Shutdown: dynamics and lessons

…looking beyond May 9, and what it means for Zimbabwe’s politics

Briefing/ Columnist/ Special column

By the end of today and tomorrow, conversations will be around the so-called #shutdown protest – the action that was supposed to take place on Monday.

According to the script, business should have come to a halt with citizens and businesses staying away from normal business and social services.

It has not materialised, and headlines will tomorrow be a madhouse of contrasts. Typically.

Not that the goals and objectives of the shutdown were clear or its owners known.

Last week, a movement began online that pasted the date as the day in which citizens had to protest against the Government on the back of worsening socio-economic conditions evident in rising inflation, increase in prices of goods and services and a transport crisis.

These were genuine concerns that authorities had failed to arrest, until last Friday when President Mnangagwa had to announce a battery of measures meant to reverse the decline and build-up of a security situation.

With each passing day, the deteriorating situation had put the country on a slide to a dreaded end.

Rising inflation and run-away prices in shops and service centres have always been a cause for concern and raise the spectre of 2008 when Zimbabwe registered record-breaking hyperinflation.

And in Zimbabwe, once the slide begins, it hurtles inexorably.

This is worrying, and it is little wonder that the President of the Republic had to step up.

Previously, he had sounded alarm about saboteurs, addressing a number of platforms; and promised to deal with the saboteurs.

That is perhaps a word that is taken rather too lightly.

While it has cheaply issued from officials, there has not been equal sternness to arrest the saboteurs, figuratively or literally.

Which has meant that once the decline has set in, it self-powers, breaks down quickly and become a veritable threat to national security.

Which is what stakeholders feared.

It is essentially why the calls for the so-called shutdown quickly gained traction, at least in some circles where the discourse was amplified and given legs.

But the protest itself lacked substance and organisation.

No one claimed ownership of the movement and no particular structure or agenda were in the public domain.

Few, really, will be held responsible for the failure of the action – because no one is accountable.

That is both scary and reassuring at the same time.

Protest actions, demonstrations or shutdown are predicated on violence whose mass, form and intensity make a statement.

Demonstrations are about tangible action of people showing anger and frustration, either peacefully or violently.

A shutdown is a silent protest, as people withhold services, close shops and do not report for duty.

Shutdown is often a huge understatement of fear and psychological violence.

It works like this: those who call for the shutdown and disruption of normal commerce will trust that those willingly or unwillingly participating in a certain cause will be under a spell of fear that reporting for duty or doing everyday things may be met with violence.

Previously, there would be gangs burning cars and public transport daring to provide services.

Or shops and service providers would be barred from opening, or face the risk of looting and criminality.

If you are a goods or service provider, the choice is yours.

The script has been played over a few times now in the past few years.

What makes 2022 #Shutdown Number 1 different?

Yes, that is right! It is likely that we are likely to face similar calls throughout the year, and Monday’s call was just a harbinger.

The biggest difference between this first call to #Shutdown and others is that the ground was not exactly ripe for it due to lack of organisation and investment by various groups.

It may likely be that, the call was to test the resoluteness of the authorities.

It is likely that, sans any physical organisation, the shutdown lacked organic cells and coordination.

Other times will not be the same.

Further to this discussion, this actually take us to explore the various dynamics in Zimbabwe’s politics.

The first thing is that, as long as Government allows it; chiefly inadvertently, there is going to be rooms for this kind of agitation.

A Government whose policies are either ill-thought out or poorly implemented or both is never far away from the threat of agitation or removal.

In fact, in Zimbabwe, the threat of illegal change of power through protests is a card that has been held by some external and internal players for a long time.

They have been waiting for the right moment when Government will lose sight and power.

Authorities are aware, fully, and that is why there is always deployment of hard power.

To the extent that hard power of coercive forces in the security establishment remain intact, the status quo remains.

But that is scarcely assured.

Deepening poverty and hardship may trigger revolt especially in lower ranks of police and the army who suffer economic penury like many ordinary people.

Already, there have been whispers that there was such disgruntlement.

To avoid this, Government and the ruling party have to face up and address the conditions sustainably as a matter of course.

The seeds of revolt have been sown.

Beyond today, there will be some considered efforts to make political statements.

Two major scenarios are building up:

1.            #Shutdown 2.0 loading: Those in informal and formal political organisations have gauged the mood in the establishment and its less-than-assured-to-panicky response. They are going to seek to utilise the weaknesses of Government in areas such as poor economic control and policy inconsistencies. It will take another economic meltdown to trigger a more pronounced and organised rebellion, which is likely to involve more players and planning.

2.            Government’s charm offensive: Already, the ruling party and Government have been keen to placate urbanites, itself a key strategy for 2023 election which seeks to pare down opposition strongholds. The presence of the protest imperative, means that rather than digging in, Government is likely to give in and splurge on the urban electorate. This could be a sign of good things – although typically economically unsound. We are talking about giving lots of freebies like land, subsidies and other populist stuff that come at a cost, long term. Yet, faced with possibility of protests against worsening conditions and with an election on the horizon, the choice is an easy one.

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