Two weeks ago a national shutdown — or “stay-away” — paralyzed Zimbabwe. For the first time in years the country’s ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), and President Robert Mugabe seemed seriously rattled. Young people, workers, and traders — who survive by hawking food and cheap imported goods — engaged in pitched battles with the police and army. In many cases the protesters outnumbered security forces.
Although the mainstream press has focused on Pastor Evan Mawarire and his #ThisFlag movement, the demonstrations have much deeper roots. An explosive convergence of issues including food shortages, corruption, and unpaid wages all helped fuel it.
The protesters demanded that the police stop erecting roadblocks and harassing citizens for bribes, and that the government fire and prosecute corrupt officials. The stay-away was also timed to support a national civil service strike as nurses, teachers, doctors, and other civil servants have not been paid for June.
The police arrested scores of people in an attempt to break the protesters’ resolve. But something unusual happened — instead of intimidating people, repression seemed to their harden resistance.
Two days later, a massive, national shutdown took place, drawing most cities and towns into the protest. In the southern city of Bulawayo almost all shops in the central business district and large suburbs were closed. The small Volkswagen vans that serve as local transportation for the poor — known as Kombis — parked and joined the stay-away. In Harare an activist reported:
A virtual stand-still with Zimbabweans heeding a call by pro-democracy activists to stay-away in a bid to force President Robert Mugabe to find a solution to the country’s problems or better still for him and his ZANU-PF government to resign en masse.
In poor, high-density neighborhoods residents built barricades and fought the police.
But the ruling party has also mobilized its supporters. Despite crippling poverty and mass unemployment, ZANU-PF still enjoys significant support among the poor. On July 19, in a demonstration against the #ThisFlag movement, thousands marched to the ZANU-PF headquarters in Harare and praised Mugabe for “creating jobs and prosperity.”
This protest has awoken fear that further pro-government protests will be followed by a spell of political violence as youth loyal to the ruling party set on ZANU-PF critics. Zimbabwe has a bloody history of such violent recriminations.
Nevertheless, recent events might signify something new: the pervasive fear that has held Zimbabweans for years seems to have been broken, and the ruling party’s apparent invulnerability has ruptured.
Back to the 1990s
To unpack what has been happening in Zimbabwe we have to look back to the 1990s. In 1999 the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) was formed. The MDC — initially founded as a pro-poor coalition with the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) — swore to unseat the ruling party. Activists who had participated in the mass poor and working-class struggles of the mid-1990s set up branches across the country.
One leader, who later became finance minister of the discredited Government of National Unity in 2008, Tendai Biti, described the period of revolt: “This was a momentous occasion in the history of this country because it brought confidence — you could smell working-class power in the air.”
This was not an exaggeration. Between 1996 and 1998 Zimbabwe’s Biennio Rosso (Two Red Years) saw national public-sector strikes, a shutdown of the national university in the capital, and a nationwide student revolt — which politicized war veterans. Ex-fighters from the 1970s liberation war seized farmland in a widening arch of protest that challenged the ruling party’s power.
What happened next is depressingly familiar. The opposition became increasingly cautious, facing repression that claimed the lives of hundreds of activists.
But MDC also tacked right. As the party grew in influence it attracted a markedly mixed crowd of supporters. Unreconstructed “Rhodesians” — remnants of the white settlers, who had kept their land and farms after independence — business owners, and the Zimbabwean 1 percent, all disillusioned by ZANU-PF, which they had supported for years, flocked to the new party.
ZANU-PF saw its opportunity. It started to champion the war veterans and encourage their occupation of white farms. ZANU-PF became the representatives of land-poor Zimbabweans. In simultaneously bizarre and disheartening circumstances, the MDC — now under the influence of white interests, business owners, and the middle class — promised to return the farms to white landholders in the interest of “legality.”
ZANU-PF outflanked the MDC from the left and presented itself as a party of a radical African renaissance. Zimbabwe, the party said, was undergoing its third Chimurenga.
The first Chimurenga, or “uprising,” occurred at the end of the nineteenth century against the colonial conquest of what would become contemporary Zimbabwe. The second was during the guerrilla resistance to the Rhodesian state in the 1960s and 1970s, which saw Mugabe play a prominent role.
Mugabe emerged from the liberation war as a hero. International supporters celebrated his part in defeating one of the continent’s most racist regimes. Exiled radicals from South Africa and activists from Europe and North America moved to Zimbabwe to support his new government.
Yet the country experienced one of the most spectacular reconciliations in the history of armed conflict. White businesses and farmers would be left with their loot. On April 17 1980, in front of an international crowd that included Prince Charles, Mugabe reassured his former foes that “If yesterday I fought you as an enemy, today you have become a friend. If yesterday you hated me, today you cannot avoid the love that binds you to me and me to you.”
The tone changed after MDC’s alliance with white landowners. Mugabe presented himself once again as the champion of a renewed fight against colonialism.
He was often taken at his word — his redistribution of land as well as his promises to nationalize businesses and introduce price controls on basic foodstuffs seemed to testify to his sincerity. But the reality was dramatically different. As the Zimbabwean socialist, Tafadzwa Choto, has recently commented:
For all of its black empowerment bombast, [ZANU has failed] to make any serious efforts at controlling the country’s riches for itself. Zimbabwe is endowed with vast mineral wealth with only a minority, approximately 1 percent, enjoying access to enormous wealth in kick-backs from deals with multinational corporations. At the same time more than 90 percent of the population struggle to afford to send their children to school.
Having briefly inspired the struggle against the ZANU-PF state — the high point of popular resistance across the continent — the opposition entered a protracted period of meltdown.
It fractured into different groups led by various politicians and NGOs, which funneled activists in other directions. Ultimately the political opposition, now operating in nonprofits or mobilized by contaminated political parties, disarmed the movement from below and shifted the public’s attention from the actual struggle to other arenas — paid workshops, foreign scholarships, and political stunts.
Activists describe this period as the “commodification of resistance.” In the mid-2000s, student activist John Bomba summed up the opposition’s fate: “Those who remember 1997 to 2000 today feel like they are living in lost times. Every day activists ask what it will take to rebuild the confidence and idealism that drove us in the 1990s . . . One wishes for a return of the madness.”
Open for Business
One story perfectly characterizes Zimbabwe under Mugabe. In 2008 the army was sent into the Chiadzwa diamond mines to clear poor “artisanal” miners trying to scrape together a living. Zimbabwean blogger and activist Raymond Sango describes what happened next:
Unemployed youths who . . . descended on Chiadzwa in 2008 to pan for diamonds were brutally massacred by the military and police as the government moved in to create a “formal looting format” . . . in response to the World Diamond Council which pressured the government to curb the smuggling of diamonds. Approximately four hundred miners were killed . . . through indiscriminate volleys of gunshots fired by mounted police accompanied by dogs and helicopters.
The message was clear: Zimbabwe was open for business.
This February, Mugabe announced that the country had lost $15 billion in revenue from these diamond mines, money that could have been directed at the broken economy, but instead was lost to corruption.
Yet Mugabe’s bold admission of incompetence, especially surprising coming from the continent’s figurehead of decolonization, did not mark a change in policy. Instead of bringing the culprits to justice, the president pathetically stated that his government would simply tempt new foreign investors to the country’s diamond fields.
It has recently courted other international financial institutions too. Minister of Finance Patrick Chinamasa and reserve bank governor John Mangudya proclaimed to much fanfare that the International Monetary Fund would loan Zimbabwe $984 million in the third quarter of 2016, after the country finished paying off foreign lenders. This is the first such loan in almost twenty years.
But of course, the IMF loans in 1991 and 1996 and the structural adjustment programs that came with them devastated local industry and led to mass unemployment.
In this context, the ruling party and opposition have both divided into warring factions many times over. The opposition’s inability to chart a resolute anti-austerity project has split it again and again. Using the MDC’s brand, opposition politicians have created redux parties: MDC-N, led by Welchman Ncube, and the disbanded MDC-99, once led by Job Sikhala, a former student activist, who returned to the party fold in 2014.
Biti became the leader of MDC-Renewal, but quickly launched the People’s Democratic Party in September 2015. The MDC is in total disarray and barely participated in the protests at the beginning of the month — a fact that is even more astonishing considering that many of the party’s leading figures were members of the radical left in the 1990s.
The ruling party is also in disarray. With the collapse of the South African rand and the slowdown of the Chinese economy, ZANU-PF’s patronage system has begun to dry up. The party has responded with political bloodletting.
Former vice president Joice Mujuru — expelled in 2014 — joined others to form People First (PF), a party committed to neoliberalism and almost indistinguishable from the ruling party. Meanwhile the Generation 40 (G40) faction, which consists principally of younger ZANU-PF members who did not fight in the liberation struggle, advocate for Grace Mugabe to succeed her husband.
Taking on the Dictatorship
The recent pro-government protests cannot be easily dismissed. ZANU-PF has worked hard to garner a support base among poor, unemployed youth, and rural populations. In the early 2000s its efforts led to the establishment of a National Youth Service, which often got young people involved in acts of political repression.
The Youth Service activists were trained, I was told in 2003, on a curriculum of “Marxism, Zimbabwean patriot history, and business studies.” But we cannot simply label pro-ZANU-PF demonstrators thugs: the root of the party’s power lies much deeper.
Mugabe has ably mobilized the rhetorics of decolonization, black consciousness, and anti-imperialism for years. Raymond Sango writes about the political economy of this politics:
With the burning economic crisis, appalling corruption, and disgusting elite gluttony, arrogance, and opulence there is still a huge section of the working people who support the regime in Zimbabwe. These people are marching in support of the indigenization and land-distribution policies and believe that the shutdown was sponsored by the French and that Zimbabwe remains under sanctions.
The crisis Sango speaks of comes from the fact that a genuine pro-poor, anti-neoliberal alternative has failed to wrestle the language of anti-imperialism and radical Pan-Africanism away from the government. The MDC could have done this, but not anymore.
It has become a cliché to write about the crisis in Zimbabwe. What once seemed immutable, unchangeable facts of the country’s long-standing predicament — the ongoing tenure of Mugabe and his ZANU-PF government, the paralysis of the MDC and the ZCTU, which once threatened the dictatorship — has been shattered.
Overturning the government — not through elite negotiations, but through popular mobilizations — once again seems possible. For the people of Zimbabwe, who have suffered from years of repression, from mass exoduses to the United Kingdom and South Africa, from staggering levels of unemployment (which rests at 85 percent), and from the mass opposition movement’s failure, the opportunity for real change has once again appeared.
But Zimbabweans must ensure that this time their actions, mass protests, and movements are not hijacked and paralyzed by the country’s bankrupt political parties and elites.