A deadly protest over fuel price hikes has rendered Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa more unpopular as the country’s brutalised citizens – some of whom were battered by police and the military this week – desperately scramble for a way out of fuel price and commuter fare hikes, amid calls for regional and international leaders to intervene.
Violence erupted this week after citizens protested against a 150% fuel price hike that sparked massive increases in commodity prices and commuter fares.
Citizens in Harare and Bulawayo told City Press this week that the fuel price hike meant that they would be unable to go to work or carry out routine duties, such as ferrying children to and from school.
“It is getting desperate. How do you go to work or even provide money for children to go to school? We woke up on Monday with kombis (commuter taxis) costing $5 (in local bond notes) for a one-way trip. That adds up to $10 in transport money for one day. I have two children in primary school who also need money for transport … it is beyond my reach,” said Tendai Makani (38) from Chitungwiza, about 30km from the city centre.
The government insists that the bond notes it uses as quasi currency have equal value to the US dollar, but in essence, the Zimbabwean unit has been trading 240% weaker on the thriving parallel currency markets.
A R100 note is equal to about $24 in bond notes, while a litre of petrol costs about $3.32 in bond notes, which the government introduced in 2016 after US dollar notes started to vanish from the country.
Zimbabwe introduced a basket of multiple currencies as legal tender in 2009, after ditching the Zimbabwe dollar, which had been ravaged by inflation.
A motorist counts money as he queues for petrol in Harare, Zimbabwe, January 18, 2019. Picture: REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo
This week’s petrol price hike, from $1.32 a litre to $3.32, has further eroded the value of the meagre salaries of Zimbabwean workers. Because of this, most unions, including bank workers and employees from the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority as well as others under the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), opted to stay away from work from Monday to Wednesday in protest.
“I cannot believe that after the three-day #Shutdown protest, there has still been no shift in the price of fuel and that the kombi fares are still high and out of touch with the earnings of people,” said a civil servant who works at the ministry of social welfare in Harare. “People are still queueing up to get petrol, and diesel and commuter transporters have not yet reduced their fares. The supermarkets are running out of stock as people queue to buy foodstuff – who knows, prices may be increased again.”
The solution for many has been to hike to and from work using private vehicles, where the costs are relatively lower than those charged by commuter operators.
The government insists that it had reached an agreement with transport operators for them to lower commuter fares, but developments on the ground suggest otherwise, said commuters.
The #Shutdown protest turned violent, with some protesters looting goods from Choppies retail outlets in Harare and Bulawayo and destroying property. Roads leading to the city centre were also barricaded, prompting authorities to deploy police and armed soldiers.
The result has been beatings and abductions of those suspected to have been behind the looting and violence during the protests.
The Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum said on Friday that “at least 466 people were arrested in unlawful dragnet arrests” instituted by state security agents, mostly during night raids.
It expressed concern over “the denial of access to lawyers and medical treatment” of those arrested and the “indiscriminate use of live ammunition that has left 12 people dead” and 78 others wounded.
The Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights has reported that civic society leaders were being targeted in the aftermath of the protest action. On Thursday, popular social media activist Evan Mawarire was remanded in custody to January 31 after he was charged with subversion for videos he tweeted encouraging people to protest. Peter Mutasa, head of the ZCTU, was also reported missing. This, in addition to several complaints that other activists had been abducted by suspected security agents.
“People are being rounded up at night,” said a resident of Harare’s Mbare suburb. “Last night vehicles parked in the neighbourhood were vandalised by people shouting that Mnangagwa cannot be removed, burning tyres and blocking roads.
This is not the way to handle issues. Innocent people are being dragged into this mess; children are affected when police throw tear gas into homes to flush out those they say looted goods from shops during the protest.”
While the consequences have been dire for citizens, Zimbabwe’s economy took a pounding from #Shutdown and the resultant crisis, with the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries saying the country may have lost as much as $300 million in lost productivity.
This week, statistics agency Zimstats said inflation for the month of December shot up from 30% in November to 40%. Experts say the inflation data for January will most likely be above 50%, given the fuel price increase.
“As inflation soars and violent protests continue in Zimbabwe, Mnangagwa has run away like the coward he is. Zimbabwe has one year or less to remove infectious bond notes from the system, or the economy will collapse,” said US economist Professor Steve Hanke on Friday.
Business leaders said further deterioration of the situation and failure to address workers’ concerns over the fuel price hike that had driven up the cost of living would disrupt economic activity, further denting Zimbabwe’s prospects for recovery after years of decline.
“It is important to resolve this at the earliest possible time, before the country’s economic productivity suffers irreversible damage. Another strike of this magnitude will ground the economy and scare away investors, who are already apprehensive about the current situation,” said Denford Mutashu, president of the Confederation of Zimbabwe Retailers.
All eyes in Zimbabwe are now on other countries in the region, including South Africa, to intervene before the situation deteriorates further.
Opposition and church leaders in Zimbabwe, as well as the international community, have impressed upon Mnangagwa – who is expected to be in Davos, Switzerland for the World Economic Forum this week – to talk to opposition leader Nelson Chamisa to find a lasting solution to the country’s problems.
Jacob Mafume, spokesperson for the Chamisa-led MDC Alliance, told City Press this week that it was about time Mnangagwa’s government held dialogue with other political leaders as his administration had failed the country.
Catholic bishops and the UN Human Rights Commission also called for engagements across the political divide and for the government to exercise restraint in its heavy-handed approach to dealing with protesters.
Social media, which has been blocked since Wednesday but is being accessed through virtual private networks, has become a platform for Zimbabweans to vent their anger.
Many citizens have also been saying via such platforms that life under former leader Robert Mugabe – who was ousted after a coup in November 2017 – was better than under Mnangagwa, whose election in July was also marred by violence on August 1 that left six people dead.
“I insist Robert Mugabe was better. Yes, he had his shortcomings over a period of 37 years, but to show your shortcomings in less than two years is just being worse than Mugabe. We are in the hands of the … worst president,” wrote Setfree Mafukidze on Twitter.