Panicked Zimbabwe caught with pants down as fear tactics fail to deter resistance

Zimbabwe’s ruling Zanu-PF this week officially dismissed violent protests as failed attempts by opposition parties at regime change, but behind closed doors the party – and the government – appeared to be verging on panic.

“It has become as clear as clean glass that the current riots obtaining in our beloved Zimbabwe were hatched by regime change agents who are puppets of the [United States] and Britain,” wrote one Zanu-PF supporter in a widely published opinion piece this week.

Groups that otherwise appeared poorly co-ordinated uniformly called on President Robert Mugabe to step down.

Several sources, all speaking anonymously for fear of reprisals, said a Zanu-PF politburo meeting this week was dogged by fears that civil unrest, so far limited to the two biggest cities and the border with South Africa, could spread.

Ministers and officials were apparently under pressure to secure funds from foreign donors to pay civil servants.

After an attempt to shut down unregulated communications platforms failed, authorities suggested that anti-regime messages could have severe repercussions.

“Any person caught in possession of, generating, sharing or passing on abusive, threatening, subversive or offensive telecommunication messages, including WhatsApp or any other social media messages that may be deemed to cause despondency, incite violence, threaten citizens and cause unrest, will be arrested and dealt with accordingly in the national interest,” telecommunications regulator Potraz said.

The WhatsApp cellphone messaging service – which is end-to-end encrypted and thus impervious to interception – was unavailable for some time on Wednesday, amid speculation that authorities had disabled it to prevent protests from spreading. Cellphone users rapidly turned to alternative applications and platforms.

Police and the military were dispatched to several hot spots, where they were initially outnumbered by protesters. Several instances of demonstrators being beaten violently were captured on video. One witness reported an incident during which police were, in turn, beaten and robbed by protesters. Several journalists were detained by police and made to delete footage and photos of violent clashes.

The government showed little inclination to negotiate with protesters, which political analyst Alexander Rusero said would likely remain the case.

“Remember, the type of government we are dealing with is a government of former guerrilla soldiers who view everything through the lenses of war, so to them succumbing [by listening to grievances] is sort of cowardice in their language,” Rusero said.

The opposition blamed the violence on the government.

“We strongly suspect that any incidents of violence are, in fact, state sponsored, because the Zanu-PF regime has always been spoiling for a physical confrontation with the people,” said MDC-T spokesperson Obert Gutu.

He urged opposition supporters “to remain peaceful and to exercise restraint even in the face of extreme provocation by Zanu-PF thugs and hooligans”.

In Bulawayo and the high-density Harare suburbs of Mufakose and Budiriro, clashes turned bloody on Wednesday as mostly young men played hide-and-seek with police before dispersing.

Unable to catch protesters, police in some instances took to breaking down doors and beating residents they claimed had been involved.

In the Harare suburb of Epworth and the nearby town of Ruwa, people blocked roads with whatever was handy and kindled fires in the middle of a highway. A Ruwa transport worker said the action was rooted in money rather than politics.

“We grew up as the youth and because school has not worked out, we are trying to look for something which is not criminal. Now, the police are coming after us as if we are criminals. Why? Why are they doing this? We are tired of these roadblocks, where you get out of the [taxi] rank, meet more than five roadblocks and when you pay the $20 fine, the next roadblock still requires you to pay again even though you show your receipt,” said a man who asked not to be named.

Some bus drivers said they were losing $50 a day to police “fines” out of gross daily takings of $90. Passengers also expressed frustration at the frequent stops at roadblocks during their daily commutes.

Throughout Harare and Bulawayo shops and banks were closed and streets were largely empty on Wednesday, in apparent compliance with a call for a national shutdown by Evan Mawarire, the leader of the popular #OurFlag movement. Mawarire called on Zimbabweans to bring the country to a halt “in protest against the government for allowing corruption, injustice and poverty”.

The shutdown movement gained momentum after violent clashes between cross-border traders and government officials at the Beitbridge border post.

Zimbabwe Cross Border Traders Association secretary general Augustine Tawanda said traders had been infuriated by a sudden ban on the import of certain small goods commonly bought from South Africa, which he described as an “ambush”, followed by the government’s failure to issue the documentation traders require.

Zanu-PF leaders remain confident the party will maintain its grip on rural areas, which constitutes much of its power base. But that seems to depend largely on its ability to continue providing food aid, which in turn depends on successful local harvests and having the foreign currency for imports.

In May an official in the Chimanimani district of eastern Manicaland told the Mail & Guardian that people who do not support Zanu-PF would not receive food support, a situation typical in much of the country. In Manicaland the government provides maize to some 400 000 people every month.

A youth group identifying itself as Tajamuka-Sesijikile has called for further protests and stayaways, as well as protests in South Africa.

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