In Zimbabwe, an unpopular government is lashing out because “it fears its own people”

Soldiers shot dead at least 17 protesters following a crippling six-day work ‘stay-away’ called by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions on 14 January 2019. (AFP/Zinyange Antony)

With at least 17 unarmed civilians killed by the military in the recent spate of anti-government protests, and many more injured, abducted, raped and imprisoned, labour leaders, opposition lawmakers and human rights defenders in Zimbabwe are living in fear of their lives as the government of President Emmerson Mnangagwa continues its vicious crackdown.

In a desperate bid to muzzle dissenting voices in a country troubled by years of economic and political discontent, soldiers shot dead the protesters following a crippling six-day (initially three) work ‘stay-away’ called by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU)on 14 January. Over 1000 people have been arrested with some dragged from their homes and beaten according to human rights groups, the government imposed a temporary shutdown of the internet during the protests and even children have been violently assaulted by security forces.

The ZCTU labour action came in response to the massive price hike for essential goods and services after the government unilaterally imposed a 150 per cent increase in the cost of fuel. In a country where many people live on less than a dollar a day, the steep increases have pushed desperate families to breaking point.

Getrude Tembo, a second-hand clothing vendor based in Harare, tells Equal Times: “These days we cannot afford to buy our basic necessities. In October last year two litres of cooking oil was going for US$3.80. In November it was US$4.90, US$5.00 in December and now it is US$11. All the basic commodities have gone up by as much as 300 percent,” she says despairingly, an increase that has rendered most salaries as almost worthless – that’s if workers are paid at all.

A number of ZCTU leaders were arrested as a result of the ‘stay-away’ with Secretary-General Japhet Moyo and President Peter Mutasa charged with “attempting to overthrow a constitutionally elected government or alternatively inciting violence”. Following an international solidarity campaign which saw a regional day of action across Africa on 1 February and global support from the international labour movement, Moyo and Mutasa were released on bail after spending nearly two weeks in Chikurubi Maximum Prison. Their trial date is yet to be set but both union leaders are currently on remand until 20 February and face a mandatory 20-year jail term if convicted.

New government, same brutality

President Mnangagwa came to power following a military coup that ousted former president Robert Mugabe after 37 years of power in October 2017; he then claimed victory in a contested election in July 2018. Despite serving in Mugabe’s Zanu-PF government and maintaining all of the same state apparatus as his predecessor, Mnangagwa promised a fresh start that would be marked by the revitalisation of Zimbabwe’s failing economy. Post-election violence, which left six people dead, offered an early sign of things to come under Mnangagwa, but the introduction of harsh austerity measures in November 2018 has left impoverished Zimbabweans even more desperate – and angry.

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“I am angry with the government because the situation has taken away our dignity, especially as women,” says Tembo. “We cannot feed our families. We cannot even afford to get to work by normal means. Imagine as a woman having to travel in a pick-up truck just to get to work because conventional transport is now unaffordable.”

Analysts told Equal Times that the use of armed soldiers to quell protests and the subsequent arrest of trade union and opposition leaders was a sign that Mnangagwa’s government fears the people, after failing to deal with the myriad challenges – ranging from high unemployment, cash shortages and a lack of basic services – facing the country.

“The government will do everything to suppress citizens so that they do not protest or express their disapproval of the situation,” says Givemore Chipere, an analyst based in Harare. “Now in its mapping of political threats to its existence, the [Mnangagwa] regime is targeting trade unionists, civil society and opposition leaders,” he says, noting that journalists are also in the firing line, “arresting them and even imprisoning them so there is no one left to lead the people.”

He continues: “Unpopular regimes always fear their own people. They are afraid of losing control hence the ruthless use of brute force. What this government should do is to engage citizens, identifying the challenges we are facing as a nation and chart the way forward. Beating and killing citizens is like stitching the anus of a diarrhea patient and thinking you have cured the virus,” he warns bluntly.

Peace and conflict expert Reverend Sikhalo Cele says the conduct of the state has deeply affected trust, which was fundamental for the country’s economic recovery, adding that political leaders needed to value the sanctity and dignity of human life. “The question is: ‘What is the state protecting now?’ How can the state defend rape committed by people in military and police regalia? How can they defend the beating and killing of the same people they are meant to protect?” he asks.

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Besides the arrest of trade union leaders, opposition leaders Tendai Biti and Amos Chibaya of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) Alliance and social activist Pastor Evan Mawarire of the #ThisFlag movement are amongst those who are also facing 20 year sentences for taking a lead in calling for demonstrations against the Zanu-PF regime.

The cases of those accused of taking part in fuel protests are being fast-tracked in the courts and some are being refused bail. This lead lawyers to take to the streets on 29 January to protest over the “deteriorating rule of law”.

Prominent Harare lawyer, Alec Muchadehama, who is representing the two ZCTU leaders, tells Equal Times that the union leaders have not committed any crimes and were arrested on charges which are “totally false”. He says: “They did not commit anything close to what they are alleging. For example, initially they charged ZCTU Secretary General Japhet Moyo with sending some text messages through social media saying that the government must be overthrown. But when they looked at his phone, they discovered that there were no such messages.” Muchadehama says the police then started “conjuring up facts which are not based on any tangible evidence.”

Acting ZCTU Secretary General, Sylvester Mutindindi, believes that the arrest of trade union leaders in Zimbabwe is a systematic tool used by government to intimidate unionists through persecution, leaving them weakened in the fight to protect Zimbabwean workers from the socio-economic ills meted out by the government.

“The arrest is an act of repression against the trade unions and the ZCTU strongly condemns the acts of the police. It is contrary to Section 59 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe which gives workers the right to demonstrate and petition peacefully,” he says.

Since coming to power in 2017, President Mnangagwa has consistently failed to engage with trade unions while taking a very strong pro-business stance. But the unions say that peace and prosperity is impossible as long as the government continues to institute policies that harm Zimbabwe’s workers and communities. The ZCTU is calling on the government to bring about an immediate end to the repression and engage in genuine social dialogue. There is little hope this may be the case, however, with local journalists reporting that the government has recently ordered US$8 million worth of teargas canisters to deal with future protests.