Regime clinging to power by force

THE report on this

week’s mass action must be a mixed one. The street protests envisaged were thwarted by riot police swinging batons and firing teargas. State violence was the deciding factor. But the five-day stayaway was incontrovertibly the most successful to date.

If the Movement for Democratic Change is unable to assemble its supporters in town centres, its leadership is at least able to call a successful strike whenever it likes. No amount of threats by ministers — becoming more fevered by the day — could get people to work. Morgan Tsvangirai now only has to blow his whistle and the nation downs tools. Nobody was impressed by over-heated charges of “illegal” or “unconstitutional” action and no business was persuaded to open by the prospect of Trade and Industry minister Samuel Mumbengegwi’s threats to cancel trading licences. After all, how successful has government been in running any other business it has turned its hand to?

At the end of the week the impression that remained was one of a desperately insecure regime using every means at its disposal — including threats against people sending SMS text messages — to get the country back to work. By yesterday a few banks and businesses had been prevailed upon, after visits by the CIO and Zanu PF gangs, to reopen.

The reality, which the world was able to observe this week, was of a regime that is only able to survive by brute force. Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights says that a significant number of arrests and detentions have been arbitrary, and that there are credible reports of torture, assault, violence, and general intimidation of people by the state machinery.

None of this suggests normality. As one economist has noted, the problem of a dysfunctional economy and a government bereft of workable policies will still be there next week. Nothing will have changed in terms of President Mugabe’s prospects. He is still a prisoner of events in State House and losing support by the day. What is the point of a “big man” in politics if he can’t deliver a single benefit to the people he rules? Land has proved a barren gift.

Meanwhile, the MDC will have to regard the events of this week as a test-run. In other countries where mass action has succeeded it has progressed by steps. There is no initial big bang. Just a series of increasingly louder eruptions. The three-day stayaway — shorter and sharper — may be more effective than five.

By their treatment of township residents and students this week the police will have added several thousand hardened adherents to the MDC’s ranks. By treating the public as “the enemy” and arbitrarily abridging their freedoms to assemble and express themselves, the authorities have alienated many otherwise uncommitted citizens. Zanu PF’s only supporters are gangs of hoodlums imported from smaller centres. The way in which the police indulged their depredations, including the tearing up of independent newspapers, provided evidence, if it were needed, of selective application of the law.

Those loudly pronouncing the loyalty of the police and armed forces to the regime ahead of the stayaway may care to reflect on the problems posed by a disaffected majority who no longer see the security agencies as professional upholders of the law. Cracking heads may succeed in the first instance in stabilising a situation. It rarely succeeds in the long term. Mugabe and his minions are increasingly living in a foreign country, one over which they have no authority.

As for the opposition, it will emerge from this week’s baptism of fire with its moral authority enhanced. People naturally sympathise with victims of state brutality, especially those espousing democratic freedoms and the right to a better life.

As the influential African American lobby in its letter to President Mugabe said this week, “the non-violent civil disobedience that is growing in your country — such as that which took place on Mother’s Day in Bulawayo — is increasingly met with police brutality and excessive force. Such trends in the abuse of human rights are not only unacceptable, they are threats to your country’s stability and they are undermining the economic and political development your people desire and deserve.”

They urged Mugabe to find a way to work with others “to create an effective process for a transition to a more broadly supported government up- holding the democratic rights of all”.

Meanwhile, having benefited from the lessons of this week, the MDC must consider its options. Where do they go from here? Popular anger against Zanu PF-made hardships will not dissipate. And while negotiation is always a preferred route, it is not incompatible with mass action.

In his letter from Birmingham jail, the Rev Martin Luther King had this advice for his followers:  “You may well ask: ‘Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches, etc? Isn’t negotiation a better path?’ You are exactly right in your call for negotiation. Indeed, this is the purpose of direct action. Non-violent direct action seeks to…establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to so dramatise the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”

We are all agreed that by its campaign this week the MDC has drawn the attention of the country and the world to the connection between brutal misrule and economic collapse. That is the issue successfully dramatised by its followers in the teeth of repression and which can no longer be ignored, not even by the delusionist in State House.

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