Most visitors to Zimbabwe go away gushing about how Zimbabweans are such “a happy, friendly, kind and welcoming people”. Some Zimbabweans, mostly politicians and business types, repeat these descriptions, adding “highly educated and hardworking” when trying to sell the country.
Those Zimbabweans who are self-analytical, however, will add that Zimbabweans are docile and not self-assertive. This, as an explanation as to why they never put up any sustained resistance to the abuse and repression they endured through the 37 years of rule by former president Robert Mugabe.
More than a year after the coup that saw the end of Mugabe’s rule, even less analytical Zimbabweans have added another adjective to describe themselves: gullible. Gullible because of the way they endorsed, in their numbers, the coup that led to Mugabe’s resignation. On 18 November 2017, Zimbabweans of all colours, religions and sexes heeded a call by the putschists who were leaning on Mugabe to resign, to take to the streets in support of the army and to denounce Mugabe and demand his resignation. He got the message; a few days later, he resigned rather than face the ignominy of being impeached.
Emmerson Mnangagwa, who had been Mugabe’s vice president but whom the then president had fired days before the coup and who had skipped the country, returned home triumphantly and was sworn in as the new president. During his inauguration speech, Mnangagwa described his former boss as his father and mentor. This made sense; the young Mnangagwa had been Mugabe’s personal assistant during the liberation struggle. They had come home together at independence, and Mnangagwa had been in every cabinet since then.
After seeing their chosen leader safely in office, the army returned to its barracks, but not before some of its top brass exchanged their army fatigues for designer suits and landed themselves some powerful ministries. The army commander became vice president, the second most powerful man in the land.
Mnangagwa preached peace and adopted the mantra, “Zimbabwe is open for business”, in an effort to attract investment to resuscitate the moribund economy. Most Zimbabweans and many foreign governments, including former colonial master Britain, gave the “new” leader the benefit of the doubt. Alarm bells started ringing, though, during the run-up to last July’s elections. The opposition cried foul on a number of issues to do with the conducting of the elections, but the government-appointed “independent” Zimbabwe Electoral Commission refused to address those concerns.
The shooting to death on 1 August by the army of six unarmed civilians during a demonstration demanding a speedier release of the election results was the “aha” moment for Zimbabweans and the world at large, that what Mnangagwa called the “new dispensation” and the “second republic” was nothing but a rejuvenated Mugabe phase two, without Mugabe but with more muscle. Mnangagwa tried to show that he was different to Mugabe by appointing an international commission to look into who killed the civilians, even though the shootings were carried out live on international television stations. The commission, led by former South African President Kgalema Motlanthe, found that the deaths of the six people and injuries sustained by 35 others “arose from the actions of the military and the police”.
The dismay of Zimbabweans who had bought into Mnangagwa’s rhetoric was shared by other governments who had believed he was sincere. Zimbabweans realised that by marching for Mugabe’s ouster, they had been used to sanitise the coup, which the plotters refused to describe as such, claiming it was meant to deal with criminal elements around Mugabe.
On being sworn into office, Mnangagwa had promised a new way of doing business and raised the expectations of the people by promising an economic turnaround during the first hundred days of his new cabinet being sworn into office. Perhaps he was banking on the support of outsiders, such as “fair-weather” friend China, but when he took his begging bowl to Beijing, he came back empty-handed.
Instead of getting better, the economy continued on what seems to be an inexorable nosedive. One of the manifestations was the appearance of long queues of cars at filling stations late last year because of a fuel shortage. The shortage spilled over into this year, and on 12 January, President Mnangagwa announced an almost threefold increase in the prices of petrol and diesel. He justified the hike by saying that while the fuel is priced in US dollars, adopted along with other currencies in 2009 after the dumping of the Zimbabwe dollar on the back of one of the highest hyperinflations in history, people were paying for it in so-called bond currency, which is good only in Zimbabwe.
The government introduced the bond currency in 2016 after a crippling shortage of US dollars in the country. The so-called surrogate currency is supposed to be on par with the US dollar, but the reality is that one needs more than three bond dollars – or bollars, as locals have dubbed them – to buy a US dollar on the black market. Consequently, Zimbabweans were paying something like US$0,30 per litre of petrol or diesel, both of which are imported into the country using US dollars.
The increase did not sit well with a general public already reeling from high inflation. On the 13th of January, the umbrella body of Zimbabwe’s workers’ unions, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, along with other civic groups, called for a three-day strike starting the next day. One of their demands was that workers be paid in US dollars, since their bollars had lost value against the greenback.
The strike got off to a violent start, with youths taking to the streets and stopping those trying to go to work and kids going to school, from doing so. Widespread burning and looting was reported. The government responded by unleashing the police and the army on the people. Hundreds were arrested, hundreds more were wounded, and less than a month after the results of the Motlanthe Commission were made public, the police and the army once again opened fire on unarmed members of the public. Unconfirmed reports say 12 people were shot dead.
The disturbances were mostly confined to the so-called high-density areas, a post-independence euphemism for the townships, where most working-class urbanites live. Sadly, in Zimbabwe, where unemployment is estimated to be higher than 90 per cent, most of the people in those areas are without jobs.
In addition to the ham-fisted response to the protests, the government shut down the internet on the 15th. The shutdown lasted for more than 30 hours. When it was restored, access to social media sites WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube was blocked. The entire internet was blocked again on the 17th. On restoration of service the next day, access to the aforementioned social media sites remained blocked.
The government blamed social media for being used to spread fear and falsehoods, and also for coordinating the violence. Presidential spokesperson George Charamba said the shutdown was meant to protect the society: “The internet was the tool used to coordinate the violence; in other words, it was part and parcel of the arsenal of tools put in place to ensure that there was maximum damage on our society.” Human rights groups insist the internet shutdown was about stopping members of the public from sharing the handiwork of the security forces, who allegedly embarked on an orgy of violence against innocent people, allegedly going as far as dragging people out of their houses at night and beating them up.
The shutdown was, however, challenged by the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights and the Media Institute of Southern Africa, who argued that the state security minister, who ordered the shutdown, had no authority to do so. The High Court upheld their challenge on 21 January, and full internet service was restored that day. This, observers say, has confirmed that the shutdown was meant to hide the activities of the security forces, as images of those brutally assaulted, allegedly by soldiers, started doing the rounds. Images showing the trail of destruction the protests left in their wake are also being shared.
President Mnangagwa, who had left the country on a five-nation junket, taking in Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Belarus and finally Switzerland, where he was to attend the World Economic Forum’s annual get-together at Davos, cut the trip short so he could attend to the crisis. On his return, he tweeted an appeal for dialogue with political parties, religious entities and civic groups to discuss the country’s economic and political crises.
The main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), says it is ready to enter into meaningful dialogue if it will help solve the country’s problems. Party Secretary General Douglas Mwonzora, however, noted that Mnangagwa has made similar pronouncements before: “The problem is he always says that on social media and never approaches the MDC or other groups.”
Regarding the state propaganda machinery and ruling Zimbabwe African National Union –Patriotic Front (Zanu–PF) blaming the MDC for organising the violent protests, Mwonzora categorically denied the charge, saying that his party was not even involved in organising the stay-away.
The situation seems to have returned to normal in most parts of Zimbabwe, but the violent operation against “the lumpen”, as George Charamba called the protestors, continues.
Zimbabweans have now woken up to the fact that they were once again sold a dummy, and that 18 November 2017, like 18 April 1980 when Zimbabwe attained its independence from Britain, was another false dawn.
- ish Mafundikwa is a Zimbabwean freelance broadcast and print journalist based in Harare.