by Phil Wilmot
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Three months ago, Pastor Evan Mawarire was just another preacher among the masses of charismatic Christians in Zimbabwe. Last week, he was met with a celebrity welcome, as he was released from police custody. The streets were filled with dancing, as thousands gathered to support the inspiring voice of the people.
The unlikely revolutionary leader had ascended to the international spotlight through a series of events in which he capitalized on moments of national despair.
On April 19, Mawarire, pained by his inability to afford his children’s school fees, posted a video of himself wearing the Zimbabwean flag around his neck and lamenting the national socio-political crisis. Little did he know that his heartfelt words would resound with so many citizens of his nation.
A movement organically converged around the hashtag #ThisFlag as people across the country shared their own hardships living under the 92-year-old President Robert Mugabe’s rule. The flag, worn as a scarf, has been a unifying symbol of the movement, reclaiming its meaning from the ruling ZANU-PF party.
But #ThisFlag was more than a clicktivist club. Its impact ventured offline on July 6, as angry Zimbabweans — organizing under the hashtag #ShutdownZim — undertook a mass stay-away, leaving streets in major cities like Harare and Bulawayo vacant. “Something has snapped in the national psyche,” Mawarire wrote. “The people are fed up, and tired of being afraid.”
There are turning points for organic protest movements — points at which the capacity of people to tolerate a given situation falls below their capacity to survive amidst it. During the Soweto Uprising, which just reached its 40th anniversary on June 16, this threshold was crossed when Afrikaans — the language of the oppressor — was introduced as the language of instruction in schools. About 20,000 pupils and their allies poured into the streets where they were met with abhorrent violence by South African police.
Perhaps the rapidly escalating economic crisis in Zimbabwe presents such an opportunity — a whirlwind moment — in which people are ready to do whatever it takes to put an end to the oppression they have long faced under Mugabe’s 36-year regime. He has been in power since Zimbabwe’s independence, despite his ever deteriorating physical condition and the extreme disdain afforded to him by most citizens.
Economic collapse presents challenges and opportunities
Following astronomical rates of inflation, Zimbabwe’s government legalized foreign currencies in 2009. Just five years later, the central bank announced the accepted use of foreign cash, offering $5 for every 175 quadrillion Zimbabwean dollars.
Zimbabwe has been importing far more than it has been exporting, which is a major cause behind the recent cash shortage. To resolve the crisis, it has begun printing new Zimbabwean dollars roughly equivalent in value to the American dollar, though not certified as American currency. This has bred an atmosphere of distrust and a fear that the multi-currency system may soon be abandoned.
“The government has introduced fake money,” said Edknowledge Mandikwaza, research and training officer at peacebuilding organization Heal Zimbabwe.
Without foreign currency, life is incredibly hard for Zimbabweans. Civil servants began to feel the pinch, and the likes of Mawarire were able to bring them into their movement by appealing to their interests.
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Among the demands of #ShutdownZim participants was the immediate payment of government workers. Teachers and others had experienced delays – blamed by the government on the cash shortage – and could not stand another day without means to feed their families. As Harare became a financial ghost town, the government was pressured adequately enough to force the remittance of civil servant salaries.
“The economic collapse is what puts the most weight on us, but it’s a result of government incompetence and mismanagement,” said Dirk Frey of Occupy Africa Unity Square, a national activist group. “Hence the pressure is not primarily directed at the economy, but the source of the problem itself: the regime.”
The regime has plenty of cash in the pockets of its ruling individuals, despite being broke as a government. Vice President Phelekezela Mphoko has enjoyed a luxurious stay at the five-star Rainbow Towers Hotel in Harare since December 2014. (His mansion is not good enough, apparently.) Frey was among five activists arrested eight months ago for protesting Mphoko’s lengthy visit to the hotel.
Cooperation within the system
Delayed payments to civil servants are not the only factor triggering cooperation among government employees. According to activist Vimbai Darikwa, who was among those making preparations for a June 23 demonstration in Mutare, “The police force is cooperating with the demonstrators [in the planning process]. They too are fed up.”
The local judiciary also played its part. “What we have seen are sympathetic people in the system who are also fed up with this dictatorship,” Darikwa explained. “These make sure our cases are assigned to the ‘right judges.’”
Darikwa believes these attempts to develop allies within the system have resulted in longer term progress. “The April 14 demonstrations in Harare set the mood for what is now happening,” he said. “[At that time] people had jobs to protect, but now with 80-plus percent unemployment, people have nothing to lose. Things have changed.”
Things may have changed, but ZANU-PF is fighting hard to see that the illusion of job security remains. By adhering to the movement’s demand to pay civil servants, a huge chunk of #ThisFlag participants have been effectively “bought off,” at least in the short term. Calls for fresh stay-aways by Mawarire — slated for last Wednesday and Thursday — were largely ignored by those working on government salaries.
“As the state had paid civil servants, police roadblocks disappeared, and there was no real stay-away,” said Jenni Williams, founder of Women of Zimbabwe Arise, an organization that has carried out over 200 nonviolent actions. “I don’t think another stay-away without civil servants and minibus operators will work.”
Although stay-aways as a tactic have seemed to lose momentum, one must remember the government is out of money, and its legitimacy is crumbling. Salaries may soon be delayed again and force key ally groups to repeat their stay-at-home strike.
It can’t be done without risks, however. As human rights lawyer Rumbidzai Dube noted, “Civil servants stated that on the day of the first stay-away, they were hunted down by the state and threatened with retrenchment if they were not at work.”
Embrace new stakeholders, escalate conflict
Although Zimbabwe may indeed find itself in a whirlwind moment, organizers must capitalize on the potential in their midst before the moment passes. Taking the conflict to the next level will mean greater sacrifice. The hundreds of arrests that have been made during recent stay-aways are likely to multiply.
“In the next month or two, I anticipate the government will react with the tools it knows best: shutting down spaces for civil society and avenues of communication,” said David Manyonga, civic space and governance advisor for Action Aid International, an NGO concerned with the rights of the poor around the world. “There will be a lot of blame getting passed around.”
As for the protesters, Manyonga said, “If other tactics are combined with the stay-aways, and if those participating can build broader coalitions with more moderate minds, laborers, political parties, and academia, the final punch can come from there.”
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While the stay-aways have their limitations, they have helped set the agenda. But agenda-setting is not enough. It is often the preliminary step civil society takes without any follow through.
“The #ShutdownZim campaign may lose steam because they are giving the government time to regroup and strategize,” Darikwa said. When Mawarire called for additional stay-aways which were to precede a pot-banging campaign by grieved housewives, he had wanted to keep the government on its toes.
The #Tajamuka campaign, a more radical campaign running parallel with #ThisFlag, is led by those Darikwa describes as “highly confrontational youths.” They have called upon Zimbabweans to demonstrate at the official residence of the president. Clearly, conflict is escalating, which presents new challenges and opportunities for those growing increasingly angry in Zimbabwe.
“What is likely to affect sustainability of these [shutdown] calls is competition by different movements to capture support,” Mandikwaza said. “Lack of a coordinative structure of different movements is likely to disrupt the power of the nonviolence strategy.”
Indeed, the two-day stay-aways this past week saw less participation than the July 6 mass strike, which was the biggest the nation had witnessed since 2005. Without coordination, a mass movement may easily be written off as a fad.
With intentional efforts to unify the various pressure groups, Zimbabweans undoubtedly stand a chance of unseating Mugabe. However, bigger alliances must be built, and stronger resistance to the regime must be plotted. It won’t happen on its own, no matter how massive the present whirlwind may seem.
“#ThisFlag has revived the voices of ordinary people, without being funded by a donor or having an NGO behind it,” Dube said. “It is not as easy for the state to dismiss or delegitimize the citizen’s voice.”
If Zimbabeans are able to mobilize more grassroots power and enhance their pressure on Mugabe, then — as Manyonga suggested — we are likely to see similar movements against other authoritarian regimes in the region. For that reason, he explained, “Dictators in Africa are trembling in their pants.”