Harare - It’s been nearly 16 years since the sting of teargas has pervaded the streets of Harare. It was almost nostalgic.
Then, a march by a large, peaceful crowd of pro-democracy supporters demanding an end to President Robert Mugabe’s rule was brutally crushed by police and a mob of his murderous war veterans’ militia.
On Monday (July 4) phalanxes of riot police used tear gas, dogs and water cannon to break up a rowdy demonstration by lawless minibus crews, who parked their vehicles and closed down transport services from some of Harare’s most populous townships.
It was followed on Wednesday by a near total shutdown of business and official administration countrywide in answer to a call for a national stay-away. Significantly, none of the established political opposition groups had anything to do with it. It was entirely at the urging of homegrown hashtag groups on WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook and the rest of social media that Zimbabweans have taken to.
It was the first open mass demonstration of deep public discontent that Zimbabweans have dared to show since 2000. “For people to have responded at the slightest urging to participate in a campaign like this is concrete evidence how strongly they feel,” said a Western diplomat.
“Zimbabweans have never faced a future so devoid of hope, and there is nothing this government can do to fix it. People know that and they want change.”
Acie Lumumba, a young recent defector from Mugabe’s ZANU(PF) party starting his own new party, succinctly articulated the national mood at his launch this week: “Robert Mugabe,” he said, and after a pause: “F..k you.” He now faces criminal charges of insulting the president, but appears delighted to have done it.
Zimbabwe, the most promising hope in Africa at its birth in 1980, has crashed into bankruptcy. “Right now we literally have nothing,” finance minister Patrick Chinamasa told reporters this week on his way to try and raise loans in London. Since December he has had to delay payment repeatedly of wages to civil servants, teachers and nurses. Last month - for the first time - the army and police had their payday deferred, at enormous risk.
Not only are there no reserves, but the supply of US dollar cash notes – the national currency – has virtually dried up. Zimbabwe has almost become a “cashless society” – except unlike countries like Sweden where credit and debit cards are used almost exclusively, only a tiny proportion of Zimbabwe society can afford “plastic” and the currency of the poor townships is hard cash.
Zimbabwe has an international debt burden of US$10.8 billion. In October last year, central bank governor John Mangudya told creditors that agreement had been reached for payment of US$1.8 billion to be made to three major multilateral finance agencies to open up new lines of credit for the government. Payment would be made by June, he said. “June has come and gone,” said economist Brett Chulu. “There is no pronouncement from the debt clearance strategy team.”
But without any sign of embarrassment, Mugabe has flown to eight different countries since the beginning of the year, 10 times to Singapore, apparently for medical treatment, and to insignificant conferences - each time taking US$4 million in cash as a float – that are ignored by his peers in the rest of the world. The government continues to provide new Mercedes Benz limousines to cabinet ministers. Reports of corruption involving millions of US dollars are published in the local press almost daily, with no action being taken against the culprits, including one of Mugabe’s nephews.
Probably the most blatant of the ruling class’ blindness to its own folly involves the foot-in-mouth vice-president (one of two), Phelekezela Mphoko, who has spent the last 563 days (as of July 7) with his grasping wife and a floating population of their children in the presidential suite of the five-star Rainbow Towers hotel in Harare while they wait for US$3.5 million worth of “improvements” to a government mansion to be completed (a search on the internet revealed only three other countries in the world – Costa Rica, Afghanistan and Panama – with two vice-presidents).
Evan Mawarire,who runs the #ThisFlag site that started the social media onslaught - he and his colleagues constantly drape themselves in Zimbabwean flags to demonstrate their commitment to the country – have laid down their demands to the government – stop impunity for corruption, stop the roadblocks that police use to fleece motorists and scrap the government’s plan to print “bond notes” as currency to restore liquidity. The three issues are probably the worst irritants to long-suffering Zimbabweans.
“If they are not met, we go back to the citizenry and shut the country down,” he said. “If we have to do it for longer, we will do so.”
It may take longer still for enthusiasm for continuous stay-aways to have an effect. It may take much longer for severe economic decline to motivate people. For all the problems facing Zimbabweans, there is still ample food in the country’s shops.
It may also take Mugabe and the sycophants around him to recognise how serious the situation has become. “I don’t think Mugabe takes much notice of it,” said Cephas Msipa who was with Mugabe in the 60s when Mugabe launched his political career against the white Rhodesian government. “He is stubborn. He is also fed wrong information.”
Critically, Mugabe’s constituency in recent weeks has lost the support of the group of veterans of Zimbabwe’s war against white rule in the 70s. Until recently, they have been repeatedly used to strike fear into his critics, as a lawless militia guaranteed immunity from prosecution. But last week he had their influential leader expelled from the ruling party. The veterans almost immediately transferred their loyalty to his critics.
Mugabe has resorted to deploying the military for his purposes in the past, with devastating results. The western provinces of Matabeleland still fester from the civilian massacres of an estimated 20,000 people in 1983-84 carried out by his 5 Brigade, specially trained for civilian repression.
However, said a Western military attaché, the army is likely to be affected as much as ordinary citizenry by economic collapse. “The army’s ordinary brigades live in pretty rotten conditions. Their barracks are badly run down, their food is rubbish, they are treated badly by their officers and they are disorganised. It’s not the way to run a loyal army.”
The government has taken to blaming a sinister “third force” at work behind the social networks’ activities. Political commentator Nigel Chanakira responded to the claim by tweeting a photograph of a little girl scavenging for food at a rubbish dump. “This is what the third force looks like,” he wrote.
Add to the poisonous brew the silent struggle between Mugabe's coarse wife, Grace, and the sinister other vice-president, Emmerson Munangagwa, to succeed the aged despot, which has split the party into two irrreconcilable, hostile factions. And from that spread to the upper echelons of the military into two camps, potentially leaving the president unguarded ...