President Robert Mugabe and his ruling Zanu-PF came face-to-face with history on Wednesday, July 6, as unprecedented direct action against the government threatened to tip the country into a protracted state of unrest and instability. The direct actions included protests, a major strike as part of a nationwide stayaway, and the first major popular street uprising since Zimbabwe attained majority rule.
If Zimbabwe’s security establishment reacts with its customary excessive force to this new wave of unrest, then all bets are off and just about anything is possible. The point is that this popular confrontation with the Mugabe regime will be historic no matter what transpires, and July 6 is likely to be the day future historians will remember as an important inflection point.
While the spark for the latest confrontation is likely to be traced to July 1, when Zimbabwe implemented its new import restrictions on goods coming from South Africa, this has been coming for a long time and the extreme patience of the people of Zimbabwe may finally have run out.
The restrictions on South African imports sparked violence and protests at the Beitbridge border post between South Africa and Zimbabwe that led to clashes, the destruction of a warehouse and several dozen arrests. Zimbabwean police at Beitbridge used teargas and rubber bullets to disperse angry vendors who were unable to collect their orders from South Africa, owing to a decision by the Zimbabwean government to suspend imports of products including bottled water, furniture, building materials, steel products, cereals, potato crisps and dairy products (most of which originate in South Africa).
By Monday, July 4, a series of clashes between police and protesters in Epworth, Harare, left a policeman critically injured, dozens of protestors arrested and many others beaten. Meanwhile, police used live ammunition in other suburbs of the city to disperse angry commuter omnibus (taxi) crews who were protesting against the number of police roadblocks, which has grown as police use the mechanisms to collect ‘fines’.
The actions continued on Tuesday, July 5 with a call for a strike by doctors and teachers at government hospitals and schools ahead of the call for a mass action stayaway on Wednesday. Media reports on July 5 quoted civic society group Tajamuka/Sesijikile as stating it was mobilising a massive job stay-away for Wednesday to force Mr Mugabe to step down.
The actions were quickly supported by opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai who said his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T) would fully support the protests against Mr Mugabe’s rule and called on the Zanu-PF government to quit. “The crisis in the country is worsening every day, and the deteriorating situation demands nothing less than the resignation of Mugabe and his government,” the MDC-T spokesman added. “These popcorn demonstrations and protests are symptomatic of grave national grievances that remain unresolved.”
Prior to the day, civil society protest group #ThisFlag leader Evan Mawarire said that “Wednesday July 6, we are shutting down Zimbabwe because the government is taking us for fools. I want to invite you to do something to save our country. We love Zimbabwe so much we cannot let it continue to burn and taken down”.
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Meanwhile, other reports said that London-based Zimbabweans pleaded with the British government not to lend any financial assistance to Mugabe’s regime and then besieged visiting Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa, who was on a desperate visit to Europe to try to raise money. Civic organisations Zimbabwe Vigil and Restoration of Human Rights in Zimbabwe picketed Chatham House in London where Mr Chinamasa was scheduled to speak, holding posters that said “No to Mugabe lies,” or “Don’t prop up the Mugabe’s regime.” Mr Chinamasa had to receive protection from British police.
[READ: From tweets to streets, Zimbabwe social media anger erupts into anti-Mugabe protests]
In our first 2016 report on Zimbabwe, published on January 5, we wrote that this was Zimbabwe’s year of living dangerously and that it was ‘’not likely to be a happy new year for President Robert Mugabe and his increasingly beleaguered Zanu-PF. The next 12 months are going to be among the most difficult in memory for the ageing president and his fractured party, which may not even last the year in its current form. The political environment is more likely than not to turn increasingly hostile over the next few months: unemployment is at unimaginable heights, what few workers remain feel under threat, poverty on the streets is increasing and vacillation over economic reforms and policy realignment provide further sources of heat under the political pressure cooker. And with Zanu-PF threatening to come apart at the seams under ever-increasing internal squabbling and jockeying for position, it is in no state to take any decisive action.”
Wednesday, July 6, marked a historic sea change, even if it was not the definitive beginning of the end for Zimbabwe’s repressive and unresponsive regime. Zanu-PF has not yet faced even a threatened revolt on this scale and its reaction will be decisive in determining the future direction and outcome of this inevitable confrontation and where it leads.
The time for repression is over. Crushing any protests by excessive force will merely spark greater and more confrontational resistance. The economy is terminally ill despite the often heroic efforts of its people and its businesses, but time is now running out. The political environment, dark and foreboding for many years now has turned even more poisonous with the entry of Grace Mugabe and her cohorts into the succession fray, in the process paralysing an already ineffective and morbid regime.
July 6 came and went and Zimbabwe still stands, but it may never be the same again.