(Harare, Zimbabwe) — Harare loosely translates to “it doesn’t sleep”. For Zimbabwe’s capital city, this is a fitting name, as Harare is constantly abuzz with the sound of cars, pedestrian traffic, and energy. However, this Wednesday Harare was silent. Few people walked the streets. There was next to no traffic on the roads. Businesses were closed and shops didn’t open their doors. To an outsider walking through Harare it would seem strange that there was no activity in a country’s capital. However, this was all according to plan.
Today, July 6, saw a nationwide “stay away” in Zimbabwe, with the country’s major cities and towns shutting down in protest against the government. The stay away signals the culmination of months of activism and increasing frustrations in the Southern African country.
Stay aways are not new on the Zimbabwean landscape: for over a decade activists and opposition parties have called for stay aways to demonstrate against an inefficient economic system, corruption, and political inequality. However, this most recent event has proven to be far more successful than its predecessors. A resurgence in activism in the streets and on social media is to thank for the stay away’s success.
It all started in April 2016 with the #ThisFlag campaign. Pastor Evan Mawarire, tired and frustrated by the never ending economic hardships in the country, made a video which went viral on Zimbabwean social media. Out of this video was the #ThisFlag movement born, with the intention of reclaiming Zimbabwe’s flag and future from an inefficient system.
The movement gained momentum, despite being dismissed as ‘slacktivism’. It culminated in a widely shared and explosive interview on radio station ZiFM.
How We Got Here
The #ThisFlag campaign encouraged an environment for Zimbabweans to speak more openly online of their dissatisfaction with the state of affairs. However, it cannot be solely credited for the recent countrywide protests. Four major events contributed to many Zimbabweans reaching their boiling point:
The recent cash crisis and the proposed introduction of bond notes to replace the multicurrency system. This precipitated fears of another 2008/2009 situation, where chronic shortages and hyperinflation made an already tough existence even more difficult
The recent import ban implemented by ZIMRA. Officials say that the ban, which prohibits the importing of items such as cooking oil, furniture and toiletries, was created to protect Zimbabwean industries from outside competition, specifically from South Africa. However, it outraged those who make a living off cross border trading, and was seen as another example of the government not caring about the wellbeing of its citizens.
A sharp increase in police roadblocks and allegations of police harassment by public transport commuter omnibus drivers. The relationship between the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) and public transport drivers has always been uneasy. However, more roadblocks and allegations of police demanding high bribes from drivers prompted protests in eastern suburbs of Harare on Monday 4 July.
Civil servants not getting paid: after failed negotiations, civil servants called for a strike, demanding that they get paid after months of not receiving salaries.
The import ban struck a nerve in Beitbridge, the town along the Zimbabwe/South Africa border. Riots and protests broke out, with images of burning buildings, police presence and angry citizens filling Twitter and Facebook. For a country that had lived with a culture of fear and silence for so long, the protests were galvanising. People were no longer just angry, they were acting upon that anger.
Then came 4 July. Commuter bus drivers, fed up with police harassment, protested against the mistreatment. Mainly in Harare, the protests were in the eastern high density areas of the city, with action spilling into some parts of Harare’s Central Business District. It was no longer a movement restricted to the Internet or a small border town.
The messages calling for a stay away started circulating that same day. ‘Don’t go to school, don’t go to work, don’t go anywhere’, the message said, urging citizens to show that they’ve had enough in a peaceful but powerful way. Pictures of police beating up protesters, a perfunctory response from ZRP officials, and an interview on BBC’s HardTalk with Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa, where he claimed that Zimbabweans were happy with the way things were in the country, all contributed to a heightened sense of anger, determination and fearlessness in Zimbabwe’s citizens. They were committed to making the stay away a success.
And it was a big success. Harare’s streets and roads were virtually empty.
Even suburbs and low density areas, which usually avoided any kind of statement or involvement in activism, joined the shutdown. It wasn’t just Harare. Pictures of Bulawayo showed a city that resembled a ghost town – not a person, car, or animal in sight. Chitungwiza, Masvingo, Mutare and Victoria Falls all shut down and sent a loud message with their silence. #ZimShutDown2016 was trending the whole day, with private citizens and public individuals tweeting their support. Violent altercations with police in Mufakose, Chipinge and parts of Bulawayo did not mar the general peaceful nature of the protest. Two journalists from publication Newsday were arrested, but were later released after being ordered to delete their photos. Wifi and network service providers were down this morning, but service was restored around midday.
The protests didn’t stay in the country’s borders. Zimbabwe has a large population living outside the country, and people in Cape Town, Johannesburg and the United Kingdom staged their own protests outside the Zimbabwe Consulate (Cape Town and Johannesburg), as well as egging and throwing stones at a government official’s car in London.
As the sun goes down, there’s a general feeling of accomplishment. As a country we were able to put differences aside and unite to show that enough is enough. Joined by countrymen outside Zimbabwe, as well as other Africans on social media, today was a success. However, it does not end here. What remains to be seen now is how citizens will negotiate and make use of this renewed determination and collective power.