A thick, choking haze of teargas and burning tyres has blanketed Zimbabwe’s urban streets over the past year as citizen activist groups re-emerged in protest against an increasingly repressive government and the hardship brought by a deteriorating economy.
Amid fears that the Southern African nation could be heading for another messy crisis, 2016 marks a seminal moment in the history of civic-state relations. Civic and opposition movements took action after almost a decade of no mass protests.
Citizen lobbyists #ThisFlag and #Tajamuka/Sesjikile (We refuse), a radical anti-President Robert Mugabe pressure group, have been on the frontline alongside other civil and political groups, calling for change. The resurgence of civil activism and the accompanying police crackdown are reminiscent of the turbulent 2000s when an emerging political opposition and civil society were heavily restricted.
There has been widespread rejection of the government’s efforts to resolve a crippling economic crisis with the introduction of bond notes, a local United States dollar-equivalent currency.
It was met with some resistance — there were thwarted protests and court challenges — but the government maintains the measure could ease chronic cash shortages and provide incentives for the agri-based economy.
Opposition parties and activists have made a united call for Mugabe to step down and for the implementation of electoral reforms. The vicious response to the ongoing bursts of protest has fomented further dissent, pitting civil society and citizens against the state.
The heavy crackdown on activist groups and civil society organisations suggests that, since the rise of opposition voices in the 2000s, civic activism tends to be viewed through the narrow lens of “an extension of the opposition”, as Bhekinkosi Moyo, a researcher of civil society organisations, says.
For several reasons, this could be true.
The founder of the activist movement #ThisFlag is Pastor Evan Mawarire. He is a former child president who became disillusioned with the promises of Mugabe’s liberator regime. The children’s Parliament is a nonpolitical organisation that was set up by the government to afford students and the youth an opportunity to be able to stand up for their rights and advocate for their fellow citizens.
A series of posts online lamenting the poor state of the economy and calling people to action led to #ThisFlag. In a country where speaking out against the government is limited to the politically active, a growing number of Zimbabweans have taken to releasing videos online calling for the removal of the veteran liberator — a view supported by both the opposition and #Tajamuka.
The group openly pushing for Mugabe’s departure and electoral reforms is led by Promise Mkwananzi, a former youth leader of the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T). Shortly after the government announced its proposal to introduce bond notes in May, the MDC embarked on city-to-city protest marches, to which #ThisFlag and #Tajamuka added their voices.
#ThisFlag successfully called for a mass stayaway on July 6 which, following two violent riots and the concurrent staging of a three-day civil servants strike, saw most urban centres shut down.
Post-2000, calls for mass protest were largely the prerogative of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) and the MDC. Similar to other African countries such as Zambia and Kenya, the liberalising of Zimbabwe’s political space with the first multiparty elections in 1990 made it possible for the trade union movement to increase its autonomy from the regime steadily.
Originally founded and regulated by the one-party state in 1981, the ZCTU gradually gained more leverage to organise strikes and protests in the 1990s.
A controversial payout to war veterans for their role in the 1970s liberation struggle as well as a costly intervention in the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in 1997 crashed the stock market and tipped civic-state relations.
Within hours, the value of the Zimbabwean dollar was inflated by 74%. Food prices rose dramatically and, in response, thousands of people protested against rising prices, increased taxes and poor wages. The nationwide co-ordinated action by worker’s unions, student groups and civic groups made the three-day food riots of December 1997 one of the largest mass actions ever seen in Zimbabwe.
In 1999, the MDC, formed by trade unionists, lawyers and human rights activists, rose to become one of the strongest civil challenges to the regime. It led the protests and stayaways over an economic crisis caused by hyperinflation and political repression of the opposition.
The seizure of white-owned commercial farms and hyperinflation in the 2000s led to the severe decline of the agricultural and manufacturing industries, the bedrock of Zimbabwe’s labour market. Tens of thousands of workers lost their jobs and with their jobs went union membership. Even those who retained jobs grew scared of striking after the government took a tougher stance against stayaways, threatening strikers with dismissal and arrest.
But divisions in the ZCTU leadership split the movement and it has failed to mobilise mass action.
Shortly after the 2013 elections, which saw the end of a five-year coalition government of Zanu-PF and two MDC factions, the primary opposition party, the MDC-T, became embroiled in its own power struggles. Another party split saw many of its members leave and public confidence drop.
Both the MDC-T and the ZCTU have repeatedly called for stayaways, but their weakened positions have created a vacuum for the disillusioned generation that leads today’s protests.
Although this tech-savvy brand of activism has revived public engagement in politics, relations between state and civil society have grown increasingly hostile. Like opposition and human rights activists in the 2000s, hundreds of protesters and their leaders have been beaten and arrested.
Fearing for his family’s safety, #ThisFlag’s Mawarire fled into exile after being arrested in July for calling for the stayaway. Others, such as Sten Zvorwadza, who led a small but successful protest against Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s extended stay in a five-star hotel, and Patson Dzamara, whose activist brother, Itai, was abducted in 2015, have been physically assaulted, allegedly by state agents.
Mkhwananzi has endured countless arrests throughout the year but seems determined to continue calling for action. “This government wants to criminalise protest but we won’t be criminalised. We will continue to protest until we have them [Zanu-PF] out,” he said.
“They’ve given us the bond notes because they’ve failed to fix the economy again and that’s why we need a government that is going to arrest this crisis and stop the suffering.”
But Mugabe has dismissed the protesters as Western-sponsored agents of regime change and warned there will be no Arab Spring in Zimbabwe. Taking steps against possible dissenters, the government has drafted the Computer and Cyber Crimes Bill, which will allow police to confiscate any electronic equipment used to spread messages that encourage violent protests and other acts considered “hostile behaviour”.
Alex Magaisa, a professor of law at the University of Kent and former adviser to MDC leader and former prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai, has been highly critical of the bans, saying they are out of sync with the 2013 Constitution and are the acts of a repressive regime.
“These methods reflect a paranoid state that typically resorts to violence and repressive instruments when faced with a challenge. The Zimbabwean state inherited the instruments and culture from the Rhodesian state and perfected them.”
Since coming to power in 1980, Zanu-PF has relied on the legal mechanisms inherited from the colonial state. As such, it’s difficult for social movements to counter authoritarian post-colonial states in Africa, as the year’s protests from Angola to the DRC and Ethiopia have shown.
On Harare’s streets, police maintain a watchful eye. But, in spite of the year’s crackdowns, driven by an uncertain economic outlook and with no respite in sight, people are likely to keep chanting “Mugabe must go” well into 2017.
Tendai Marima is a freelance journalist covering sub-Saharan Africa