Zimbabwe’s strange turn against the tide

Zimbabwe’s strange turn against the tide

Zimbabwe has embarked on a trajectory of economic decline and political regression, with massive human rights abuses and international condemnation. Now, however, the non-violent approach of Zimbabwean’s is overwhelming the fear instilled in the masses and threatening the country’s oppressors. 

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By Tendaishe Tlou

Zimbabwe’s post-colonial era was embraced with mixed emotions. It has become the subject of a plethora of interpretations. On the one hand, Zimbabwe was dubbed ‘the break-basket of Africa’ because of its successful agricultural sector. It was spoken about as one of Africa’s success stories, with its local currency going head-to-head with the United States dollar in the eighties and nineties. On the other, Zimbabwe was being modelled into a one party state, wherein opposition and dissenting voices were heavily criticised and in some cases persecuted, which brings to light the infamous Gukurahundi massacre. Early opposition leaders were arrested and expelled, such as Joshua Nkomo, Ndabaningi Sithole, Margret Dongo and Edgar Tekere, whose organisations were barely successful and consequently obliterated. From here Zimbabwe embarked on a constant trajectory of economic decline and political regression, with massive human rights abuses and international condemnation.

Brief historical background

After 1980, Zimbabwe was bound to become an autocracy due to the government’s Socialist stance, with governance anchored in the Soviet  leadership style. ‘Unity and nation-building’ was pursued by thwarting any forms of opposition and dissent. The state was recalibrated. It did not recognise multi-partyism and an independent civil society to advance the needs of marginalised groups. This was also coupled with the formation of a strong security apparatus, responsible for maintaining ‘unity and nation-building.’ This imposed negative peace in Zimbabwe, a state of cosmetic stability which is maintained by police surveillance, extra-judicial arrests and abductions. This fear is the one which compelled the masses to be silent despite socio-economic difficulties. As such, Zimbabweans never enjoyed civil-political rights, despite obtaining independence in 1980.

Despite the State’s efforts to curb opposition, soaring prices and decreasing living standards in the nineties lead to the mobilization of Unions. The impending 2000 referendum to reinforce Presidential powers contributed to the formation of resilient civil society organisations, such as the National Constitutional Assembly, and an opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change [1], which entirely changed the face of Zimbabwean politics. Despite these democratic developments, the larger sector of the population remains gripped with fear and paralysis due to ongoing crackdowns and arrests by the police and military. Between 2000 and 2016, human rights activists such as Itai Dzamara and Evan Mawarire have been abducted, disappeared or charged with treason, opposition legislators sent death threats and rallies violently disrupted. This approach has kept many autocracies in power, including the one which has ruled for 36 years with an iron fist.

The current situation

Following the government’s announcement about the introduction of bond notes in March 2016, people and opposition parties started to mobilise en masse, marching mainly in Harare and Bulawayo, the two main cities. All hell broke loose when the government unwittingly introduced a new law which imposes import bans between South Africa and Zimbabwe, in the midst of the latter’s protracted and unprecedented economic meltdown. This regulation triggered violence in the least expected town, Beit Bridge because over the years this has increasingly become the life line for most citizens grappling with the economic meltdown.

This regulation is a deliberate move to increase suffering upon an already troubled nations which will also trigger acute food shortages in a country with a dormant industrial and agricultural sector. Furthermore, Zimbabwean citizens were heavily relying on this border post for revenue generation in a country with a staggering 85% unemployment rate [2]. This translated into frustration-aggression against a government which imposes protocols which increase the suffering of ordinary people. Citizens are tired of people in power who always go against the people’s will.

Resilience in the face of police brutality

Democracy and human rights have since been undermined in Zimbabwe, but “… people should not sit idly and not be concerned about what happens elsewhere, because injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”[3]. The security sector, in particular the police, remain the main obstacle to good governance in Zimbabwe. They support a government which mismanages the country. Under normal circumstances, the security sector breaks ranks with the state when it is apparent that citizen’s concerns are legititimate. The relationship between the Zimbabwean State and its citizens is a delicate one, constituting a potential threat to peace and security in Zimbabwe. Democracy is a system of governance in which rulers are held accountable by citizens [4] (emphasis added). If they reject to be held accountable the country becomes ungovernable. The mood to democratize is now everywhere. People in the diaspora are also mobilising and protesting at Zimbabwean embassies.

The present generation in Zimbabwe is confident that the destiny of their country is in their hands. It is important for them to remain resilient in the face of police brutality. Given the economic tempest the state is facing, it is impossible for the crackdown to remain sustainable. The army and police equipment require millions to operate, which the government does not have. The operation might be sustained for a week or two, but in the long run the government will fall on its knees and give in. Police brutality is not sustainable against a resilient citizenry. America and South Africa, among others, are testament to that when their citizens were fighting for their rights. Martin Luther King Jr. once argued that to ignite a concerted and unequivocal voice to force the leadership to hear and act on our demands, we must “demonstrate, march, protest…disturb the peace” [5], peacefully of course. Videos have been circulating on social media showing the police beating peaceful protesters, including women and children, even those suspected of verbally supporting the uprising.

The State has since employed such draconian mechanisms to curb the opposition; Aziz (1993) raises the ante by arguing that State battles…are won by striking fear into the heart of the (perceived) enemy [6]. However, to its own peril. “Non-violent movements are successful because they wield power that is greater than that of the oppressors” [7] and attributes this success to the morality associated with the approach. In essence, peace overcomes violence. Non-violent resistance attracts local, regional and international attention and support. Power does not only originate from traditional elements such as holding political offices, control of material resources and the State’s capacity to use force alone, but mass non-violent resistance is also equally if not more powerful.

The people have embraced and understood ‘people power’, from the #Arab springs to the recent #feesmustfall campaigns in South Africa. In Zimbabwe, mantras such as #Tajamuka, #Asijiki and #ThisFlag are trending on social media and people participation in back-to-back stay aways is on the rise. Hence, people must not fear to continue protesting. A reign of terror only isolates the oppressor. Zimbabwean’s non-violent approach overwhelms the fear that is instilled in the masses because “these actions undermine even a despot’s support…”[8], even amongst his cronies. Zimbabweans must remain resilient which is viewed as a strange turn against the tide. The fact is when people do not obey, rulers cannot rule. Zimbabwe’s future lies in its citizen’s hands.

Tendaishe Tlou is a freelance researcher and writer specialising in human rights, environmental security, peace and governance issues. He holds a BSc (Honours) Degree in Peace and Governance with Bindura University of Science Education and a Post-graduate Certificate in Applied Conflict Transformation. He works with various NGOs and Government Ministries in Zimbabwe and South Africa. 

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.


  1. Brian Raftopololous (2009), Becoming Zimbabwe, Weaver Press, Harare.
  2. United Nations Development Programme (2015), Harare, Zimbabwe.
  3. King, Martin Luther Jr, The Martin Luther Jr Research and Education Institute, United States of America.
  4. Schmitter P.C and Karl T.L (1991), What Democracy is and is Not, Vol.2, No.3,76 Journal of Democracy
  5. Martin Luther Jr (1963)”; Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King, Martin Luther Jr, The Martin Luther Jr Research and Education Institute, United States of America.
  6. Aziz,A(1993), Terrorism: Patterns of Internationalization, Sage Publications, USA.
  7. Merriman H (2010) “The Trifecta of Civil Resistance: Unity, Planning, Discipline” International Centre on Nonviolent Conflict.
  8. Ibid.

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