Protest envy: As South Africa caved in to its students, Zimbabweans can only dream. And even that is outlawed

In Zimbabwe, hammered into submission, we’d rather stay home and mind our own business than dare hit the streets

ZIMBABWEANS have been watching South African students’ #FeesMustFall protests with the envy of a poor kid pressing his nose against the window of the candy store.

Thirty-five years into Robert Mugabe’s rule, the economy is deep in crisis. Thousands are being thrown out of work as swathes of industry shut down. Rolling power cuts, as long as 18 hours a day, are stoking the frustration. Prime conditions to spark something, one would think. But, no. The debate in Zimbabwe is not how and when we too can protest, but why we don’t.

 “Why are we all such cowards?” one frustrated Zimbabwean screamed on Twitter.

Simple. Who wants to protest against one of the most efficiently brutal security forces known to Africa? Not many are willing to sacrifice that much. At the first whiff of trouble, the Zimbabwe Republic Police’s Riot Squad swoops in, full armour, jumping out of trucks swinging batons in all directions.

And so, as soon as we hear rumour of any sort of trouble, we do not rush to the streets to join in. We run to the internet to check what is happening. A picture posted here, another over there. And that’s it.

A combination of ruthless security forces, inept opposition and a disengaged youth means Zanu-PF can afford to spend time in factional battles, a hobby the party returns to when it is bored and has little external threat to worry about.

We have experienced protest envy before. In 2011, we watched as ruler after ruler fell to protests during the Arab spring. Could this happen in Zimbabwe, many wondered. Well, for just thinking that, a group of 46 activists was arrested. For watching a video of the Egypt protests, the group was arrested and charged for “plotting” against the government.

Police said the videos had been shown at the meeting “to inspire and motivate people to demonstrate against the government”. Emmerson Mnangagwa, who was Defence Minister then, warned that anyone planning a protest “will regret it”, and war veterans, for years Mugabe’s enforcers, vowed to attack protestors.

All that drama
Nobody out here is here for all that drama. In Zimbabwe, we’d rather stay home and mind our own business.

Zimbabwe’s youths are not as politically engaged as youths once were. In 2008, only 18% of young voters aged between 18 and 30 voted in Zimbabwe’s elections. According to a report by civil rights group Research and Advocacy Unit, only 9% of the youth were on the voter’s roll for the 2013 polls.

Who can blame them really, amid all the unemployment and fear. They know the story of Itai Dzamara. The activist had drawn nothing more than amusement from the public when he staged his one-man protests at a square outside Parliament. Yet, despite posing no obvious threat, he was abducted in March and has not been seen since.

Zimbabwe student activism was high through the 1980s and the 1990s. Students would tackle weighty issues such as Mugabe’s plan for a one-party state in the 1980s, economic structural adjustment programmes and police brutality in the 1990s.

These days, reflecting Zimbabwean politics at national level, student politics is riven with divisions and a preoccupation with who gets what seat. Any good protest needs leaders. In the circus that is Zimbabwe’s opposition and civil society, it is hard to see where protesters would look for leadership.

The opposition movement is divided, preoccupied, as is Zanu-PF, with internal politics. The main opposition MDC-T’s reaction to previous crises do not exactly fill anyone with confidence.

We now know their routine.

First, in reaction to any new Zanu-PF outrage, they will call a press conference. This, naturally, will be held at one of Harare’s finest hotels. The leaders will read out threats to the regime from behind bottles of mineral water. Threats to boycott one thing or the other will be made.

Rambling statement
A press statement – as usual big worded and lengthy - will be issued to reporters. Officials will congratulate themselves as foreign media lap up their diatribes.

Then there would be the usual appeal to the “international community”. It goes something like, “look what big bad Mugabe is doing to us. Please, do something. Say something. Anything.”

There would also be the mandatory “diplomatic offensive”. This is where opposition leaders trawl any meeting even where foreign heads are gathered. A food conference in Geneva? A water summit on water in Mauritius? Book the first flight out. And they will go there, trolling the lobbies, lobbying.

If, by some miracle, the opposition does agree to protest, several things will inevitably happen. Firstly, they would disagree on who would lead the protests, which streets to use, and, no doubt, which hashtag to use. Since the opposition first split in 2005, the movement has spawned no less than four different splinter groups at different times. Those offshoots today face their own internal strife, almost always over leadership positions.

Last week, the opposition said they planned “massive protests” against Zanu-PF’s handling of the economy. When? Well, as soon as the party finished “logistical arrangements”, MDC-T spokesman told the NewsDay newspaper. So, nobody is holding their breath. Not Zanu-PF, and certainly not ordinary Zimbabweans.

We are here, envious noses pressed to the shop window, retweeting all the hashtags.

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