by Donald Mukota
Images: Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi, Tafadzwa Ufumeli, Association of Freelance Journalists Zimbabwe (AFJZ) , Robert Tapfumaneyi
In the 36 years that Robert Mugabe and his ruling party Zanu PF have presided over the affairs of Zimbabwe, it seems the thought of Zimbabweans demanding accountability, true democracy, and good governance never came to mind. The elderly, the disabled, youth and children in Zimbabwe have in the past few weeks been demanding what they claim to be “rightfully” theirs. Although met with brutality and violence, they are still pressing on.
According to political analysts, the Zanu PF center is no longer holding. War veterans – a previously feared formation that has always upheld and supported Mugabe broke ranks with the party and the veteran ruler. The group of former freedom fighters has gone on to declare that Mugabe is a difficult candidate to sell for the 2018 elections.
For coming out and openly communicating that, the war veterans’ executive has been under persecution. Chris Mutsvangwa, Victor Matemadanda, and Douglas Mahiya will forever rue the day they crossed swords with Mugabe and his party.
The 6th of July 2016 marked the beginning of anti-government protests in Zimbabwe. Thousands of Zimbabweans from all walks of life heeded a call by a then little-known cleric, Pastor Evan Mawarire. Mawarire who said he was fed-up with what he called gross injustices launched the #ThisFlag Movement with the aim of asking the government to reform.
Repression, poor public services, high unemployment, widespread corruption, delays in civil servants receiving their salaries and company closures that the authorities ‘blame’ on the United States, Britain and their allies’ have characterized this small Southern African country with a population of slightly over 13 million people.
State of the economy
According to the African Development Bank’s Economic Outlook, more than 80 % of workers in Zimbabwe are employed in the informal sector. However, estimates of Zimbabwe’s unemployment rates have been suggested to be between 60 and 95 %.
Zimbabwe’s GDP growth declined from 3.8% in 2014 to an estimated 1.5% in 2015. This figure is projected to slightly improve this fiscal year.
In a recent report, labour NGO Ledriz estimated that Zimbabwe needs to create 140 000 new formal jobs a year. That is equivalent to an increase of more than 10 percent of employment, which means a GDP growth rate of 20 percent, something that is not on the cards. With the closure of over 4600 firms since 2011 and the loss of 55, 000 formal jobs, non-farm employment is no higher today than it was 30 years ago.
According to Tony Hawkins, a Chartered Accountant, in 2012 it was officially estimated that two-thirds of the population lived in poverty. Three years later this ratio must have risen while the proportion of the workforce without formal employment must be at least 75 percent. The numbers illustrate the severe socio-economic crisis in the country. Zimbabwe currently relies on foreigners and the Diaspora to stump up almost a quarter of GDP each year, a strategy that is not sustainable.
With no practical solutions in sight, Zimbabweans responded positively to the call by Mawarire. Thousands of people across the country joined and became part of #ThisFlag Movement. The call “Shut down Zimbabwe” resulted in the closure of shops and the service sectors.
The “Shutdown,” though a success was downplayed by the state owned media which has become a mouthpiece of government and the ruling party. Western governments and embassies based in Harare were blamed and accused of funding the protests. The government also blocked social media platforms like WhatsApp, Twitter, and Facebook on that day as citizens were using the platforms to send and share messages encouraging each other to join in the protest.
Hashtags such as #ZimShutDown2016, #Tajamuka, and #ThisFlag were created whose messages are centered on President Robert Mugabe’s government. The demonstrations have resulted in the arrest of over a hundred protestors including Pastor Mawarire who has since gone into self-imposed exile in South Africa as the anti-government protests spread across the country and beyond. Similar protests and demonstrations have been held in South Africa, United States, Canada, England and Australia.
The government stand
Protests in Harare and elsewhere in the country have continued, despite police intimidation and calls from President Mugabe for them to stop. Mugabe has been on national television blaming Western sanctions for Zimbabwe’s problems. Professor Jonathan Moyo, a former fierce critic of the Mugabe administration but who is now Minister of Higher and Tertiary Education has come out in defense of the President, tweeting “@eNCA joining @usembassyharare ploy to use pseudo operatives to tarnish Zim security arms!” Moyo goes on to accuse some embassies in Harare of “meddling” and “doing” local politics in violation of Vienna Convention. Moyo in another installment goes on to say, “it does not matter who founds or funds it and it does not matter how many coalitions or secessionists front it, Zimbabwe destruction won’t succeed.”
Meanwhile Home Affairs Minister, Ignatious Chombo has warned that any protests against the government will be crushed by police and true to his pronouncements, protestors have been subjected to serious police brutality.
Government Ministers and Zanu PF supporters prefer to call them “illegal protests” despite the fact that the courts have been engaged and cleared the protests. Minister Chombo has repeatedly warned protestors that “…they will face the full wrath of the law” and has on several occasions defended police heavy-handedness. Journalists have not been spared, they have been accused of bias with Chombo saying “…it’s a victim who is complaining that the police used maximum force, and you (journalists), intelligent as you are, believe the side of the victim.”
Police brutality has not only been experienced by the protesters but journalists have also been on the receiving end. Beatings, confiscation, and damage to equipment and arrests are commonplace in a country where media freedom and freedom of speech are not respected. James Jemwa, A photojournalist is currently in remand prison awaiting trial accused of taking part in a protest.
Opposition parties in Zimbabwe have since come together under the National Election Reform Agenda (NERA) banner and have organized protests aimed at pressing the government to amend some electoral laws which they say do not create a level playing field for free and fair elections. On Friday 23rd of August, NERA organized a demonstration which turned violent after the police tried to block protesters from going about their business.
The protesters wanted to present a petition to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission outlining their concerns and proposed changes to the current electoral laws before the 2018 elections. Although it is a constitutional right for citizens to conduct peaceful demonstrations, it took a court order for the march to proceed. By the time the protesters took to the street, anti-riot police had already deployed units at several points in the central business district and along the route that the protesters were going to take.
Among the reasons given by the police for reacting with tear gas, beatings and spraying protesters with water is that the march was supposed to be conducted between 1200 – 1600 Hrs, but protesters started gathering around 1000 Hrs and the demonstration continued way past the stipulated hours.
Zimbabwe is experiencing a lot more protests than in the past and the once revered president, Robert Mugabe is under pressure to steer the country in the right direction. While the pressure on Mugabe continues to pile, the Zimbabwe government is leaving no stone unturned to put a stop to these protests which have attracted regional and international attention.
A mega demonstration which was scheduled for Friday 2nd of September was postponed at the last minute after the Zimbabwe Government issued Statutory Instrument 101a of 2016 banning all demonstrations for two weeks. Parties to NERA confirmed the postponement saying “we do not have enough time to appeal against the instrument before tomorrow hence we have been forced to postpone our intended demo to a later agreed date.”
The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which is a member of NERA has since set the date for what they term as a mega demo for the 16th of September. In a letter dated Thursday 1st September 2016, the MDC advises supporters that demonstration that had been scheduled for Friday 2nd September 2016 has been postponed to Friday 16th September 2016.
In related developments, Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights reports that of the 68 protesters arrested during the 23rd September demonstrations in Harare, 10 have been released on $50.00 bail each and all 7 protesters arrested in Bulawayo have been released on free bail.