Angry protesters barricade the main route to Zimbabwes capital Harare from Epworth township after the government announced a huge hike in fuel prices. (Jekesai Njikizana/AFP)
Experts say the harsh reaction is a symptom of a bankrupt and desperate government
Harare — Isaac*, like many other Zimbabweans, did not go to work on Monday. Partly, he said, in support of the national stay-away called for by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, after the government suddenly raised fuel prices by 150%. But also because he couldn’t afford the transport from his home in Kuwadzana 1 into central Harare.
In a pattern repeated across the country, the stayaway in Kuwadzana 1, a high-density suburb, was accompanied by loud anti-government demonstrations on Monday and Tuesday morning. Although these nationwide protests were largely peaceful, turning cities into ghost towns, there were incidents of looting and, according to the government, attacks on police stations.
On Tuesday afternoon, the government responded.
This is what Isaac saw: “About 11 private vehicles, mainly Toyotas and Isuzus and Ford Rangers, with people wearing white T-shirts and covering their faces with masks, or with painted faces so they could not be recognised. And they started beating up people just standing by the road, accusing them of blocking the road. They were in the company of soldiers, who were in their big trucks. They beat up people in their homes around Kuwadzana 1. They broke the windows and the doors. There was one old man who was beaten until he dropped to his hands. Later on they took him and dumped in the Kuwadzana polyclinic.
“When they moved towards Kuwadzana 4, they shot one young guy. They shot him dead on the spot. They shot him in the ribs and the bullets came out of his back. In the night, I witnessed some soldiers who were beating up people around Kuwadzana 4, 5, 6 and 7; mainly they were beating up the young boys. They also looted one tuckshop around Kuwadzana 1, emptied the whole tuckshop. The whole night they were busy beating up people. Beating indiscriminately, mainly men and boys. That’s what I witnessed as of yesterday.”
Obtaining information about this week’s crackdown in Zimbabwe has been greatly complicated by the internet shutdown imposed by the government on Tuesday. The flow of information between Zimbabweans, and from Zimbabwe to the outside world, was severely compromised.
But Isaac’s eyewitness account has been echoed by other witnesses, activists, doctors and lawyers contacted by the Mail & Guardian.
Most would not speak on record, expressing fears of arrest or worse. They described a nationwide pattern of executions, indiscriminate assaults and home invasions, committed either by state security forces or by armed, plainclothes militia supervised by security forces.
The Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights, a nongovernmental organisation, said that its members had treated more than 100 patients on Tuesday afternoon, including dozens with gunshot wounds, and that at least five people had died. One doctor said the actual numbers of injured and dead are likely to be much higher, given the difficulty in obtaining information.
Hundreds have been arrested, including high-profile figures such as Pastor Evan Mawarire, founder of the #ThisFlag social movement; most have not been charged.
The crackdown continued into Wednesday and Thursday, and internet connectivity remained unreliable. A government spokesperson said the internet shutdown was caused by “congestion” on the network, but this was contradicted by a statement from mobile service provider Econet, which said it had been ordered by the government to restrict its services.
The government has justified the crackdown as a necessary response to “violence and vandalism instead of peaceful, legal protests”, in the words of President Emmerson Mnangagwa. The president is observing the crisis from the safety of faraway Moscow, where he is attempting to raise investment from Russia.
As critics observed angrily on Zimbabwean Twitter — before it was shut down — he flew to Moscow in a private jet that allegedly costs $70 000 an hour.
In Mnangagwa’s absence, Vice- President Constantino Chiwenga, the army boss who led the coup against Robert Mugabe in November 2017, is calling the shots.
Opposition leaders and civil society activists have described this week’s crackdown as the most severe since the post-election violence of 2008, when security forces and ruling-party-aligned militias targeted opposition party supporters, killing dozens if not hundreds of people (statistics are contested).
“It’s utter chaos, it’s unbelievable. Unprecedented,” said Dewa Mavhinga, Human Rights Watch director for Southern Africa.
Piers Pigou, a Zimbabwe specialist with the International Crisis Group, said that violence is a symptom of an increasingly desperate and bankrupt regime.
“Over the last year, we have seen an opening of political space and an ability of critics of the regime to express themselves and they have done so. I suspect that Zimbabwe’s military intelligence has been extremely busy gathering data, seeing where there may be problematic elements undermining the re-engagement, reform and recovery strategy. The criticism has understandably got louder and louder in the face of deteriorating social and economic conditions.”
The situation is likely to get worse, he said. “They may be able to put a lid on public frustration, but it’s not going to go away. This repression may well lead to a number of people fleeing Zimbabwe, and South Africa needs to be aware of this.”
When Mnangagwa succeeded Mugabe, he promised to make fixing the country’s spiralling economy his first order of business. But the promised economic and political reforms never came, and foreign investors were discouraged by the disputed election in July last year, and the killing of six protesters by soldiers in the wake of that election.
Now inflation is running at 30% — compared with just 5% in the last weeks of the Mugabe regime — and forex is almost impossible for people to come by. The value of the bond notes, a pseudo-currency designed to supplement the US dollars in circulation, has plummeted: although officially pegged at 1:1 with the dollar, it trades on the black market at as much as three times that. Well-connected businessmen and politicians have been able to profit from this discrepancy, but others have seen their savings disappear.
“The US$1:1 bond rate has become a source of earnings to those who are very corrupt. They use bond notes to get US dollars at that rate. The value of money has also been going down due to treasury bills that are yet to mature,” said John Robertson, an economist. “With the fuel increase, there would be increases in the price of other goods and services and inflation is going to go much higher. We will soon be sitting at between 40% and 50% inflation.”
The economic crisis is having a serious effect on the government’s ability to provide basic public services. In recent months, there have been crippling strikes by doctors and teachers, and civil servants announced their intention to strike next week unless their salaries are raised to compensate for inflation. Analysts do not believe that the government has the money to meet their demands — and fear that more confrontations are inevitable.
*Not his real name