JOHANNESBURG, South Africa—Michael Sibindi’s hands are stained with soil and grass as he shuffles forward in a neat line of fellow Zimbabweans trying to send money to relatives back home via an agent.
“Honestly, I don’t know why I’m doing this anymore,” Sibindi, 52, who works in South Africa’s biggest city as a gardener, sighed. “When I was in Bulawayo [in Zimbabwe] in December I had money, but there was nothing to buy. No food, no petrol. We couldn’t get anywhere. Now I hear that things are much worse.”
Last week, security forces crushed riots and protests against a 150 percent fuel price increase, with Zimbabweans now expected to pay $3.31 per liter. The hike means Zimbabwe’s gasoline is now the most expensive in the world, according to GlobalPetrolPrices.com.
“I spoke with my cousin by phone on Saturday [Jan. 19], and he says the soldiers are acting just like they did when [former President Robert] Mugabe was president. If they think anyone is MDC [a supporter of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change], they beat you with their sticks and guns. Doesn’t matter if it is man, woman, or child,” said Sibindi.
Twelve people are dead and hundreds injured, but human rights groups expect the casualties to increase.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who took leadership after Mugabe was ousted in a coup in late 2017, said the gas and diesel price spikes were necessary to ease a fuel shortage caused by a surge in demand and illegal trading.
Two South African analysts said the unrest represented the beginning of a wave of upheaval in Zimbabwe.
The International Crisis Group’s senior consultant for Southern Africa, Piers Pigou, said new state policies had worsened the country’s currency crisis, causing the buying power of citizens to deteriorate rapidly.
He said a Zimbabwean who once had $100 in the bank now just has $30.
“It’s ripped the guts out of most ordinary Zimbabweans. And we’ve seen the knock-on effects of that in terms of shortages, most prevalent in relation to fuel, but also of a number of other commodities, and a massive increase in the prices of basic foodstuffs as well,” Pigou said.
“There’s some people I know in Harare and someone tried to sell them a mango for $15. We’ve seen some of the costs that are being put out there, which are astronomical. Twelve dollars for four avocados …”
He said even Zimbabweans with relatively good incomes were becoming desperate, citing civil servants who are now demanding to be paid in U.S. dollars as a case in point.
“The government simply can’t afford this because it is bankrupt, and is now reaping the rewards of a financial delinquency that played out in the Mugabe administration, but also with the Mnangagwa administration last year as well.”
Mnangagwa, who became president in August 2018 following an election result that was disputed by opposition parties, has appealed for patience and insisted Zimbabwe was moving in the “right direction.”
But Aditi Lalbahadur, who leads the Zimbabwe Project at the South African Institute of International Affairs, said Zimbabweans’ anger and disappointment was unlikely to disappear because the “misery” they experienced under Mugabe was continuing under Mnangagwa, despite his promise to improve their lives.
Lalbahadur explained that the new administration had not introduced the political and social reforms needed to attract the investments that would boost the economy.
“The failure to address the long-standing political problems means that the economic problems will perpetuate and even exacerbate and that’s exactly what we’re seeing.”
She added that the government didn’t appear committed to transparent financial management of its business, and to root out high-level corruption.
“If these things don’t happen, then investments won’t happen,” Lalbahadur said.
With regard to human rights, Pigou said there had been an encouraging decrease in the number and intensity of human rights violations in Zimbabwe during the first eight months of Mnangagwa’s leadership, but then came the post-election violence at the beginning of August.
That saw government soldiers and police joining forces with pro-government supporters to assault opposition sympathizers. Six people were killed, with hundreds injured.
A similar scenario has unfolded during the fuel price demonstrations.
Pigou said the military and the police, together with government supporters, continue to have impunity for past and present violations.
He added that the security forces’ use of live ammunition to control crowds was an “extremely dangerous” development.
“We’ve moved into a new phase of protest resistance and repression, which is much more violent and with players who are much more risk-averse,” said Pigou.
The Zimbabwean authorities have ratcheted up the tension, describing their action against demonstrators as a “foretaste.”
Lalbahadur said the latest unrest had exposed the Mnangagwa administration as operating within the same system as Mugabe, propped up by the same guarantors of power: the military and the police.
Mnangagwa’s ZANU-PF party has blamed the violence on the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, just as Mugabe often did.
Pigou said this ignored the fact that even apolitical Zimbabweans have participated in the fuel protests, proving Zimbabwe continues to be fractured and polarized.