Stern Zvorwadza believes there’s no turning back after anger and hunger in Zimbabwe has led to protests in the streets. The National Vendors Union of Zimbabwe chairman has been a key leader of the demonstrations since the government recently imposed import bans. Zvorwadza was arrested at the weekend and speaks to the DAILY MAVERICK SHOW about the impact of the bans, struggles in Zimbabwe and fighting for rights, after getting out on bail.
Kingsley Kipury: You were arrested over the weekend for your role in the recent protests and I’m wondering how you’re feeling right now, about your optimism around the protest action, and as a representative of the vendor’s union.
Stern Zvorwadza: The spirit is very high and the inspiration continues to grow. We have in the past been limited to thinking that our issues are limited only to street vending and the economic situation, but we are getting to realise that our future is also in the hands of those with political power. Hence the need for us as citizens to rise up and challenge some abnormal things that are happening in the country.
KK: I’m curious as to why the recent import ban seemed to be the thing that caused the outcry from not only the union but a lot of people. What was it about the import ban that really caused that outcry?
SZ: It was very unthinkable for the government to impose statutory instrument 64, the import ban, before they consulted the people that are concerned, the people that are affected. You’ve seen in Zimbabwe 95% of people are unemployed and only 5% are employed, meaning 95% of people were cut off from their livelihood. This would not only affect the person on the street, it would affect the person on the street and their family.
It affected nearly the entire population of Zimbabwe and because of that scenario you’ve seen people expressing their anger, you’ve seen people expressing their unhappiness, not because they just want to be expressing this notion of unhappiness. People are tired of things being imposed on them, and it relates directly to their livelihood. The long and short of it: Zimbabweans have got to the point where they’re saying enough is enough. If you are pushing for this agenda to have our livelihood cut then we will rise up and protect it. This is why you see many, many pockets [of people] now protesting – cross-border [traders], vendors, transport operators – because everyone’s affected.
KK: What’s the individual impact? If I’m a vendor and this import ban was implemented, how does it impact my business, my livelihood, my ability to feed myself?
SZ: South Africa is our hub; it’s where we get things to sell on a day-to-day basis. In terms of survival it means our lives are dependent on the border being open – crossing over, buying cheaper products, coming back over and selling. This pushes prices in Zimbabwe lower. Before there was this ban, cooking oil was quite affordable at good prices. Today, because of the temporary ban, the price of cooking oil in Zimbabwe jumped up by more than $2, meaning if there is no control of local markets by imports we suffer quite a lot. In the end you end up not getting what you should in terms of value. Individuals on the street, we really need to compete on the open regional market, and South Africa being our first hub, that supports our system.
KK: To speak on activism with a wider lens, it’s been widely reported that being an activist and outspoken, appearing to be anti-government, is not very safe. People disappearing, you being arrested, people being physically harmed, having to go into exile. I’m curious how you face these challenges, why you chose this role, and how you continue despite the obstacles.
SZ: My life as a person is very simple. I need to survive a life that is free. But since the age of 11 up to today I’ve never survived a life that is free. We’ve attained independence, but in that independence there is no freedom. I got to a point where I said to myself, for the generations to come I need to play my part, and playing my part is to stand up and rise against any system that will deprive people of their rights, people of their freedom.
Because of this inspiration I am driven to ensure that this life that I am fighting is beyond my person, is beyond myself. It goes to your generation. I will continue to fight despite all the risks that are associated with it. Yes, we know our government is ruthless; it kills people, it abducts people, but surely, we need to be able to [challenge it] in a systematic way the system accepts. The beauty about what is happening now is that all citizens across the board are in one way affected. Others, they have put money in banks but they can’t get it out. Others, have got $10,000 at the bank but they can only get $50 a day.
Everyone is unhappy and these unhappy moments create a force to rise up and protest and say, ‘Look, government, which policies are you putting in place to protect us?’ You will see this happening broader and bigger every day and we are saying at this point citizens are now being driven by problems to act, but you see our government is good at blaming the West. They say, the West, you are sponsoring Zimbabweans, which is not true. Zimbabweans are being sponsored by hunger, by poverty, they are being sponsored by the problems the government has created.
The long and short of it: We continue to do what we’re doing because the inspiration is coming out of the need to correct our situation and to regain our freedom.
KK: You mentioned the problems affecting people across the board – the public sector wage issues, the outcry the #ThisFlag protest created, the import ban. Do you think between this dissatisfaction there lies a critical mass that could begin to be the beginning of the end for the Zanu-PF regime or Mugabe’s reign?
SZ: Truly speaking, Zanu-PF is done. It is gone. If you push a dog in a corner, you will sustain it for a while but it will find a way out. At the moment Zanu-PF is in a corner and all angles have been shut. It can’t come out of that corner because we have seen protests happening and Zanu-PF resorts to violence to counter protests. But this time around they can’t resort to violence because if they resort to violence, they’re going to have to kill the entire population of Zimbabwe, and because of that they are now timid.
They cannot overpower the masses. In the interests of trying to protect their skin, Zanu-PF will surely go. The masses that are being created around this dissatisfaction are not only working because there are problems, but they are working together because they have seen it all from the past – justice does not listen, justice does not consult, justice does not learn – and because of these past problems people are united under one sun. Opposition political parties are actually doing one thing, agreeing on issues that are common, meaning Zanu-PF this time around is not going to survive.
KK: But without including the military it will be very difficult and at the end of the day the Zanu-PF government pays the military. Until there’s a way around that, regular citizens are fighting against an army, should it come to that. Even factoring that in, you seem very confident mass action will prevail?
SZ: True. Mass action will still prevail because, number one, our constitution does not allow the army to be involved in the running of the economy, especially in times of upheaval or times of unrest. Section 2 (111) of the constitution defines clearly how and why the army should be on the streets, but because the army is not getting paid they are on the edge and they will not participate in this marital thinking of the government trying to use them and dump them. The army is not going to be involved in the fight against the protests. In any case, only a few individuals from the army are benefiting and the majority of the soldiers are not benefiting, meaning those soldiers join in quietly behind the masses because all they want is bread and butter on their tables.
KK: I worry that you’re assuming Zanu-PF would actually care what the constitution says if it really came to the day they had to use armed force to protect their seat in power. Do you think they would bother with the constitution?
SZ: At the moment it may be very ironic to respect the constitution, but as it stands on the ground they cannot break the rules or tenets of the constitution. The majority of those that are affected in Zimbabwe seem to agree on one thing, even the Zimbabwean public police, that only the top brass are benefiting from the Zanu-PF-led government and the top commanders in the army, they are the only few individuals who would try to protect the system. [Others] are in agreement that things are not all right.
So they won’t win it and they won’t be able to run away from the tenets of the constitution. This is why you see today, even the police, if the cameras are out there they are [too] intimidated to beat people. They only beat people in corners, but when these issues come out in the open they get so timid because they know naming and shaming and processes to expose them are under way. We are happy that all citizens are united under one banner to fight.
KK: A lot of people would say that’s not the case and claim there’s not a unifying idea outside of people saying they don’t like Zanu-PF and they don’t like the economic conditions. Do you agree there’s no other ideas on what should happen next? Is it sufficient for people to just be anti-Zanu-PF or do they need more creativity in what they’re trying to create?
SZ: As citizens we have learnt from our dark past. We all know that there is diversity in thinking. People differ and people apply different procedures, but a unified, formidable citizenry, we have come to realise, and this is a lesson from our past, we need to have forces run beyond individuals. When we are talking about the MDC, we should not be talking about Tsvangirai. When we are talking about National Vendors Union, we should should not be talking about Zvorwadza. When we are talking about Zim People First, we should not be talking about Majuru.
What we are doing at the moment as citizens, we combined our efforts and this is truly happening because I get so involved in other areas which I’ve never been involved in in the past. We call each other now and educate each other to up our game in civic education because the Zanu-PF-led government has made it a point that we do not receive enough civic education or political education to make informed decisions. But now we are in that gear to be able to teach ourselves, groom ourselves, push for ourselves.
KK: Pastor Evan Mawarire has had to, you might say, flee to Johannesburg because his life is in danger based on the profile he’s got as an anti-government leader or spokesperson. Is that as a blow to the momentum that has built or a sign that things are weakening?
SV: Not at all. If you want to become a hero it is good that you become a hero, at the same time surviving. It’s no good to become a dead hero. But if there is means for one to retreat, it’s good, but he will not retreat forever. We are in total support of the pastor and we also agree with his tenets as the pastor to rise up and speak about the negative aspects of people’s lives through government, through civic organisations.
It is good for pastors to adopt that scenario because all along pastors were quiet, they never used to condemn anything that Zanu-PF used to do. They never used to condemn killing. They never used to condemn anything, but this is a landmark development that the pastor has set a standard and this standard is going to go years and years in trying to revive other pastors who have been quiet about people’s abuse. The Bible doesn’t support that but pastors were quiet, so we as a nation, we are tapping into the benefits of every person who has a bright idea. His publicity is great, his publicity is good and wherever he is, and I believe he is in South Africa now, he deserves the protection and immunity as a leader. South Africa must ensure that the pastor is in safe hands.
If he comes back to Zimbabwe, if anything goes amiss with Pastor Mawarire, we want to know where is he and how has he gone where. We are clear, abductions in the past were done, but we must not allow these abductions to continue. Let’s just call Itai Dzamara’s abduction to be the last and if that is the last, we also demand that the government bring him back because we are almost 50-50 that the government has not killed Dzamara yet. Dzamara is still alive, we are still optimistic. DM
This is an edited version of the Daily Maverick Show’s interview. Listen to the full interview and a discussion about Zimbabwean economics and politics with Professor Brian Raftopoulos and Dr Blessing-Miles Tendai here.
Photo of Stern Zvorwadza by NewsDay Zimbabwe.
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