electricity.
When ministers responded to that challenge by resorting to executive fiat they faced a barrage of criticism in the press and from business and trade unions.
The riots in Harare on Tuesday resulted from heavy-handed police attempts to prevent the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions from organising protests against the tax hikes.
Confrontations between police and stone- throwing demonstrators were the worst the country has witnessed since 1995. Protesters held placards that said “No to levies” and “Don’t blame whites for your failures” – a reference to government claims that employers had facilitated the strike by closing their businesses.
Police Commissioner Augustine Chihuri ignored a high court injunction instructing him to allow the protests to go ahead while Minister of Home Affairs Dumiso Dabengwa warned protesters they could be shot if they continued to demonstrate.
“Mugabe is buying the war veterans at our expense,” one protester said. “He has failed as a leader and no longer cares about the country.” Demonstrations at other major centres were well-attended and peaceful.
Mugabe, who has used his party as an instrument of top-down management, is now facing a further challenge from within his own ranks. Delegates from Masvingo province in the south, home of powerful party baron Eddison Zvobgo, came to Mutare armed with proposals for confining the president’s tenure to two consecutive five-year terms, an undisguised challenge to Mugabe’s seemingly limitless rule.
The Masvingo delegates also sought a wholesale review of the Constitution, which has undergone 14 amendments since independence in 1980, mainly aimed at establishing a one-party state and reversing court rulings on human rights.
Equally challenging to the extravagant lifestyle of the Mugabe administration was Masvingo’s call for runaway state expenditure to be curtailed by limiting presidential appointees. Although these proposals were shelved by party chair Joseph Msika, constitututional reform – and with it the hitherto taboo succession issue – have been placed firmly on the national agenda.
Meanwhile, the government will have to find new ways to raise the money it needs to pay the war veterans. MPs have suggested that ministers cut back on luxuries such as the new Cherokee jeeps they recently took delivery of.
In relation to its population, Zimbabwe has one of the largest governments in the world, which has shown little inclination to share the sacrifices being asked of workers. Giving an address to Parliament on Tuesday Mugabe blithely ignored the riots outside and referred to recent economic setbacks as “temporary”.