Street protests, national work boycotts and Internet activism are on the rise in Zimbabwe — offering hints that opposition to the ageing President Robert Mugabe could be building towards a boiling point.
Public shows of dissent have been rare under Mugabe’s decades-long oppressive rule, but they have erupted regularly in recent months as the battered economy has ground to a virtual halt.
Banks have run short of cash, government salaries have been delayed and many basic imports banned at a time when the country has also suffered a severe drought that has left millions hungry.
With the 92-year-old president’s health increasingly uncertain and the ruling Zanu-PF party riven by a succession battle, Zimbabwe could be heading for a period of turmoil — and perhaps a long-awaited new chapter.
“People are beginning to ask who the source of their problems is. The anger is mounting,” Rushweat Mukundu, a political analyst with the Harare-based Zimbabwe Democracy Institute think-tank, told AFP.
“The spontaneous acts we are witnessing now may escalate into mass uprisings.”
A national “shutdown” strike closed many businesses, shops and schools on Wednesday, with public transport and some government departments and courts also ceasing to function.
The strike followed days of sporadic protests triggered by a sudden outbreak of demonstrations on the outskirts of Harare over roadblocks by the police, accused of extorting cash from motorists.
That unrest, in which at least 113 people were arrested, started on a small scale among public minibus drivers but soon spread, with rocks thrown at police and tyres burnt on roads as unemployed young men joined in.
RUTHLESS SECURITY FORCES
The riots revealed the long-bubbling frustration normally kept under strict control by Mugabe’s ruthless security forces in a country where 90 per cent of the population are not in formal jobs.
A few days earlier, around 70 people were arrested in Beitbridge town at the border with South Africa during protests over a ban on imports of commodities such as canned vegetables, powdered milk and cooking oil.
“Civil servants who were loyal to the government because they were getting salaries or using state infrastructure to engage in petty corruption are now among the discontented,” said Mukundu.
Even the police and army — essential to Mugabe maintaining power — have been affected, with both forces paid about 12 days late last month.
“As things stand, there is no capacity to address the crisis,” Ibbo Mandaza, head of the regional think tank Southern Africa Political and Economic Series, told AFP.
“Nothing short of political and economic reforms will stop the crisis. It will continue like this until the end comes.”
But Mugabe has proved a tough survivor since coming to power when the country won independence in 1980, and he is expected to fight to retain his grip on the country.
His rule has been defined by antagonism towards the West, and authorities have accused unnamed “Western embassies” of sponsoring groups organising the protests.
One target of that jibe is thought to be the #ThisFlag Internet movement, which has grown rapidly as Zimbabweans have embraced the social media as a relatively safe and open way to express their opposition to Mugabe.