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Zimbabweans protest against fuel price hike

Ineke Mules
January 14, 2019

Zimbabweans continue to express their anger at new government austerity measures which aim to boost the country's struggling economy, as security forces crack down on protesters. But a solution may be a long way off.

Protesters gather in a street in Harare, burning wood and holding a Stop sign
Image: DW/P. Musvanhiri

Zimbabwe's opposition party is claiming at last three people have been killed and many more injured on Tuesday as authorities continue to crack down on violent protests sparked by the government's decision to more than double the price of fuel.

The internet and mobile phone networks were also shut down across the country a day after police were deployed across Harare after protesters blocked a number of roads. The price of gasoline rose on Saturday from $1.34 (€1.17) per liter to $3.11, while the price of diesel now sits at $3.21 a liter, up from $1.49.

Residents barricaded roads in the crime-ridden suburbs of Epworth and Mabvuku, while some people threw stones at cars.

Zimbabwe is currently suffering from its worst economic crisis in a decade, with unemployment sitting at over 80 percent. Workers are now warning of nationwide strikes if the government does not meet their demands for an adequate living wage.

Government urges calm

The government is asking citizens for patience while they enact austerity measures aimed at boosting Zimbabwe's struggling economy in the long term.

"The government is putting in place a package of measures to cushion its workers until a few reviews of the cost of living adjustments due in April 2019 [are] affected in the context of the current budget," Mnangagwa said on Saturday during the announcement of the fuel price hike.

But few people are convinced by the government's reassurances. The leader of the Opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Nelson Chamisa, said: "We have a national crisis which is descending into a humanitarian crisis."

A police vehicle patrols a street in Harare
Police patrol a street in the low-income suburb of Epworth in Zimbabwe's capital Harare during violent demonstrationsImage: DW/P. Musvanhiri

The country's biggest labor federation, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, called for a three-day strike on Sunday with labor federation president Peter Mutasa claiming many workers cannot even afford bus fares. 

Government spokesman Nick Mangwana says civil society groups and the opposition are using the price hike and fuel shortages as an excuse to try and topple the government.

"It has become obvious that there is [a] deliberate plan to undermine and challenge the prevailing constitutional order," he said in a statement on Sunday night.

However, a protester in Epworth who wishes to remain anonymous has said the government has left them with little choice but to take to the streets.

"The same president we expected to improve the economy is making our lives miserable," he told DW. "He announced an increase of fuel prices and this has triggered an increase in commodity prices. What do they want us to do? We have to demonstrate."

Read more: Zimbabwe's economy urgently needs reform, says IMF

A deepening economic crisis

Prices of basic goods have more than tripled under the new administration, with a foreign-exchange shortage leading to scarcities of everything from fuel to food. A number of companies have been forced to cut or cease production as they are unable to import raw materials and fuel queues often stretch for kilometers. 

The current economic crisis can be traced back to a decision made by the government under then-President Robert Mugabe in 2009 to abandon the use of the Zimbabwe dollar after massive hyperinflation in favor of other currencies such as the US dollar and the South African Rand.

Ongoing social unrest and cash shortages have undermined President Emmerson Mnangagwa's efforts to appeal to foreign investors who were cast aside during the Mugabe era. 

A crowd of protesters run down the street in Harare
A crowd of protesters took to the streets in Harare in the hopes of sending the government a messageImage: picture-alliance/dpa/T. Mukwazhi

However, John Robertson, an economic consultant for the private sector in Zimbabwe, stresses that the country's economic problems began far earlier.

"[This crisis] did start much earlier than 2009," he told DW. "We abandoned the Zimbabwe dollar because it virtually disappeared. But the 'dollarization' in 2009 came 10 years after the land was taken off the market and the farmers were disabled by being isolated from the banks. That's what really did the damage."

No easy solution

As the government continues to increase austerity measures, it is coming under increasing criticism for refusing to scale down its own spending.

"The government appears to believe that everybody else should be carrying the burden of the austerity while it plans to increase expenditure," Robertson told DW. "They even have plans that are going to increase the size of government when we should be trying to reduce it considerably."

The government recently offered a 10 percent salary increase to workers which would take effect in April 2019; however, it was rejected by unions.

"We cannot see a government that is living in opulence and extravagance telling its workers to tighten their belts," secretary general of the Progressive Teachers Union, Raymond Majongwe, told DW.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa during his swearing in ceremony
President Emmerson Mnangagwa has been criticised for not cutting back on government expensesImage: Reuters/P. Bulawayo

Read more: Zimbabwe election unlikely to solve the country's economic woes

Robertson believes that a recent wave of new faces in some of the government ministries following the ousting of Mugabe last year gives Zimbabwe a better chance of pulling itself out of the economic crisis.

"It's only a few recent changes that have given us some hope that we might soon be on a new course," he told DW. "But I think the problems today are suggesting that we need a very quick solution."

Zimbabwe's long-suffering production sector and lack of foreign investment, in particular, require a much-needed overhaul.

"We're in danger of bringing what's left of our productive capacity to a halt unless we make some very dramatic changes that begin to attract the interest of foreign investors," said Robertson.

Struggling to make ends meet

Zimbabweans who are employed are struggling to get by on meager salaries which have been eroded by the runaway inflation.

Teacher Misheck Teketeke is diabetic and is struggling to afford his medication. His net monthly salary is $370 in local bond currency, which equates to less than $100 at the parallel market rate.

"I don't remember when I last budgeted my salary, because you cannot budget," he told DW. "The day that you get the paltry salary, you just attend to the issues of that day."

In early December doctors in state hospitals went on a 40-day strike, demanding better work conditions and salaries paid in dollars. Now teachers are warning they may also take such measures.

Zimbabwe's fragile economy

Privilege Musvanhiri contributed to this report. 

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