Covid-19 in Zimbabwe: a precautious state or an exploitative narrative?

Covid-19 in Zimbabwe: a precautious state or an exploitative narrative?

April 18th 2020, marked forty years of independence in Zimbabwe. And on 17th May, whilst the streets of Norway played host to limited celebrations , the Zimbabwean capital Harare bore witness to military suppression and the state-sponsored destruction of private property. 

Text: Selma Fastrup Lyngsø, International Development Bachelor 
Photo credit: KB Mpofu / ILO. 

In Zimbabwe, being afraid of the pandemic itself is a privilege that many don’t have. Here, people’s distress has more to do with the fear of having homes and means of income destroyed, or even being killed by your own government. This article explores a popular discourse claiming that Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government, the same that forced Robert Mugabe out of power three years ago, has been using the narrative of a state taking good precautions against the spread of COVID-19 to demolish the informal economic sector that sustains the majority of the country’s population. 

On 30th March, Zimbabwe went into a nationwide lockdown, planned to last 21 days, to combat the pandemic. But whilst in Norway we enjoyed a summer with minimal restrictions, in Zimbabwe people are still under that first lockdown which is only now starting to loosen up. During this period, an average of at least five human rights violations have been carried out per day. According to the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO forum, this number only considers severe violations such as abductions, torture and unlawful arrests. Due to their frequency, it does not include harassment or violations of fundamental rights with respect to the right to water, food, medical services and so forth. To this date there have been 9172 reported cases of COVID-19 in the country, although these statistics may be unreliable. According to BBC, since March more than twelve times as many people have been arrested for defying the lockdown. 

The operations carried out by the government had already destroyed the livelihoods of more than three million vendors by June this year.

According to their own narrative, the government is protecting its citizens from the rapid spread of COVID-19 by destroying market stalls and properties in densely populated areas. They argue, not unreasonably, that the virus could potentially flourish in areas of dense informal housing and market stalls, as people here are not able to social distance. However, material from alternative sources within Zimbabwe tell a different story, one that highlights ulterior motives for the government’s actions. Whilst the destruction of property has mainly targeted the informal sector, it has also included legal tenants and shops. The Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO forum reports that the country’s informal sector makes up as much as 90% of the total workforce, proportionally one of the largest informal sectors in the world. The sector’s primary activities are non-registered market stalls with traders travelling to neighbouring countries, such as South Africa, and importing goods for resale. Zimbabwe suffers an acute cash shortage and in last September recorded an annual inflation rate of 700%. Furthermore, the UN reports that this year 60% of the population face food insecurity due to national shortages. This ranks Zimbabwe as one of the four most food insecure countries in the world alongside Yemen, Somalia and South Sudan. Despite this, an article from the Institute for Poverty Land and Agrarian Studies in Zimbabwe reported that, three days after the lockdown started police confiscated and destroyed tonnes fresh fruit and vegetables when raiding the informal Sakubva Musika market in Mutare city. 

Some authoritarian regimes such as Zimbabwe have been taking advantage of the current situation to consolidate their power and control at the expense of the citizenry and their political opponents.

The Zimbabwean military has a long history of well-documented human rights abuses, and their deployment to enforce the lockdown has done little to calm fears of violence amongst the population. The Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights Forum has already identified soldiers as the primary culprits of human rights violations during the lockdown, especially through the assault and harassment of civilians. The demolitions carried out during the COVID-19 lockdown are not the first that the country has witnessed. According to the UN, in 2005 700,000 people were forcibly evicted from their homes or lost their source of income when the government launched ‘Operation Murambatsvina’. Government officials spoke on national television and claimed that the demolitions were “aimed at restoring order and sanity throughout the capital”. In May, the former minister of Local Government, Public Works and Development stated that the government would give the public until the end of July to legalize their structures. In reality, demolitions in Harare started the next day. Human Rights Watch, local NGOs and local human rights lawyers questioned the narrative put forth by the government surrounding the demolitions. They claim that it was a convenient way for the government to prevent mass uprising against deepening food insecurity and worsening economic conditions. According to this alternative narrative, the violence and demolitions were an act of retribution against those who voted for the opposition during the elections just two months prior. 

President Mnangagwa’s government sees the current situation as an opportunity to formalise the informal sector and is therefore urging citizens to regulate their operations. In April this year, an internal government communication encouraged local authorities to “take advantage of the lockdown to clean up and renovate SMEs [small to medium enterprise] and informal traders’ workplaces so that the area will be more conducive to operate when business reopens.” This sounds relatively innocuous without foreknowledge of what such regulation requires. According to an article in the Undergraduate Economic Review, the process of registering a business in Zimbabwe takes an estimated 120 days and costs $585 US. Whilst in Norway all transactions within the national borders take place in Norwegian kroner, this is not the case in Zimbabwe. Here, two parallel economic systems operate simultaneously: American dollars and Zimbabwean dollars, or ‘monopoly money’ as the locals call it. All formal and legal services have to be paid in American dollars; however, most people do not earn American dollars and it is almost impossible to obtain the currency. On April 29th, the High Court of Zimbabwe ordered an end to the demolitions after an application on behalf of informal residents and traders was filed by the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights. However, this did not put an end to the destruction. As late as 8th October, the Chamber Secretary at Chintungwiza Muncipality, just outside Harare, enacted a decree giving business owners four days to either register their businesses or depart the land, demolish any structures or property and restore the area to its original state. As it takes 120 days to register a business in Zimbabwe, it was impossible to comply with this directive and avoid demolition. 

Samuel Wadzai, execute director of labour union Vendors Initiative for Social and Economic Transformation, is a spokesman of the non-governmental narrative and has been in contact with many news outlets throughout the lockdown. In June, he told Reuters that “it is not fair for the authorities to take advantage of COVID-19 lockdown to attack the livelihoods of people and without any consultation.” According to him, the operations carried out by the government had already destroyed the livelihoods of more than three million vendors by June this year. He continues, ”we know that it is the responsibility of local authorities to make sure that streets are clean and people operate from designated places, but to go and destroy vending spaces of informal traders without engaging with them first is surely irresponsible”. 

It is common to hear that Zimbabweans are ‘more afraid of hunger and the state security than the coronavirus.

In May, Zimbabwe’s Secretary for Social Welfare proclaimed that the government had started a monthly distribution of $180 Zimbabwean to 2,000 people affected by the lockdown. At the time this was equivalent to $7.5 US. According to ZIMSTAT, the national statistics agency, a family of five needs about forty times that amount to cover their basic needs. Wadzai argues that a more sustainable solution would be to “ease the informal trading sector out of lockdown and put a rush on aid payments.” Wadzai is not alone in opposing the government narrative. In a News Zimbabwe article, Simbarashe Gukurume, lecturer in Sociology and Social Anthropology, wrote that some authoritarian regimes such as Zimbabwe have been taking advantage of the current situation to consolidate their power and control at the expense of the citizenry and their political opponents. Gukurume interviewed many vendors around Harare who felt that the government has been negligent in its obligations to the country’s poor. They argued that the government should be creating better infrastructure for them to operate, not destroying their only source of income. In the same article Gukurume writes that it is common to hear that Zimbabweans are “more afraid of hunger and the state security than the coronavirus.” 

Photo credit: KB Mpofu / ILO 

The many ways in which the government benefits from the lockdown give lie to the official narrative of epidemiological necessity. For example, the Zimbabwe United Passenger Company (ZUPCO) is a state-owned public transportation company, and is the only such company permitted to transport passengers during the lockdown. An article in the Zimbabwe Independent reveals a govern-ment purchase of 162 buses at $860 million Zimbabwean, equivalent to $35 million US at contemporary rates, from a private business: Landela Investments. This company is majority-owned by Kudakwashe Tagwirei, one of the country’s most prominent businessmen, and also, conveniently for him, an advisor to President Mnangagwa. This contract may benefit Landela Investments, but despite these purchases ZUPCO alone cannot accommodate the country’s many commuters. This shortage means that people have no hope of maintaining social distancing on buses, even if they are lucky enough to find one. Those who cannot find or board the buses are forced to walk and risk arrest due to the lockdown. Another example of the government’s ulterior motives at work is visible in the closure of the informal markets. OK Zimbabwe Limited is one of the major supermarket chains in Zimbabwe. On their website, the National Social Security Authority is listed as the chain’s second largest shareholder. When reading OK Zimbabwe Limited’s 2020 Annual Report the company proudly declares that their revenue has grown by 464% since last year. It takes little imagination to see how the destruction of the informal market sector indirectly benefits state shareholders. 

What happens when a government’s narrative for its actions is so divorced from reality on the street level? In a BBC Africa report, Andrew Harding states that Zimbabwe is experiencing “an overwhelming loss of public trust in its key institutions” and even refers to rumours of a potential military coup. EXX AFRICA is a business risk intelligence company that reports on African political and economic risk. For the rest of 2020, they envision an aggravation of the current food crisis coupled with economic recession and high inflation. According to their projections, political instability and civil unrest are inevitable. All recent peaceful demonstrations in Zimbabwe have been met with military might and violence. According to the founder of EXX AFRICA, President Mnangagwa will be able to see off challenges as long as he is able to pay military salaries, but reports suggest that “the deterioration of the economy and public health may gradually weaken this prospect.” 

In Zimbabwe, informal trading has long been the primary source of income for the majority of the population. This informal trading has enabled people to survive in the face of market reforms, recession, uncontrolled inflation and lack of official currency. President Mnangagwa claims that, by demolishing the sector and urging businesses to register, his government is protecting the country’s citizens. Even if there were any truth to this claim, the short timeframe and violence that vendors face makes it impossible for them comply. Narratives contrary to the official line are flourishing and the stage seems set for a political meltdown and mass popular unrest. ■