Olivia’s face is illuminated only by the dim light from her mobile phone. The winter air is chilly but the 17-year-old is sitting outside of a fast food restaurant in Zimbabwe’s capital city, Harare, with her three similarly aged friends. The teens are all so engrossed with their devices that they have barely touched their meals.
“It looks like the shutdown is on this week,” Olivia abruptly bursts out waving her phone in the air. The “shutdown” refers to the civilian-led strike in Zimbabwe, which brought most of the major cities in the Southern African country to a standstill on 6 July.
“The revolution will be on social media,” Olivia says, purposefully misquoting Gil Scott-Heron song and poem ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’. Many Zimbabweans like Olivia are using social media and WhatsApp to share content deemed “subversive” by the government, circumnavigating the country’s strict laws and feared security services.
Anger within Zimbabwe has grown over President Robert Mugabe and his administration’s handling of a failing economy. The frustration with the leadership culminated with the shutdown last week, with another two-day strike on Wednesday and Thursday planned this week.
The typical middle-class teenagers, who are preparing to take their A Level exams at the end of the year, crowd around Olivia’s phone in feverish excitement.
On her Twitter account, #ZimShutDown2016 and #ThisFlag are trending. The protest which has gripped the country was the brainchild of civil society groups and Zimbabwean pastor Evan Mawarire, the architect of the #ThisFlag social media campaign.
Rather than take to the streets in protest – a move that would lead to a violent showdown with the police – many of the country’s workers stayed at home, leaving shops and businesses, public transport and some public institutions across the country closed.
The protest has gained momentum via social media and many Zimbabweans are sharing videos and memes calling for action. On the day of the strike, there were reports of a government attempt to shut down social media sites, and the broadband connectivity had been slowed down on the government-owned Internet provider TelOne.
However, internet-savvy Zimbabweans shared details of Virtual Private Network (VPN) sites and other encryption methods to get around the restrictions.
Zimbabweans are demonstrating about an economic meltdown that has seen cash shortages and public sector workers, including doctors, teachers and nurses, remaining unpaid. The protesters have accused the ruling party, Zanu-PF, and President Robert Mugabe of failing to turn around an economy on the brink of collapse, and the police of creating unnecessary roadblocks to solicit bribes.
Meanwhile, unemployment remains high, as the majority of the country’s industries have collapsed. As the Southern African country’s economy teeters on the edge, Zimbabweans have adopted the Shona slogans: “hatichada” (we don’t want it anymore) and “hatichatya” (we are no longer afraid).
The group of youngsters finally begin to eat their meals, but as they do, the conversation turns to how they can contribute to the protest.
“We’re not revolutionaries or anything like that,” Olivia says. “We’re just Zimbabweans frustrated that we don’t have a future in our own country.”
The challenges facing Zimbabwe are evident in the small town of Norton, which is 45km outside of the capital city. The town was an important commercial hub in a rich agricultural area with a crucial industrial centre, with hundreds of people employed at the Hunyani Pulp & Paper Company.
The Hunyani paper mill produced kraft paper, envelope paper and book covers for the domestic market.
As a result of the economic collapse in Zimbabwe that began in 2000, the town has experienced a huge downturn, with most businesses shutting down, including the paper mill, which directly or indirectly employed nearly half of the population in the town.
Today, the remaining townspeople mostly work in the informal sector, selling small quantities of everyday commodities such as vegetables, firewood and products imported from South Africa, according to Lovemore Moyo, a local trader.
“The (Hunyani) factory provided for my family for over 15 years and even sent my children to private school,” Moyo says. “But now the factory is finished I’ve been forced to sell vegetables for a pittance.”
The frustration felt by people in Norton is nationwide and has led to both peaceful “stay away” demonstrations and violent street protests in some parts of the country.
In turn, the government has begun violently cracking down on “dissent” and arresting key figures, including pastor Evan Mawarire, who turned himself in to the police on Tuesday 12 July.
The protests, which the government has blamed on “foreign powers”, have become the greatest threat to Mugabe’s 36-year rule. The president has built a reputation for being ruthless with his enemies and protesters, so Zimbabweans are bracing themselves for a violent crackdown. However, this time, Zimbabweans are not going to be frightened into submission, according to Olivia.
“Over the last 16 years Zimbabweans have suffered a lot; we’re numb to the abuse now,” she says.
In 2000, the Zimbabwean government, under pressure from war veterans and facing economic pressure, began implementing the fast-track land redistribution campaign that witnessed around 4,000 white-owned farms been occupied during the land grabs.
At the time, Mugabe described the policy as a way of empowering black citizens in the country. However, critics have accused the president of only implementing the programme to protect his leadership by giving the farms to people who were politically connected to the ruling Zanu-PF, and not to people who were actually interested in farming.
The chaotic and violent campaign contributed to the collapse of the Zimbabwean economy, with Mugabe himself stating “the farms we gave to people are too large. They can’t manage them”.
The decline of Zimbabwe’s economy reached a nadir in 2008, as hyperinflation rose to 100,000% per annum, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The Zimbabwe dollar was eventually scrapped and the US dollar was adopted as the country’s main currency.
However, discontent amongst Zimbabweans has risen over the last year as the country has been gripped by a shortage of US dollars, high food prices, unemployment and corruption.
The frustration in the government was compounded when Mugabe announced on national TV in March this year that US$17bn had been siphoned from the Marange diamond field, in the east of the country.
The final straw, however, came when the government introduced a ban on goods from South Africa entering Zimbabwe at the beginning of July. Protestors burnt down a Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (ZIMRA) warehouse and blocked off the border crossing at Beitbridge. The protests rocked the government and inspired citizens to protest against Zimbabwe’s authoritarian regime.
Zimbabweans have finally found their voice via social media and WhatsApp, but it is unclear whether the leadership of the country will hear their voices.-IBTimes
Taku Dzimwasha is a freelance journalist in Harare. *Olivia’s name has been changed for her protection.