In November 2017, mass protests in Zimbabwe demanded the resignation of president Robert Mugabe. Superficially, they succeeded, as Mugabe was forced from office after nearly four decades of dominance on the Zimbabwean political scene. However, the military became the key actor. In effect, Zimbabwe suffered a military coup when the Zimbabwe Defense Forces (ZDF) took over the national broadcaster and deployed armed personnel to the airport, parliament, president’s offices, and State House.1 The military refused to identify these actions as a coup, and the High Court of Zimbabwe ruled that the military’s actions were constitutional. Many disenchanted ordinary Zimbabweans supported the coup as a way of achieving Mugabe’s resignation.
This mix of protest and military control over Mugabe’s ousting determined activists’ postprotest tactics. As the military increased repression and thwarted democratic transitions, it targeted activists. Many chose to lay low. The repressive environment made it difficult for activists to move into mainstream opposition politics. Gradually, more activists looked for ways to reengage in contentious forms of activism. Zimbabwe may be on the cusp of a more radical form of activism mobilizing to confront the military-controlled regime.
Citizens knew the dangers of a military-assisted transition and that Mugabe’s replacement might be problematic. Yet for the long-suffering citizens of Zimbabwe, these were problems to be dealt with at a later stage. Inadvertently, civic activists who had, in the recent past, led mass protests against the regime became cheerleaders for a military engaged in factional battles for control of the ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) and the state.2 Activist groups mobilized and organized mass marches in support of the military’s call for Mugabe to step down. Civic activists like Evan Mawarire of #ThisFlag, Promise Mkwananzi of #tajamuka, Stan Zvorwadza of the National Vendors Union of Zimbabwe (NAVUZ), Vimbai Musvaburi, Doug Coltart, and many others spoke at public gatherings on the day of the citizens’ march.3 In the heat of the moment, civic activists overlooked the idea that the political system and its institutions of repression remained intact and that the overt engagement of the military in civilian political affairs augured ill for the cause of freedom and democratization.
Facing a parliamentary impeachment, Mugabe resigned on November 21, 2017, ending his thirty-seven-year rule. While Zimbabwe celebrated Mugabe’s exit, the winning military faction completed its takeover of the state, replacing Mugabe with a deposed former vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa—a man who was notorious for his cruelty toward his opponents and had been connected directly to the ethnic cleansing of Ndebele civilians in the genocidal Gukurahundi campaign in Matabeleland in the early 1980s.4 In the process, the military positioned itself as part of the presidency: the former ZDF commander Constantino Chiwenga became vice president, and military officers occupied several key ministerial positions in government and senior positions in ZANU-PF.5
The ousting of one of Africa’s longest-serving autocrats came after nearly two decades of persistent civic action against the excesses of the Mugabe regime.6 After the coup, Mnangagwa finished Mugabe’s term, and went on to win a highly manipulated election on July 30, 2018. In the aftermath, civic protest returned, only to have the same soldiers who had been hailed as heroes in November 2017 open fire on the protesting citizens. Forty-eight hours after the elections, the Mnangagwa government gunned down eleven civilians and injured and displaced thousands more.7 During revolts in January 2019, the military killed twice that number.
Activists adopted difference tactics in the wake of the 2017 protests. Many of them dispersed, and momentum was lost. In part, this was because they had attained their stated goal: the downfall of Mugabe. However, other factors came into play. To a degree, the new regime coopted civic activists and movements, weakening their authenticity and credibility with protesters. As a result, a significant section of Zimbabwe’s civic movement lost its support base and its ability to organize.
The new regime also closed civic spaces through repression and harassment of civic activists and citizens. The military contingent deployed during the protest remained on the streets, and this raised concerns about the personal safety and security of anyone who questioned the new establishment. In addition, disillusionment set in as many activists realized that the protests had not achieved much for the general populace and that Zimbabwe could possibly be in a worse situation with the government under military control.
Other civic activists and protesters entered into a cooperative relationship with the political opposition. They calculated that the opposition wanted to see Zimbabwe back on course to a democratic transition as much as the activist groups did, which spurred cooperation between the two groups ahead of Zimbabwe’s 2018 general elections. This pathway became more defined as social movements and civic activists gradually moved into mainstream politics. Some endorsed the opposition, while others formed their own political outfits that publicly aligned with existing opposition political parties. The driving force behind this pathway was the need to reverse the negative effects of the coup: the situation became so serious that many activists felt that they had to get involved in mainstream politics. The intergroup fraternization that occurred during protests facilitated a new intimacy between opposition political parties and social movements and helped strengthen their cooperation.
Still, other protesters took a different pathway and began finding new forms of resistance and civic organization. There was a rise in postprotest collective actions as individuals embraced a feeling of empowerment and agency. Since the end of the protests, a new crop of empowered citizens is now at the center of organic forms of protests and resistance even in the face of a brutal military regime. The protests helped politicizing individual players who retained their postprotest agency and found expression in new spaces of civic engagement. Harare lawyer Fadzai Mahere became a prominent voice during the No to Bond Notes protests against the introduction of a pseudocurrency by the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, which began even before Mugabe’s ouster. Vimbai Musvaburi, a registered nurse and television presenter, found her voice as an activist in 2016 while calling for Mugabe’s exit and was prominent in the final protests of November 2017. Musvaburi has since launched a magazine, The Parliamentary, which focuses on parliamentary issues and members of the House of Assembly and their legislative agenda. These are only a few of the many people who found voice and agency and maintained their activism even after Mugabe’s departure.
Contextualizing the Pathways
The three pathways identified and discussed above are the main pathways that Zimbabweans have pursued in the post-Mugabe era. In an interview conducted during the writing of this article, Gift Ostallos Siziba, a vocal young leader within the Tajamuka/Sesjikile (We Are Fed Up/We Are Pushing Back) movement and the Occupy Africa Unity Square movements, who was abducted and tortured by ZANU-PF forces after one of the protests, has pointed out that “there has not been consensus within different groups on what constitute the national question post-Mugabe era.”8 Each of the three pathways emerged from specific features of Zimbabwe’s political developments, and this contextualization is key in accounting for activists’ postprotest decisions.
Pathway 1: A Subdued Civic Movement and Lost Momentum
Even after Mugabe was deposed, there were no major political shifts or reforms to state institutions and institutions that support democracy. The new Mnangagwa regime did not abandon Mugabe’s tools of repression, viewing democracy as intrinsically hostile to the regime’s existence.9 The military contingent that was deployed during the coup continued to occupy the streets, policing citizens’ movements and consequently constricting space for civic activism. Activist groups who faced threats to personal safety and security began to self-censor. Promise Mkwananzi, leader of the Tajamuka/Sesjikile movement, has bemoaned the military nature of the new repressions, claiming that civic space has shrunk since the advent of the military regime. The regime has been responsible for shooting and killing more than twenty activists since it came to power. Although the Tajamuka/Sesjikile movement is trying to regroup, many of its members had to retreat to safer locations. Mkwananzi himself was placed on a wanted list by both police and military intelligence for his role in post-Mugabe protests and sought safety in neighboring South Africa. Large-scale protests disappeared. Smaller, isolated protests that took place in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second city, to demand that the government redress the Matabeleland massacres of the 1980s were brutally suppressed.10 The restrictive environment led to a subdued civic movement as the knee-jerk reaction of civic activists was to retreat out of concern for their own safety.
Soon after the coup, the new regime managed to create a false sense of opportunity that affected the agency of civic activists, as some organizations and movements were targeted for cooptation. For example, the firebrand NAVUZ activist Zvorwadza publicly endorsed the Mnangagwa government. The women’s movement under the umbrella body Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe also opted to engage the new government.11 This false sense of opportunity would be short-lived and unsustainable in the face of harassment. However, the civic groups that succumbed to cooptation continue to criticize other civic and political actors who refuse to favor the military regime. Evan Mawarire, leader and face of the #ThisFlag movement—a man who ignited the 2016 protests using the flag as a symbol of both patriotism and discontent—has pointed out that the post-Mugabe regime had relented somewhat in its repressive activities, which led some activists to think that there was a genuine opportunity for political freedom. In Mawarire words, “This was short lived and soon most activists went underground or stopped altogether. The level of surveillance has dramatically increased.”12 Many other activists shared the same sentiments.
Of equal significance was the vulnerability felt by protesters as the international community withdrew despite the increase in military brutality. After twenty years of struggling with the Zimbabwe question, the international community was clearly fatigued. Some external powers seemed willing to ignore the coup’s aftermath, and some were keen to give quick moral and logistical support to the new government in an effort to close the Mugabe chapter. With waning attention from the international community, Zimbabwe’s civic activists were left in a precarious and dangerous position. Apparent shifts in priorities by development partners also saw resources for civic organizing reduced, which further affected activists’ capacity to organize.
Pathway 2: The Shift to Mainstream Opposition Politics
On May 30, 2018, Mnangagwa proclaimed July 30, 2018, as the new general election date. Faced with the prospect of an election where the two main political parties, ZANU-PF and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) alliance, were sponsoring new candidates, the citizens’ base was reawakened. Activists and ordinary citizens were now disillusioned with the earlier promises of a post-Mugabe politics, and it was clear that the coup was incapable of removing the economic and political barriers to democratic reform. The election became an opportunity to invalidate the coup and to push for a legitimate, democratically elected government. Civic activists and the opposition political parties moved into a relationship of mutually assured autonomy.
However, the partisan nature of the involvement of some sectors of the civic movement weakened rather than strengthened them as independent voices. Some prominent activists and movements who had led and organized protests in 2016, such as the Tajamuka/Sesjikile movement, joined forces with opposition political parties, mainly the MDC Alliance led by the young and charismatic Nelson Chamisa. Evan Mawarire, the leader of the #ThisFlag movement, launched a quasipolitical movement called People’s Own Voice and participated in the local government elections; in general, his movement endorsed the MDC Alliance presidential candidate. With time, some abandoned this path to find their way back to civic activism, including Evan Mawarire, Fadzayi Mahere, Vimbai Musvaburi, and Patson Dzamara. Dzamara, the leader of the BringBackItaiDzamara (#BBID) campaign—named after his activist brother Itai Dzamara, who had been abducted by suspected Zimbabwean military intelligence in 2015—reflected, “The national election presented us with an opportunity to cure the coup but it was all a charade. The election was a sham and upon reflection the participation of civic leaders in the election certainly had a huge negative impact on civic activism.”13 Since the election, Dzamara has decided to go back to civic activism to bring back a national discourse centered on articulating socioeconomic issues. Some activists continue to pursue this path, arguing that only elections will resolve the political impasse.
Newer election-focused movements also emerged around this time, including #SheVotes2018, founded and led by Maureen Kademaunga, and the Young Voters platform. These new platforms worked with traditional civil society efforts to mobilize citizens to register to vote. Tariro Senderayi, a young and articulate leader within #SheVotes2018, explained that she was driven by a passion to get young people involved in leadership selection through elections and therefore worked tirelessly with other young people to educate young citizens about their electoral mandate. However, she was “demoralised by the electoral outcome and her morale is still low.”14 The adverse effect of this focus on elections was that the elections demobilized citizens as they abandoned other forms of participation. It also prompted a ZANU-PF–led campaign to delegitimize civic activists who had become political actors, branding them as opposition agents and hangers-on. In the process, the civic activists who led and organized some of Zimbabwe’s massive protests of 2016 lost the moral ground that had enabled them to voice concerns and criticize the regime as nonpartisan entities.
Pathway 3: The Resurgence of Protests: New Forms of Organizing and Resistance
Zimbabwe’s new protests have several characteristics that set them apart from the protests that took place before Mugabe’s departure. Previous protests had clear leaders who officially communicated plans, but the new protests often have no prominent voices organizing the protests. Previous protests were organized centrally and in the city centers, whereas the new protests are decentralized within local communities. Previously, planning meetings were held and plans were announced openly, whereas the new protests use covert means of communicating, like the WhatsApp platform. Previous protests focused on a broad array of demands, but the new protests focus mainly on specific issues for each protest. These new methods make it difficult for the military to identify leaders.
The first post-Mugabe protest happened after the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission delayed the announcement of election results. Young urbanites took to the streets of Harare, marking the reemergence of an active citizenry working outside political parties. The protest was issue-specific with a clear demand, was organized through virtual spaces, and had no clear leader. In response, the regime unleashed a military taskforce against the protesters, resulting in the deaths of six people. Several others survived gunshot injuries, and some were arbitrarily arrested. Civic activists swiftly ended up on wanted lists as targets for arrest and harassment. The threats of individual harm became more profound than before, and arrests were blanket and arbitrary. More than at any other time in the history of Zimbabwe, civic activists temporarily escaped the country for fear of being murdered or being jailed on trumped-up charges. In the wake of the violence, Mnangagwa suggested that he did not know who had deployed the army against the protesters, even though Zimbabwe’s supreme law clearly states the deployment of the military is the exclusive preserve of the president of Zimbabwe.15 As commander in chief of the ZDF, Mnangagwa’s role in unleashing the military on peaceful protesters could not be more evident.
The experience of military brutality forced activists to abandon traditional ways of organizing and adopt covert, community-centered organizing. On January 13, 2018, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions and the #ThisFlag social movement led the call for a general strike or “stayaway” in the Zimbabwean term, in response to fuel price hikes.16Although the fuel price hikes and the labor mobilization in response were the direct causes of the protests, they also had a strong element of organic discontent over lack of freedoms and opportunities for young people, who desire greater access and exposure to the outside world in order to imagine and aspire to greater economic freedoms.17
Groups of disenchanted youth took to the streets in townships countrywide to protest. Impulsive and organic civic organizing that is neither funded nor led by known civic movements became the new order. This leaderless movement utilizes the covert use of social media platforms to agitate and organize. The regime responded with its customary violence. Mnangagwa once again deployed soldiers to the streets and unilaterally blocked the internet for more than forty-eight hours to disrupt grassroots coordination. It then reopened general internet access while still blocking social media platforms. According to the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, the casualties from the military crackdown on protesting civilians included 16 people dead, 17 sexually assaulted and raped, 26 abducted, 61 displaced, 581 assaulted, 873 arbitrary arrests including arrests of minors, 586 assaulted, and 81 with gunshot wounds.18
The Future: A Possible Realignment
Zimbabwe’s socioeconomic crisis is worse now than it was in 2017 before Mugabe left office. One activist who requested anonymity aptly points out that “the general feeling within activist spaces is that the situation in the country has worsened and civic groups must regroup and re-energise the base but this time to face a military dictatorship.”19 Activists on the whole share this sentiment. It has become apparent that the ultimate pathway must be to regroup and go back to the drawing board. Conversations with various civic leaders and activists reveal that they are considering several tactical shifts.
The general feeling is that the starting point is to reassemble. At the moment, there is no movement, even though the August 2018 and January 2019 protests suggest that citizens are willing and ready to mobilize in communities around sociopolitical and economic issues. At a time when the cost of living is higher than ever before and when the economy is in freefall, civic activists’ silence is deafening and discouraging. Civic groups will need to reengage with the issues affecting people, while remaining independent as an alternative voice of representation. Many activists share the view that the starting point after regrouping is to redefine the national question and identify the new actors involved, both allies and opponents of the movement. From that point, the movement may be able to decide what course to take, bearing in mind that extreme poverty and militarization are key features of the new reality. As one civic leader said, “Civic groups must always mutate, reinvent themselves and stay on their mandate of being independent voices that keep the government in watch. It is a fallacy that a nation can reach a point where its citizens must cease to reorganize. That utopian view is fronted by despotic regimes who wish to demobilize the social base by promoting a false sense of accomplishment so the trick is to organize, organize, organize and to stay relevant to the national question relevant to each period.”20
To a lesser extent, activists have stated that it is time to consider radicalizing the movement and abandon armchair activism. This sentiment is most pronounced within the Tajamuka/Sesjikile movement, whose leader insisted that “the Tajamuka radical trajectory must be explored to its fullest; there is no other way when we are faced with a ruthless military dictatorship.”21 However, some of the interviewed activists were skeptical about this possibly risky trajectory. The general feeling was that the movement needs to strike a delicate balance between radical and nonviolent actions.
Space for social justice activism in Zimbabwe in the post-Mugabe era is more constricted than ever. Activists and independent voices face threats to their personal security such as abductions, systematic and unlawful arrests and judicial harassment, rape and sexual assault, and even death. To operate under the current constricted environment, activists need resources that are not immediately available because of shifting donor priorities. Prominent social movements that led protests in the period between 2016 and 2017 have been violently suppressed. Newer organic protests have resurged but face military brutality.
Civic activism has suffered the unintended adverse effect of its self-defeating role in supporting the coup with no clear post-Mugabe plan. Citizens’ protests seem to have been organized with limited strategic understanding of the range of tools at Mnangagwa’s disposal. Soon after the protests, the citizenry was faced with a brutal militarized regime that cowed them into silence. Civic activists also had not planned for a scenario in which the new regime would renege on the promise to pursue a path to democracy. Civic activists had not built capacity to deal with postprotest disillusionment and had not budgeted for protracted action beyond Mugabe. This made it easy for Mnangagwa to coopt some of the civic leaders, further weakening the movement as a whole.
The choice to participate in the elections either as newly formed political parties or through endorsing the opposition political parties also weakened the civic movement. On the surface, electoral cooperation offered the promise for the opposition to redress the failings of the coup through an election. However, after an election in which their strategy failed to deliver their objective, civic activists struggled to reclaim their independent voice. The political cost was high; they lost their legitimacy and struggled to reorganize.
At this point, Zimbabwean activists’ choice to go back to the drawing board and recast their struggle likely is the most effective of the paths open to them. The military regime will face a real challenge from a civic movement that is working to renew itself and to reorganize from the base. The new protests became a litmus test for the new regime to prove its rhetoric that it was committed to reforms—and it failed the test dismally. The international community has renewed its attention on Zimbabwe, raising serious concerns about the military’s role in the country’s governance and the rise in human rights abuses. Zimbabwe’s protesters have raised the political cost for the military regime. Should the civic movement do more to demonstrate its resilience, it may be likely that a new momentum may be attained wherein the regime might realize that it is less costly to reform than to maintain a hardliner stance.
Maureen Kademaunga is a Zimbabwe-born feminist, political leader, and rights activist who is a DPhil fellow with the Human Economy Research Program at the University of Pretoria.
1 For more details, see Jason Burke, “Military Urges Calm in Zimbabwe After It Seizes Key Sites in Capital,” Guardian, November 15, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/nov/14/tensions-rise-in-zimbabwe-as-military-drives-through-outskirts-of-capital; and “Zimbabwe Army Takes Control but Denies Coup,” Al Jazeera, November 15, 2017, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/11/zimbabwe-army-seizes-state-tv-denies-coup-ongoing-171115051459998.html.
2The Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front, founded in 1963, has been the ruling political party in Zimbabwe since independence in 1980.
3Hitekani Magwedze and Masechaba Sefularo, “Various Organisations Set to March in Solidarity with Zim Army,”Eyewitness News (South Africa), November 18, 2017, https://ewn.co.za/2017/11/18/various-organisations-set-to-march-in-solidarity-with-zim-army.
4 Human rights activist David Coltart writes in detail about the complicity of Mugabe and Mnangagwa in the Matebeleland massacres; see David Coltart, The Struggle Continues: 50 Years of Tyranny in Zimbabwe (Auckland: Jacana, 2016).
5 “Zimbabwe’s Mnangagwa Appoints Military, Party Loyalists to Cabinet,” France24, December 1, 2017, https://www.france24.com/en/20171201-zimbabwe-president-emmerson-mnangagwa-appoints-military-party-loyalists-cabinet.
6 Mark Simpson and Tony Hawkins, The Primacy of Regime Survival: State Fragility and Economic Destruction in Zimbabwe (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).
7 “2018 Post Election Violence Monitoring Report: 01–09 August 2018,” Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum Report, August 15, 2018, http://www.hrforumzim.org/publications/reports-on-political-violence/2018-postelection-violence-monitoring-report-01-09-august-2018/.
8 Interview with Gift Ostallos Siziba.
9 Munyaradzi Mawere, Ngonidzashe Marongwe, and Fidelis Peter Thomas Duria, eds., The End of an Era? Robert Mugabe and a Conflicting Legacy (Cameroon: Langaa Research and Publishing, 2018).
10 Muvundisi Jefferey, “Police Block Gukurahundi Demo” DailyNews Live, November 29, 2018, https://www.dailynews.co.zw/articles/2018/11/29/police-block-gukurahundi-demo.
11 Felex Share, “Vendors Back ED, ZANU-PF,” Herald (Zimbabwe), July 27, 2018, https://www.herald.co.zw/vendors-back-ed-zanu-pf/.
12 Evan Mawarire interview with Maureen Kademaunga.
13 Interview with Maureen Kademaunga.
14 Interview with Tariro Senderai.
15 “2018 Post Election Violence Monitoring Report: 01–09 August 2018,” Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, August 15, 2018, http://www.hrforumzim.org/publications/reports-on-political-violence/2018-post-election-violence-monitoring-report-01-09-august-2018/.
16 “Zimbabwe Protests After Petrol and Diesel Price Hike,” BBC Africa, January 14, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-46862194.
17 “Protests Follow Massive Zimbabwe Fuel Price Hike,” defenceWeb, retrieved August 20, 2019, www.defenceweb.co.za,
18 “Shutdown Atrocities Report, 6 February 2019,” Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, February 6, 2019, http://www.hrforumzim.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Shutdown-Atrocities-Report-6-February-2019.pdf.
19 Activist interview with Maureen Kademaunga.
20 Interview with activist.
21 Interview with Promise Mkwananzi.