"They have killed us"


No killing is worse than what the government is doing to us right now, by taking away our ability to make a livelihood and take care of our families, they are killing us.’ (Woman Vendor, Zimbabwe)

What started off as a normal day on the 14th of January turned into weeks of nightmare for people in Zimbabwe. On the 12th of January, President ED Mnangagwa flanked by his Deputy Constantine Chiwenga held a press conference to announce a more than 150% hike in fuel prices. Then the obvious happened. People were outraged, there was mass hoarding of supplies in anticipation of price hikes, and the country’s largest labour movement, along with Pastor Evan Mawarire of the #Thisflag fame, called for a three-day national stay-away in protest.

What followed this call to action was a spate of violence that exposed the gap between the poor and the rich. While violence erupted mostly in the high-density suburbs of Harare, on the other side of town it was business as usual and only until threats of invasion of private schools and violence at northern suburbs malls and shops were issued, did the ‘other side of town’ become affected. Women being beaten, raped, their goods stolen, their partners and children beaten and killed, were stories for those in the suburbs, but a reality for many women in the high-density areas of Harare. With an internet blackout, Zimbabwe was cut off from the world, and from itself. Violence and atrocities were perpetrated extensively. Memory* (not her real name) from Hopley narrated how she had to run for her life with her 10-year-old son on her back and found refuge at a cemetery,  as she fled from soldiers who had invaded her shanty community on the 20th of January. Those who were caught were badly beaten up. These acts of violence were perpetrated against women and men indiscriminately by the armed forces under the pretext of restoring order.

‘Sarajevo Incident

Zimbabwe has been bedeviled by economic and political problems since the Mugabe era. In November 2017, following the coup that saw President Mnangagwa ascend to power, there was a sense of euphoria and hope that the people of Zimbabwe embodied. Many saw Mnangagwa as their savior. Little analysis was done about the meaning and implications of a military takeover. Soldiers were embraced as people who had helped deliver the people of Zimbabwe from the dictatorship of Mugabe. However, little or no change came. Things became worse, as harmonized elections loomed. There was a trail of violence, and most women in leadership and running for political positions experienced gendered violence. The 12th of January announcement of the fuel increases is seen as the “Sarajevo incident.” The announcement represented the culmination of issues that have been affecting the Zimbabwean populace over time, and just like the historical event that marked the start of the first World War, the people of Zimbabwe had reached their breaking point.

While the Zimbabwean political and economic crisis was affecting everyone, there are sections of people who were more affected. The women of Zimbabwe were and continue to sit on the economic margins and as they fight to survive, they are taking on multiple roles to keep families going in an economy that does not recognize their ‘’hustle’’ and trading as legal.

Legal vs illegal economies; Illegalizing women’s economic alternatives

“Should our children die of hunger. I used to sell charcoal as a way of survival, however the soldiers and the municipal police come daily to take our stock.”

Zimbabwe is said to have the largest informal economy in Africa and the second largest in the world. Women constitute at least 60% of people in informal trade in Zimbabwe. Though it helps to sustain the economy, their trade is seen as illegal. Often, women who sell goods on the streets are confronted with violence from the municipal police. In the aftermath of the violence that rocked Zimbabwe on the 14th of January, informal traders also became targets. In what has been described as Murambatsvina[1] 2, soldiers and municipal police led a clean-up campaign to demolish unregistered small-scale businesses in Mbare and Chitungwiza.  The government and Harare Municipality justified the-clean up as a measure to bring sanity to Mbare by removing illegal structures and people. However, like in 2005, I believe this was punishment of the people for deciding to stay away. They gave one day’s notice before soldiers with guns and municipal police came to destroy the structures. Women and men alike watched as their stalls were razed to the ground, as their livelihoods were reduced to nothing, as they were reminded of their poverty and how those in power could exercise their power over them without a concern. “How do I survive, how do I feed my children, how do I even go back home and face my children and grandchildren when I have nothing to feed them?” one woman vendor lamented. Women who constitute the majority of the small-scale business operators in these spaces are the hardest hit, given the gender roles they play.  In a discussion with women in the city of Bindura, one woman broke down as she reflected on how the economic meltdown has affected her. ‘I used to sell alcohol illegally, but alcohol is now in short supply and I cannot go and buy from Delta because I do not have a liquor license. I am devastated because selling alcohol was my livelihood. My children cannot go to school, I cannot afford to buy medication for my mother who is a blood pressure patient.’ The onslaught against the vendors is but one of the many ways in which the gap between the rich and the poor is emphasized. The gendered face of poverty is equally apparent, with gun-toting soldiers and municipal police who are mostly men leading the operation to demolish the vendors’ stalls.

While the struggle for survival continues for many of the informal traders, those considered to be legal operators enjoy their trade without interruption. Those with access to cash, particularly foreign currency, smile as the black-market trading rate against the Zimbabwean bond note[2] continues to go up. The formal traders smile as they regain monopoly over markets, while the women lament as they contemplate their next move. ‘There is no killing worse than this,’ they say and yet they know they have to survive. They have to find ways to make it regardless, because they have whole families looking up to them. Those who ought to care do not care and as always, the women are expected to pick up the pieces, heal, mend, and carry on with their lives, as if it’s business as usual.

Conclusion

As the sun sets, all looks normal, but fear, rage, desperation, hatred, violence, fatigue, and hopelessness bubble under the surface and consume many. As many prepare to get on the government-sourced military-controlled cheaper buses, the reality of the military control in particular spaces of Zimbabwe becomes apparent. The women of Zimbabwe are confronted with the reality of the power of the gun, the power wielded across their bodies as they navigate illegal and legal economies.

 

*Story by Zimbabwean ally 




[1] On 25 May 2005, the Government of Zimbabwe began an operation labelled "Operation Murambatsvina" "Operation Clean-up", an operation which saw illegal structures being demolished and thousands of people in Harare displaced. Murambatsvina has been said to have been politically motivated to reduce the numbers of urban voters, a move meant to frustrate the opposition.

[2] The bond note is a form of banknote which is legal tender in Zimbabwe

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