Opinion / 23 January 2019, 6:30pm / Tapiwa Chagonda
DURBAN - Zimbabwe is sliding into a violent meltdown and it’s expected to worsen, unless there are some serious interventions.
However, in his first public comments since cutting short a foreign trip and returning to Harare on Monday, President Emmerson Mnangagwa said: “Violence or misconduct by our security forces is unacceptable and a betrayal of the new Zimbabwe.”
He wrote on Twitter yesterday: “Misconduct will be investigated. If required, heads will roll,” calling for a “national dialogue” involving churches, civil society and the opposition.
Days of mass protests have been characterised by violence, looting and heavy-handedness by the police and army. It has led to the deaths and injury of many people, largely in Harare and Bulawayo’s high-density areas. According to the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, at least 12 people have been killed and thousands injured.
In addition to placing many urban areas under military siege, the government has also shut down social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook. These are viewed as the avenue through which the opposition and other civil society bodies have been communicating messages of “anarchy”. The internet has been shut down twice on separate occasions.
The deadly violence was triggered by Mnangagwa’s announcement of steep fuel price hikes on January 9. Made in the dead of night, the announcement proved to be the catalyst for unrest.
Mnangagwa’s regime increased the prices of fuel by a staggering 150%, making Zimbabwe’s fuel the most expensive in the world.
It prompted the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions and other civil bodies, such as the Crisis Coalition, to call for a three-day mass work stayaway.
The reaction was hardly surprising. Conditions have become fertile for a massive militant mass revolt. Shortages of a lot of goods have become the order of the day. Long fuel queues, and incessant electricity and water cuts have not helped the situation for poverty-weary Zimbabweans.
Mnangagwa, and those he can rally behind him in the ruling Zanu-PF, urgently need to take steps to form a government of national unity (GNU), as has been done before in the country. This will require the opposition Movement for Democratic Change Alliance (MDC-Alliance) to get its act together and start behaving maturely. Another urgent step that’s needed is that the country’s chaotic currency situation needs immediate resolution.
Prior to the deadly protests, Zimbabweans endured a tumultuous few months economically as the country’s cash crunch worsened.
Just before Professor Mthuli Ncube was appointed Minister of Finance in September last year, he said he wanted to phase out the country’s quasi-currency, the bond note, nicknamed “bollars”.
The bond note was introduced in the second half of 2016 to fill a cash gap on the market. Instead, it spawned a flourishing black market last witnessed during Zimbabwe’s dark days of hyperinflation in 2008.
The government has consistently argued that the bond note is equivalent to the dollar. But the market has suggested otherwise. Most retailers have a three-tier pricing system, the dollar, bond notes or Ecocash, the country’s PayPal-type service that is making transactions possible.
The reason for providing these options is the shortage of dollars and bond notes.
The bond note’s death knell, which was sounded by Ncube, has sparked panic and led to a devaluation of the quasi-currency. This in turn led to retailers increasing their prices for people using bond notes.
The knock-on effect is that doctors, teachers and other civil servants are demanding that they be paid in dollars, not bond notes.
Shortages of foreign currency have also led to companies such as Delta, the country’s largest brewery, failing to import adequate raw materials for alcohol and soft drinks.
Zimbabwe’s largest cooking oil producer, Olivine, has also closed shop, citing a lack of foreign currency to import raw materials needed for its products.
To stem the tide of the current crisis, the president needs to immediately cease the brutal onslaught on the civilians.
In addition, Mnangagwa and his officials have to get off their high horse and facilitate talks that can lead to a government of national unity with the MDC-Alliance.
This has proved to be successful before. A GNU was formed in the wake of the violent elections in 2008 that plunged the country into chaos. The 2009-13 government of national unity helped to stabilise the Zimbabwean economy and brought the country back from the brink.
The MDC-Alliance also has to stop fomenting acts of violence that have become the party’s hallmark since its leader Morgan Tsvangirai’s death in February last year.
Lastly, Zimbabwe needs to introduce its own currency so the cancerous black market that’s been wreaking havoc on the economy can be eliminated.
* Chagonda is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Johannesburg.