Zimbabweans stage nationwide boycott as economic woes mount

Zimbabweans stage nationwide boycott as economic woes mount
  • Millions of dollars in tax revenue lost
  • Import restrictions, cash shortages stoke anger
  • Workers strike as broke govt defaults on June wages
  • Grassroots protest movement takes root

HARARE, July 6 (The Source) – Business ground to a virtual halt in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare and other major towns on Wednesday as people largely heeded calls by grassroots activists to stage a nationwide shutdown in protest against President Robert Mugabe’s handling of a deepening economic crisis.

By conservative estimates, the near-total freezing of the retail sector would cost the economy millions of dollars. Zimbabwe’s government reported an average $8 million daily takings in value-added tax in the first quarter of 2016.

Zimbabwe, which snapped a decade-long recession when it dollarized in 2009 under a power-sharing government formed by the long-ruling Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, stands on the verge of another recession as its short-lived commodity-driven economic rebound buckles under weak prices, political uncertainty, mismanagement and policies that discourage investment.

Following another poor farming season and declining tax revenues, amid a biting bank note shortage, government has had to revise its 2016 economic growth forecast from 2.7 percent to 1.4 percent, which many independent analysts believe is still optimistic.

Over the past month, the country, especially the capital Harare, has been rocked by small, spontaneous public protests – a rarity in a country where Mugabe, in power since independence in 1980, has used the security forces to crack down on dissent.

This has started to change as Mugabe has looked increasingly bereft of ideas to turn the economy around.

A national shutdown called for Wednesday by a motley crew of activists – informal traders and vendors, public transport operators and a social media powered movement led by a Harare pastor, Evan Mawarire, who has emerged as the public face of the protest — became the largest such demonstration by opponents of Mugabe’s rule in over a decade.

Telecomms regulator, Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (Potraz) on Wednesday said it condemned the “gross, irresponsible use of social media and telecommunication services.”

The government’s response to the banknote shortage by printing token ‘bond’ notes with value at par with the United States dollar, a move many see as an unofficial re-introduction of a much-loathed local currency, has been a sore rallying point for much of the dissent, as have been tight withdrawal limits imposed on depositors, many who endure long lines for hours to access the little available cash.

According to a video posted by Mawarire on social media platforms, the major grievances against government include its inability to arrest the economic decline and end the cash crisis, its decision to restrict imports of basic goods which he said affected thousands who survive on trading imported foodstuffs, as well as Mugabe’s failure to act on corruption by public officials.

“We are shutting down Zimbabwe. Every citizen, we are not going to work, children are not going to school. Get off the roads and stay home. Do not be intimidated,” Mawarire says in the video.

“We are saying no to the bond notes, we are saying no to the import ban. We have no industries to protect. We are saying no to corruption by government ministers. We all know they are looting and mismanaging funds. We are saying no to government wasting resources. We are saying no to police harassing us on the roads. We are saying no to silence on the missing $15 billion (diamond revenue).”

In central Harare, the normally bustling streets were deserted from Tuesday night. On Wednesday, many across the country heeded the call, with several businesses – including banks – and schools remaining closed. Traffic was light but major supermarkets were trading. The majority of public transport operators withdrew their buses from the roads.

Eyewitness reports from the second capital, Bulawayo, painted a similar picture.

Although the boycott was largely peaceful, amid heavy police presence in the restive townships, there were clashes in the opposition hotbed of Mufakose on the western fringes of the capital. Police fired teargas to disperse youths who were burning tyres and using boulders to block traffic.

Other violent scenes were reported in Bulawayo suburbs of Luveve and Makokoba.

Wednesday broader boycott follows a strike by state doctors, nurses and teachers, which started on Tuesday in protest against the government’s failure to pay their salaries for June.

Government, which is struggling to manage the budget with diminishing tax revenues, only managed to pay salaries for the security services – army, police and prisons – last month, while rescheduling pay dates for the rest of the civil service to between July 7 and 14.

Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa, in Europe to promote investment into Zimbabwe and to seek lines of credit, has painted a bleak picture of the country’s finances, telling Radio France International: “Right now we literally have nothing.”

On July 1, violent protests also broke out at the Beitbridge border post, the country’s busiest and a gateway to its largest trading partner South Africa, as informal traders demonstrated against the imposition of import restrictions on products ranging from yoghurt, bottled water, coffee creamers, salad cream, body lotions and peanut butter to fertilizers, plastic pipes and synthetic hair.