Zimbabwe's angry generation has nothing to lose

  • Cyril Zenda
  • 21 Jan 2019

Barely a year after coming to power, Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa is facing a countrywide youth revolt, with many finding his idea of “full democracy” unpalatable.

Protestors gather near a burning tire during a demonstration over the hike in fuel prices in Harare, Zimbabwe, Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019. A Zimbabwean military helicopter on Tuesday fired tear gas at demonstrators blocking a road and burning tires in the capital on a second day of deadly protests after the government more than doubled the price of fuel in the economically shattered country. ( AP )

HARARE — As Zimbabwe grapples with a youth revolt over a fuel hike amidst a flailing economy and severe economic crisis, President Emmerson Mnangagwa has cancelled his trip to Davos, Switzerland, where he was supposed to attend the World Economic Forum this week. 

So far the Zimbabwean police and paramilitary forces have shot dead eight people and nearly 70 people have been injured. Internet shutdowns are frequent. The protestors have given Mnangagwa a 30-day ultimatum to get things right or else they will be back on the streets. 

While the fuel hike became the main trigger for the protests, the long-simmering discontentment over the country’s economic turmoil and rampant unemployment has added to young people’s rage. 

Manangagwa justified the massive increase in fuel prices as the only way of ending the three-month long fuel shortages, however, the move was seen by economic analysts more as a desperate fundraising ploy. Close scrutiny of the new prices showed that government tax (excise duty) alone made up more than two-thirds of the new price of $3,11 and $3,31 for diesel and petrol respectively. The government of Zimbabwe is broke. 

The fuel price hike came as doctors were ending a 40-day strike for better salaries and working conditions while other government workers had given the state a 14-day notice to strike for better pay. Workers are struggling as in December alone inflation rose by more than 40 percent.

In this environment the young people of Zimbabwean – who account for up to 60 percent of the 15 million-strong population – find themselves idle and disillusioned from sunrise to sunset. These include hundreds of thousands of university and college graduates as well as school leavers, some of whom have not worked for decades.

It was therefore not surprising that when former president of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe was deposed, they had high hopes. Mnangagwa replaced Mugabe with a promise of “a new Zimbabwe, with a thriving and open economy, jobs for its youths, opportunities for investors and democracy and equal rights for all”.

The eagerly-awaited jobs that he promised are yet to arrive. Instead, more people have been losing jobs as businesses either downsize or close altogether due to the harsh operating environment, which is highlighted by severe foreign currency shortages.

This has only served to try young people’s patience.

Soccer teammates of Kelvin Tinashe Choto react, during his funeral in Chitungwiza, about 30 kilometres south east of the capital, Harare, Zimbabwe, Saturday, Jan, 19, 2019. The 22-year-old was shot in the head, one of at least a dozen people killed since Monday in a violent crackdown by security.(TRTWorld)

For decades, Zimbabweans were considered a docile people, due in part to older generations who have seared in their minds the traumatic memories of wartime and post-war brutalities and know better than to challenge those in power. 

However, a new generation that was born decades after the much-talked-of war and only knows unemployment, abject poverty and hopelessness cannot be sustained on a thin diet of empty promises and threats anymore. Without jobs, assets and – more importantly – hope, this is an angry generation with nothing to lose. 

When the country's main labour body, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, responded to the fuel price hike by calling for a three-day national shutdown, it was seized upon with alacrity as it presented another opportunity for these frustrated young people to vent their pent-up anger on Mnangagwa and his administration. It was the latest of around half-a-dozen anti-government protests that the Mnangagwa administration has had to contend with since coming into power just over a year ago.

“The government has underestimated the enormous challenge posed by the growing numbers of the young, unemployed and desperate,” Dr Alex Magaisa, a law teacher at the UK-based University of Kent, told TRT World.  

“Their parents and older brothers and sisters may have been patient over the years but this is because they had memory of a better past and always clung on to it."

“On the other hand, the younger generation does not have that memory because they have never had good times. The older generation might have had something material to lose, but the younger generation has nothing to lose. It is not surprising that it is the young and unemployed youths who appear to be at the head of the current wave of unrest,” she continued.

Another Harare-based expert on Zimbabwe's politics, Martin Makanza, pointed out that with the high level of frustration in the country, violence was inevitable.

“The truth is, with our dire economic situation and given the fuel price increases the violence would still have erupted irrespective of who is in power,” he said. “People’s expectations after the November (2017) change in government leadership have not been met. Instead there has been a string of unhelpful new policies and taxation increases on already impoverished citizens. The bottom line is people are angry at the neverending unaffordable increases in the cost of living and lack of discernible positive economic policy direction.”

The government has no shortage of scapegoats to conveniently blame for everything that is going wrong. All the ills are seen as the work of the opposition, non-governmental organisations, the putative Anglo-Saxon regime change conspiracy and most recently, social media. The leadership is portrayed as hapless victims of this widespread conspiracy.

Could Mnangagwa be living in cloud cuckoo land?

In 2015, when he was interviewed by the editor of New African magazine, Baffour Ankomah, he was asked for his opinion on today’s young people and his response was dismissive. 

“In the 1960s, our leaders decided that we must take up arms, and the youth were very enthusiastic to go to war. We had nothing to lose at the time. We had no wives and no property. The only property we had was the clothes we wore,” Mnangagwa said. 

“Now the generation out of school, they have wives and children, they have homes and mortgages, so to tell them to sacrifice and die for the nation (laughs), they think twice.”

Referring to the interview, Magaisa said: “He [Mnangagwa] may have to revise his opinion because the generation which their leadership has produced since 1980 is not what he described in 2015. Some may have wives/husbands and children but they have no jobs, no homes, have never held a payslip all their life and might not even know how to spell the word ‘mortgage’. 

“In short, it’s as highly combustible a generation as his was in the Sixties. They too have nothing to lose and it is Mnangagwa’s generation that created this incendiary generation. The chickens are coming home to roost.”

Talking of incendiary conditions, the former prime minister of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Sir Garfield Todd had something to say when he gave a public lecture at South Africa’s Witwatersrand University in August 1964 entitled Danger: Men Thinking!. It came just as Mnangagwa and other angry and frustrated young people, under the leadership of Robert Mugabe, Joshua Nkomo, Ndabaningi Sithole and other nationalists, started taking up arms to fight the racist settler regime of Ian Smith. 

“Even fire itself burns when conditions are right,” Todd said. “When the grass is green, ranchers like me can scan the veld with pleasure and without anxiety. The little fires of the fishermen along the riverside add only to the beauty of the scene. But in Rhodesia when October comes and the grass is tinder dry, the rancher is tempted, not to just imprison fire-lighting campers, but to shoot them on sight… there is much to suggest that it is now October and many people have smouldering fires in their hearts, deeply resentful of the circumstances which others decree shall surround their lives.” 

Mnangagwa, who many dubbed ‘the listening president’, is facing immense criticism for using heavy-handed tactics to quell the dissent. 

“The false hope that Mnangagwa might improve the economy while he takes away democratic freedoms has been shattered,” said author Panashe Chigumadzi, who wrote a book on the coup that deposed Robert Mugabe. “His military regime has not only closed Zimbabwe for business but also violently shut down any chance for meaningful civic engagement.”