Pulverised into submission

Zimbabwe’s citizens have been subjected to years of state-sponsored brutality

Zimbabwe, Harare, 1 August 2018. Running battles in Harare between disgruntled MDC supporters and the police /army. A standoff outside the venue where the Independent Electoral Commission was holding briefing from the electoral observers.

Disgruntled MDC-Alliance members confront the police and army outside the independent Electoral Commission offices in Harare in August 2018. PHOTO GRAEME WILLIAMS

By mid-morning on 1 August 2018, thousands of people had gathered in Harare’s central business district (CBD). Just two days before, the country had gone to the polls to elect a new government, after the ouster of former President Robert Mugabe in a military coup in November 2017. It was a highly unusual demonstration of popular sentiment in a country that has seen a great deal of state repression.

But on that day, Zimbabweans in their thousands were protesting against alleged vote rigging by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) to ensure ZANU-PF candidate Emmerson Mnangagwa won the election. Senior MDC Alliance leaders, among them the then People’s Democratic Party leader – now MDC-A deputy national chairperson –  Tendai Biti claimed that Mnangagwa had lost the election to MDC Alliance candidate Nelson Chamisa.

The ZEC was alleged to be doctoring results in ZANU-PF’s rural strongholds, where the opposition had either failed to provide election agents, or where opposition election agents had been intimidated by the military and ZANU-PF’s youth militia.

The sense of growing chaos was, perhaps, the perfect excuse the government needed to show it was firmly in control. As in the past, dissent would not be tolerated. Anti-riot police were deployed. Despite the show of force, the protesting crowd swelled, with some protestors burning vehicles and destroying property.

Soldiers, armed with assault rifles, whips and sjamboks (leather whips), were deployed in the CBD. At the end of the day, six people lay dead on Harare’s streets – some of whom had been shot in the back while fleeing. Many other protesters also had gunshot wounds or other injuries, such as broken limbs. International election observers denounced the “excessive use of force”, urging the police and army “to exercise restraint” and the ZEC to release the results of the election. The election presented an opportunity for Zimbabwe “to break the cycle of electoral contentions and post-election violence”, they said.

But the response of the authorities was not, in fact, new to Zimbabweans, nor was it the assurance they wanted that this time elections would proceed democratically. As before, allegations of vote rigging degenerated into riots, leading to a massive military crackdown. Once again, Zimbabwe had held a disputed election.

Zimbabwe, Emkaweni north-east of Tsholotsho, which is 115 km northwest of Bulawayo, 23 November 2017. Headman Mtshumayeli Moyo who was a victim of the violence.

Headman Mtshumayeli Moyo from Emkaweni, a victim of Gukurahundi, a 1980s military operation in Matabeleland and the Midlands, Zimbabwe in which government forces murdered about 20,000 civilians. PHOTO GRAEME WILLIAMS

Mnangagwa, who had been one of Mugabe’s key enforcers, had promised a clean break from his mentor’s repressive system and vowed to uphold democracy and observe human rights. But he had a problem: his administration was founded by a military-backed coup. He was desperate to attain democratic legitimacy through credible polls. Soon after being sworn into office, and only under pressure from the international community, he established a commission of inquiry to look into the violence.

The commission, which sat between September and November last year, was led by former South African President Kgalema Motlanthe. Appearing before the commission, Biti questioned its credibility, arguing that other members of the commission, international lawyer Rodney Dixon and former Tanzanian Defence Forces chief Davis Mwamunyange, had links with military regimes in Africa, as well as with Vice President Constantino Chiwenga. Biti also said Commissioner Charity Charamba was a member of ZANU-PF and should therefore not be part of the commission probing the party’s alleged election rigging.

The commission was critical of the use of live ammunition against citizens, which it said was “clearly unjustified and disappropriate [sic] … especially as they were fleeing”. It also condemned assaults using sjamboks, baton sticks and gun butts on members of the public. It recommended that the army immediately conduct an audit of its standing orders and procedures for law and order enforcement operations, and produce a public report to ensure that such massacres did not happen again. It also urged government to compensate victims. At the time of writing, nearly three months later, none of the recommendations had been carried out.

But old habits indeed die hard. The ink of the report had hardly dried when the military was at it again. The occasion, this time, was a call for a three day stay away by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions to protest the government’s decision to increase fuel prices. Many Zimbabweans were already disappointed by the lack of evident reforms. The sudden, and considerable, increase in fuel prices confirmed what many sensed – that the economy was approaching, if such a thing was possible, an even deeper crisis. The government responded by shutting down the Internet and deploying the military in residential areas to crush protests.

A Zimbabwe human rights NGO forum (the Forum), a coalition of 21 human rights NGOs in the country, reported that at least 844 human rights violations had been committed during the crackdown. According to its figures, at least 12 people were killed, some 78 people suffered gunshot wounds and at least 242 people suffered assault, torture or dog bites, as well as other forms of inhumane and degrading treatment. In addition, media reports indicated that several women had been raped by soldiers or police. The Forum also indicated that the crackdown had been accompanied by breaches of human rights including infringements of privacy, the right to freedom of movement, the right of access to information and a media shutdown.

The Mnangagwa administration was simply continuing the ZANU-PF “tradition” of holding sham elections before unleashing the state apparatus on citizens to quash dissent, University of Zimbabwe political science lecturer Professor Eldred Masunungure told Africa in Fact. The glaring shortcomings of the latest election demonstrated that Mnangagwa did not have the political legitimacy to govern, he added.

“Legitimacy is commonly defined in political science and sociology as the belief that a rule, institution, or leader has the right to govern,” according to Ian Hurd in an article on the topic in Encyclopedia Princetoniensis. “When shared by many individuals, legitimacy produces distinctive collective effects in society, including making collective social order more efficient, more consensual, and perhaps more just.”

But legitimacy in this sense has never been a part of the Zimabwean political landscape, and elections have been disputed since ZANU-PF took power after independence in 1980. According to Masunungure, concerns about their legitimacy have become more urgent since the early 2000s.

In the run-up to the 2018 elections, Mnangagwa, who was on a charm offensive to woo the international community, promised free, fair and credible elections. He said he would entrench democracy, uphold human and property rights and introduce economic reforms to promote investment and economic growth. He also promised media and security-sector reforms. “But it appears he has delivered none of those promises,”  Masunungure said. “This laid the ground for a disputed election, hence questions around his legitimacy.”

The ZEC declared Mnangagwa the winner of the polls but the opposition leader, Nelson Chamisa, insisted he had won and challenged the results in the Constitutional Court (ConCourt). The case turned into a dramatic legal battle blighted by questionable decisions, among them the registrar of the court’s refusal to accept evidence critical to Chamisa’s case. The ConCourt declared Mnangagwa the winner but the MDC Alliance rejected the ruling. It said in a statement that the Mnangagwa administration was an “illegitimate regime that used brazen subterfuge and brutal violence to steal the people’s vote”.

Independent observer missions agreed, saying the elections were not credible. They included observers from the European Union (EU), a key economic bloc with which the Mnangagwa administration was attempting to restore normal diplomatic ties. In careful wording, the EU declared that Zimbabwe’s polls “fell short of international standards”.

Having failed to get political legitimacy at the polls, Mnangagwa had sought a ConCourt ruling to confer legal legitimacy on his rule, said Masunungure. “There are no questions around legal legitimacy, even though the opposition rejected the ruling. Legally, the ruling is binding, but questions around political legitimacy continue to be raised.”

Zimbabwe, Harare, 1 August 2018. Running battles in Harare between disgruntled MDC supporters and the police /army. A standoff outside the venue where the Independent Electoral Commission was holding briefing from the electoral observers. A protester lies down in front of a line of riot police.

A protester lies down in front of a line of riot police in Harare during running battles between MDC supporters and the police and army. PHOTO GRAEME WILLIAMS

Mnangagwa’s anxiety about his own legitimacy was exacerbated by his own illegal rise to power, according to Dr Ibbo Mandaza, a political analyst and chair of the Southern African Political Economy Series Trust, a regional think tank. “Legitimacy was a big issue because the Mnangagwa regime acquired power through a military coup, which is unconstitutional and therefore illegal,” he told Africa in Fact. “Having failed to acquire legitimacy at the polls, the government decided to pulverise the nation into submission.”

Army bosses and the political elite were seeking to protect their wealth, which they had acquired largely through corruption, Mandaza added. Members of the ruling and military elites had formed cartels which were looting the country’s resources through corrupt deals. Their ability to do so is supported by the ruling party’s patronage culture. Senior politicians and military figures with liberation war credentials are rewarded with top government positions, whether they are competent or not (see Militarisation and masculinity in Zimbabwe by Rekopantswe Mate, Africa in Fact 48).

Over many years, few of the ruling elite, the military elite and their associates have ever been brought to book for their corruption. As a result, corruption has spread to the business sector and into lower levels of society. Corruption is seen as something that pays. Zimbabwe is now considered to be one of the most corrupt countries in the world; it ranked 160 out of 180 on the Transparency International 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index.

“The cartels can be traced back to 1998, when military bosses were involved in looting diamonds in the DRC. The cartels now control the exploitation of minerals and other resources, as well as the fuel sector in Zimbabwe,” said Mandaza.

Zimbabwe, Emkaweni north-east of Tsholotsho, which is 115 km northwest of Bulawayo, 23 November 2017. Georgina Tshuma, mother of Zuluboy Ndlovu who was killed during the violence. She stands next to her other son, Kennith Ndlovu.

Georgina Tshuma’s son Zuluboy Ndlovu was killed during the Gukurahundi massacre in the 1980s. She is seen here with her other son, Kenneth Ndlovu PHOTO GRAEME WILLIAMS

He argued that the actions of regime members were now aimed at achieving only one thing: protecting the fruits of their looting and corruption. “That applies to the 2008 massacres [during which an army crackdown left more than 100 people dead, as reported below],  the rigged 2013 election, the 2018 coup, the August shootings and the crackdown in January.”

While the military has been a key player in Zimbabwean politics since independence, its influence has grown over the years, culminating in the coup which removed Mugabe from power, Mandaza told Africa in Fact. The ruling party’s use of force was in line with a militarist doctrine according to which law and order were maintained by unleashing violence on the populace. In the early 1980s, the military murdered about 20,000 civilians in Matabeleland and Midlands in an operation known by a Shona term, Gukurahundi (the spring rain that washes away the chaff). The army also played a pivotal role in ensuring Mugabe remained in power after he lost the first round of the 2008 elections to the then-opposition leader, the late Morgan Tsvangirai. At the time, the Forum estimated that at least 107 people were killed, while some 19 people “disappeared”, about 137 abducted, there were six politically motivated rapes, some 913 people were assaulted and about 629 displaced. The 2018 state violence involved about 2,532 human rights violations, the Forum said.

Zimbabwe’s violent political culture had left an indelible mark on the population, said Masunungure. “When you live under a draconian system … it leaves a mark. The culture of violence and suppression started with the colonial regime in 1890. Zimbabweans had to undertake a liberation war, which included an armed struggle, to be free. The armed struggle had a psychological effect on soldiers on both sides, as well as the general population,” he said.

After independence, Zimbabweans found themselves having to contend with the psychological effects of an equally autocratic system under Mugabe, Masunungure added. “We are risk averse because we have experienced the consequences of state-sponsored brutality for so many years.” Because of this, protests such as those which occurred in 2016 and 2018 were rare – and were promptly crushed by the state. Zimbabwe now lacked a critical mass of people who were not cowed or awed by the potential risks of politics, he said.

“It’s important, however, to note that we are not born docile,” he said. “It’s something that has been nurtured over generations.”

Owen Gagare is news editor at the business weekly Zimbabwe Independent. He has previously worked for two national daily newspapers, NewsDay and the Chronicle. He is based in Harare.

Zimbabwe: caught between the pandemic and an incapable state

The Zimbabwean government’s plans to pay ZW$ 300 a month to a million households were screamed in a headline in the state-controlled Sunday Mail edition of 26 July. The article also ran in the weekly Sunday News the same weekend, under the headline “Monthly cash bailout for citizens”.

According to the reports, the government would implement its plan “soon” as part of efforts to cushion vulnerable people whose sources of income have been affected by Covid-19. The remarks were attributed to Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube, during an address to a Zanu-PF Provincial Co-ordinating Committee in the Matabeleland South provincial capital, Gwanda, on 25 July.

Ncube also called for vulnerable people to register under the scheme. But many people were shocked that such a paltry amount was being seriously considered. To put the figure into context, ZW$300 was enough to buy 1kg of economy beef during the last week of July. A two-litre bottle of cooking oil and a 10kg bag of maize meal were going for about ZW$350 at the end of July.

Many people were shocked that such a paltry amount was being seriously considered.

It was not a surprise that the story attracted ridicule for the government on social media. “The Govt is going to give vulnerable households US$3 each. The purpose of the pay-out is ‘to cushion people whose sources of income have been affected by Covid-19’. US$3 can barely buy 3 loaves of bread & a tin of beans. What an insult!” wrote MDC-Alliance spokesperson Fadzai Mahere on Twitter.

Yet there was little or nothing new in the announcement. On 27 March, President Emmerson Mnangagwa announced a 21-day total shutdown with effect from March 30, which left many Zimbabweans who survive through the informal sector – mainly vending – without a source of income.

The government, through Ncube, on 30 March, acknowledged that the lockdown would impact livelihoods and announced a ZW$600 million package to cover one million vulnerable households under a cash transfer programme for three months. In a statement, Ncube said the Social Welfare Department would identify beneficiaries for the facility.

US$3 can barely buy 3 loaves of bread & a tin of beans.

“Vulnerable groups in our society are the most exposed under this Covid-19 crisis,” Ncube said. The Treasury would pay out ZW$200 million per month, the amount made available to the facility, and the duration of payments would be reviewed “as necessary”, and the cash transfers would “commence immediately”. But by the end of July, government was far from reaching even this paltry target. Confusion about the intended beneficiaries of the scheme and the mechanisms used to identify them overshadowed the plan from the start.

In May, Social Welfare Minister Paul Mavima told journalists that only 201,000 vulnerable citizens would benefit from the scheme. A “new database” had identified 201,000 beneficiaries, who would receive $180, and payments had started the previous week. At the end of July, the finance ministry said that about 250,000 people were benefiting from the programme. The amount was upped to $300 person from 1 June, 2020 and the programme would continue until the end of the year, “funds permitting”.

But Ncube had originally said that “social welfare structures” would identify the beneficiaries. Later he said that a “sophisticated algorithm” would evaluate individuals’ mobile money and bank balances to identify beneficiaries. This resulted in questions being asked about government’s transparency.

At the end of July, the finance ministry said that about 250,000 people were benefiting from the programme.

The package was originally intended to mitigate the impact of Covid-19 during and after the 21-day total lockdown that began at the end of March. The lockdown was gradually eased, but on 21 July Mnangagwa announced tighter control measures, including a 6am to 6pm curfew.  At the time, Covid-19 cases in the country had reached 1,820, with 26 deaths, according to official figures.

The ostensible purpose of the curfew was to stem the rising number of new infections. But many Zimbabweans believe the measure was imposed as part of the government’s efforts to silence growing dissent and ensure the failure of anti-corruption protests planned for 31 July.

On 20 July, police arrested anti-corruption journalist Hopewell Chin’ono and opposition official Jacob Ngarivhume on charges of “incitement to participate in public violence”. Ngarivhume was mobilising Zimbabweans to protest against rising corruption and the looting of Covid-19 funds by senior government officials. Chin’ono played a critical role in exposing the looting of Covid-19 funds by senior government officials and people with links to Mnangagwa’s family, as reported by Good Governance Africa in the second round of this C-19 blog series (see also GGA’s coverage of Zimbabwe here).

Many Zimbabweans believe the measure was imposed as part of the government’s efforts to silence growing dissent and ensure the failure of anti-corruption protests.

The introduction of the curfew and other restrictive measures, such as limiting inter-city and inter-suburb travel and forcing all businesses to close doors at 3pm, have once again hit Zimbabwe’s informal sector hard, worsening the predicament of vulnerable citizens. Most Zimbabweans believe the government has done very little to help vulnerable citizens during the lockdown.

“Personally, I do not know anyone who has received the pay-out – although, of course, it wouldn’t make a difference in anyone’s life if they did,” said Simba Makwiro, a fruit vendor from Dzivarasekwa high-density suburbs, who operates in Harare’s Central Business District. “In my neighbourhood there are many old people and child-headed households, but they are not receiving any assistance.”

As a vendor, he has found it “tough” to survive on the go (from hand to mouth) in “the Covid-19 era”. He spent all his savings on food during the initial 21-day total shutdown, which left him with no money to buy stock for resale. “I know many other vendors in the same predicament. Covid-19 cases keep rising while the government is afraid of a revolt, and is making it difficult for us to travel.” He felt very uncertain about the future.

“In my neighbourhood there are many old people and child-headed households, but they are not receiving any assistance.” – Simba Makwiro

In Zimbabwe, more than 7.7 million people – half the population – are food insecure, while 63% of the population live below the poverty line, according to the World Food Programme. A caring government would have put robust social support measures in place to cushion vulnerable citizens during the pandemic. But this is Zimbabwe.

Over the past two decades, the Zimbabwean government has not shown any interest in caring for its citizens. Instead, the ruling elite has focused on primitive wealth accumulation through corruption, nepotism and a deep-rooted patronage system. And to eliminate any obstacles to this, it has focused on retaining and consolidating its power. The state has been militarised, and dissenting voices stifled. As a result, services to citizens have been neglected and vulnerable citizens left to fend for themselves.

After decades of mismanagement, the Zimbabwean economy is caught in a perfect storm of problems – among them a debilitating liquidity crunch, acute fuel and foreign currency shortages, currency volatility and low-capacity utilisation. Inflation has galloped to nearly 800%, eroding savings, incomes and the purchasing power of citizens.

In Zimbabwe, more than 7.7 million people – half the population – are food insecure, while 63% of the population live below the poverty line.

“Even before Covid-19, the socio-economic situation was already very fragile,” Dr Prosper Chitambara, a senior researcher at the Labour and Economic Development Research Institute of Zimbabwe, told me. “Covid-19 has exposed our fragilities. The fragilities: limited social protection and health coverage and limited fiscal space to deal with emergencies. The most vulnerable were already living in extreme poverty. Covid-19 has exacerbated their already dire situation.”

As long ago as 8 April the government’s failure to provide safety nets for the vulnerable prompted Harare North legislator Allan Norman Markham and human rights activist Mfundo Mlilo to file a High Court application seeking an order compelling the president and his cabinet to provide support to vulnerable citizens in the form of food, cash handouts and water.

Their lawyer, Tendai Biti of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, argued that restricting people’s movement without providing for safety nets to those most seriously affected by conditions of lockdown – poor communities, informal traders and unemployed people –threatened their rights to life and to health care and was an abdication of the state’s duty to protect citizens, both in terms of the Constitution and in terms of international law, which requires states to protect their citizens from pandemics.

The most vulnerable were already living in extreme poverty. Covid-19 has exacerbated their already dire situation.

The High Court dismissed the application, but the case was embarrassing for the government. Recently, doctors have also gone to court to compel the state to provide personal protective clothing for health personnel on the Covid-19 frontline.

While the lockdown continues, the plight of vulnerable citizens continues to worsen. Meanwhile, the pandemic is gathering pace – and is being used by the authoritarian government as an opportunity to clamp down on dissenting voices. Covid-19 is a serious public health crisis and it might be said that the government’s inadequate response to it constitutes a political health crisis. Taken together, they will ensure that most Zimbabweans continue to walk a path of agony.


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Owen Gagare is the assistant editor of the Zimbabwe Independent, a weekly newspaper, covering business, politics and investigative stories. He has previously worked for NewsDay and the Chronicle. Owen has also written for the Mail and Guardian and has a passion for investigative and in-depth stories as well as human rights and governance issues. He is based in Harare, Zimbabwe.

A dangerous profession

Working for privately-owned media in Zimbabwe means consciously facing serious risks

Zimbabwean journalist and documentary filmmaker Hopewell Chin’ono (R) watches while police search of his offices in Harare on July 21, 2020,  a day after he was arrested and charged with incitement to commit public violence. Chin’ono and opposition politician Jacob Ngarivhume were the latest among several of President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s critics to be arrested or have their homes raided and searched ahead of protests planned for July 31, 2020. He has been denied bail twice. PHOTO JEKESAI NJIKIZANA/AFP)

The term “fourth estate” to describe the press is generally attributed to British MP Lord Thomas Macaulay, who is said to have used it in reference to members of the press seated in the House of Commons gallery in 1828. The media was seen as the necessary additional element of democracy that would serve as a watchdog of the other three arms of government. Since then, this characterisation of the media has had profound significance in understanding the role and place of the media in modern society. This thinking is summed up in an op-ed piece by former Zimbabwe Independent editor Dumisani Muleya, first published on the newspaper’s website and allegedly retracted on instruction of the owner of Alpha Media Holdings (AMH) on 4 October, 2019. The piece was later republished by ZimLive, an online media entity: “The main objective of journalism should be serving the public interest. It should never be prostituted for self-serving ends, be they political or commercial interests; or indeed the whims of publishers, editors’ caprices and readers’ worst instincts.”

It is only by serving this objective that the media can fulfil its role as the fourth estate, as an important element of democracy. Hence, the arguments for a free press. This philosophy has largely informed the development and role of the private media in Zimbabwe, thus putting them at loggerheads with the ruling party, ZANU-PF, and its government. The private media in Zimbabwe have experienced various forms of state harassment and repression. Journalists have been tortured, disappeared, arrested, detained without charges, brutally beaten. Pressrooms have been bombed and teargassed. Since everyone knows this, working for privately-owned media in this country means consciously facing serious risks. Over the years, the state’s muzzling of privately-owned media has seen a number of particular low points. There was the torture of Ray Choto and Mark Chavunduka – journalist and editor of the Standard, respectively – by the army in 1999 for reporting a foiled coup. The Harare-based Daily News was bombed twice, on 22 April, 2000 and 28 January, 2001, before it was closed under the controversial Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) in 2002.

Andrew Meldrum, a correspondent for The Economist and The Guardian in Zimbabwe, was arrested in 2002 and forcibly deported in 2003. This was followed by a ban on foreign media houses in the country. And then there was the disappearance on 9 March, 2015 of Itai Dzamara, a freelance journalist and outspoken critic of Zimbabwe’s then president, Robert Mugabe. More recently, the Reporters without Borders 2020 Press Freedom Rankings puts Zimbabwe at 126 out of 181 countries. In his 2012 book, The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy, William Dobson argues that authoritarian regimes around the world are growing more sophisticated. They understand that “ the more brutal forms of intimidations – mass arrests, firing squads, and violent crackdowns” are counterproductive, and “best replaced with more subtle forms of coercion”. Modern authoritarians, he continues, understand the importance of appearances, which is why they “pepper their speeches with references to liberty, justice and the rule of law”. The result is that “from a distance, many of the world’s leading authoritarians look almost democratic”. Zimbabwe’s small ruling elite has, apparently, learned some lessons as regards the ways it seeks to control the media.

The process began with the government of national unity (2009/2010), and intensified during the period leading to the rise of Emmerson Mnangagwa to Zimbabwe’s presidency. Mnangagwa was initially labelled a reformist and someone who understood the needs of business, perceptions he capitalised on to consolidate his power base. As Dobson argues, “many features of a modern authoritarian regime are individually not at odds with a healthy democracy”. For instance, an official inquiry into the state of the media industry in 2014 made far-reaching recommendations that suggested the possibility of media reforms, but the report simply gathered dust. A number of new radio stations have been licensed, but these are linked to state-owned media or individuals loyal to the ruling party. Recently, applications for broadcasting rights for commercial television, community radio stations and campus radio stations were invited, but applications were attached to steep licensing fees. By falling for the regime’s narrative, Zimbabwe’s privately-owned media have fallen into a Charybdis – the monster/whirlpool of Greek mythology.

The political interests of the ruling elites and the business interests of the publishers have found common ground, argues Dr Pedzisai Ruhanya, a University of Johannesburg Media and Democracy Scholar, in a 2018 article, ‘The Plight of the Private Press During the Zimbabwe Crisis (2010-2018)’. Another writer, Tatenda Prosper Chitagu agrees. In a 2018 study of the relationship between Zimbabwe’s private media and the ruling party, Chitagu argued that coverage by two privately owned papers of the recent power struggles within Zanu-PF “mirrored a society on the edge”. The papers had “fixated … on infighting within Zanu-PF”, which narrowed their coverage of others issues. Meanwhile, allegations of brown envelope journalism have become more insistent and widespread as journalists have had to endure poor working conditions and increased workloads. They have also had to deal with pay cuts, sometimes going for months without salaries. The country’s weak economy has hit publishers and media house owners; dwindling corporate advertising revenues have left government and parastatals as the major source of income, which appear to have taken advantage of the situation to buy the acquiescence, or silence, of private media.

As an example, Muleya’s controversial exit from the editorship of the Zimbabwe Independent in October 2019 raised a heated debate about the present condition of the private media in Zimbabwe – and its future. It is widely believed that Trevor Ncube, the owner of Alpha Media Holdings (AMH), the publisher of the Zimbabwe Independent, had to change editors critical of the Mnangagwa administration after reconciling his stance towards the government after the fall of Mugabe. Social media reports claim that Mnangagwa bought a 30% stake in AMH for $2 million via his son in-law, Gerald Mlotshwa. These claims were further given currency by a photo of Ncube and Faith Zaba (the newly appointed editor of the Zimbabwe Independent) handing Mnangagwa a framed Newsday headline about the then-impending coup during November 2017: Mugabe Out in Weeks – Claims Mnangagwa. However, Prudence Mutsvanga, the company secretary of AMH, rejected the claims in a public statement in October last year, denying that Mnangagwa or anyone representing him had been in “negotiations” with AMH. Similar claims have also been made regarding the purchase and merger of Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe (ANZ), publishers of the Daily News, with Modus Publications, publishers of the Financial Gazette, into one media stable in 2017.

It is believed that former Reserve Bank governor Gideon Gono sold his ANZ shareholding to Mlotshwa. This change in shareholding saw a change in editorial structure and the elevation of journalists perceived as friendly to the Mnangagwa administration. However, the shareholding structures of Zimbabwean media operations are murky terrain, meaning that financial journalists and commentators often rely on rumour and off-the-record information. As Ruhanya comments in the article cited earlier, “[The] [s]hareholdings and ownership structures of newspapers are not always transparent”. But the buying-off of critical private media is not new in Zimbabwe. In 2005 the Irish Times reported that Zimbabwe’s intelligence organisation, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIO), had secretly invested in the Financial Gazette, the Daily Mirror and Sunday Mirror. However, there are indications of a growing and active online community, as reported by Zimbabwe’s Postal and Telecommunications Authority in 2016 and the National Statistics Agency (ZIMSTAT) in 2014. Active mobile phone penetration was at 13 million subscribers, or around 97% of the population, according to the ZIMSTAT report.

Internet subscriptions were at 6,7 million, or about 50.1% of the population. Some 37% of data use in Zimbabwe was spent on WhatsApp and Facebook, while some $167 million was spent on calls, data and internet during the same period. This has seen the rise and exponential growth of new media operations such as Bus Stop TV, Magamba TV, CITE, Big Saturday Read, Gravitas Bulletin, Comic Pastor and @263 Chat, among others. These media have helped to keep power accountable by reporting on corruption in the public sector and other issues of public interest. Magamba TV, Bus Stop TV and Comic Pastor have become known for using political satire to stimulate discourse on so-called hot topics. Gravitas Bulletin and Big Saturday Read, through op-eds, have stretched the limits of traditional media in discussing public affairs. CITE, meanwhile, has managed to use online documentaries to give voice to the victims of the 1980s genocide in Matabeleland who previously had been unheard. However, Zimbabwe’s worsening economic crisis has seen rising data costs and depleted incomes, meaning that citizens have less to spend on communications.

Moreover, the ruling party has come up with strategies aimed at muzzling and muting online debate. Speaking in Shona at a ZANU-PF youth meeting during the July 2018 election campaign, Mnangagwa instructed the youth league: “Tambai navo muSocial Media imomo. Musakundwe muSocial Media. Pindai, morakasha vanhu muSocial Media”. (Loosely translated as “Go and engage with them on social media. Make sure you defeat and destroy our opponents on social media.”) This saw the christening of ZANUPF’s new online army, known as the Varakashi (the destroyers), whose purpose appears to be to cyberbully or harass government critics into silence. “Civil society leaders, opposition activists, independent media and even foreign embassies have been the subject of targeted online campaigns laced with vitriolic language,” according to a 2019 article on the Global Voices site, an online community of journalists, translators, academics and human rights activists. The attacks involve “a mix of fake news, rumour, hate speech, disinformation and misinformation” in a bid to discredit alternative voices, according to the article.

A case in point is that of comedian Samantha (Gonyeti) Kureya of Bus Stop TV, who was reportedly abducted by unidentified armed men, stripped, beaten and forced to drink sewerage in August last year. She later told reporters that her attackers warned her about mocking the government in her skits. A junior government minister, however, tweeted that Kureya had faked the abduction to obtain donor funding. As Global Voices points out, “mis- and disinformation” are able to flourish due to a variety of factors: extreme polarisation in the media, proposed government controls over social media, poor official communication methods and low digital literacy among internet users”. The Varakashi have sometimes gone further than merely attacking bloggers. A case in point was their attempt to cyberbully Dr Alex Magaisa, a law lecturer based at Kent University in the UK and publisher of the Big Saturday Read, a popular critical blog on public affairs in Zimbabwe. A pro-government social media troll, @CdeNMaswerasei (Cde Never Maswerasei), launched a petition on change.org imploring Kent University to break ties with Magaisa.

Other techniques, used on Twitter and Facebook, are to energetically post items on unrelated subjects or spam chat threads. A recent fallout, in January 2020, between presidential spokesperson George Charamba and a supposed Varakashi, Kudzai Mutisi, tweeting as @ KMutisi, has inadvertently given credence to the thesis that the government pays online social media trolls. Charamba chastised Mutisi for failing to toe the official line and said he was holding to ridicule “the very system that pays [him]”. This raised eyebrows: a senior member of the government was admitting that it paid trolls to defend the party. Given this, we might question the ability of the Zimbabwean media to play their role as the fourth estate in the interest of the public and of democracy. There are a number of questions that arise: how can the media be supported in complex environments such as Zimbabwe? What opportunities do new digital media offer and how can they be consolidated? How do you address issues of access to online media, given rising data costs and depleting incomes? What kind of journalism is required in the current environment, and what capacity building strategies are needed? And how should the problem of emerging media monopolies, particularly in Africa, be addressed?

For Hopewell Chin’ono’s Africa in Fact article on media in Zimbabwe click here.

For more on the perils of journalism in Africa, click here.

For more on media freedom in Africa click here.

Tamuka Charles Chirimambowa is co-founder and editor of Gravitas Bulletin. He is currently studying for DLitt. et. Philosophy in Development Studies at the University of Johannesburg. Tamuka has worked extensively with civil society in Zimbabwe and South Africa, on issues of human rights, governance and democracy, migrant’s rights, economic policy and social justice. He is keenly interested in the socio-political and economic transformation of post-colonial African societies.

The likely impact of COVID-19 on the extractive industries and its governance implications


MAY 2020

The likely impact of COVID-19 on the extractive industries and it’s governance implications

COVID-19, the disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO). Global policy responses have shut down economic activity in attempts to flatten the curve – to prevent a stiletto-type impact on the capacity of healthcare systems to provide care for COVID-affected patients. Recent projections from the Asian Development Bank suggest that resultant global economic losses could amount to between $5.8tn and $8.8tn (Asian Development Bank 2020). African countries appeared, initially, to be particularly susceptible to the negative social and economic consequences unleashed by COVID-19 (The Economist 2020).

However, the demographic profile of many developing countries, not only in Africa, entails a ‘youth bulge’, and the elderly – most susceptible to contracting severe forms of the virus – tend to live at home rather than in concentrated spatial locations (Cash and Patel 2020). Though a lack of data and testing capacity is a governance concern throughout the continent, African countries thus far have relatively low numbers of recorded infections. Nonetheless, the global figures make for gloomy reading. Total cases at the time of writing stand at 5,462,447; recorded deaths amount to 344,503 (Johns Hopkins University 2020).

A looming governance question is how countries will respond to the economic contraction and address looming fiscal deficits in the wake of vastly reduced tax bases (Roubini 2020). For many African countries, dependent on natural resources for exports and foreign exchange revenue, economic recession will have a devastating effect on livelihoods. The World Bank estimates that, globally, 49 million more people will be pushed into ‘extreme poverty’, with sub-Saharan Africa likely to suffer disproportionately (Gerzon Mahler et al. 2020). Extractive industries are particularly susceptible to the worst impacts of the economic downturn as they are capital-intensive businesses deeply connected to global supply chains. Find out more here: Extractive Industries and Governance Implications Document


Ross is a natural resource economist and policy analyst, and he has been dealing with governance issues in various forms across this sector since 2007. He has a PhD in economics from the University of Cape Town, and his thesis research focused on the political economy of oil and institutional development in Angola and Nigeria. While completing his PhD, Ross worked as a senior researcher on extractive industries and wildlife governance at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA), and in May 2019 became an independent conservation consultant. Ross’s task at GGA is to establish a non-renewable natural resources project (extractive industries) to ensure that the industry becomes genuinely sustainable and contributes to Africa achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Sixolile holds a Masters of Commerce (M.com) in Economics from the University of Fort Hare, where he worked on the National Income Dynamics study (NIDS), based at the University of Cape Town, for Econometric research (econometric modelling, data coding, data mining, data analysis and interpretation). Sixolile has two B.com undergraduate degrees (in economics and in business financial management and industrial psychology). For his B.com Honours he majored in econometrics and economics. He has multidisciplinary skills, including an intersection of machine learning and data science (PYTHON and R-programming). Sixolile has background experience in natural resources, working with AngloGold Ashanti in the finance department. Later, he joined CNH-Industrial as a junior strategic developer and government relations. In 2019 he joined Good Governance Africa as a lead researcher, where he is responsible for quantitative and qualitative data management and statistical analysis on research projects relating to natural resources, land reform, and policy analysis, among others. At university he was in involved in starting an academic society, New Economic Horizon, that fostered a working relationship between the Auditor-General’s office in the Eastern Cape and the University of Fort Hare’s accounting department.

Africa Day 2020: A unique opportunity for reflection

Covid-19 has taken the world by storm. It has exposed deep fragilities in our global systems. Our economic systems, first and foremost, clearly require deep reform. Failing to properly account for ecological degradation has unleashed climate change and viral dark matter, both of which have exacerbated vulnerabilities among the worst off. Ecological economists have been raising the red flag on this front since the late 1960s at least. If Covid-19 is not a catalyst for designing and implementing new economic models that help us to arrive at a more safe and just space in our delicate web of planetary boundaries, it is hard to imagine what could be. Our next edition of Africa in Fact deals with this very issue.

The edition thereafter addresses health. Health systems, even in rich countries, were already creaking under the strain of lifestyle diseases. In poor countries, the health burden of infectious diseases such as TB and HIV, along with malaria, hardly disappeared when Covid-19 arrived. Every bed set aside for Covid-19 patients is a bed that cannot be used to treat other urgent health needs. The Economist was quick to point out (26 March, 2020) that any given American ICU unit had more ventilators than entire African countries. While the article contained interesting analysis, the headline carried unwarranted Afro-pessimism – “Africa is woefully ill-equipped to cope with Covid-19”. The Guardian’s Afua Hirsch provided a subtle correction and provocatively asked: “Why are Africa’s coronavirus successes being overlooked?”

On Africa Day, it is well worth noting that any given set of data visualisations reveal that African countries have thus far been spared the worst of Covid-19’s direct effects, though the knock-on effects of global and local policy decisions are still to be fully accounted for. In a unique contribution to understanding the variation in governance responses from different countries, Africa in Fact will be running a special 12-week digital edition of the journal with authors from six African countries – Nigeria, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa. Each author will write six short blog posts, working in teams of three. In other words, every week, starting on Wednesday, 27 May, we will publish three posts. Over the first two weeks, we cover the first theme – type of leadership response; over the next two weeks, the second theme, and so forth. Don’t miss them.

A quick glance across sub-Saharan Africa reveals that the highest death rate (outside of South Africa) is Cameroon with 5.88 deaths per million. Spain’s is more than 10 times that, with the UK only slightly lower – horrible tragedies that we lament. So, was The Economist wrong? It’s hard to say. But what it didn’t appear to factor in is that, in general, African countries have become adept at dealing with infectious diseases. Moreover, our demographic profile (youth-heavy), and the fact the elderly tend to live at home (rather than in care homes with other elderly people), means that vulnerability to severe infection may be lower than in countries with different demographics and spatial concentrations of elderly people. Despite technological and capacity deficiencies, we’ve found ways and means of addressing health disasters. Ghana and Senegal have led the way in demonstrating innovative, professional responses. Of course, a lack of data and testing at scale remains a challenge for most countries. And death rates in places like South Africa (6.22 per million) are climbing exponentially.

Nonetheless, six weeks after The Economist’s first pessimistic article (linked above), the newspaper published another article titled “Why Covid-19 seems to spread more slowly in Africa”, commending the Ghanaian government for its swift response. From the available data, it notes that the World Health Organization (WHO)’s analysis suggests that “the virus is spreading more slowly in Africa than elsewhere”. While variation is high, and undercounting is likely, “official data are still a rough reflection of reality in many countries”.

The graphs below, produced by our in-house data specialist, Monique Bennett, annotate relevant policy interventions over time in each of the six African countries featured in our special edition. Each graph plots positive infections against recoveries. The recovery rate is particularly important, as it provides epidemiologists with an idea of potential immunity levels, which can help to inform lockdown decision-making and potentially tell us something about the possibility of achieving herd immunity (provided we have a similarly good idea of R – the rate of spread of the disease, which will depend on having far more data).

Our proviso, of course, is that the graphs are a reflection of data that we deem useful to visualise from a governance perspective. We are not suggesting that where infection rates appear to slow (or increase) after a particular policy intervention that these two events are causally connected. We are simply plotting a timeline of how things have unfolded according to the public data that we have at our disposal. The y-axes have been differently scaled for each country, so please do take note of that, too.

Each country has very different screening, testing and contact-tracing capacities and strategies; the data presented on the graphs above is ultimately a reflection of those policy decisions, and a function of the number of tests completed. These differences will be addressed in the blog series. So, the bottom line is: don’t miss out on this unique pan-African contribution.


Dr Ross Harvey is a natural resource economist and policy analyst, and he has been dealing with governance issues in various forms across this sector since 2007. He has a PhD in economics from the University of Cape Town, and his thesis research focused on the political economy of oil and institutional development in Angola and Nigeria. While completing his PhD, Ross worked as a senior researcher on extractive industries and wildlife governance at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA), and in May 2019 became an independent conservation consultant. Ross’s task at GGA is to establish a non-renewable natural resources project (extractive industries) to ensure that the industry becomes genuinely sustainable and contributes to Africa achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).