Protest in Zimbabwe: A brief recent history

Under the first phase, protest culture was carefully muzzled with the most efficacy. People had grown disillusioned with the so-called revolutionary party and had gradually lost their patience. During this period the people were barricaded by an unprecedented trepidation of the regime — the source of which was brutal attack on anyone seen to be  expressing dissent.

The state tormented the people with a nightmarish monster, the notorious Central Intelligence Office, that haunted them into deafening silence. For fear of persecution, service delivery protest was whispered in hushed tones. Meanwhile the state’s grip grew stronger with enforced disappearances, arbitrary and extra-judicial killings, unfair detention, torture and mass assault.

Government employed a quasi-decapitation technique targeting the leaders of the fast-rising Tsvangirai-led Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). The state also enforced strict anti-protest laws under the infamous Public Order and Security Act (POSA) which, among other things, required that those wishing to conduct a public assembly notify the police. For the most part the legislation was utilised to unleash a reign of terror whereby opposition rallies, peaceful pickets and organised marches were disbanded and sabotaged, movement leaders arrested and people tear-gassed and beaten with sjamboks.

Throughout this period there were marginal acts of protest which predominantly featured industrial action by public servants. Artists, like Thomas Mapfumo and Lovemore Majaivana, spoke against the state and were forced into exile. Henry Olonga, cricket legend, staged a demonstration by wearing a black armband to mourn the death of democracy in Zimbabwe. The students at the University of Zimbabwe occasionally rioted but were quickly shut down by the military. Human rights activism also grew uncontrollably into prominence. The hard core activists surfaced with a passion for justice and seemingly unperturbed by the threat of harm.

In the second phase, there was a marked increase in protest activity in the country. The battle between the people and its government had been consumed by the digital era and taken online. Meanwhile the Mugabe-led ZANU PF regime was collapsing from within and bleeding profusely, sustaining some major blows occasioned by debilitating factional fragmentation in the party. The government was divided and misfiring.

This government saw the adoption of ludicrous economic policy which continues to punish the country — the introduction of bond notes. The policy registered widespread public distaste followed by massive social media uprising. The people of Zimbabwe took to the web and rejected the bond note. The movement gave birth to instant online sensations which rose to gradual prominence as overt critiques of the government and its policy, including the likes of Advocate Fadzai Mahere.

The year 2016 saw the creation of a sense of fearlessness motivated by political and economic asphyxiation. There were sporadic acts of demonstration, multiple marches and a national shutdown. On 24 June 2016, a protest was held at the Rainbow Towers Hotel, with protesters demanding that Vice President Phelekezela Mphoko vacate the hotel’s presidential suite that he and his family had resided in since December 2014. On 1 July 2016, people burnt down a Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (ZIMRA) warehouse at the South African border protesting the imposition of an import ban of household goods which many perceived to be exorbitantly priced in Zimbabwe. That 2nd of July,  people staged a national stay-away, peacefully protesting government corruption and economic policy. This march continued for a week. In the August of 2016, Zimbabweans once again took to the streets to protest police brutality and the introduction of bond notes.

Most of the 2016 defiance activities were curated by the #ThisFlag and #Asijiki movements which were online campaigners agitating for democratic reform in the country. During this period there was a pleasing increase in overt and brazen public displays of frustration with the ruling class and by far the most profound display of public anger. This was incredibly significant because it was one of the first collective citizen action with nationwide support and it was highly successful in organising future political action.

During this period the government once again resorted to traditional scare tactics choosing to prosecute hundreds of people nationwide under Criminal Code for insulting the office of the president. The Mugabe regime responded with large scale police brutality and arbitrary detentions, arresting Evan Mawarire, the leader of #ThisFlag. Patson Dzamara, a political activist and brother to Itai Dzamara who was abducted by the state security agency was also found battered and hospitalised after his car had been discovered burned beyond recognition 24 hours earlier. Social media was awash with videos of citizens being beaten by the Zimbabwe Republic Police. Sham trials were conducted and hundreds were unjustifiably convicted for merely expressing themselves. There was a concerted crackdown on the exercise of free assembly. Zimbabwean lawyers responded by volunteering in their hundreds to provide legal representation for those detained including Evan Mawarire.

This period also saw people rise against the then-incumbent leader of 37 years, Robert Mugabe. The protests were largely motivated by clear and visible attempts by Mugabe to hand over power to his wife Dr Grace Mugabe. The efforts of people in this particular episode were heavily augmented by the co-operation of the Zimbabwe Defence forces who welcomed the citizen call to ‘hit the streets.’ This is primarily due to the fact that the state militia were in the process of executing a coup and needed the people’s legitimisation. On the 21st of November 2017, Zimbabweans held a Nationwide protest calling on Mugabe to step down. Security forces were especially supportive of this protest. This demonstration is plausibly the first time that Zimbabweans staged an action of political defiance but were not met with fierce resistance by the state. This was historically significant because it created a precedent, crystallising protest as a permanent feature of the Zimbabwean political landscape. Furthermore it serve as a launchpad to future radical protest.

Zwe Xaba is a legal scholar who writes on leftist revolution, counter-culture and effective organisation.

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