Protest demonstrations took place across Zimbabwe during a nationwide public-sector strike on 6 July 2016. The strike, dubbed Zimbabwe Shutdown on social media, was called for by leaders of the This Flag movement. Throughout the day civil servants, teachers and hospital staff at government facilities stayed away from work to protest the increasing economic mismanagement and authoritarian practices of the national government. Support for the shutdown was particularly strong among government employees, as public sector workers did not receive their June wages due to the government’s depleted funds.
In response to the protests, security forces shutdown access to social media platforms, such as WhatsApp and Facebook, which were being used to organise the demonstrations. In addition, Zimbabwean police officers disrupted protests using tear gas, rubber bullets and, in some cases, beat demonstrators with batons. Over 100 protesters were arrested in the course of the 6 July strike.
The shutdown came just days after violent protests shook Beitbridge, located along Zimbabwe’s southern border with South Africa, when local traders protested a ban on over 30% of imported products. Security forces used heavy-handed tactics to disperse these demonstrations and arrested over 70 people.
Zimbabwe imports a significant amount of its goods from South Africa and multiple small-scale traders make a living by transporting cheaper South African products into the country. The ban on imports has led to an almost immediate dramatic rise in prices for a variety of goods, ranging from foodstuffs to building supplies.
The import ban is tantamount to self-imposed sanctions by the Zimbabwean government and is deeply unpopular with the Zimbabwean population. While government insists the ban is a restrictive measure aimed at boosting local industry, the reality has more to do with the country’s depleted foreign exchange reserves.
Following a prolonged economic crisis marked by hyperinflation, in 2008 former finance minister Tendai Biti scrapped the Zimbabwean dollar and moved the country onto using foreign currency, particularly US dollars (US$). This move helped stabilise the country’s financial markets and ended spiralling hyperinflation, which peaked at 79.6 billion percent.
However, in recent months Zimbabwe’s foreign reserves have been worryingly low and the state imposed a US$200 withdrawal limit and suggested issuing a government backed bond to be used in lieu of currency. These measures were deeply unpopular with the countries financial services sector rejecting the proposed bond as an attempt to reintroduce the Zimbabwean Dollar raising the spectre of hyperinflation. Most Zimbabweans were unable to withdraw the daily US$200, usually receiving only half that amount or less. Following this rejection of the proposed bond and a virtual bank run on US$, the government looks likely to rely more heavily on the South African Rand (ZAR) and Botswana’s Pule (BWP). Meanwhile, Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa, was in the United Kingdom (UK) on 6 July in an attempt to encourage much-needed foreign investment and aid money ‒ deeply ironic to many domestic protestors given the ruling Zanu-PF party’s often antagonistic rhetoric towards Britain, Zimbabwe’s former colonial power.
It all coincides with increased political uncertainty as the 92 year old long-time President Robert Mugabe is believed to be losing his formidable grip on power with doubts being raised about his health and capacity to rule. It is believed that a power struggle is developing within Zanu-PF between Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa and the First-Lady Grace Mugabe, both of whom are deeply unpopular outside the party.
Furthermore, former vice-president, Joice Mujuru, who was expelled from Zanu-PF by Mugabe – allegedly due to his wife’s influence – has formed a breakaway opposition party called Zimbabwe People First, which is gaining traction among many disillusioned Zanu-PF supporters.
In this context many observers believe the recent resurgence in civil society activity, in the form of the This Flag movement, is the first potential game-changer in Zimbabwe for over a decade. The movement has promised similar protests in future if government does not undertake economic and social reforms, including ending police brutality.
Widespread support and ongoing economic decline make further violent demonstrations likely. Government, meanwhile, will remained constrained by economic woes, Mugabe’s distracting decline and associated power mongering. A period of widespread instability and increased securitisation can be expected and, dependant on the severity, the situation could have profound consequences for Zimbabwe and its neighbours, particularly, South Africa, Botswana and Zambia. The increased violence and declining economy could lead to an increase in economic migration from Zimbabwe into these neighbouring countries. In the longer term, however, the emergence of strong civil society movement in Zimbabwe may support the country’s gradual return to economic normalcy, should it prompt a long-awaited political evolution that will simultaneously bolster democracy in the Southern African region. At present, however, it is too early to call and any outcome is likely to be preceded by yet another highly testing period for Zimbabwe and its people.