By Donnelly McCleland — INcontext International
The Zimbabwean government said the security forces’ response to recent protests in which a number of people have reportedly died is just “a foretaste of things to come”. News of a violent crackdown has emerged despite the government blocking social media sites. Local rights groups said at least 12 people had been killed and many more beaten by security forces. The protests were sparked on Monday [14 January] by a sharp rise in the price of fuel. President Emmerson Mnangagwa said on Sunday [20 January] he was cutting short his current foreign tour to return home “in the light of the economic situation”. (BBC News)
Economic woes and disillusionment
Just fifteen months ago, a coup forced strongman Robert Mugabe from office after 37 years in power. At that time there was widespread optimism, but this has rapidly disappeared as most of the promised changes have not materialised. For a short while after the coup, many thought Mnangagwa was a reformer, despite being a ruling party stalwart and vice-president under Mugabe. The international community, including a number of critics, were prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. However, cynicism is growing, and for a variety of reasons. Controversy ruined Zimbabwe’s much-anticipated elections on 30 July 2018, even though the courts subsequently endorsed the outcome. Many believe state resources were used to ensure Mr Mnangagwa’s victory. There was also unprecedented spending by the government in the lead-up to the elections, despite their promises of financial prudence.
The country’s economic woes are not new or recent, but underlying the skyrocketing prices of fuel, food and other goods is an ongoing currency crisis that grew steadily worse through much of 2018. The dramatic increase in domestic debt in recent years is also cause for concern. In 2013, it stood at just $442-million (R6.1-billion), but surged to $10.5-billion (R145-billion) by February 2018 and continued to climb through 2018. The government introduced a variety of fiscal and monetary reforms in October 2018, but this has only led to prices for goods and services spiking across the board. The runaway inflation has also led to panic buying and subsequent shortages of critical goods such as medicines. These factors have combined to cut the value of ordinary citizens’ earnings and savings by more than half, further impoverishing an already struggling population. Conditions were ripe for revolt. The president’s announced fuel price hike in early January was the spark that ignited a wave of angry protests.
Protests and repression
The impact of the proposed fuel price hike on the average Zimbabwean is potentially catastrophic – most people will have to use well over half their salaries just paying for public transport to get to work. One day after the announced fuel price hike, in an effort to make the government hear the voice of the people, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (supported by both civil and religious groups) called for a nationwide “stayaway” or general strike for three days. Those behind the strike did not call for demonstrations, but thousands – especially young people – took to the streets, with many looting shops and burning cars or buildings. In response, the government ordered a vicious clampdown, deploying soldiers as well as police. The crackdown on the demonstrations has stoked fears of a return to the violent repression the of Mugabe era.
It has been reported that at least 12 people have been killed and dozens injured, according to the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, which has recorded more than 240 incidents of assault and torture. More than 600 people have been arrested, among them a prominent pastor and activist, Evan Mawarire, who supported the protests on social media and now faces a possible 20 years in prison on a subversion charge. His lawyer claims that more than 400 people have been denied bail. There were also reports of the government imposing a total internet shutdown in response to the protests.
The UN has fiercely criticised the government reaction to the protests as allegations mount of shootings, beatings and abductions of opposition figures, activists and ordinary citizens.
Political and economic reforms needed
There has been talk of South Africa extending credit to Zimbabwe, and possibly assisting with its external debt, but critics and analysts have warned that such an offer of assistance would be wasted unless the government is persuaded to make fundamental political and economic reforms. Piers Pigou, senior consultant to the International Crisis Group said in response to South Africa’s disclosure of possible assistance: “The biggest challenge for outside forces is to get the government to do something about the unrest besides shooting and arresting protesters. Zimbabwe desperately needs reform if the government is to keep the country reasonably stable and preserve its re-engagement with international donors, a process that started with Mugabe’s ouster. To pull off that reform, it needs broad political consensus, including within both the ruling party and the opposition, but also within other social constituencies. The country is polarised on multiple fronts — ideally, the government would commit to supporting the development and implementation of some form of national reconciliation strategy to at least start to heal these divisions. For now, however, such a strategy is not even part of political discourse.”
But Pigou said it was unclear who had the leverage to nudge the government from repression to reform — “or if anyone wants to do so”. He concluded that it was a crisis that the region and international community could not afford to ignore.
From a Christian perspective:
Proverbs 12:18 says: “The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” It is incredibly important for those both within and those beyond Zimbabwe’s borders to speak with wisdom at this time, for the good and the healing of the nation. There are many messages currently being shared across social media (especially among Christians) which are not entirely truthful, and in many cases, are heavily emotive and manipulative. Such messages, even though they might mean well, often do not achieve the goal of healing and reconciliation. Let us heed the call of Christian leaders in Zimbabwe to pursue peace and dialogue.
The Zimbabwe Council of Churches (ZCC) has called on Zimbabweans to come together to ensure that peace prevails and to engage in dialogue to help resolve the country’s economic problems. The Bishops of the Catholic Church in Zimbabwe also issued a detailed letter to their nation. In this letter they highlighted key areas of concern, including the violence perpetrated by all sides. They went on to make recommendations, calling on the government and the opposition to put aside their differences and work together to free Zimbabwe from its economic shackles and international ostracization. They also called on the government to end their “heavy-handed handling of dissent and expression of rights and grievances by the people”. They urged all people to “exercise tolerance towards each other and to express their constitutional rights in a peaceful and nonviolent manner”, stressing that they should “always shun violence and be mindful to respect everyone’s rights, especially those who do not agree with you.” Within the conclusion to this letter, they expressed the following: “We believe in a God of second chances, who is always offering us new opportunities. Even in the midst of current tensions and disturbances there are new opportunities to rebuild hope, trust, confidence and stability in our country.”
One Zimbabwean Christian expressed his anguish by saying: “We need a change of heart in our leadership, or we need a change of leadership. Please pray for either of those for the good of our people. Our leaders do not care in the slightest for the people of the land, they treat Zimbabweans with contempt and do not understand their struggles. Again, we cry for people with Mordecai’s heart [Esther 10:3], leaders whose commitment is to use power to serve and use position to benefit others.”
For a resolution to the conflict in Zimbabwe
For Zimbabwean and South African leaders to respond wisely to the crisis
For Christians to be sensitive about how they communicate about the situation in Zimbabwe