Winds of August: Why Zimbabweans are marching again


Saturday 18th November 2017 was a glorious day in Zimbabwe. Or so it seemed at the time. Thousands marched on the streets of Harare and other cities pushing for the removal of long-serving leader, Robert Mugabe who had ruled the country for thirty-seven years.

A most remarkable feature of that march was the instant love affair between members of the public and the military. The army had rolled into Harare earlier that week initiating a coup that climaxed with the dramatic resignation of Mugabe on 21 November, just moments after Parliament had begun impeachment proceedings.

Hindsight has the advantage that foresight lacks: it is far easier to see things more clearly after they have happened. And it is hindsight which has left many shaking their heads in disbelief. It wasn’t love after all. Just a moment of infatuation. As the months went by, it became clear that the ship had hardly sailed from the past. The first sign was when Mnangagwa retained most of the deadwood from Mugabe’s cabinet.

And then months later, 1 August 2018 happened. It was a dark day. The same people who had happily marched hand in hand with the army just months before were now victims of the army’s instruments of death. By the end of the day, six people had been shot dead. A commission set up by the government blamed the army and the police for these deaths.

The affair between the people and the military had been painfully brief. This was the default relationship between the people and the State. The State is jittery whenever the people congregate to express their disapproval. November had merely been an exception. That is why the hostility of the State to the proposed march today is unsurprising.


The truth, of course, is that November had happened without incident simply because the military wanted it to happen. It would never have happened that way without the military’s sanction. The mass march was one of the strategic tools to confer a veneer of legitimacy to the removal of Mugabe. The other strategic tools were the courts of law (a judge ruled in favour of the coup) and parliament (it would impeach Mugabe). That’s why on the streets people shake their heads and say “takaitiswa” (which roughly translates to “we were used”).

1 August was different because it was a demonstration against the presidency of Mnangagwa, an institution that was authored and claimed by the military. Unsurprisingly, the military response was violent, vicious and excessive. It signaled an era of highly visible militarism in which the military took a more open role in protecting political power under the guise of helping to maintain law and order.

In this era of ultra-militarisation of the state, the self-proclaimed “stockholders” of the nation do not show much restraint in the political affairs of the State. That traditional norm of forbearance, so often the restraining force in relations between the military and political branches of the state has weakened.  The military has become more vocal and visible in the corridors of political power, epitomised by the bold statement issued by Retired General Chiwenga on the eve of the coup in November 2017. And this ultra-militarism is at the heart of Zimbabwe’s political challenges.

January demonstrations

Now the opposition is planning another march against the government. It comes just 8 months after another loud and bloody encounter between the military and demonstrators. In January, demonstrations erupted after a sharp rise in fuel prices, which triggered increases in the prices of other commodities and services. That was the first of fuel prices rises which have now grown by more than 500%. The shock may have worn off but the pain and frustration grow with each increase.

The demonstrations in January led to serious upheavals which forced Mnangagwa to cut short his trip to Davos for the World Economic Forum. There were also indications that apart from the demonstrators, Mnangagwa was also facing internal ructions within his party where disillusionment has been building up in some quarters since he assumed leadership. There were already sections of the disgruntled in the security services, particularly in the police and intelligence services who felt hard done by during the coup. Many observers have noticed a steady growth in visibly heavy security around him at public events. That can’t be because of fear of the opposition, which is unarmed. Mnangagwa knows the enemy is within and a lot closer. I will explain a little later why this dynamic is important to the regime’s hostile response to the demonstrations.

Once again in January, the military was deployed in the streets and more people were killed in cold blood. There was no investigation this time but Mnangagwa warned that he would deploy soldiers again should there be any more demonstrations. He is fond of deploying threatening language, like his predecessor. A few weeks ago he warned opponents that he would prepare a “marinated stick” for them, a metaphor for a pain-inflicting instrument of punishment.

So what has happened to the spirit of November 2017? Why are people marching against the Mnangagwa government less than two years after they gave him a glorious welcome after his momentary exile? What is the source of the angst among the people?

It’s the economy

The first answer lies in the parlous state of the national economy. When the people marched against Mugabe, they believed his removal would usher a new era of better economic prospects, even the promise of prosperity. Mnangagwa himself encouraged that belief when he came in. However, for the majority of the people, things have escalated from bad to worse.

In this regard, the numbers are telling. The local currency unit was officially trading at 1 to 1 with the US dollar. The command exchange rate did not make sense but they remember that at least prices were fairly stable. Now, however, after a couple of policy changes, including the return of the Zimbabwe Dollar, one needs on average, 10 of the local currency unit to buy the US Dollar.

Policy inconsistencies mean even after banning multi-currency and saying the Zimbabwe Dollar is the sole legal tender, the government is making weekly exceptions which effectively repudiate that policy. Most of the changes that allow foreign currency to be used are in favour of the government. People are frustrated and disillusioned by the double-standards.

The problem for most workers is that wages have stagnated and where they have been raised, the increase has not kept pace with inflation. The price of fuel has risen by 500% and it increases every week. The supply of electricity is erratic, which has negatively impacted industrial and domestic lives. The Minister of Finance banned the statistics agency from calculating annual inflation until early 2020 but some independent sources estimate it’s hovering around the 500% mark.

The simple fact is that, economically, people are in a far more difficult position today than they have been in recent years. Millions have to depend on food aid. They blame the new government for failing to live up to its initial promise. It had a great opportunity, which it squandered.

Continued isolation

The other problem is that people have lost hope in the government’s ability to solve the country’s problems given the continuing international isolation. When he came into power, Mnangagwa knew he needed to unlock the logjam in relations with the West. Regaining the confidence of the Western political leadership would give a signal to the money men in international financial institutions and other lenders. It would have helped in the renegotiation of the huge public debt. Zimbabwe might even have had the benefit of debt forgiveness.

However, Mnangagwa thought words would be enough to win the confidence of the West. He almost got away with it as some Western states nearly bought the rhetoric. But old habits die hard. The killings on 1 August 2018, blew the cover and exposed the regime as a pretender. Failure to hold perpetrators to account has only made things worse for the regime. Without a resolution of the impasse with the West, the debt overhang is a big albatross on the regime and prospects of economic recovery are limited.

People no longer believe Mnangagwa can resolve this impasse. His opportunity seems to have gone after he squandered the goodwill that he enjoyed in the early days. Even China, the so-called “all-weather friend” during Mugabe’s reign has been hesitant, cold and ambivalent. An attempt to negotiate a $2 billion package after the coup collapsed. One of the great shortcomings is once again, Zimbabwe’s bad credit history. China may be regarded by the Zimbabwean regime as an “all-weather friend” but it is a shrewd business operator and does not allow friendship to stand in the way of its economic interests.

Indeed, last week, was reporting that a major Chinese bank had placed Zimbabwe on a list of countries that it won’t do business with – effectively sanctions from a Chinese entity. As it is a government-owned entity, this wouldn’t have happened without the Chinese government’s approval. It’s hard enough failing to access Western capital, but if Chinese capital is also growing cold, it’s a near-hopeless situation. The Titanic is sinking and there is no lifeboat in sight. People see this and they want change.

Economically, there is unlikely to be much headway if Zimbabwe cannot resolve the debt problem. As a renowned Greek economist, Yanis Varoufakis says “no company, no family, no country can recover if it remains forever in the clutches of an unplayable debt”. Zimbabwe is in such a cul-de-sac. Despite recent efforts to rein in domestic borrowing, the Mnangagwa regime had already indulged in excessive borrowing through issuing Treasury Bills soon after taking power. This was largely to finance the ZANU PF election campaign but everyone is now paying the price.

What Zimbabwe needs ultimately, among other measures, is debt forgiveness but that is also a political matter. No one is prepared to give debt forgiveness to a regime that is regarded as politically delinquent. It would be seen as condoning or encouraging bad political behaviour.

Political reforms

This leads to the next chapter of challenges that have generated hopelessness among Zimbabweans: the lack of political reforms. Mnangagwa had a lot of low-hanging fruits in this area – quickly getting rid of repressive pieces of legislation like POSA, AIPPA and provisions of the Criminal Law (Codification) Act which are often used against political activists.

He could have introduced a “Great Political Reform Bill”, covering all these areas and more, in the process ushering in a truly new chapter for Zimbabwe. Rapid political reforms could have portrayed him as the Great Moderniser and could have won him many unforced votes but he saw such reforms as a political disadvantage.

It has been argued that much of the repression remains despite the proposed name changes to the legislation such as POSA and AIPPA. The legislation passed because ZANU PF dominates parliament. To be sure, signs that there would be no prospects for quick and significant reforms were already there. Mnangagwa was the Minister of Justice Legal and Parliamentary Affairs since 2013 and had the chief responsibility of overseeing the alignment of legislation with the constitution. He did not show any serious appetite for rapid legislative realignment.

In practice, the Mnangagwa regime has embraced repression and crude tactics including abductions and torture of political activists. Such abductions used to happen before but they appear to have increased in scale and frequency. Some argue that more people have been charged with alleged attempts to subvert a constitutional government in the less than two years of Mnangagwa’s rule than under the 37 years that Mugabe ruled.

It was also unusual for Mugabe to officially send soldiers to quell demonstrations. He sent riot police and while they were brutal, it kept the respectable distance between the military and civilian arms of government. Under Mnangagwa, deploying soldiers to deal with law and order functions normally reserved for police has become a worrying habit. He has already deployed soldiers twice in his short reign and on both occasions with deadly consequences. He might deploy them again in response to the current demonstration even though in his attempt to play good cop he suggested that he was open for the demonstrations to go ahead.

There are many other areas where continuities have outshone any changes. Those who shot and killed civilians have not been held to account, an old habit that has persisted. The apparatuses of the state are still used to intimidate and threaten, not to serve. State media still serves as the propaganda machine of ZANU PF. Even the rituals and ceremonies of power, such as ministers lining up at the airport to bid him farewell or welcome him from trips, all of which he could have gotten rid of have remained a permanent feature of his reign.

Who is Mnangagwa?

The problem seems to be that Mnangagwa came into power without concrete and well-defined plan of leadership. He was merely desperate to demonstrate that he was not Mugabe but he did not have a package that announced who Mnangagwa was and what he represented. Not being Mugabe is one thing but who he is is a completely different proposition which has never had serious content.

The has led to comparisons with his old mentor and some critics are already concluding that Mugabe was better. This is a great indictment against Mnangagwa, given how bad things were during Mugabe’s reign and how desperately people wanted him to go.

Early in his presidential career, he gave the impression that the Chinese reformer Deng Xiaoping was his model. However, Mnangagwa has not shown the same intellectual dexterity and political and economic acumen of Deng.

He has also shown some admiration for Rwanda’s Paul Kagame who despite criticism of his political methods and treatment of opponents has overseen an economic success story after a devastating genocide in 1994. But despite bringing in one of Kagame’s stars to have a word with his ministers, Mnangagwa has not demonstrated the shrewdness of Kagame.

There is no defined Mnangagwa politics or economics. It is a crude and haphazard mix of neoliberal-style liberalisation of investment and discarding indigenisation while maintaining command approach to agriculture. He talks of Zimbabwe being open for business but investors have a torrid time trying to repatriate their dividends and profits just because the country has severe foreign currency challenges. Mnangagwa had 37 years as one of Mugabe’s understudies and one would have thought he had ample time to define his politics compared to the inconsistent and haphazard approach that is currently on show.

The hard hand of nature

To be sure, nature has not been kind to the country. A devastating drought-affected agricultural productivity and soon afterwards, the calamitous Cyclone Idai left untold misery and suffering in its wake. These natural disasters didn’t just affect agricultural production. The water levels at Lake Kariba have subsided significantly, threatening hydro-electric power generation at Kariba Dam. This, coupled with limited imports due to the power utility’s debt problem, has left Zimbabwe surviving on meagre and ever-diminishing supplies of electricity. With persistent darkness comes not only low production but also frustration and anxiety.

Some of these challenges could have been reduced through better disaster-preparedness systems and drought-mitigation strategies, including better use of water reservoirs and irrigation. Ironically, a country with vast coal reserves and thermal power stations has to import power. But the coal company has seen better days and the thermal power plants are old and inefficient, constantly in need of repair.

Furthermore, the problem of corruption has caused severe leakages. The government recently admitted it could not account for $3 billion meant for Command Agriculture, a government scheme to support farmers. The Auditor General’s report shows that money given to the Department of Irrigation was looted by a company called Solution Motors. It got the millions but never delivered the vehicles, plant and equipment it was supposed to purchase. Nothing has been done to recover the losses or pursue the looters.

While nature has been cruel, the bulk of the problems are human-made. A chap given a contract to develop a solar power plant squandered the millions on shoes and luxury travel and built a couple of shacks.

Conspicuous consumption

In all this suffering for the majority, they have seen only a few, politically-connected prosper. Some of them engage in conspicuous consumption, buying supercars and flaunting wealth in front of a desperately poor population that is struggling to make ends meet.

They see Mnangagwa hiring luxurious private jets from abroad even for short domestic trips. They hear Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube telling them things are getting better but they cannot see it. They hear him talk of austerity but they see the leaders flaunting wealth. They see most of the accused in corruption cases being released soon after they have now dubbed it a game of “catch and release”.

In short, there is a severe disconnect between what Mnangagwa and his government say and the people’s lived reality. There is a big gap between the wealth of the few in and around power and the majority who are descending deeper into poverty. November 2017 was full of promise for most Zimbabwe. It was anything but Mugabe. August 2019 is different. Things are so desperate and Mnangagwa has lost his lustre. The tragedy is despite his weaknesses, he did have a lot of goodwill when he started but he squandered it.

Performance legitimacy

Having slipped through the presidential election with tainted source legitimacy, Mnangagwa had an opportunity to cement his authority with performance legitimacy. If he could perform well and achieve some economic recovery or at least show prospects of recovery, Mnangagwa would undoubtedly have solidified his legitimacy through performance. However, the failure so far has been quite spectacular. The economic situation has deteriorated to the point that some think it was better under Mugabe.

Great discomfort

The regime is not happy with the planned demonstrations. Like any authoritarian regime, it maintains a tight grip on the levers of power and is extremely paranoid. Recent mass protests in countries like Sudan, Algeria and currently in Hong Kong are enough to cause fear.

The regime has already shown its discomfort by mounting a strong campaign that seeks to paint the demonstration as violent even before it has happened. There is nothing for the MDC to gain by engaging in violence. The risk is that the regime may resort to crude tactics such as deploying “pseudo-protestors” who will provoke incidents of violence, thereby justifying a heavy clampdown by police and even a call to the military.

This is a tried and tested strategy, used during the notorious Gukurahundi where the regime deployed pseudo-dissidents to commit atrocities which were used as moral justification to use the infamous Fifth Brigade. This is why it is important for the MDC to self-police and ensure that any violent conduct is captured on camera or video and the culprits are identified.

There has also been a spate of abductions and torture of political activists, some of whom like Tatenda Mombeyarara are already facing charges of subverting an elected government, a case widely condemned as spurious. The abduction and torture have introduced a worrisome dimension where extra-legal punishment is meted out to citizens.

The government claims ignorance and has blamed a shadowy “Third Force” for the abductions. But this is not the first time. The regime has form. In 2008, human rights activist Justina Mukoko was abducted and tortured by members of the intelligence service. That same year, MDC youth leader, Tonderai Ndira was brutally murdered after his abduction. In 2015, Political activist Itai Dzamara was abducted by suspected state agents and his whereabouts are still unknown.

So while the government may point a finger at a shadowy “Third Force” which they believe is meant to tarnish Mnangagwa, it is the State that ultimately has the responsibility to protect. As long as it does nothing to hold perpetrators to account, the liability falls squarely upon its shoulders. The alternative is to say that the government has lost control of the country to the so-called “Third Force” which does not do it any favours.

All this considered, it is not surprising that just a year after his controversial election, Mnangagwa is facing an August of discontent. In the Karanga language, August is known as “Nyamavhuvhu” – the month of heavy winds. It blows away the dust, the dry leaves and the remains of the last harvest from the fields, preparing for Spring, the season of fresh leaves. There may also be a heavy political wind blowing across Zimbabwe.

The Prohibition Order

As we were finalising this article, news arrived that the Zimbabwe Republic Police had issued a notice prohibiting the demonstrations in Harare. The prohibition notice is based on the Public Order and Security Act (POSA). This is ironic because the repeal of POSA is part of the political reforms that the demonstrations were calling for. Now it has been used to ban the demonstration, confirming precisely its draconian nature.

The conduct of the police is unreasonable, unfair and disproportionate. The police had more than two weeks to consider the MDC’s notice of the demonstration but they waited until the eleventh hour to issue a ban. The MDC has gone to court and the matter is set to be heard at 7 am on the morning of the demonstration. The courts have in the past struck down similar provisions of POSA as unconstitutional. We shall add a post-script depending on how the court rules on the application to set aside the police prohibition.

Nevertheless, the action is quite embarrassing for the regime. It is laws like POSA that have been cited as impediments to the restoration of normal relations with other countries. Yet they continue to be deployed so unreasonably. It seems the Mnangagwa regime is fearful that the demo is not just an opposition-fuelled civil rights process but that it is also a political process which involves internally-disaffected sections within ZANU PF.  Mnangagwa is not just facing the traditional opposition but he probably sees other shadowy forces in his party that are also after the crown. And his great fear is that the demonstration might open a gusting wind that will be impossible to stop.