To begin with, no one was sure why the recent and ongoing social media campaign in Zimbabwe was on the button and attracted so much attention from such a wide variety of people, and succeeded in largely shutting down Zimbabwe for a day.
It appeared as if the #ThisFlag site was the only opposition game in town. But it didn’t say anything new. Opposition groups have often bravely confronted President Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF.
So what is the difference now?
Well, Zimbabwe is now more broke then ever before. Insiders within the traditional anti-Zanu-PF urban groups – the opposition’s heartland – say the lack of cash at the banks since April and massive retrenchments in the private sector finally drove the middle classes to the streets.
Evan Mawarire, a part-time preacher in Harare who earns his living as a master of ceremonies, became an overnight hero for wrapping himself in the national flag and encouraging criticism of Zanu-PF via his cellphone. He launched his Twitter site in April when he couldn’t afford to pay school fees. That resonated with the middle class, they too are struggling to pay school fees.
The first stayaway Mawarire called was largely successful, not least because it also coincided with a three-day strike by teachers and nurses, protesting about unpaid June salaries.
Most people of working age in Zimbabwe are self-employed, as vendors, as the formal private sector has shrunk dramatically. And for the poorest, it was an enormous sacrifice to stay home and not go to the streets to try to earn a few cents.
Previously many members of the urban middle class said they had too much to lose to be seen in public supporting the Movement for Democratic Change when it emerged in 1999.
It drew its first support from the trade unions and therefore the working class. Since then the unions have withered as very few people are in employment. A record number of professionals were retrenched in the last year as many companies went into liquidation.
So, some founding members of the MDC in Harare say they were surprised to see so many professionals and even some civil servants openly supporting Mawarire.
“We saw people coming out against Zanu-PF who rejected us in public when the MDC began,” said a former official of Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change party.
“The people in support of #This Flag campaign were also from the suburbs, not just the townships, and that was good to see.”
Last Sunday, some worshippers in a prosperous mainstream church were surprised to hear a sermon from the pulpit encouraging them to stay away from work on Wednesday and Thursday.
Dumisani Muleya, editor of privately owned weekly The Zimbabwe Independent wrote on Friday: “People from across the political and social divide are gradually but surely emerging from the depths of docility and despair to not only challenge, but also confront Mugabe, his mediocrities and lackeys.”
Muleya says those now at the forefront of the “struggle” are the “people themselves” and not opposition parties. “This is a new and unique development here.”
However the successful stayaway was for one day only. There was no strike for the second round of the stayaway this week as civil servants had been paid. So most workers were at their posts, especially the vendors. Business looked normal. So did the traffic.
But, of course, some businesses say they were threatened after closing their doors the week before. Officials from some private schools which closed down during the first stayaway were summoned to the education ministry and threatened. And they promised never to do it again.
Mawarire himself was arrested and freed after charges were withdrawn. But as one small businessman or vendor said this week: “None of us can afford to stay home for another day. We need every cent we can get.”
Themba Mliswa, once a loyal Zanu-PF executive and former MP, who now runs the increasingly popular youth movement YARD, said the stayaway and Mawarire deserved support and congratulations. But he questioned how this new opposition force could be sustained until the elections in 2018.
“Unfortunately the people who responded to the stayaway were largely urban and 72 percent of voters come from the rural areas, which are Zanu-PF strongholds, maintained through fear and violence.”
Mliswa said people in the rural areas were so poor they didn’t have smartphones: “They can’t afford data bundles, and they don’t know there was a stayaway run by Pastor Mawarire.”
He said much more had to be done to prevent Zanu-PF from winning elections in 2018 and returning Mugabe to power when he will be 94, and pointed out that nothing was being done by any opposition group to register new voters, especially the youth.
“We have to get going on this, and the MDC needs to register voters and we need to get into the rural areas and make it possible for the youngsters to vote. We need change via the ballot box, and the demographic shows the middle class means nothing. We can never defeat Zanu-PF unless we succeed in the rural areas.”
Mliswa said any future stayaways or other protests needed a strategy and should take place when civil servants, the largest employed sector in Zimbabwe, are not paid.
“Allow the civil servants to be frustrated again when they are paid late and then call a stayaway. Then do that a few more times, and then they (the protesters) will be in control,” he said.