'The Monster Has Outwitted Them': Have Zimbabweans Stopped Protesting?

Harare – Have frustrated Zimbabweans given up?

Remember those heady scenes of revolt from July and August? Zimbabweans taking on their autocratic government? Elderly women wrapped in flags standing outside Harare magistrates’ court waiting for #ThisFlag pastor Evan Mawarire’s release?

Now, despite repeated promises of “huge” demonstrations and the looming spectre of bond notes, there is little sign of anger in Zimbabwe’s streets.

Is this Evan Mawarire’s fault?

Mawarire fled to South Africa and then the US in July, shortly after he spent a night in custody facing serious charges. That was understandable: he has a young family (and no-one knows what threats were made to him during or before his arrest). As those who defend him say: Mawarire has done his bit. “The movement” wasn’t supposed to be about individuals or Big Man politics, it was about individuals finding their own voices, the pastor’s defenders go on to say. Yes but… Unlike opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai (who’s had his own dig at Mawarire recently) the 39-year-old pastor was a charismatic new voice with no scandals attached AND an immense attraction to Zimbabweans from all sections of society. There are whispers that he didn’t quite stick to his “we are not afraid” slogan. There’s little doubt that his departure robbed #ThisFlag of momentum, at least for a while.

Maybe Zimbabweans have lost interest in politics?

Not at all. Look at the huge interest here in Donald Trump’s election. Zimbabweans were discussing Trump in the streets, in shops and on social media. As outspoken Zimbabwean advocate Fadzayi Mahere says on Facebook: “We are ‘political’ but feel massively uninspired by our own politics.” Teachers’ union chief Raymond Majongwe summed up the mood on Twitter at the weekend: “Zimbabweans have given up. The monster has outwitted, outrun, out flanked and defeated them.”

So are we seeing an upswing in support for President Robert Mugabe?

What we may be seeing is an uptick of brutal realism. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, that kind of thing. “To be rich you have to be aligned to a certain political party. Everyone knows that,” a Zimbabwean man in his 30s told me last month. Got no cash and you want a housing plot? Join Zanu-PF (though those stands the party handed out ahead of the Norton by-election on October 22 had to be handed back in the end). Want free farming inputs? Sign up for Zanu-PF’s Command Agriculture scheme. As one Zimbabwean Twitter user observed grimly: “Freedom of expression is overrated.” Takura Zhangazha wrote in the latest Financial Gazette of Zanu-PF’s “dominance without persuasion”, saying the ruling party was using fear, the weakness of the opposition and the fast-failing economy to maintain its grip.

But couldn’t this lack of visible protest be the calm before the storm?

Activist Promise Mkwananzi of the #Tajamuka movement certainly thinks so. In a post to Facebook on Tuesday, he claims Zimbabweans are “gearing ourselves towards what we are calling the final season of ungovernability”. He adds: “As for some of us, we are determined to fight for this country, even if it means to give up our freedom and even our lives.” The key word there is “some”. The fractured nature of the protest movement has caused problems in co-ordination: this Friday’s MunhuWeseMuRoad (let’s all take to the road) demo against bond notes and corruption comes slap bang in the middle of school exam season, for instance, which means most teachers won’t be able to attend. The march is getting some publicity on social media: how many will turn out remains to be seen.

Jeffrey Smith, founding director of US-based Vanguard Africa certainly doesn’t think everything’s over for Zimbabwe’s protest forces. He told News24: “I think it’s only natural for such movements to have ebbs and flows. What Zimbabwe’s protest movement has done up to this point is help to ensure that a democratic transition, powered first and foremost by the people, will eventually take hold.”