BY NICOLE BEARDSWORTH
Although Zimbabwe’s President Mnangagwa is four years away from an election, his position appears insecure and his administration nervous. The economic reforms that his administration appears to be implementing are fomenting a broad popular backlash as the economic crisis deepens and a drought threatens to push millions to the brink of starvation.The country’s economy is rapidly shrinking – with the IMF’s latest forecast suggesting that the economy will contract by 7.1% in 2019. The government has stopped publishing inflation data, but the last announcement by the Zimbabwe Statistical Agency put inflation at 176% in June. The IMF’s assessment suggests that year-on-year inflation is currently at 300%, the second highest in the world after Venezuela.
This crisis has led to the rapid devaluation of the salaries of ordinary Zimbabweans. Until recently, civil servants were relatively insulated from this, but they have also been hit hard by the rising price of goods and rapid erosion of their purchasing power. A situation not seen since 2009, retailers in the country have begun warning customers that the price of goods may change between the moment they pick an item off the shelf and the time that they pay for their purchase.
Pegged at 1:1 with the USD earlier this year, the Zimbabwean currency has crashed to 20:1 – slashing people’s wages and eviscerating any remaining savings. As a result of the erosion of their income, doctors in Zimbabwe have been on strike for 50 days. Doctors currently earn less than $100 each month, and they recently rejected a 100% wage increase offered by the government on the grounds that it would still be insufficient to meet their basic needs.
The government hasn’t responded well to the ongoing strike. The head of the doctor’s association disappeared for five days in late September – a disappearance that bore all the hallmarks of a state abduction – which prompted a broad public backlash. Using spurious legal reasons, the doctor was barred from travelling to South Africa to receive emergency medical treatment for suspected liver damage. Dozens of activists, campaigners and opposition members have been abducted since last year’s elections, with many suffering torture and beatings.
Civil society groups suggest that as many as 50 people have been abducted in 2019 alone. The government has repeatedly tried to distance itself from the abductions, blaming an unidentified ‘third force’ and trying to suggest that the opposition had been using stolen police equipment to pose as security officials and beat unsuspecting citizens. Few believe the government’s claims, but most are too cowed to take to the streets and protest their worsening conditions.
In response to the growing discontent at home, the administration has been using force to try to quell any kind of uprisings. They have relentlessly promoted a narrative that western sanctions are at the heart of Zimbabwe’s current woes – a convenient tale but one that has never borne much relationship to reality. Nonetheless, SADC under Mnangagwa-ally and Tanzania’s increasingly autocratic and intolerant John Magufuli put out a statement in August which called for the lifting of international sanctions on Zimbabwe and declared October 25, 2019 as ‘Zimbabwe Solidarity Day.’
In addition, SADC appeared to have bought into and endorsed the Zimbabwean administration’s argument that the current abductions and beatings were part of an externally funded effort to destabilise the administration. This means that SADC has all but abandoned its efforts to push the government in Harare to burnish its image. For their part, the government has hired several PR firms to lobby on their behalf in Washington – but so far there have been no overt successes from the millions of dollars that they have invested.All efforts at political reforms and rooting out corruption seem to have ground to a halt. The government’s brazen attacks on the opposition, activists and street traders have not gone unnoticed. A recent visit by the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of assembly and association produced a scathing statement on the human rights situation in Zimbabwe. But Mnangagwa and his administration appear to have shrugged the criticism off and carried on regardless.
A recent scandal broken by Africa Confidential suggests that elites within the administration continue to take advantage of both the cash crisis and the hunger gripping the country’s rural areas to turn a profit. In order to cover the food shortfall produced by the drought that has left an estimated 8.5 million Zimbabweans food insecure, the government has imported 17,000 tonnes of grain. But they have done so at nearly triple the world market price of $240 (Ksh24, 780) per tonne, paying $600 (Ksh61, 950) a tonne instead, and lining the pockets of politically-connected elites.This follows on the back of the corrupt dealings of Sakunda, a Mnangagwa-linked company with the contract to supply inputs to the government’s Command Agriculture Scheme. Sakunda received $366 million (Ksh37.8 billion) in government bonds as payment for supplying inputs for Command Agriculture, and when it redeemed the bonds, it did so at a preferential rate, which led to an 80% surge in the country’s money supply. These deals in effect created Zim$2.3 billion, continuing the currency’s sharp devaluation.
Where to from here?
As the crisis deepens, it is difficult to see a way out of the country’s decline. Many argue that the only solution is political reforms, but Mnangagwa’s government refuses to countenance anything that might threaten their hold on power and the state. The death of a desperate young street vendor – Hillary Tafadzwa Tamangani – in police custody after his arrest and beating last week has prompted suggestions that his death might be the spark of a Tunisia-style uprising, ignited by the death of Mohamed Bouazizi.
But this ultimately looks unlikely. Mnangagwa’s regime seems increasingly jumpy and insecure, while their fiscal space is limited and their appetite for reform non-existent. With government workers too poor to afford the transport to work, the few services still provided by the state will grind to a halt. Zimbabwe’s politics will continue to be precarious and volatile, with Mnangagwa having few options but to use force to keep any remaining brave protesters off the streets and prevent the emergence of any external threats to his hegemony. As has so long been the case, the greatest threat to his regime is much more likely to come from within it.