A well intentioned law meant to help local industries to remain in business and provide more jobs for local people has angered importers and cross-border traders to the point where they want the government to back down or they will use violent protests to shut down the country. But the government is not moving an inch, reports Baffour Ankomah from Harare.
The outside world must be wondering what is really going on in Zimbabwe with the Western media reporting “massive protests breaking out across the country”. What is true is that some groups of Zimbabweans, using the social media to incite revolt, are spoiling for a confrontation with President Robert Mugabe’s government as economic challenges mount in a country slowly emerging from the effects of 16 years of Western imposed economic sanctions.
Since April this year, a severe US dollar shortage has made life more difficult for most Zimbabweans. And when the government introduced a new law in mid-June (effective on July 1) to restrict the importation of goods that can be manufactured locally, the bottom appeared to have fallen out of the market for importers and cross-border traders.
Much of the imports came from South Africa, Zimbabwe’s largest trading partner. Of the $2bn imports this half-year, $798m came from South Africa, usually across the Beitbridge border post over the Limpopo River that separates the two countries. Beitbridge is the busiest goods transit point in Southern Africa.
Having been in the hands of white settlers for nearly a century before independence in 1980, Zimbabwe has a large industrial base, which – because of the economic problems of the last 16 years – has suffered thousands of factory closures, job losses, and the lack of investment.
Crucially, with every factory closure, more workers lose their jobs, adding to the country’s already high unemployment and social burden.
Vandudzai Zirebwa, of Buy Zimbabwe says: “Buying locally manufactured goods – whether it involves purchasing machinery worth millions or even just a T-shirt, begins a cycle in which you re-invest money into the local economy, instead of spending it on an imported product and sending the money outbound. Spending your money on a Zimbabwean product means you also help keep the worker who made that product in their job. When you buy local, you help create jobs and, in turn, help alleviate poverty.”
At the end of June, Pastor Mawarire’s group, calling itself #ThisFlag (their symbol is the Zimbabwe flag), sent out clearly messages on the social media urging the population to shut down the country with protests.
Using the already difficult economic situation in the country as a pretext, Mawarire’s group called for a general “stay away from work” on 6 July – the very day the country’s civil servants had already given notice to go on a one-day strike in protest of their delayed June salaries. In effect, the #ThisFlag campaign was going to ride on the backs of the civil servants for its own ends.
Curiously for a man of the cloth, Mawarire’s group did not call for peaceful protests. The following is a part of the message they sent on the social media on 2 July, asking for a violent shutdown of the country on 6 July: “It’s about time. Zimbabweans, it’s time to wake up,” the message began. “Let’s rise and save our beloved Zimbabwe. But the call to “Block all traffic and if they resist burn the cars. No cars on the roads by 6 July. If anyone resists, go and burn that car by his house or in the car park in the evening,” was given legs by other social media users who forwarded it on to other people, and soon it had spread across the country. Seeing the reach of his message, Pastor Mawarire sent out video messages of himself telling people how he would have been arrested or abducted by the time they received the videos, before on the eve of the protest he voluntarily gave himself up to the police for arrested him.
Most people ignored the threats of violence on 6th July, and went about their business. The civil servants went on their announced strike alright, schools closed for the day for fear of violence, but most people went to work when it became apparent that there was no general shutdown.
In Bulawayo, some youths also tried to burn down a market in one of the poor suburbs. But that, generally, was the sum of the so-called “massive protests that broke across the country” leading to a “shutdown of the main cities” as reported by the Western media.
And nobody tried to block WhatsApp and other social media platforms. However, because of the misuse of the social media, the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe issued public advertisements warning that it would take stern action against future midemeanors.
The activities of the certain groups forced Zanu PF to issue a stiff warning, after a meeting of its Politburo on 7 July, saying it would “not accept anything short of law and order”. The party’s acting spokesman and home affairs minister, Ignatius Chombo, told a media briefing that the party would not be shaken by people trying to create anarchy in a bid to prevent the implementation of progressive policies. “In Harare,” Chombo said, “the demonstrations have been led by leaders of vendors’ associations, and other groups … Zanu PF is focused on what it wants to do and cannot be shaken by these activities. We are the ruling party, and we will not accept anything short of law and order.”
But what is working against Zanu PF and the government is the continued downturn of the economy, leading to general hardships that have taken away hope for many people, including hundreds of thousands of unemployed youths.
Sometimes the police also overdo things, such as setting up roadblocks and harassing motorists, particularly commuter bus operators.
In deciding to prosecute Pastor Mawarire after he presented himself for arrest, the NPA and the police played into his hands. The state-owned newspaper, The Herald, spoke for many when it pointed out on 14 July, the day after Mawarire’s prosecution was dismissed on a technicality.
The paper asked the NPA and the police to learn from history, because “history tells us that before any major regional, continental or international gathering, opposition groups in Zimbabwe always angle to get the spotlight on Zimbabwe to support their claims of the alleged closure of the democratic space and human rights abuses. It is no coincident that Mawarire’s shutdown call was scheduled to coincide with the AU summit in Kigali, Rwanda. By subsequently arresting him and taking him to court, the police played into his hands.”
Wanting to refuse Mawarire’s bail application, the NPA and the police arrived in court in the morning, having charged him with inciting public violence, but before Magistrate Vakayi Chikwekwe sat on the case in the afternoon, the NPA and the police had altered the charge to a higher crime – subverting a constitutionally elected government.
But Zimbabwe’s new constitution does not allow such ambushing of accused persons with new charges they are not aware of, leaving the magistrate to dismiss the case to the utter joy of several hundreds of Mwarire’s supporters camped outside the court house who jubilated loudly and danced the rest of the afternoon away, carrying their “hero” on their shoulders.
Swayed by the adulation of his supporters, Mawarire called for another general shutdown of the country on 13 and 14 July, but nobody minded him. In fact, his group does not have the clout to shut down anything. Away from the “shutdowns”, his group’s opposition to the introduction of “bond notes” as an antidote to the US dollar shortages in the country is another misplaced priority. To be pegged at par with the US dollar, the “notes” are a continuation of “bond coins” introduced in December 2014
Analysts say the church leaders are only afraid that the value of their riches would be affected when the bond notes arrive. Having accumulated piles of US dollars at home and at the bank from the tax-free offerings and tithes given by their congregants, the pastors have more to lose and their criticisms are informed by that fear.
Whatever the truth, these have been an interesting past few months and weeks in Zimbabwe.