Protestors gather on the streets during demonstrations over the hike in fuel prices in Harare, Zimbabwe, Monday, Jan. 14, 2019. Protesters have blocked roads in some parts in Zimbabwe's capital after the government more than doubled the price of gasoline. (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)

HARARE – Protesters shut down economic activity in Zimbabwe's capital Harare on Monday as workers’ unions demonstrated against a hike in fuel prices, which has prompted a soaring of transport fares and prices of goods and commodities in a country already afflicted by foreign currency woes. 

President Emmerson Mnangagwa arrived in Russia for a bilateral visit on the same day that protesters barricaded roads, preventing commuter operators from ferrying people to and from work. Retail outlets such as Choppies were looted while others such as OK Zimbabwe had to shut down just before midday.

The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) on Sunday called for a #Shutdown protest, asking workers to stay at home from January 14 to 16 in protest over a steep rise in fuel prices announced by Mnangagwa on Saturday.

“We were suffering enough, but we were shocked that he is adding another burden on the suffering people. The workers are clear, they can't take it any more – most workers are borrowing to supplement their salaries,” said Peter Mutasa, the president of the ZCTU.

After the call by the ZCTU, worker representative groups for the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority and for the banking industry also gave notice that their workers were no longer able to go to work owing to the massive rises in transport costs and the erosion in the value of salaries. Zimbabwe has been ravaged by inflation, which has soared to above 30 percent as the country battles for foreign currency and liquidity.

The Zimbabwe Banks and Allied Workers Union – which represents employees from finance institutions controlled by Standard Bank, Standard Chartered and Nedbank among others – said it was concerned about the security of its members “during the three days of the national stayaway” (from work) while members had also been affected by the rise in transport costs.

“Their personal security is not guaranteed under the circumstances. We thus declare that resultantly, with effect from January 14 most of our members will not be able to report for duty under the current circumstances,” said Farai Katsande, the president of the bank workers’ union in a letter to banking institutions.

Although banks and other companies were open for business in the morning, companies had to shut down from mid-morning as the situation became more and more tense and violence started to mar the protests in some areas.

Major roads leading into Harare's city centre were barricaded while in Bulawayo, the second main city, shops were looted as protesters marched across town. Infrastructure and property such as filling stations, tollgates and billboards were vandalised in hot spot areas such as Chitungwiza and Epworth, which are satellite towns annexed to Harare.

Fearing for their safety, most Zimbabweans had to leave work early and walk home as there was no transport.

Police, armed with water cannons and other riot dispersal ware, had to be deployed, although there were reports that the protesters were overpowering them. 

Home Affairs Minister Cain Mathema said police were on high alert, having been deployed to patrol and maintain order. “The Commissioner-General of Police has put the Zimbabwe Republic Police on high alert and will ensure that the law is applied without fear or favour on anyone who incites or engages in any form of violence and unsanctioned gathering,” he was quoted as saying by state media.

As the protests raged on, there was no immediate response from the government. Mnangagwa is expected to visit Davos for the World Economic Forum in addition to consolidating ties and seeking investments from Belarus, Azerbaijan and Khazakstan.