Mnangagwa’s pre-emptive strike


‘It’s the worst since 2008.”

That’s how some Zimbabweans who have spoken to the Mail & Guardian over the past two weeks have described the current crackdown. For them, it is a replay of the post-election violence 11 years ago in which thousands of opposition supporters were detained, tortured, assaulted or killed.

Other Zimbabweans go even further: “It hasn’t been this bad since Gukurahundi.”

In the Gukurahundi massacres in the 1980s, state security forces slaughtered thousands of people, largely targeting members of the Ndebele group who were perceived to support Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union, the only real opposition to Robert Mugabe’s ruling Zimbabwe African National Union. Estimates of the death toll range from 20 000 to 36 000 people.

Some of the same men alleged to be responsible for the killings — men like Lands Minister Perence Shiri, Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga, and yes, even President Emmer­son Mnangagwa — are still in power.

It is still too soon to understand fully the extent of the 2019 crackdown, and there is little reliable information available. But the mere fact that so many Zimbabweans are reaching for comparisons such as 2008 and Gukurahundi should be enough to raise alarm bells — especially when these warnings come from people who have lived through both of those dark periods in their country’s history.

This bleak assessment is supported by the few reputable statistics that have emerged. At least 12 people are thought to have been killed in the violence, and hundreds of others injured. About 1 000 people have been arrested and are being processed in the courts.

The crackdown began, supposedly, in response to popular protests against the imposition of a fuel tax. But the sheer scale of the operation, in its third week now, suggests that it was planned well in advance. It takes careful planning to conduct simultaneous military operations in towns across the country and to organise the targeted detentions and disappearances of community leaders, activists, unionists and opposition party members.

This combination of terror and purge has crippled popular resistance to the government — for now, at least.

It is also a major reason it has been so hard to gather accurate information: many of the people who would usually be raising the alarm have been forcefully prevented from doing so.

From Mnangagwa’s perspective, the timing of the crackdown is no accident. Zimbabwe has been staggering through a slow-motion economic crisis for the past year, and now the government is broke. This is likely to be compounded by shortfalls in agricultural production, which are projected to leave at least 2.4-million people in need of emergency food aid within the next few months, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Mnangagwa’s government simply does not have the foreign exchange reserves to purchase that food aid. Tobacco sales, expected to begin sometime between mid-February and mid-March, may also be negatively impacted by the poor climatic conditions, putting the exchequer under even more pressure.

How will the government pay its civil servants, who are threatening to go on strike? How will the government pay its soldiers? How will it feed its people? For any would-be autocrat, this last question is always the most crucial: the link between hunger and revolution is as old as civilisation itself.

The crackdown is the Mnangagwa regime’s attempt to pre-empt any potential revolution.

As terrifying as Mnangagwa’s police and soldiers may be, it is clear that Mnangagwa and his allies are just as terrified — and that they will spare no violence in their efforts to protect themselves.

Subscribe to the M&G for R2 a month

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

And for this weekend only, you can become a subscriber by paying just R2 a month for your first three months.

Simon Allison
Simon Allison
Africa Editor for @MailandGuardian. Also @ISSAfrica.

Related stories

Did Botswana execute ‘poachers’ ?

The Botswana Defence Force’s anti-poaching unit has long been accused of a ‘shoot to kill’ policy. Over 20 years the unit has killed 30 Namibians and 22 Zimbabweans

Malawi elections provide a global lesson in democracy

COMMENT: Opposition candidates and party can increase their chances of success at the polls by putting aside minor differences and presenting a united front

We developed a simple process to recycle urine. Here’s how it’s done

Most of the wastewater produced worldwide receives no treatment and the nutrients in wastewater go to waste. Here's how households can draw these nutrients from urine

Xenophobic tensions surge in KZN

Amid protests by the ANC’s MK Military Veterans, distressed foreign nationals have shut their stalls at a Durban flea market

Dambudzo Marechera’s literary shock treatment

A new book on Zimbabwean writer Dambudzo Marechera draws on both actual and imaginary archives

Tsitsi Dangarembga: Are we mourning ourselves, each other and this state we are in?

The author discusses the trilogy of novels that propelled her onto the Booker shortlist, and their relevance to present-day Zimbabwe

Subscribers only

ANC: ‘We’re operating under conditions of anarchy’

In its latest policy documents, the ANC is self-critical and wants ‘consequence management’, yet it’s letting its members off the hook again

Q&A Sessions: ‘I think I was born way before my...

The chief executive of the Estate Agency Affairs Board and the deputy chair of the SABC board, shares her take on retrenchments at the public broadcaster and reveals why she hates horror movies

More top stories

DRC: Tshisekedi and Kabila fall out

The country’s governing coalition is under strain, which could lead to even more acrimony ahead

Editorial: Crocodile tears from the coalface

Pumping limited resources into a project that is predominantly meant to extend dirty coal energy in South Africa is not what local communities and the climate needs.

Klipgat residents left high and dry

Flushing toilets were installed in backyards in the North West, but they can’t be used because the sewage has nowhere to go

Nehawu leaders are ‘betraying us’

The accusation by a branch of the union comes after it withdrew from a parliamentary process

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…