Empty streets, closed banks - business in Zimbabwe’s major cities Harare and Bulawayo came to a standstill on Wednesday. The call for a total shut down of the country was started by activists on social media.
For about four hours on Wednesday morning, phone lines and social media platforms like Whatsapp, Facebook and Twitter were partially blocked. Users, however, quickly managed to find loopholes by using proxy and VPN services like Tunnelbear and sharing instructions on how to get online. Soon pictures of empty streets, the odd security issues and the news that the shut down had worked,spread on the internet. The call by activists, who had asked people to stay at home had apparently made its way to a Zimbabwean public, whose disgruntlement has become more visible over the last few weeks.
'Enough is enough'
Only last week, traders staged a protest at Zimbabwe's Beitbridge border with South Africa over an import ban of certain goods. On Monday, bus and taxi drivers protested new fines which the government had imposed on them. On Tuesday, nurses and teachers took to a general strike over the non-payment of salaries. And continuous protests have been taking place in protest of corruption and Zimbabwe's economic decline.
The conversation online
"[Mawarire] has made it possible for citizens to openly share their concerns with what is happening," explained Nigel Mugamu, founder of the Zimbabwean media platform 263Chat. "We hear the daily stories of corruption. He has encouraged us to use whatever platforms we have, like Facebook and Whatsapp, to discuss and not be afraid," said Magumo. 263Chat has the aim of encouraging dialogue amongst Zimbabwe and gathering and verifying information from across Zimbabwe.
Wednesday's stay-at-home protest, Magumo explained, was both facilitated and documented through social media. "What social media has done with #ShutdownZim is to make it possible for news agencies to watch what is happening here in Zimbabwe. It makes it possible for us to understand what is happening in different parts of the country," he said.
After the initial blockage of phone lines and social media sites, Zimbabwe's telecommunications authority released a statement saying that they were concerned about the irresponsible use of social media over the past few days. "Perpetrators can easily be identified," the statement warned, as posted below by DW correspondent Privilege Musvanhiri.
On the streets
While the protests largely remained peaceful, there were reports of smaller scuffles between security forces and protesters in high-density suburbs of Harare and Bulawayo. Police fired warning shots and teargas in some of the areas. Moreover, Zimbabwe's journalists' union reported that local journalists were detained by the police and only released after deleting images depicting violence in parts of Harare. One journalist who had been posting pictures on social media confirmed that he had been released, but that he had also been able to back-up his images.
In reaction to the shut down police on Wednesday morning announced that they would grant people a safe passage to work. The state-owned media reported that the police said that they were ready to deal with any "unruly elements" of society. They however later reported that the day had remained calm and that barricades like stones and burning tyres had been removed from the road.
As the day ended, those people who had made their way into town were forced to either walk back home or take pricey taxi-rides home, as public transport was not running. Reporters on the ground said that inner-city areas were largely calm.