HARARE, Zimbabwe—Samantha Kureya’s memories of the night she was abducted are not totally clear, but she vividly remembers one phrase that her attackers kept repeating. “You are too young to mock the government,” they said.
The young Zimbabwean comedian, whose viral online skits poke fun at the government, was taken from her home in Harare, the capital, on Aug. 21 by three unidentified men wielding machine guns. She said they drove her to a remote location she did not recognize, where they beat her, forced her to strip and made her drink sewage water, before abandoning her.
The incident left the 33-year-old Kureya injured and traumatized, but unbowed. “Comedy is my job. It’s my life,” she said, in an interview with the Mail & Guardian newspaper.
Kureya’s experience highlights a fault line in Zimbabwean politics that is becoming more pronounced with every passing year: age.
Zimbabwe is a young country. According to the United Nations Population Fund, 62 percent of the population is under the age of 25. Yet Zimbabwe’s leaders are all past or approaching retirement age. President Emmerson Mnangagwa is 77. His deputy, the former army chief Constantine Chiwenga, is 63. Even Mnangagwa’s first minister of youth, Sithembiso Gile Gladys Nyoni, was born in 1949. This irony became too much for even the government, and Nyoni was replaced by the much younger Kirsty Coventry (born in 1983) in September 2018.*
This age gap and the intergenerational tensions it spawns have exacerbated political divisions across the country, even within the ruling ZANU-PF party. Prior to the November 2017 coup that ousted longtime ruler Robert Mugabe in 2017, factional infighting between the old guard of independence-era leaders and a new generation of up-and-coming politicians intent on taking on their seniors had threatened to divide the party. The younger faction called itself G40, for “Generation 40,” a reference to many of them being in their forties. It was led by Grace Mugabe, Robert’s then-wife, who was widely believed to be plotting to succeed him.
Mnangagwa and his faction—known in Zimbabwe as “Team Lacoste,” in reference to his nickname, “the Crocodile,” a nod to Mnangagwa’s notorious brutality as Mugabe’s loyal enforcer—preempted the 52-year-old former first lady’s plans. Forcing Robert Mugabe out of office in a palace coup, Mnangagwa promised not only to do things differently, but to deliver change, an agenda that many around him referred to as the “New Dispensation.”
Two years later, the New Dispensation has turned out to be anything but new. As Kureya’s ordeal visibly illustrates, despite Mugabe’s ouster, Zimbabwe’s aging regime is still using the same brutal methods to rule the country—including attempts to silence its youthful population.
Zimbabwe’s New Dispensation was formally ushered in on Nov. 21, 2017, when Mugabe officially stepped down from office after 37 years in power. By then, the 93-year-old dictator had lost the support of his generals and was holed up in his lavish “Blue Roof” residence as tanks patrolled the streets of Harare. After his resignation, enormous crowds paraded through those same streets, celebrating the end of Africa’s most enduring dictatorship and exchanging selfies with the soldiers that had brought it about.
The crowds gave a populist veneer to what was for all intents and purposes a military coup that installed Mnangagwa, for decades Mugabe’s top lieutenant, as president. But though almost two decades younger than Mugabe, Mnangagwa is still an old man. And upon taking office, he surrounded himself in power with members of his inner circle—Team Lacoste—purging the vanquished G40 faction in the process by excluding them from senior positions. It was the first clear sign that the post-Mugabe period would not usher in a generational leadership transition.
Zimbabwe’s age gap and the intergenerational tensions it spawns have exacerbated political divisions across the country, even within the ruling ZANU-PF party.
Jonathan Moyo, a former information minister who was affiliated with G40, characterized the younger faction’s movement as “a powerful idea about generational renewal.” He added, “It is absurd that Zimbabwe’s young population is being held hostage by a clueless old guard whose politics are based on an entitlement revolution that is the enemy of human rights, diversity, inclusivity, merit and democracy.”
Mnangagwa assured both Zimbabweans and the rest of the world that the days of political repression and economic mismanagement by a corrupt party elite were over. Zimbabwe was “open for business,” he told the World Economic Forum in Davos. And for a time, observers wondered whether the Crocodile would change his ways to not only salvage Zimbabwe’s economy but also open space for political dissent.
Two years after the coup, however, the answers to those questions are quite clearly negative.
“It has been a total disaster,” said Hopewell Chin’ono, a journalist and documentary filmmaker, “because they have not delivered on anything they promised to the world.” In another, bitter irony of the New Dispensation, he said, “you have old people in rural areas and townships saying that Mugabe was better, and we know that Mugabe was a disaster too.”
A soldier stands next to a portrait of former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabeat his burial in Zvimba, Zimbabwe, Sept. 28, 2019 (AP photo by Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi).
The first major sign that Zimbabwe’s new era would bear striking similarities to its immediate past came in July 2018, when Zimbabweans voted in the country’s first elections since Mugabe’s ouster. The elections were markedly more open than previous votes. The main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, or MDC, was able to campaign freely in ZANU-PF strongholds that were previously no-go areas, for instance. But the process was nonetheless marred by serious concerns over the credibility of the voter rolls and widespread intimidation of opposition supporters.
After election day, when opposition supporters gathered in Harare to protest these anomalies, the government sent in the military to disperse the crowd. At least six people were killed when soldiers opened fire with live ammunition.
That was only the beginning. In January 2019, opposition groups organized nationwide anti-government demonstrations and a general strike to protest a sudden hike in the price of subsidized fuel. The government response was brutal. Claiming that opposition supporters were looting shops, state security services—along with military personnel and unidentified armed militias—launched a crackdown against opposition parties, unions and civil society groups.
By the time the crackdown ended a week later, the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum had recorded some 844 human rights violations, including at least 12 deaths, 466 arbitrary arrests and 242 reports of assault, torture or degrading treatment.
Breaking From the Past
Unlike ZANU-PF, the opposition Movement for Democratic Change has begun a leadership transition to a younger generation. After the death in 2018 of its founder and perennial presidential candidate Morgan Tsvangirai, the MDC tapped Nelson Chamisa, 41, to succeed him.
“How it’s played out within the MDC is that there’s been more of a ceding by the old guard to a new leadership,” said Piers Pigou, the International Crisis Group’s senior consultant for Southern Africa. “You’ve seen a coterie of younger leaders in key positions in the top ranks of the MDC.” Those who remain from the older generation “are in their 50s and 60s,” Pigou added. “These are not folks who are wedded to the old guard of the liberation movement.”
This youthful injection made itself felt in the MDC’s 2018 election campaign. Chamisa’s pitch to voters focused on initiatives like building bullet trains and smart cities, a conscious appeal to a tech-savvy generation.
So, too, the ranks of civil society and activists tend to be significantly younger than the government officials they are seeking to hold to account. Thandekile Moyo is one of those activists. A young writer based in Bulawayo, the second-largest city in Zimbabwe, Moyo is a fierce critic of the government on social media. During the crackdown in January, she had to flee to a neighboring country for temporary exile after receiving online threats from pro-government social media accounts.
Zimbabwe is a young country, with 62 percent of its population under the age of 25. Yet its leaders are all past or approaching retirement age.
Moyo says that the age gap between Zimbabwe’s rulers and its population helps to explain why the country’s politics are so dysfunctional.
For the younger generation, cultural barriers make it difficult to challenge authority figures. “We have a culture of respecting the elderly, which our politicians have taken advantage of,” she explained. “In [political] parties, these old guys are treated as ‘fathers’ that must be obeyed, and Zimbabweans are big on respecting parents.”
The older generation, on the other hand, sometimes think the youth are spoiled—and can therefore be ignored. “They believe they have actually done well by us,” Moyo said, “because in their minds our lives are a hundred times better than the lives they had growing up. More so, because there are no white people oppressing us, preventing us from accessing anything, so what are we crying about?”
For Moyo, all of this combines to make for a toxic political environment. “The older guys make terrible decisions that affect young people, but young people—because of both culture, and the military whose power these guys abuse—suffer in silence.”
But that might be changing. Though January’s violence was perhaps the most brutal demonstration of the state’s repressive response to dissent in a decade, it was hardly new for Zimbabwe. What was new was the scale of anti-government protests—and who was driving the movement.
“I do get a sense that youth are organizing in their own way,” said Pigou. “You’ve got this deep-seated despair, and that’s also translated into the youth—and particularly urban youth—becoming less risk averse.”
That includes not backing down in the face of state repression. “You saw this in January with unprecedented levels of civilian violence,” Pigou said, “and a lot of that was youth prepared to go on to the streets and take on police.”
Given that Zimbabwe is only getting younger, the potential for further unrest seems likely to increase.
An Economy in Crisis, Again
Whether Zimbabweans suffer in silence or while protesting vocally, the causes of their anguish are as plentiful today as they were before. Mugabe’s removal from office promised to unlock billions of dollars in international funding. But as the political situation worsened, the economy suffered, with both donor countries and potential investors staying away due to the political violence.
In the meantime, inflation has spiraled, driven by a dire shortage of foreign exchange reserves as well as a lack of trust in government-backed financial instruments—so much so that the Finance Ministry has stopped issuing official figures. The latest reliable benchmark, issued by the International Monetary Fund in September, said that as of August, year-on-year inflation had reached 300 percent.
Because the government is running out of foreign exchange reserves to purchase it, gasoline has become a scarce commodity, with people sometimes lining up overnight at gas stations. Power is also limited to just a few hours per day due to a prolonged drought that has left dams at record lows, crippling a grid that is almost totally reliant on hydroelectricity. Hospitals have shut down, and most public schools are open only two days per week.
“We don’t have electricity. We don’t have water. We don’t have fuel. We don’t have passports. We don’t have jobs. The list goes on—it’s too long.”
In 2008, during the last major economic crisis, runaway hyperinflation forced the government to abandon the Zimbabwean dollar in favor of a basket of international currencies, most notably the U.S. dollar. The current government has tried the opposite approach. In an attempt to address chronic foreign exchange shortages, it introduced a new Zimbabwean dollar earlier this year. Initially pegged at parity with the greenback, in early December it was trading officially at 16-to-1, with the black market exchange rate reaching 25-to-1, according to the Institute for Security Studies.
The current crisis has been exacerbated by natural disasters: first the devastating, deadly floods of Cyclone Idai, and then months of drought. A desperately poor harvest has left more than 60 percent of the country’s population of 16 million people in need of some kind of food aid. After a recent visit to Zimbabwe, Hilal Elver, the United Nations special envoy for the right to food, said that the scale of the food crisis is “shocking” for a country that is not at war. She called on “the government, all political parties and the international community to come together to put an end to this spiraling crisis before it morphs into a full-blown conflict.”
For Hopewell Chin’ono, the journalist, the situation has never been this bleak. “We don’t have electricity. We don’t have water. We don’t have fuel. We don’t have passports. We don’t have jobs. The list goes on,” he said. “It’s too long.”
The economic crisis disproportionately impacts younger generations, especially when it comes to finding jobs. The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions has estimated youth unemployment at 90 percent, although this figure does not count street-vending as employment.
Chin’ono sees no light at the end of the tunnel under the current ZANU-PF leadership. “The only option left now is if the opposition is capable and bold enough to confront Mnangagwa’s regime in the streets,” he said. “Other than that, Mnangagwa has shown us and the rest of the world that he has no desire at all to change, or to put national interests ahead of [ZANU-PF’s] interests.”
‘It Has Never Been This Bad’
According to reports from the media and human rights organizations, the government and its supporters appear to be working hard to forestall any potential popular protests, intensifying their efforts as the economy worsens. Abductions and extralegal detention—what Samantha Kureya endured just for telling jokes about the government—are becoming more and more common.
Dr. Peter Magombeyi is the young acting head of the Zimbabwe Hospital Doctors Association, a union that represents the country’s younger, junior-level doctors. In early September, the union began a general strike to demand wage increases—due to the rapid currency devaluation, their salaries had fallen to the equivalent of less than $40 per month. The strike is still not completely resolved, although some doctors have returned to work.
As the leader of the striking union, Magombeyi began receiving threatening text messages from anonymous phone numbers shortly after it began. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” read one message. “Carry on with the way you are acting and you will be abducted. We are getting close.”
Zimbabwean medical staff protest the abduction of Dr. Peter Magombeyi inHarare, Zimbabwe, Sept. 19, 2019 (AP photo by Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi).
At around 10 p.m. on Sept. 14, three men followed through on those threats, kidnapping Mogombeyi from his house in Harare. Five days later, he was found in a town 18 kilometers outside the city, confused and in pain, according to news reports. Magombeyi’s colleagues told me that they believe his abduction was politically motivated retaliation for the union’s outspoken criticism of the government.
Mogombeyi and Kureya are not alone. At least a dozen activists and union leaders have been similarly abducted, sometimes for several days at a time. Most have been tortured too.
The abductions and beatings, all of which have targeted critics of the Mnangagwa government, appear to be part of a coordinated campaign to repress all forms of political resistance. This includes the arrest and prosecution of dozens of activists, union organizers, opposition party members and human rights lawyers. “The stakes are too high now,” one high-profile activist told me, speaking on condition of anonymity in an article for the Mail & Guardian. “These guys can do anything. It has never been this bad.”
Mnangagwa has denied the state is at fault, however, offering a rather different explanation. Speaking on national TV last fall, he called Mogombeyi’s kidnapping part of a “growing trend of politically motivated false abductions in the country, which are calculated to put government in a negative light. Such political trickery amounts to terrorism.” The government and its supporters similarly dismissed Kureya’s claims, even alleging that she made the abduction up.
Perhaps the most powerful weapon at the disposal of opponents of Mnangagwa and Zimbabwe’s ruling establishment is time. Much of the credibility and authority of Mnangagwa’s regime, like Mugabe’s before it, comes from its ties to the liberation movement that successfully fought to overthrow white rule. This is not unique in Southern Africa. Angola, Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia and Tanzania are all similarly governed by parties that led their respective liberation movements.
But liberation heroes cannot live forever. Mugabe himself died last September, at the age of 95. “Perhaps 10 to 15 years from now, when the liberation generation is wiped out, then we may see some change,” said Chin’ono.
In the meantime, unless something changes unexpectedly, the majority of people in Zimbabwe can expect to continue struggling with basic necessities like food, power and access to health care, while facing state-sponsored violence when they attempt to make their grievances heard. These may be old problems, but Zimbabwe is still waiting for new solutions.
*Editor’s Note: The original version of this article stated that Sithembiso Gile Gladys Nyoni was still the minister of youth. WPR regrets the error.
Simon Allison is the Africa Editor for the Mail & Guardian in South Africa, and a research consultant for the Institute for Security Studies. This article originally appeared on www.worldpoliticsreview.com