With rampant inflation, high unemployment, and villagers forced to eat rats and wild fruits to survive, Zimbabweans have become quite accustomed to hard times. But this week, even Zimbabweans feel that things have taken a turn for the worse.
Starting Nov. 27 and continuing until Monday, Army soldiers rampaged through the capital, Harare, after hearing that the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe would be unable to print enough currency to pay their daily wages. Hundreds of soldiers took their anger out on street vendors, looting the markets for food and other goods.
Combined with the Monday cutoff of public water supplies, for lack of chemicals to prevent the spread of rampant cholera, the regime of President Robert Mugabe appears to be imploding.
The looting by members of the armed forces is the beginning of an end to Mr. Mugabe's regime, says University of Zimbabwe political science lecturer John Makumbe. "It might look or sound small, but it is an indication of the dissatisfaction that is in the Army and the general public of Zimbabwe," he says.
Declaring the end game for a regime as tenacious as Mugabe's is, of course, a risky venture. Judging by most measures, Mugabe's government should have collapsed long ago – yet somehow it keeps going. But rebellion by well-trained, well-armed soldiers in the capital city is never a good sign, and with hopes of a political compromise between Mugabe and his opposition rival Morgan Tsvangirai diminishing, the possibility of a violent and uncontrollable uprising seems to be increasing by the day.
"As long as the security sector remains calm, things can keep rolling," says Judy Smith-Höhn, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Tshwane, South Africa. "But once these guys get riled up, that's when things start escalating."
The rioting began last Thursday, when 100 hungry, angry soldiers assaulted foreign-currency dealers and small shops in Harare. The spark for their anger was an announcement by the Reserve Bank that depositors could only withdraw 500,000 Zimbabwe dollars per day, the equivalent of 25 cents in US currency, barely enough to buy a banana.
"That is when they went out onto the streets, snatching bags from members of the public, especially those suspected to be foreign currency dealers," says Abel Munacho, who deals in foreign currency in Harare. "They were demanding to know where people got huge amounts of cash from, yet they were failing to access the maximum cash withdrawal limit of $500,000."
By targeting popular clothing stores and food outlets in broad daylight, Zimbabwean Army soldiers were venting their anger toward the politically-connected members of the country's elite, who are able through expatriate relatives or foreign business investments to access foreign currency and survive the financial crisis untouched.
Yet, while such anger at Mugabe's cronies is widespread – and was a driving force in Mugabe's loss in the first round of the country's presidential elections this past spring – there was little sympathy for the Army rioters in Harare. Angry foreign currency dealers and members of the public were involved in running battles with the soldiers. Some soldiers also dispersed people who were queuing up at automated teller machines to withdraw money.
The looting continued on Friday, when another group – now numbering 70 and also in full uniform – went to Mupedzanhamo Flea Market in Harare's high-density suburb of Mbare.
Agnes Mlambo, who sells clothes at the market, said there was chaos when the soldiers arrived and started beating people while others were looting anything of value.
"[The soldiers] were dropped by a military vehicle outside the gates and they went into the market where they harassed both currency dealers and ordinary vendors," she says. "They looted clothes, shoes, belts, and everything they could lay their hands on."
Army spokesman Lt. Col. Simon Tsatsi on Friday said the soldiers who had run wild were just unruly elements who wanted to tarnish the image of the Army. "They are people who are just undisciplined, we do not instruct our soldiers to do that and arresting foreign currency dealers is the work of the police," he said. "We are definitely going to look at the matter."
The rioting soldiers all appeared to be of lower rank, witnesses said, and no evidence has surfaced that higher-ranking officers were involved in the riots.
Minister of Defense Sydney Sekeramayi on Monday said the situation was under control. He also attributed the looting and violence to "unruly elements" from the Zimbabwe National Army. "As a result, a number of properties were damaged, innocent people injured, money, and property stolen," said Mr. Sekeramayi. "These acts are unacceptable, deplorable, reprehensible, and criminal."
Political analysts in Harare say the violence by soldiers is an indication of the breakdown of the rule of law in the country. It shows that the soldiers, like all Zimbabweans, are hungry, says Mr. Makumbe. One day, he says, Mugabe's regime will fail to contain the hungry soldiers and that will be the end of his rule.
Other analysts believe the looting by soldiers was a ploy by Mugabe and his cronies to impose a state of emergency in the southern African country. "What they wanted was to incite a few soldiers, cause chaos, and find reason to impose a state of emergency in the country," says one analyst who requested anonymity.
Rather than a spontaneous outburst, the rioting may have been a deliberate tactic to relieve pressure from disgruntled soldiers and civil servants. Instead of directing their anger at the state, which failed to provide money, the soldiers attacked small-time hawkers, who sell goods they can no longer afford.
"It could be a diversionary tactic to indicate that there is a problem," says Karin Alexander, a senior researcher at the Institute for Democracy in Southern Africa in Tshwane. "Civil servants can't buy food, so you create a target for their anger, the hawkers, and you divert attention from the government."
Ms. Alexander calls the rioting "unprecedented," but she cautions that an uprising would have to be significantly sustained, and joined by the general population, in order for it to have a chance of toppling the government. Harsh measures against the arrested soldiers over the next few days will be calculated at halting any copycat riots.
Ms. Smith-Höhn says the Mugabe regime defies logic by staying in power, even though it fails to perform even the most basic functions that citizens demand.
"Generally there are three basic functions of a state: security, welfare, and representation," says Smith-Hohn. "But in Zimbabwe, the state hasn't provided security, welfare, or representation for years, and despite that the state is still around. You start asking yourself what is it that keeps the Zimbabwe state going."
• Our reporter in Harare could not be named for security reasons.