The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Shut Down Zimbabwe’ protests are met with Internet blackouts and arrests

A man walks along empty stalls in Mbare, Harare, Zimbabwe, on July 6, 2016. Most workers went on strike after a call by pressure groups for workers to stay at home as a form of peaceful protest as the government has failed to listen to the worker's plight of not being paid for months. EPA/AARON UFUMELI

Days of anti-government protests and riots in Zimbabwe culminated Wednesday in a coordinated move to "shut down" the country. Business owners, students and teachers, nurses and doctors, and government workers were encouraged by activists and union leaders to stay home. Some reports from the capital, Harare, indicated that almost all businesses, schools and hospitals were closed in certain neighborhoods.

The government, led by 92-year-old Robert Mugabe, who has been in power for 36 years, responded by cracking down on social media. WhatsApp, in particular, has been used to organize the protests, and it was one of the apps affected by the telecommunications crackdown. Zimbabwe's telecom regulatory body issued a public notice, below, that warned users that they were being closely monitored, could be "easily identified" and would be "dealt with accordingly."

A government spokeswoman, Charity Charamba, said 95 people had been arrested for "instigating" and "inciting" criminality. A freelance reporter in the capital told Bloomberg News that numerous journalists had been detained and forced to delete pictures they had taken.

A senior government official tweeted the following:

Mugabe empties his prisons because he can’t pay for them

The protests are in response to Zimbabwe's utter economic collapse, which has left the nation's coffers so empty that government employees haven't been paid salaries this month. Zimbabweans have been using foreign currency for transactions since their own became so riddled by inflation as to be worth as much as the paper on which it was printed. The government recently released most of the country's nonviolent prisoners because of the cash crunch and began to sell wildlife from its game reserves. Ninety percent of the country's population is technically unemployed — most are poor farmers or work in cities or even in South Africa as informal labor.

Earlier this week, police responded with deadly force when public transportation workers threw stones and burned tires in the country's two biggest cities. Protest organizers called for Wednesday to be a day of nonviolence, with a focus on staying home, rather than going out into the streets, to show solidarity.

"This is a sign of economic collapse which has left people with nothing more to sacrifice and nothing to lose," Dumisani Nkomo, a spokesman for the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, told Agence France-Presse. "We are heading towards a tipping point as a country, where citizens will express their pain by any means."

A Zimbabwean newspaper reported that Mugabe's political party, ZANU-PF, moved a monthly politburo meeting forward to Wednesday to address the protests.

The protest movement has been galvanized by one man in particular — an articulate and passionate pastor named Evan Mawarire. In April, he released a YouTube video in which he decries the corruption of his government. Draped in Zimbabwe's flag, he laments that he sometimes wishes he "belonged to another country." The video has been seen hundreds of thousands of times, and a hashtag — #ThisFlag — has been trending in Zimbabwe since then.

Mawarire, 39, was always politically active, and his video's popularity acted as a springboard. Now, through social media, he has emerged as a leader of the protests, which seem to represent the most coordinated affront to ZANU-PF in many years.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Mawarire said that he was constantly relocating to avoid arrest and that he was under immense pressure. Thugs from Mugabe's regime are known to beat and forcibly "disappear" dissenters, or throw them in jail indefinitely.

"The government called us 'stupid' at first. They said we were playing 'silly Internet games,' " said Mawarire, speaking via WhatsApp before services were suspended Wednesday. "They say we are funded by the West. But our own finance minister was in Paris and London just this week with his hat in his hand, begging for money. How can they say that about us?"

"It is difficult to imagine what things will look like a week from now, let alone a month, but I believe we are headed for an implosion," Mawarire continued. "We are afraid of what that will entail, but the time for change is now. ZANU-PF is recycling the same old characters and ideas while the country runs on fumes. All they have left is intimidation."

Mawarire posted a video on Wednesday night saying that he will initiate another "shutdown" next Wednesday and Thursday if the government does not respond to the movement.

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