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This time the uprising in Zimbabwe is different – but will it bring regime change?

Riot police detain residents of Epworth suburb after a protest by taxi drivers turned violent in Harare, Zimbabwe. Reuters/Philimon Bulawayo

Zimbabwe’s ruling Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) has failed to develop sustainable institutions that could drive a more democratic vision of sovereignty and liberation. It has also been found lacking in creating a more consensual, hegemonic and much less coercive form of rule.

This failure has been central to the demands of dissenting voices and political organisations in the southern African state. It has also brought about a different type of protest against the Zimbabwean government.

Since the 2013 elections, convulsions within the ruling party have intensified to unprecedented levels. The recent protests in the public and informal sectors have exposed both the limits of ZANU-PF’s politics and the failure of its economic policies. The delays in payment of civil servants in June led to a widespread strike of teachers, health workers and other civil servants. The ruling party has managed for the time being to maintain payment to its security sector.

Who’s the next president?

Analytical commentary on Zimbabwe’s struggles has focused on the nature and causes of the contestations and centred mainly on the question of presidential succession. There are no clear answers to who will succeed an intransigent President Robert Mugabe, who has been in power since 1987.

Common to all the analyses is the challenge of stabilising and democratising the state by dealing both with the legacies of the colonial period and their new iterations in the post-colonial era.

This problem is not unique to Zimbabwe. It continues to haunt the state in post-colonial Africa, as it is forced to contend with the legacies of both structural inequalities and despotic forms of rule.

President Robert Mugabe and his wife Grace during the recent ‘One Million Man March’ in Harare. Reuters/Philimon Bulawayo. TPX Images of the Day

In Zimbabwe this problem has manifested itself in a centralised, authoritarian ruling party that has conflated its operations with those of the state.

Despite ongoing discussions with international financial institutions for new loans and budgetary support, this is unlikely to bring any respite in the near future. The funders are demanding certain conditions for any future loans. These include a credible repayment plan on past debt, security of property rights and certain reforms in governance. At present these demands are unlikely to be met.

Moreover, given the well-known effects of such conditionalities around debt repayment on developing countries, they would most likely exacerbate the crisis if they were implemented in the current context. Any substantive strategy on the way forward in Zimbabwe would require not only wide-ranging political reforms but also a new discussion on debt relief.

The challenges in the public sector have been compounded by a recent policy that has outraged the reportedly 94% of Zimbabweans who now make their living in the informal sector.

Anger from the informal sector

In June the government promulgated Statutory Instrument 64 , which banned the importing of a number of products that are traded in the informal sector. These include: coffee creamers, camphor creams, white petroleum jellies, body creams, baked beans, potato crisps, bottled water, mayonnaise, salad cream, peanut butter, canned fruit, cheese and many other items.

Most of these are products are sold by vendors in the now critically important informal sector. The sudden policy change, which was not subject to public discussion with those most affected by it, immediately incited considerable anger from the informal sector. In the words of the chair of the National Vendor’s Union of Zimbabwe, Stern Zvorwadza:

The government is responsible for the poverty and pushing people into being vendors and cross-border traders, yet the same government is coming up with policies to stop people from earning an honest living at a time when they have killed the economy and failed to create jobs.

The sheer lack of planning and callousness on the part of the state was clear to the Zimbabwean citizenry. In response to this policy and the abuse of numerous police road blocks to extort money from taxi drivers, the country experienced a mass stay-away in the first week of July.

At this stage it appears that the protest was organised through a number of new organisations, not tied to any political party, that use social media campaigns. These include Occupy Africa Unity Square, #ThisFlag and Tajamuka/Sesjikile.

Different type of activism

This movement is different to earlier forms of civic activism in a number of ways. First, it does not appear to be driven by any particular political party.

Social media plays a central role in organising protests in Zimbabwe. Reuters/Philimon Bulawayo

Second, since the demise of the structures of the labour movement in the first decade of the 2000s, the forms of organisation in the informal sector have become much more fluid. The result is that this form of activism is more difficult for the state to track, but it also makes such interventions more fragile and more difficult to sustain.

Third, the modality of protest appears to have drawn from forms used in South African protest movements. These include the burning of buildings, such as the torching of the Zimbabwe Revenue Service building at the Beit Bridge border between South Africa and Zimbabwe, and the burning of tyres in the streets.

This is not surprising given migration trends since 2000. Moreover there is much greater scepticism about the “rule of law” postulated by the state. This is viewed as an imposition by an authoritarian state which treats the populace as targets to be controlled, largely through the use of force.

Zimbabwe may be witnessing a change in the idea of citizenship. In the coming period it will be important to track not only the future of such activism but, just as importantly, the responses of the state beyond the current brutality of the police interventions.

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