A day after the president announced a 150 percent hike in fuel prices, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trades Unions and others called for a peaceful three-day shutdown. Their demands were simple: end the economic crisis and hardships, reverse the fuel price increase and pay US$ salaries. By the end of day one, there were several dead and many injured. There were riots in many towns and cities. Property was destroyed, road blocks mounted, police stations attacked, and there was widespread looting. The security forces responded brutally, as tear gas filled the air.
On day two, the state executed an internet blackout, an attempt it said to disrupt organisers of the protests. The military deployment continued and, across urban areas, opposition activists and others were being beaten and rounded up. By the end of the week, around twelve deaths had been recorded (including the stoning of a policeman), 70 odd were being treated for gunshot injuries and several hundred had been arrested. There was a mixture of confusion and outrage, and blame being apportioned by all sides (see this overview from the International Crisis Group).
What should we make of this latest twist in the troubled tale of contemporary Zimbabwe? With the president out of the country on a desperate attempt to raise funds, it seems he was not expecting such a reaction. The opposition MDC have kept very quiet, presumably fearing reprisals.
Fuel riots are common occurrences, but have different political origins and consequences. Cheap (often heavily subsidised) fuel is often a key route to sustaining rule; a contract between the state and its people, and way of ensuring livelihoods and jobs are secured, especially in precarious economies. Unrest explodes when such a lifeline is threatened. A timeline compiled by colleagues from IDS, led by Naomi Hossain, shows the variety of energy related protests from 2007-2017. And for the last year you can add in others – of course France and the gilets jaunes, but also recently Sudan and elsewhere.
But what are the particularities of the Zimbabwe case, and what lessons can be drawn for the future? There are different ways of looking at the Zimbabwe events; here I want to highlight three.
The politics of contention
The IDS team made use of a ‘contentious politics’ framework in a paper that looks comparatively at energy protests in a number of countries, including Zimbabwe (although the analysis here was rather limited). They argue that a contentious politics framing would look at: “the identities of protestors and their grievances; modes or repertoires of protest and the responses they elicit from the state; the means by which protests are ‘amplified’ or undergo ‘scale-shift’, transforming from local or particularistic struggles to wider, more systemic political complaint; and the political alliances and political cultural effects to which these episodes contribute”.
How do these elements fit for Zimbabwe? Young, urban men were at the forefront of the recent street protests, living often precarious existences, often without stable ‘jobs’, but reliant on transport to go and seek work, commuting from townships to the business and industrial areas. Zimbabwe’s inherited colonial urban geographies makes transport – and so fuel – crucial for those on the margins.
The repertoires were familiar. Sometimes violent street protests – involving criminal behaviour, including looting – were at the centre. Social media networks were vital (until the internet shutdown) for organising. Meanwhile, music, jokes and memes providing a cultural backdrop of resistance. The state’s reaction has been swift and violent, repeating its reaction to the post-election violence last year. While there was plenty of incendiary material on public Twitter accounts, and no doubt much more on ‘private’ WhatsApp and FB groups, a full internet blackout to quell protests was an illegal overreaction, and an abuse of basic rights. Many suspected (correctly) that this provided cover for extreme forms of state repression out of the glare of publicity.
How these protests might result in ‘scale-shift’ effects remains unknown. Protestors appeared to involve many groups, with multiple affiliations. Among those arrested were ‘ZANU-PF youth’, as well as ‘MDC activists’. Many though were just angry with the government, and wanted to express it, and some criminal opportunists made use of the chaos. The crackdown by the security forces has however been directed at opposition and union activists, using the riots as a pretext. Whatever happens next, this is clearly a significant moment, with unknown consequences.
Underlying class dynamics
A focus on the dynamics of contention only goes so far, however. A deeper understanding of how and why such protests emerge must look at the class (and generational) relations at the heart of such tensions. In Zimbabwe, the ruling party has never constructed a successful accommodation with a growing, but marginalised and poor, urban population. In a declining, crisis economy – a situation persisting for more or less two decades – the opportunities for social reproduction, let alone accumulation for young people in the larger towns and cities has been extremely limited. As ‘footloose’ labourers, they have to make ends meet through a variety of strategies, living under extremely precarious conditions. Fuel price rises have a huge impact on already marginal livelihoods, given the importance of transport for work.
By contrast, in the rural areas, and particularly in the land reform areas, there have been opportunities for people to emerge as successful petty commodity producers or even as a class of rural petit bourgeoisie. Fuel price increases are not popular for sure, but have less direct impact. This year tobacco production was the highest it has ever been and some rural areas are booming. This is not the case in town, and urban youth, many of whom have no longer any connection to rural areas, have no access to land, having missed the opportunities of land reform in 2000.
While Mugabe always had a contract with rural people – support us, and we will not let you starve – the same was not the case with the urban poor. Seen as hotbeds of opposition politics, intimidation, repression and violence has been, as this week, the standard state response. The fragmented ‘classes of labour’ that result from neoliberal restructuring and extended periods of economic crisis rarely have a strong political voice. Unruly protests may provide one outlet for pent-up frustrations brought by poverty, alienation and disenfranchisement, but confrontation with state-military power is inevitably one-sided.
A political economy of fuel
To understand the particularities of the Zimbabwe fuel protests, a broader political economy analysis is also required. This needs to look at the interests behind the fuel supply and the control of the industry. In Zimbabwe, this has come under intense scrutiny, with accusations of oligarchic cartels linked to certain factions within the ruling-military elite, with ‘queen bee’ at the centre. National fuel supplies thus reflect competition within the governing elite, as different groups jostle for position. This is compounded by the increasingly absurd parallel market arrangement for currency. This has created untenable distortions, as well as massive incentives for dealing and extraction.
Foreign trucking companies, for example, have been making good use of the disparities between the currency rates, buying fuel in Zimbabwe in large quantities with hard currency at reduced prices, resulting in shortages. In the strange world of Zimbabwe’s currency system, what is the price for a commodity is never clear. Which rate do you accept? The fuel price hike in effect was just an acknowledgement by the state that the parallel market exists.
The murky world of parallel currency dealing, fuel trading cartels and political-military patronage thus adds a particular complexion to the Zimbabwean story. While the protests started with fuel price hikes, wider discontents with the corrupt and dysfunctional system are being aired. For this reason, an analysis of underlying political economy remains important.
Beyond austerity economics?
While most stayed at home during the shutdown – often as a result of extreme intimidation tactics – those on the streets undoubtedly had genuine grievances. But will the riots translate into progressive change?
As E.P. Thompson argued many years ago, historically, food ‘riots’ arose when public authorities failed to guarantee the right to eat, allowing others to profit from the trade in food commodities. As IDS colleagues argue, the same could be said today of fuel, and certainly this rings true in Zimbabwe. This is what John Bohstedt calls the ‘politics of provisions’ – the ways ordinary people interact with their rulers over subsistence. If the state’s economic policies do not have a moral economic commitment at their core, then resentment will inevitably grow. This is what is happening in Zimbabwe.
A large, disenfranchised youthful urban population is the consequence of long-term economic decline, without the sort of redistributive opportunity that land reform brought to some in the rural areas. Rebooting the economy, as everyone agrees, is vital. However, the technocratic approach of the finance minister, Mthuli Ncube, with his slogan ‘austerity for prosperity’, may require recalibrating.
While appealing to donors and the Davos elite, such slogans do not take account of underlying class tensions and political economy dynamics at the root of the riots. Unless these are addressed, and the moral economy responsibilities of the state for public provisioning taken seriously, strong doses of austerity economics will only bring more protest, more repression and more trauma.