Are social protests against Mugabe regime possible?

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IT started with the lone actions of journalist-cum-activist Itai Dzamara who was abducted and subjected to forced disappearance since March last year. His one-man demonstrations staged against President Robert Mugabe’s regime at African Unity Square in Harare have changed the way the opposition, anti-regime dissenters and pro-democracy forces approach the Zanu PF government’s repression and mismanagement of the nation’s affairs.

Simukai Tinhu,Political Analyst

Instead of watching from the sidelines as the country collapses, it appears Zimbabweans are now prepared to try something new to address various problems facing the nation.

Indeed, it would be incontestable to suggest that until recently social activism had become moribund and thus something that was pretty much alien to Zimbabweans. But with a slew of several social protest movements that have sprung up in the last few months, Dzamara’s demonstrations appear to have set the ball rolling.

Though not headline-grabbing as those of his brother, Itai’s younger sibling Patson has since picked up from where he left. In April this year, in an act of unbriddled bravery the younger Dzamara staged a lone demonstration against the regime and its leader, Mugabe, during the Independence Day celebrations. Holding a banner emblazoned with “Independent But Not Free. Where Is My Brother Itai?”, this move was seen as a direct challenge to the nonagenarian who was due, on that day, to address thousands of supporters at the National Sports Stadium in Harare.

He was roughed up by state security agents and forcibly removed from the event.

The Dzamara brothers have not been alone in this phenomenon. The most interesting mini social protest movement that galvanised the social media was #This Flag by clergyman Evan Mawarire. The precipitous rise of this energetic pastor’s movement took many by surprise and even prompted threats by establishment figures. Information Technology minister Supa Mandiwanzira accused the pastor of subverting the state and made unspecified threats. However, despite such threats Mawarire seems not to be relenting.

Others have since joined the pro-democracy movement from unlikely quarters. Most notably is former Zanu PF youth leader Acie Lumumba who recently quit the ruling party alleging corruption and mismanagement by the regime. With his Dig Deeper slogan, the youthful politician revved up a contigent of anti-regime dissenters on the social media with threats to unearth corrupt deals by government officials, including his former boss, Indigenisation minister Patrick Zhuwao.

Though interesting and inspiring, this phenomenon has not been short of criticisms. The biggest criticism that has been levelled against the movements has been an alleged failure to yield tangible results; in particular overnight removal of an entrenched regime. Lack of essential ingredients that is said to be required for a successful movement, such as lack of compelling ideas, an ideology and financial resources in a dire economic situation to sustain the movements have been cited as some of the reasons for their failure. Others have even pronounced the death of the movements. In particular, following the precipitous rise of #This Flag and also Dig Deeper, those who support the regime have pointed that the movements have since lost their lustre, and soon the whole phenomenon will fade into oblivion.

But have these movements really flamed out or failed? On the surface, they do appear to be dying or to have failed, but a close inspection shows that they might have given birth to the beginning of mass activism in Zimbabwe. In particular these movements have been a success in two respects: firstly, they have gone beyond a threshold that has never been breached before. Whereas in the late 1990s, the main protest movements of labour unions was against International Monetary Fund and the World Bank-instituted economic austerity policies, today, protests are a direct challenge to Mugabe’s rule.

In other words, that thick icy veneer of fear is beginning to smelt. Indeed, 10 years ago an elderly woman would not have openly challenged the nonagenarian in front of his most senior politicians or local and international newspeople. But recently, as Mugabe addressed his supporters from a trip abroad at the Harare International Aiport, an unknown elderly woman heckled him. Mugabe only just about managed to contain his anger and asked the woman to put his grievances in writing.

This woman, represented a different form of social protest, one never seen before from a member of the public — direct attack. In addition to others commandereed by activists such as Mawarire, Patson, Lumumba or Promise Mkhwananzi among others, will this woman and other mushrooming social movements find each other and coalesce? Time will tell.

Second, the movements provide the springboard for future protests. With the issues that spawned the social movements such as unemployment, bond notes, repression and liquidity crunch not going anywhere soon, the protest movement is here to stay. It might have taperred off as it services its engines, but is likely to return probably with a vengeance. Not only have the protests opened up new paths for successor movements, but they have also provided lessons for activists who have participated and those who continue to participate in these movements.

Lessons on what to do and not what to do when it comes to social activism have been proferred by the existing social activism.

The resistance spreads

But what’s most significant is that the regime is not only facing the spectre of protests from outside, but also from within. It is here where the social protest in a different form and with succession dynamics is likely to be more potent against the regime. The trouble for the regime with the opposition from within Zanu PF is that it has infrastructure in the form of backing by the military and some elements in the intelligence community, a development which has the potential to cause real damage to the president’s authority.

At the forefront of restlessness within the liberation movement have been the war veterans association, a grouping that is made up of remnants of the 1970s liberation war against Ian Smith’s Rhodesian government. This group has been the backbone of Mugabe’s rule since the 1980s. Historically, in return for political muscle in the running of the affairs of the party, the group campaigned and waged a war of violence against the electorate and the opposition. Now that dynamic has ended. They are seeking to renew themselves through the anointment of a man who is more likely than any other potential successor to protect their interests.

In their attempts to have Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa succeed the frail Mugabe, the war veterans have opted for a slash-and-burn approach against anyone who might be perceived as a threat to that ambition. Recently they threatened war against Mugabe’s franchise, the Generation (G40) camp fronted by First Lady Grace Mugabe. This is not the first time that this group has used such a hostile approach against the president. In 1997 they confronted him over their welfare, a marginal issue that the president dealt with by unlocking the safe to the central bank and dishing out to them huge sums of once-off packages.

But what war veterans are demanding this time has inevitably set them on a collision course against Mugabe. Their attempts to direct the course of succession race in the former liberation movement has seen Mugabe issuing counter threats. Indeed, recent explicit utterances endorsing Mnangagwa taking over must have been the breaking point for Zimbabwe’s strongman.

Mugabe has threatened to do another “Gukurahundi” against members of the war veterans. Gukurahundi is a term used to refer to the 1980s atrocities by the government which led to deaths of thousands of civilians. A miscalculation by either of these two warring parties’ extent of their authority might prove lethal to the one that blinks first.

The other group that seems to have permanently joined the list of anti-Mugabe dissenters within Zanu PF structures is the Midlands province where Mnangagwa is regarded as the godfather. Having abandoned the president, the Midlands party leadership has become a fair play for Mugabe’s politics of manipulation and oppression. Through his political surrogate, the ruling party’s political commissar, Saviour Kasukuwere, Mugabe has attempted, on several occassions, to reconstitute the Midlands’ provincial party structures so that its make-up reflects allegiance to his leadership. Kasukuwere even attempted to have Mnangagwa’s close confidant, July Moyo, defenestrated from the party. However, all these strategies have failed dismally. It appears that Mugabe has resigned in his attempts to have this region within his sphere of influence.

On the surface, the Youth League appears firmly in the hands of the nonagenarian. However, its membership shares a different vision to that of its leader. The youths are strongly in defiance of him. Forget about the “million-man march”, which was made up of mostly elderly men, women and children for that matter. The “Save Zanu PF” group that was disbanded after defying the president after it had repeatedly lashed out at his wife represents the position held by most of the youth wing’s membership.

The current youth leader, Kudzai Chipanga, has a reputation for switching allegiances depending on the direction of the contenders’ political fortunes. Having been installed as youth leader by the then vice-president Joice Mujuru’s faction, which controlled the commissariat department prior to 2014, Chipanga was a known strong ally of Mujuru’s political group only to chant “Down with Mujuru” when he realised that Mujuru’s political group was losing ground to Mnangagwa and G40 forces in the run-up to the December 2014 congress.

Political behaviours are repeatable. Will Chipanga jump ship when Mugabe’s ship starts sinking? Most likely and this leaves Mugabe with only the Women’s League in his camp. However, this is group which is also deeply divided with others supporting the First Lady and the other resisting Grace’s ascendacy. Though symbolically the First Lady is the leader, there is significant resistance simmering among its rank and file.

How will Mugabe respond?

There are three options for Mugabe. First, to give in to pressure and offer significant concessions in the form of reforms — another government of national unity on the pretext that the nation wants to solve a national crisis while he is buying time to regroup and consolidate his position within the party. Or, the president can opt to resign from the party. But permanently possessed with the spirit of his own political invincibility and immortality, this is unlikely.

The second is to resist the social resistance to his rule, until it wears itself out. However, he understands that small, seemingly innocuous protests can assume a different life form that might see them getting bigger and more threatening.

This is why he will opt for the most the tried and tested option — he will not hesitate to crush anyone threatening his hold onto power. Indeed, in recent days he has sharpened his rhetoric against the most vocal of these protest movements, the war veterans, threatening them with a Gukurahundi-style backlash.

Mugabe’s toughest moment?

For now, he is safe. The anti-regime dissenters, opposition and anyone outside the ruling party are very unlikely to be successful. This is because two ingredients which are almost always crucial in the success of social movements are absent in Zimbabwe.

First, the general feeling that the regime is vulnerable and that there is little that it can do to contain social protests without consequences to its existence. Second, a social protest is not an event that happens suddenly. It is a process that spans months if not decades. The current social movement in Zimbabwe can barely count a few months to its existence.

Equally, the resistance movement in the ruling party has little chance. The most significant of the constituencies fighting Mugabe within Zanu PF, the war veterans, are banking on the support of the military. A removal of their ally, army chief General Constantine Chiwenga, will mean that their political stock will immediately crash. Also, the incarceration of its leadership might paralyse it.

Generally, Mugabe’s handling of social protests and the troubles in his party indicates that he is confident that he can weather the storm.

The only real threat comes when the prodemocracy forces on one hand, and on the other the resistance movement within Zanu PF realise that the desire that underpins their respective movements is to see Mugabe depart from the political scene. It is only when these two parallel groups find each other and morph into one grand movement that a real threat against Mugabe will crystallise.

Tinhu is a political analyst based in London.

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