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  • Strikes and Protests 2007- Save Zimbabwe Campaign

  • A turn for the worse
    March 12, 2007

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    AS REPRESSION in Zimbabwe grows more brutal, and as the economy sinks deeper into the mud, analysts usually cite a catalogue of reasons why change in the wretched southern African country, though much-needed, is unlikely soon. The political opposition is timid and led by men unwilling to risk their own necks. Religious and civic leaders do offer defiance of President Robert Mugabe’s misrule, but are unwilling to work with their political colleagues. Ordinary people, wary of violence and remembering civil war in the 1970s, dare not take to the streets. Relative moderates in the ruling party will not challenge the hardliners. And outsiders—notably South Africa next door—refuse to intervene.

    Now, just maybe, something has snapped. The leader of the opposition, Morgan Tsvangirai, an articulate, educated and stubbornly peaceful man, has long refused to do anything that might provoke a violent crackdown. Today he sits in police custody, described by a lawyer as beaten so badly by his captors that he is nearly blind, prone to fainting and so swollen "you couldn’t distinguish between the head and the face".

    He was arrested on Sunday March 11th, along with other opposition leaders, after jittery police in Harare, the capital, broke up a prayer meeting organised by various groups. Police also shot dead a young activist at a primary school. Another detained opposition leader, Lovemore Mudhuku, a lawyer, suffered a broken arm and head wounds. On Monday riot police armed with shotguns, rubber batons and teargas, patrolled the streets of Harare, enforcing a ban on any political gatherings.

    But by walloping moderate opposition leaders the police may merely open the way for an angrier class of activists more willing to risk bloodshed. Political tension in Zimbabwe is rising in tandem with the jobless rate (now over 80%) and with the cost of living (hyperinflation now tops 1,700%). Sunday’s violent protests—as well as praying, youths battled the police and torched an army truck—were the second in a month. Hungry and jobless young men in the townships of larger towns, especially around Harare, are turning on police with increasing confidence. Mr Mugabe himself rides around the small capital, an otherwise sleepy place, with a large motorcade flanked by nervous policemen who aim their guns at passers-by and at any motorists slow to move out of the way.

    Yet any change probably depends more on the internal dynamics of the ruling party, Zanu-PF, and on the attitude of South Africa. Mr Mugabe’s party is divided along various lines. Though dominated by one broad ethnic group, the Shona, sub-groups are vying for power once Mr Mugabe goes. Rival camps have been formed around his possible successors. Old hands are competing with younger men with dubious business connections, who are eager to profit from lucrative opportunities for corruption. The role of the army looks more and more influential. But Mr Mugabe is a master at keeping his allies divided and thus dependent on him. He talks of remaining as president at least until 2010.

    Outsiders have a limited opportunity to influence what happens. America’s government has called the police crackdown on the opposition "brutal and unwarranted", but such Western criticism will be ignored. South Africa may have the means to put pressure on, either through regional institutions such as the African Union or the Southern African Development Community, or by threatening to limit the provision of energy and other goods to Zimbabwe.

    But South Africa’s government, fearing the eruption of violence on its northern border, has always preferred to promote "quiet diplomacy", meaning President Thabo Mbeki trying to cajole Mr Mugabe to go. That has proved ineffective and now, it seems, violence is anyway increasingly likely. A time will come when South Africa—and moderates in Zimbabwe’s ruling party—will reckon the risk of doing nothing is greater than the risk of trying, seriously, to get Mr Mugabe to go.

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