By Gift Phiri
“Endgame” is the phrase political pundits are using to describe a deepening stand-off between angry, long-suffering citizens and President Robert Mugabe’s government.
So far, the fuming citizens have not been strong enough to bring down the government, which claims it has a mandate from the heavily disputed 2013 election to rule until 2018.
And the iron-fisted government — apparently unmoved by a possible international outcry — has ruthlessly quashed citizens’ protests using deadly force.
Two snapshots of what is happening on the streets of Harare illustrate the situation quite dramatically.
The sight of so many anti-riot police and water cannons at the court appearance of pastor Evan Mawarire — freed on charges of attempting to overthrow the State via his Internet video campaign that inspired rare protests against Mugabe, and at the first appearance of opposition MDC leader at Harvest House — ranged against a thousands of unarmed men and women, was a sign of the regime’s growing nervousness in the face of mounting frustration and resentment among Zimbabwe’s relatively small, but increasingly bold citizens and the political class.
In recent months, protesters have taken to the streets in a way not seen in Zimbabwe for decades.
Men and women calling for Mugabe to step down dare to make their demands in public demonstrations. Citizens are being pushed to the limit as economic conditions continue to deteriorate.
Many protesters have been arrested, because under emergency law, the right to demonstrate is severely restricted even though the new Constitution guarantees this right.
Advocate Nelson Chamisa, an opposition MDC Member of Parliament of Kuwadzana East, said: “The winds of change are blowing and the centre can no longer hold. Things are falling apart.”
Asked if he also got a sense that winds of change are finally blowing in Zimbabwe, Southern Africa senior consultant at international conflict prevention organisation, International Crisis Group, Piers Pigou, said: “We shall see. But there is certainly a new spirit. It is encouraging. But let’s see how the regime responds.”
The change in mood came recently with the emergence of #ThisFlag movement, an umbrella organisation that brings together young activists and has successfully organised “stay at home” anti-government protest.
#ThisFlag is a short and pithy way of expressing the resentment and desire for change its members feel, and the Baptist pastor Mawarire says the flag is no longer a reminder of Zimbabweans’ pride and inspiration that it represented when Zimbabwe attained independence in 1980 from British colonial rule, but it is not yet the political mass movement it aspires to be.
Officially, the government has dismissed the digital campaign.
On Twitter, Higher Education minister Jonathan Moyo poured scorn on the campaign as nothing more than a “pastor’s fart in the corridors of power”, and accused Mawarire of using it to earn money and boost attendance at his church.
UK-based Zimbabwean scholar, George Shire said many people across the political divide in Zimbabwe and abroad share many of Mawarire’s concerns.
“I think it’s too early to employ this as a turning point in the political temperature of the country. I note too that the whole campaign is pitched at asking the government what it should do, which is not the same thing as opposing the government,” Shire said.
“I mean it’s too early to exemplify this as a turning point; and besides, many people in Zanu PF agree with Mawarire.”
Professor of world politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, Stephen Chan told the Daily News winds of change are certainly blowing, but they are far from being strong enough to topple the government.
“The problem with stay-away and strike tactics is that they have a very limited shelf life,” he said.
“In the economic difficulties of Zimbabwe, people simply cannot afford to stay away from work over and over again.”
Amid mounting protests, the police force has shown zero tolerance and aggressively put down protests by using teargas and sometimes ammunition. Those who are caught are often detained and brutalised.
The European Union Delegation in Harare this week expressed concern at reports of “serious violence and human rights abuses taking place during and in the aftermath of recent protests in a number of urban centres across the country.”
“The EU calls on all parties to respect the right to demonstrate peacefully, as enshrined within Section 59 of the Zimbabwean Constitution. It is the responsibility of the government to ensure such protests are policed responsibly, that arrested persons are treated in accordance with Section 50 of the Constitution, and that those responsible for unlawful violence face justice,” the EU statement — which the embassy of Switzerland also associated with said.
Shire said: “Everyone will blame the police, they will get a rebuke, the strikes will fizzle out and everybody will go home.”
Also unprecedented, was the presence of lawyers numbering close to 100 at Mawarire’s court appearance.
“One is tempted to ask, how many lawyers or law firms are there in Harare and did they all get a day off or were they all on strike? 100 human rights lawyers in one city the size of Harare is weird,” Shire said.
Programmes manager with Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, Dzimbabwe Chimbga said the story of more than 100 lawyers showing up at court to assist with submissions, the legal arguments and offer moral support reflected a great victory for human rights, the rule of law and constitutionalism.
“That is what it should be like, that is what the law society and human rights lawyers should be seen to be doing, leading from the front. Lawyers must stand at the front queue of defending the rule of law and constitutionalism,” Chimbga said.
“I was humbled to see so many young lawyers, some we have just lectured from the Law School coming through with powerful arguments, others dashing to their tablets or smart phones to reveal powerful case-laws, and others pointing to useful provisions in the Constitution and the CPEA (Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act), and even others quickly sharing practical experiences at the courts, not forgetting those in the Diaspora who WhatsApped and emailed legal arguments.”
Chan said: “What is certainly very positive is in the legal sector: a brave magistrate, albeit one able to take advantage of a simply stupid procedural bungle on the part of the prosecution; and 100 lawyers willing to represent the pastor. Legal challenges to government, injunctions against ministers — this sort of thing will make a difference in addition to popular action.
“But I note that neither the MDC nor the purged wing of Zanu PF came in really forcefully behind the protests — apart from words. The problem is that genuine popular protest means the sidelining of an opposition that failed. The government has failed too. But, as long as the police and soldiers are paid, the winds of change will not succeed.”
But despite the current intense activity on the political scene in Zimbabwe, the majority of Zimbabwe’s 13 million people remain cut off from politics and more significantly from the agenda of the opposition.
Shire said: “This moment is metropolitan-based and does not have a national outlook.”
A banana ferryman who transports farmers and their fresh produce from Honde in Manicaland to the urban market of Harare, Mbare, said yesterday: “We are farmers, we don’t understand politics.”
Some of the passengers laughed and giggled when asked whether they would vote again for Mugabe in the forthcoming 2018 presidential election. They all said yes.
Perhaps it is not surprising that they feel the way they do about Mugabe.
Many of them have grown up with him, and they continue to be fed a diet by the state media of Mugabe as a great hero, almost a national symbol.
And as long as political activity is so severely restricted, and the government keeps its stranglehold on television and radio, then the opposition will continue to find it difficult to reach out to the wider public.
Zimbabwe’s 36 years of relative political stability owe much to the leadership of Mugabe, making the prospect of the nonagenarian’s departure a significant source of jitters for investors in the country.
Chamisa said he saw “a new country, a new name, a new currency and a new Zimbabwe.”
He said the pro-democracy movement has been “tried, tested and persecuted but we have endured and persevered.”
“Ummmm, I hear a new anthem in my ears and capture a panoramic glimpse of great new nation. I see factories and construction of high rise buildings and great highways and motorways. We are a leadership people.
“We are great Zimbabwe people. We are people of stone and people of God — a chosen nation to lead other nations being the nation of nations. We dare not fail and falter at this last hour.”
He said this was the time to stand together and appreciate every effort to reverse the frontiers of dictatorship and oppression.
“It is no time to audit each other on account of bravery, courage and contribution,” he said.
“Such time shall come. We must all seize the opportunity to mobilise and lead the collective and energise the base for the ultimate end to our penury and poverty. We bear the collective duty and share this common responsibility to self-liberate.” Daily News