ZIMBABWEANS from all walks of life opted to stay indoors or simply while away time as they protested yesterday against a worsening socio-economic situation that has condemned nearly 80 percent of the country’s population to abject poverty.
For the first time since the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions led stay-aways of the mid 1990s, the working population, along with their employers, took the decision to forego a day’s income without being coerced by politicians to get the message to the powers-that-be that all is not well in the country.
And the message was loud and clear as businesses were shutdown across the width and breadth of the country except for a few outlets that had to open probably for fear of courting the ire of the authorities. These included retail stores, OK, Bon Marche, TM, Pick n Pay, Spar, and Choppies, which is majority-owned by an investment vehicle linked to Vice President Phelekezela Mphoko.
By and large, central business districts (CBDs) in all the cities and towns countrywide were deserted as people across the political divide heeded a social media campaign operating under the hash tag #ZimShutDown. The campaign also circulated messages on the WhatsApp platform, reaching potentially the entire population with cellphones.
In Harare, by midday, the city resembled a public holiday as people aimlessly moved about, with the usually congested Copacabana market empty while the Gulf market was closed.
Commuter omnibus operators withdrew their vehicles, leaving workers stranded.
There was also very little activity in Harare’s main industrial sites such as Graniteside, Southerton, Msasa, Willowvale and Workington as most of the companies that are still in operation closed shop.
Even in home industries such as Magaba (Mbare) and Gazaland (Highfield) stalls were empty. Given that most of these home industries are run by ZANU-PF sympathisers, the deduction to be made is that the problems that brought business to a standstill yesterday affected people from across political parties.
And the message was relayed in a peaceful manner, except in isolated cases where there were reports of violence.
A small number of people, who had decided to go to work, milled around closed workplaces and soon started making their way back home either on foot or in the few commuter omnibuses available.
Others, mainly vendors, decided to stay put and engage in their normal business on the pavements.
Virtually all schools in and around the capital city were closed.
Pupils who had gone to school early in the morning could be seen returning home as early as 9am after finding teachers absent from work.
Although most of the suburbs were peaceful amid a heavy presence of riot police, violence broke out in Mufakose mid-morning after protests erupted when some commuter omnibuses decided to start operating.
When the Financial Gazette arrived in Mufakose around 10:30am, burnt car tyres were still smouldering on the roads, while rocks were blocking main feeder roads.
Riot police officers used batons to beat up suspected rioters who were forced to lie on their bellies.
Some residents also claimed police dragged mourners who were gathered at a funeral near Mufakose High School and indiscriminately beat them; one of the mourners reportedly lost an eye.
An attempt by a team of journalists to locate the victim was aborted after heavily armed police officers swiftly moved in, arresting five reporters who were briefly detained at Marimba Police Station before being released without charge.
In Bulawayo, most shops, including major supermarkets and other retailers in the city centre were shut down, except for banks which opened for business.
Four people were reportedly arrested for allegedly denigrating President Robert Mugabe while standing next to the statue of the late vice president Joshua Nkomo.
After a relatively peaceful start to the stay-away, violence later erupted midday in the second largest city’s Makokoba high density suburb, where residents burnt tyres and blocked roads with stones to which police responded with teargas and water cannons.
In Mutare, business ground to a halt, with informal traders, health facilities, financial institutions, industries and some schools closed.
Schools that had opened had to send children back home after realising that the situation was not tenable for learning.
Health facilities such as pharmacies were closed while clinics and hospitals were on a go-slow.
Wholesale and retail outlets in the entire eastern city’s CBD were closed with only four supermarkets and food outlets operating.
The city’s biggest informal market centre, Sakubva Musika, which trades in fruits and vegetables as well as second hand clothes, was deserted. Chidzere Bar — another vending area, was not operating.
Riot police were heavily deployed in all residential areas and the CBD to guard against unrest.
Manicaland provincial police spokesperson, Tavhiringwa Kakohwa, said police officers had been deployed to crush any civil unrest during the national shutdown.
“Everything is normal. There are no disturbances recorded yet. And I can safely say that we have deployed officers in all areas in our province to deal with any civil unrest,” said Kakohwa.
Gweru woke up to a tense atmosphere with no signs of people in the streets and a few commuter omnibuses which usually start business around 4 am only started picking up passengers for work way after sunrise.
The majority of residents took heed of the call for a work boycott as the city centre was relatively deserted with only the major departmental stores, a few banks and retail outlets open for business.
Vendors who usually frequent pavements of major retail outlets were subdued in the morning, but figures increased a bit as the day wore on.
Most buildings in the city centre were deserted with no business taking place.
While some teachers reported for duty in most schools, the pupils stayed at home as uncertainty prevailed across the Midlands city.
In as much as protestors lost income, government is also counting its losses. There was little or no activity at government offices where there is usually a hive of activity.
Public institutions such as passport offices, tax offices and bus termini had very little business to transact, which means that not much was collected in fees, taxes, and tariffs throughout yesterday.
This is at a time when the government purse is virtually empty.
The Registrar General’s office was open for business, but there was very little activity taking place. It was largely Zimbabweans in the Diaspora who took advantage of the situation to expedite their passport applications as well as other documents.
The Registrar of Companies and the Deeds Office were open, but there were no clients for much of yesterday.
Government ministries were also open for business, but there was also very little business.
Officials said government used its own buses to ferry workers to work and so these had not been affected by the absence of public transport on the roads.
Stunned by the unexpected turn of events, government reportedly deployed officers from the Civil Service Commission, who were said to be moving around government offices and schools carrying a headcount after many government workers, mainly teachers, nurses and doctors, joined the stay away.
Analysts said yesterday’s lockdown was a vote of no confidence in politicians whose policies are deterring investors.
Even though the authorities directed public media to ignore the build up to the protest and to campaign against it on Tuesday and Wednesday, it did little to sway the masses from participating in the campaign.
If anything, the success of yesterday’s protest should jolt propagandist to realising that as long as they have no solution to social media, their efforts to use government controlled media to shape public opinion will come to naught.
Yesterday, communication proved a challenge with internet services as well as social media platforms such as WhatsApp barely available across the country. Indications are that the platforms were disabled by telecommunication networks at the instigation of government.
WhatsApp, in particular, had become the main communication tool Zimbabweans were using to mobilise and share information on the protest.
MISA-Zimbabwe responded angrily to the development yesterday, which it described as “brazen violation of citizens’ right to freely express themselves and access information through communication platforms of their choice as guaranteed in the Constitution.”
“By blocking the popular information sharing tool, Zimbabwe now joins a growing list of despotic regimes that resort to such cowardly acts when faced with growing citizen dissent,” said MISA.
While yesterday’s campaign succeeded in shutting down the country, only one question lingers on. How is government likely to take this?
To a lot of people, it is likely to be business as usual for ZANU-PF.
If anything, the party might become more vicious by tightening the screws on the various freedoms enshrined in the new Constitution.
Yesterday, the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (Potraz) issued a statement threatening to deal viciously with all those who abuse social media.
The timing of the statement indicates that government could be working flat out to find ways of censoring social media, which won’t be easy.
Whatever the case, it would appear that citizens are girding their loins, raring to take government on through non-confrontational means.
Whether this will succeed or not, would depend on the factors at play at any given time.
Yet another question will suffice. What next after this?
It would appear that as long as the authorities are clueless on how to deal with the economy, pressure will continue to mount on them.
Finance Minister, Patrick Chinamasa, who is currently globetrotting to beg for support from international financiers, admitted, while in Paris this week, that government was broke, raising fears the country could be heading for ground zero akin to the situation in 2008 that resulted in the country dumping the Zimbabwe dollar after it had been ravaged by hyperinflation.Fingaz