What’s Actually Happening in Zimbabwe
Ah, Robert Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe, notorious as they come. Doesn’t his very name make you think of political unrest, mob violence and, generally, shit hitting the fan?
Well, let me tell you, the man is no stranger to criticism. During his 36-year reign, the Zimbabwean president has ensured that he is notorious the world over for pretty much single-handedly sending Zimbabwe into a spiral of perpetual hunger, poverty and hyperinflation. And yet, like some sort of 92-year-old human arthropod, he has always managed to brush off any dissent and scuttle away unscathed.
But, in April this year, standing out from the wealth of reactionary uprisings in Zimbabwe’s past, we began to witness what has been the most powerful and explosive movement yet.
The scene was set, and had been for years. Tension mounted as Zimbabwe’s economy slowly grinded to a halt. The Rands and Dollars and Yuans – now the national currencies – slowly ran out as the government became too cash-strapped to deliver even the most basic of services. Then, to top it all off, Statutory Instrument 64 came along. This piece of legislation banned imports of even the most basic consumer goods – among them tinned fruit and veg, bottled water, body creams, milk, cheese, peanut fecking butter. Most of these are sold by vendors in the informal sector, into which around 94% of the population has been forced following the government’s inability to provide legitimate jobs. And because this bill was not subject to public discussion, it was naturally met with significant anger from, well, 94% of the working-age population.
Couple that with the fact that the government’s cash squeeze meant that for months they’d been delayed or unable to pay civil servants, government employees – and, ill-advisedly, the military. His war veterans have since defected, taking a large chunk of his power with them.
Then came Pastor Evan Mawarire, the catalyst, who managed to ignite the plentiful sparks of frustration into an outright fire. Swathed in a Zimbabwean flag, he posted a viral video online lambasting the authoritarian regime, and has since started a social media movement deemed #ThisFlag – not defined by any partisan affiliation or hidden agenda, just plain old citizens sick to death of crappy governance and economic stagnation. Protests have abounded in the months since then, thousands taking to the streets, with social media aiding in logistics and support and Mawarire as the figurehead. The movement has gained a level of popularity and coverage unforeseen by the pastor himself.
But if there’s a lone task at which Mugabe’s regime is efficient, it’s lashing back at insubordinates. In July, following a popular stay-away protest, Mawarire was arrested and charged with subversion. Although he was subsequently freed amidst intense public pressure, he’s now gone into political exile in the USA as a result of intensifying intimidation and death threats. Added to the state’s efforts is the Cyber Crime bill currently being drafted, which will make social media activations punishable by law.
Will the campaign be able withstand the absence of its leader and finish what it started? Or will Mugabe continue to sit in his well-guarded mansion, unperturbed, working on his acceptance speech for the 2018 elections? Only time can tell if #ThisFlag will be remembered a watershed moment for the country – or just another failed hashtag campaign. One thing’s for sure – Mugabe is digging his own grave, and it’s doubtful he’ll have the cash or the henchmen to worm his way out this time.
Cover by Gary Jones.