Analysis: Zimbabweans are hungry for change, but Mugabe still thinks it’s his turn to eat

By Simon Allison 6 July 2016

Most revolutions are about food, not politics, so it comes as no surprise that the recent political unrest in Zimbabwe comes on the heels of food and cash shortages. By SIMON ALLISON.

Zimbabwe is on the brink of implosion,” reported Independent Group’s foreign editor Shannon Ebrahim in a breathless recap of the recent political unrest in our northern neighbour. Maybe, maybe not: for now, at least, President Robert Mugabe still appears to command the loyalties of the all-important security services.

But make no mistake, these are trying times for the world’s oldest president. The troubles began on Friday, when traders marched on the Beit Bridge border post, furious at the government’s recently imposed restrictions on the import of South African goods. The burning warehouse – torched by the angry protesters – signalled that this was more than just a run-of-the-mill demonstration. This protest was designed to be inflammatory, in the most literal sense.

Then to Harare, where more protesters gathered on Monday, this time in advance of the planned civil service strike on Tuesday. Most of Zimbabwe’s civil servants have not been paid for June, and they’re not particularly happy. Holding signs that said “We say no to slave wages”, the protesters were met by riot police with truncheons and tear gas; 57 people were arrested. There is video of unarmed protesters being beaten brutally by police – a reminder of just how dangerous it is to be on the wrong side of the regime.

The strike went ahead on Tuesday, according to the BBC, who reported that the scene in Harare resembled a quiet Sunday afternoon.

Teachers and the rest of the civil servants are declaring their incapacity to go to work. Government departments were operating without some of their staff who stayed at home,” said Zimbabwe Teachers’ Union president Richard Gundani.

On Wednesday, an even bigger stayaway is planned. Pastor Evan Mawarire’s #ThisFlag movement has called for a national shutdown, and if Twitter activity is anything to go by they just might get it. This will, however, be the big test of how much #ThisFlag’s potent digital activist can translate into physical resistance.

For the first time in years, Mugabe’s government is facing serious popular resistance. So what’s changed?

As Bill Clinton’s campaign strategist famously observed: “It’s the economy, stupid,” and Zimbabwe’s is not doing very well. Specifically, the country – which no longer produces its own currency – is running out of US dollars. Without US dollars, it can’t keep importing the vast majority of products on the shelves, as well as essentials like maize and petrol. Without US dollars, it can’t pay civil servants on time. Without US dollars, ordinary citizens can’t access their money in the bank, or pay for goods themselves, and are increasingly resorting to barter arrangements.

This, coupled with one of the most severe droughts in southern African history, means that food is in increasingly short supply. The food shortage, perhaps more than anything else, represents an existential threat to the regime.

As Joshua Keating observed in an excellent article on the link between revolution and grain prices: “Food, of course, is never the sole driver of instability or uprising. Corruption, a lack of democracy, ethnic tension – these better known factors may be critical, but food is often the difference between an unhappy but quiescent population and one in revolt.”

Unfortunately for Mugabe, no one in his government seems to have any idea how to solve this problem. An attempt to introduce a new Zimbabwean currency through the back door – via so-called “bond notes” to be given as an incentive to exporters – was met with universal condemnation amid fears of a repeat of the disastrous hyperinflation which caused the original Zimbabwean dollar to be scrapped.

Another idea, to restrict South African imports in order to keep US dollars from leaving the country to pay for those imports, was met with those angry protests at Beit Bridge. Besides, the South Africa-Zimbabwe border is so notoriously porous that the restrictions would be impossible to enforce.

Just how desperate the regime has become was evident in its decision last month to delay payment to the army. The first rule of any successful dictatorship is always to pay the men with the guns: when this stops happening, trouble is never far away. For now, the government has been careful to pay the most important military units on time, while sending unpaid units on leave to prevent a rebellion, but this is clearly a stop-gap solution.

There is one easy fix, of course. A change of government – even one stuffed with Mugabe loyalists – would probably persuade the international community to lift sanctions and reopen the debt taps, allowing for an influx of desperately needed foreign currency and humanitarian assistance. This is, however, the one solution that the ruling elite is not yet ready to contemplate. Zimbabweans may be hungry for change, but Mugabe still thinks that it’s his turn to eat. DM

Photo: Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe eats cake next to his wife Grace during an event marking his 89th birthday at Chipadze stadium in Bindura, about 90 km (56 miles) north of the capital Harare March 2, 2013. REUTERS/Philimon Bulwayo


Want to watch Richard Poplak’s audition for SA’s Got Talent?

Who doesn’t? Alas, it was removed by the host site for prolific swearing*... Now that we’ve got your attention, we thought we’d take the opportunity to talk to you about the small matter of book burning and freedom of speech.

Since its release, Pieter-Louis Myburgh’s book Gangster State, has sparked numerous fascist-like behavior from certain members of the public (and the State). There have been planned book burnings, disrupted launches and Ace Magashule has openly called him a liar. And just to say thanks, a R10m defamation suit has been lodged against the author.

Pieter-Louis Myburgh is our latest Scorpio Investigative journalist recruit and we’re not going to let him and his crucial book be silenced. When the Cape Town launch was postponed, Maverick Insider stepped in and relocated it to a secure location so that Pieter-Louis’ revelations could be heard by the public. If we’ve learnt one thing over the past ten years it is this: when anyone tries to infringe on our constitutional rights, we have to fight back. Every day, our journalists are uncovering more details and evidence of State Capture and its various reincarnations. The rot is deep and the threats, like this recent one to freedom of speech, are real. You can support the cause by becoming an Insider and help free the speech that can make a difference.

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