As revolt and repression grip Zimbabwe, the violence is a blow to Zimbabweans who hoped for reform in the post-Mugabe era. Foreign Editor David Pratt, who has visited the country over many years, takes stock of the current crisis

Zimbabweans joke that, in Mbare, you can buy anything, including the parts they stole from your car the night before.

As the biggest and oldest township in the capital Harare, Mbare’s uncollected refuse, overcrowding, rampant petty crime and widespread health and sanitation problems tell a sorry tale of the years during which president Robert Mugabe’s regime let Mbare and much of Zimbabwe rot. Real jobs here are scarce.

Under Mugabe’s rule, the rate of unemployment rose to more than 80%, forcing many people to eke out a living by hawking on the streets, giving rise to Mbare’s Mupedzanhamo Market, which, loosely translated from the Shona language, means “end poverty.”

“Mbare is a tough place to live, surely you can see that for yourself just standing here,” said Joseph Masenda, while his sister nearby filled a bucket with water from an open communal pipe at the foot of a block of dilapidated redbrick flats where many of the windows were broken or boarded up.

“We need change, big change, and if Emmerson Mnangagwa cannot bring it, then some new leader has to,” insisted Masenda, as we stood talking in the township last year just before the elections many Zimbabweans hoped and believed were the beginning of a new political dawn.

At long last, they thought the authoritarianism, corruption, human rights abuses and widespread poverty that had plagued their lives for years might finally be over.

The man many pinned their hopes on was Mugabe’s fellow Zanu-PF party member Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa, or “ED” as he is more commonly known here.

However, it was perhaps Mnangagwa’s other nickname, “The Crocodile,” given to him for surviving a turbulent political career with a mixture of cunning and ruthlessness, that provided the real clue as to where the now president was intent on taking the country.

For over these past days, “The Crocodile” has snapped back old style, as he cracks down on street protests sparked by a 150% hike in fuel prices that has made petrol in this economically shattered country now the world’s most expensive.

According to president Mnangagwa, the increase in prices was meant to ease the impact of the fuel shortage on Zimbabwe’s ailing economy.

But Zimbabweans, already squeezed by the high cost of living, were having none of it. While most heeded a nationwide stay-at-home protest, others took to the streets, where they were met with force by Zimbabwe’s security forces in Harare and in the southwestern city of Bulawayo last week.

Since then, graphic reports have emerged of security forces targeting activists and labour leaders, while the government also imposed a “total internet shutdown” in what critics called an attempt to hide evidence of the true nature of the crackdown.

On Friday, badly injured people streamed into a hospital in Harare, after assaults by soldiers and paramilitaries.

While the government says three people died during the unrest, lawyers and activists say the toll was much higher and mass arrests were used to quell the street demonstrations.

On January 15, Zimbabwe’s Doctors for Human Rights released a statement saying “hundreds shot, tens estimated dead in rampant rights violations across Zimbabwe”.

Their assessment included reports of 107 patients treated for gunshot and blunt trauma wounds. Human rights group Amnesty International also reported that at least eight people have been killed. The government and media, meanwhile, also accused the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), trade unions and civil society groups backed by foreign funders of orchestrating the protests as part of a campaign to undermine the government and elevate the MDC’s leader, Nelson Chamisa, into office. Both the US and Germany were named. Such accusations though are par for the course when the Zimbabwean government faces protests. Based on past experience, it seems unlikely it will supply compelling evidence to support such claims.

“Our country is going through one of the most trying periods in its history,” the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops’ Conference said in a sweeping statement lamenting the government’s “intolerant handling of dissent” and its failure to halt the economic collapse.

Among the 400 or so people arrested and charged by magistrates was pastor Evan Mawarire, a rights activist who started the popular “This Flag” movement, and rose to prominence as a critic of Mugabe’s rule and led a national protest in 2016.

“I cannot tell you how heartbreaking it is. We thought we had a new country and a new way of doing things. None of what I am being accused of is what I have done at all,” Mawarire told reporters after being arrested for “inciting violence on social media”.

“I did nothing of that nature. If we have true justice, let’s see it at play,” said Mawarire, who will now stand trial on more serious charges of subverting the government.

While it remains too early to assess the true scale and severity of Zimbabwe’s crisis or whether it’s a warning of big shifts in the country’s volatile political environment, activists and civil society organisers who witnessed the violence say the crackdown appears more widespread and severe than those in the past decade.

They described widespread beatings by security forces, a police raid on a hospital where those assaulted were receiving treatment, and the military taking over a police station where protesters were detained. All spoke on condition of anonymity, citing concerns for their safety.

“The crackdown is profound … and brutal, and we cannot work out what the endgame is,” one Zimbabwean health worker was quoted by Foreign Policy magazine as saying.

It’s all a far cry from the positive pronouncement made by Mnangagwa last year when I visited the country and he declared: “Zimbabwe is now open for business.”

Walking the streets of Harare back then I couldn’t help noticing the number of newspapers on stands praising Mnangagwa.

One prominent paper, The Sunday Mail, applauded the president’s then recent visit to China.

“ED returns with a bagful,” it proclaimed in a reference to a deal Mnangagwa was then brokering to secure billion of pounds worth of investment for projects in Zimbabwe.

At the time it seemed that Mnangagwa could do no wrong, and concerns over his ability to deliver didn’t seem to trouble many Zimbabweans other than those who saw him as a chip off the Zanu-PF block and just another part of the political old guard.

Even the European Union (EU) was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt.

One morning during my visit I attended Mbare’s Stodart Community Hall, where the EU’s Commissioner for International Development, Neven Mimica, who had just met Mnangagwa, signed an agreement with Zimbabwean officials that would see new EU-funded programmes worth £20 million launched to improve people’s access to health services and enhance their livelihoods.

Mimica’s was the first high-level EU visit to Zimbabwe in almost a decade and spoke volumes about the EU’s hopes for the country, given that its financial support came with conditions requiring improvement in Zimbabwe’s democratic process and transition under Mnangagwa. “The EU has always been a reliable partner of the Zimbabwean people and it stands ready to accompany Zimbabwe in its process of change,” said Mimica.

“We do not want to be a passive partner in this process,” he added, stressing that the EU and others were watching Zimbabwe’s forthcoming elections carefully and that reforms must be made and checks carried out that that process is underway for EU financial support to be maintained.

Where now, one wonders in light of events over the past few days, does that leave the EU and wider international community when it comes to supporting Zimbabwe? For the time being, no-one doubts that Zimbabwe still desperately needs that support in both urban and rural communities.

Venture out from Harare’s bustle into the rural hinterland and the true fragility of this beautiful country’s economic stability and faltering steps towards democracy quickly becomes apparent.

It’s worrying then to hear the EU over the past days issuing a statement noting the “disproportionate use of force by security personnel” and the UN appealing for restraint by the Zimbabwean authorities.

There are clearly real fears now that Mnangagwa is not the democratic reformer many in Zimbabwe had yearned for when Mugabe was ousted in 2017 after his 37 years in power.

Some have even gone as far as to suggest that what is currently being witnessed is the “the open militarisation of the state”.

“People wanted to see Mugabe go, but they didn’t realise that they were actually creating a bigger monster,” says Alex Magaisa, a Zimbabwean lawyer and professor at the University of Kent.

“The military is now very much in control and very powerful.”

In some ways, perhaps, the latest unrest should come as no real surprise. Anger at the government has been steadily brewing since those hopeful days after Mugabe’s overthrow. Even on my last visit to the country its economic woes were plain to see.

Everywhere people complained of prices in shops soaring, retailers were closing down and queues for petrol were lengthening as the country struggled to juggle payments for competing import priorities.

Control over the country’s fuel supply, which triggered the current unrest, remains in the hands of Mnangagwa’s ruling ZANU-PF party, and the huge financial benefits that come with it are reportedly causing factional rivalry.

There is widespread public speculation that the shortages are caused by inter-elite squabbles or even deliberately engineered. This sense that Mnangagwa’s hand controls all was reinforced over the past few days as Zimbabweans found themselves without internet access after the government ordered the country’s biggest mobile operator to shut down service again.

After several hours networks were restored but social-media platforms remained blocked, meaning that people have not been able to access any social-media sites such as WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook throughout the week.

It’s all a long way from barely 15 months ago when the coup that forced Mugabe from office created a mood of optimism that also played out online.

Like many ordinary Zimbabweans, Joy Mviro, a young mother I met last year outside the Edith Opperman Maternity Centre in the heart of Mbare, was adamant that things were changing for the better. Just 21, Joy still had most of her life ahead of her, as did her six-month-old daughter Keisha, whom she has brought to the clinic as part of a series of regular check-ups since the baby was born 
around the time that Mugabe was overthrown.

“We can now talk openly,” she told me confidently that day when we met. “Before Mr Mugabe was kicked out, I would have thought twice about talking to a journalist or answering their questions, but not now,” Joy insisted.

How sad it is now, then, that such optimism has largely evaporated in light of recent events unfolding on Harare’s streets. Ten years or so ago, in a small village north of Bulawayo, during one of my first visits to Zimbabwe, I met a 94-year-old great-grandmother called Golidem.

Sitting on the floor of her hut, surrounded by a few meagre possessions and lovingly cradling her one-month-old great-grandson Nkosina in her arms, she talked eloquently of another time in Zimbabawe, a bygone age when dialogue, not division, made the country a great beacon of hope across Africa.

Golidem will have passed on by now but Zimbabwe’s drive to make a better society goes on. Zimbabweans are known for their patience, but just as it ran out with Mugabe so now it is also running out with Mnangagwa.