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Poverty, hardship emboldens protesting Zimbabweans

A man runs past Zimbabwean police car allegedly set ablaze by supporters of the opposition party Movement for Democratic Change Tsvangirai faction (MDC-T) during a march against police brutality in Harare on August 24, 2016 © AFP/File / Wilfred Kajese

Harare, Zimbabwe, Aug 26 – A failing economy and deepening poverty have spawned a wave of sporadic anti-government protests in Zimbabwe, the likes of which have not been seen in years.

Street vendors, bus drivers, grandmothers, university graduates and even civil servants have joined protests that have become an almost daily occurrence in recent weeks.

The protests rocking the southern African country since June indicate that Zimbabweans are no longer afraid of the repressive government of President Robert Mugabe and are refusing to be silenced.

The “outburst of public anger” has come about as a response to various factors including economic hardships that have condemned millions to poverty, bad governance, and infighting within the ruling ZANU-PF party over Mugabe’s succession, according to political scientist Eldred Masunungure.

“The state of the economy and big levels of abject poverty are forcing people to go on to the streets,” said independent analyst Dumisani Nkomo.

Demonstrators hold crosses and banners during a protest against the introduction of new bond notes and youth unemployement in Harare, Zimbabwe on August, 3, 2016 © AFP/File / Wildref Kajese

“People don’t have (an) option, they have nothing to lose because they know if they don’t protest they will die, with their children, of hunger,” said Nkomo.

The state has reacted violently to the protests, unleashing police to brutally quell demonstrations with tear gas, water cannon and by physical assaults.

But the police violence has only hardened the protesters’ resolve.

– ‘Makes me stronger’ –

“Each time they torture me, punish me and do all sorts of bad things, I get stronger and more inspired,” said veteran protester and outspoken Mugabe critic Stendrick Zvorwadza.

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Zimbabwean anti-riot police chase supporters of the opposition party Movement for Democratic Change Tsvangirai faction on August 24, 2016 © AFP/File / Wilfred Kajese

Zvorwadza, who bears the scars of a recent beating when he tried to hand police flowers as a gesture of peace, warned that the current protests were only a warm-up ahead of “bigger demonstrations that will see this government running away or coming to the table to say they are ready to listen”.

Zvorwadza heads the National Vendors Union, an association which groups tens of thousands of Zimbabweans who have been forced to become street hawkers to eke out a living.

Rallying under various banners, Zimbabweans are demonstrating against the state’s failure to halt the worsening economic troubles which have seen banks running short of cash and the government failing to pay civil workers.

Firefighters try to estinguish a burning vehicle after opposition party Movement for Democratic Change Tsvangirai faction (MDC-T) supporters clashed with police during a march against police brutality in Harare on August 24, 2016 © AFP/File / Wilfred Kajese

– ‘Push Mugabe out’ –

Analysts and activists have warned of a total breakdown within society unless Mugabe heeds demands for key political and economic reforms, or steps down.

On Friday, the main opposition parties will stage a march to push for electoral reforms ahead of the 2018 vote in which the 92-year-old leader will seek re-election.

Another activist, Promise Mkwananzi, said nothing short of Mugabe’s resignation will end the protests.

“We aim for the exit of Mugabe from the political scene,” said Mkwananzi who leads the #Tajamuka (We are Agitated) protest movement which has called for a nationwide strike on August 31.

Zimbabwe opposition party supporters shout anti-government slogans during a demonstration in the central city of Gweru, on August 13, 2016 © AFP/File / Zinyange Auntony

“The precursor for resolving the problems in this country is the exit of Mugabe from power,” said Mkwananzi.

“The time is now for political parties and citizens to come together to push Mugabe out.”

– Citizen activism re-emerges –

Mugabe has been in power since independence from British colonial rule in 1980. He has avoided naming a successor despite his advanced age and concerns over his fitness to rule.

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Despite putting a brave face and deploying heavy-handed approach to the protests, “panic is everywhere” in the administration, said Masunungure.

The last time Zimbabwe saw a wave of similar protests was in the late 1990s.

President Robert Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe for 36 years © AFP/File / Jekesai Njikizana

Led by civil society groups and trade unions, those demonstrations spawned the emergence of the Movement for Democratic Change — the only party that has posed a serious challenge to Mugabe’s iron grip on the country.

“It is a repeat of what happened before. What is distinctly different is the medium of communication and mobilisation where social media is the new development,” said Masunungure a political scientist at the University of Zimbabwe.

Zimbabweans have taken to Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp using the hashtag “ThisFlag” to share the hardships of living under Mugabe’s rule and to organise protests.

“There is… a re-emergence of an active citizenry where Zimbabweans are refusing to turn the other cheek, saying ‘I need to express my views to the government’,” he said.

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