The traditional medium of terrestrial radio retains a wide reach in most African countries, reaching millions who have no access to the internet. It is a trusted, low-cost source of news and information, and platform for ordinary citizens to share their views. As UN secretary-general António Guterres has said, “Even in today’s world of digital communications, radio reaches more people than any other media platform.”
But radio has also evolved as digital technology has changed the media landscape. And talk radio has changed from being an analogue communication tool that relies on top-down information flow to a dynamic forum that relies on multiple feedback loops. Stanley Tsarwe, journalism lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe, explored this trend in a paper titled “Mobile Phones and a Million Chatter: Performed Inclusivity and Silenced Voices in Zimbabwean Talk Radio.”
Tsarwe says he wanted to observe what was happening at the convergence of radio, smartphones, and mobile-based apps such as WhatsApp, Facebook, and Twitter. He found that these technologies had indeed grown public discourse, allowing more inclusive debate between radio presenters and audiences. The downside is that newsrooms often find it difficult to manage the high level of audience interaction, with the result that many voices are excluded.
Still, more voices than before are being heard in Zimbabwe, where the authorities have often resorted to restricting the right to freedom of expression, like instructing Internet service providers in January 2019 to shut down the Internet.
Clampdown on Freedom of Speech
President Emmerson Mnangagwa has recently started to emulate the heavy-handed tactics of former president Robert Mugabe against political opponents and critics of his government.
On July 20, the police arrested Hopewell Chin’ono, a prominent investigative journalist who had recently exposed alleged government corruption. He is being accused of incitement to overthrow the government through an uprising. He was denied bail and will appear in court again on August 7.
Amnesty International has criticized the Zimbabwean authorities for continuing their crackdown on dissent with the arrest of Chin’ono, saying they “must stop misusing the criminal justice system to persecute journalists and activists who are simply exercising their right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.”
President Emmerson Mnangagwa of Zimbabwe announced an agreement had been struck with the Commercial Farmers’ Union to compensate farmers whose land had been seized during former president Robert Mugabe’s agriculture reform efforts in the early 2000s. He said Zimbabwe would pay US$3.5 billion in compensation for infrastructure but not for the land itself. He did not give details about the amounts to be paid to individual farmers or their descendants, nor how the country will be able to afford this large sum of money considering its dire socio-economic situation.
The Mugabe regime evicted 4,500 white farmers and redistributed the farms to black families as part of a land reform program to redress colonial imbalances.
Two days after Mnangagwa’s announcement, his administration deployed security forces to close down the capital Harare and arrest several dozen activists in response to mass demonstrations on July 31. The protest action, organized by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, was planned to coincide with a general strike against the deteriorating socio-economic conditions in the country. Internationally acclaimed novelist Tsitsi Dangarembga was among the protesters who were arrested.
Resolving the land question was a precondition placed on Mnangagwa by Western powers in 2017 in order to lift crippling sanctions and reintegrate Zimbabwe into the global community. This could explain Mnangagwa prioritizing compensation for expropriated farms while maintaining the same hardline approach against dissent as his predecessor, who also used military force to quell civil disobedience.
Patrick Chinamasa, spokesperson for Zimbabwe’s ruling ZANU-PF party, accused United States ambassador Brian Nichols of “engaging in acts of mobilizing and funding disturbances, coordinating violence and training insurgents” in an effort to topple the government of President Emmerson Mnangagwa. “Diplomats should not behave like thugs, and Brian Nichols is a thug,” he said. He provided no evidence to back these serious claims, and the US embassy in Harare did not immediately respond to the allegations.
Former president Robert Mugabe frequently invoked similar rhetoric during his 42 years in power, accusing the United States and Great Britain on several occasions of aiming to institute regime change.
More than 105,000 people have been arrested since March for violating lockdown regulations
This latest accusation comes a few days ahead of a planned mass demonstration on July 31. The opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) Alliance and Zimbabwean civil society organizations have urged Zimbabweans to take to the streets to protest against government corruption, the declining Zimbabwean economy, and harsh COVID-19 lockdown measures.
The authorities have warned against the demonstration, claiming concerns of spreading COVID-19. However, opposition leaders accuse the government of using the lockdown measures as cover to stifle political dissent and target the opposition. The police have confirmed that more than 105,000 people have been arrested since March for violating lockdown regulations.
Two Zimbabwean workers at a gold mine on the outskirts of Gweru in central Zimbabwe were shot by their Chinese boss on Sunday, June 21. The incident has rekindled long-standing tensions about Chinese nationals living in the southern African country.
A court affidavit submitted by the Zimbabwean police alleges that Zhang Xuelin shot Kenneth Tachiona five times, reportedly in both thighs, and another employee, Wendy Chikwaira, had his chin grazed by a bullet. Workers at Reden Mine in Gweru had confronted Xuelin over his alleged failure to pay their wages in US dollars, as had been agreed previously, according to the affidavit. US dollars are highly sought-after in Zimbabwe, which has experienced repeated cash shortages and inflation spikes since its currency was effectively abandoned in 2009.
The Gweru case brings to mind a 2010 shooting in neighboring Zambia. Two Chinese mine managers were charged with the attempted murder of eleven workers at the Chinese-owned Collum Coal Mine in Sinazongwe after a protest over pay and conditions became heated. Despite being a decade apart, the two cases demonstrate an ongoing pattern of African workers feeling disgruntled by the systemic imbalance of their relationship with Chinese interests.
The number of Chinese nationals in Africa has increased over the past two decades. At least 10,000 Chinese nationals now live and work in Zimbabwe, according to the Brookings Institute. The population in Zambia is significantly higher. Many of these migrants are employed as contractors for Chinese companies delivering extensive infrastructure, construction, manufacturing, and mining projects. This model of investment frustrates African executives, commentators, and workers, who argue that it deprives locals of employment and training opportunities. There is, however, evidence to suggest that Chinese firms employ, pay, and train Africans at similar rates as non-Chinese companies.
That sentiment reflects more deep-seated misgivings about the equity of large deals that African governments sign with Chinese companies. These include loans, construction projects, and extraction rights for natural resources. For example, in April 2019, Chinese firm Tsingshan committed to investing US$2 billion to mine chrome, iron ore, nickel, and coal in Zimbabwe, cementing China’s place as the country’s largest foreign investor. At the same time, Shanghai Construction Group is constructing a new US$140 million six-story parliament building, apparently a donation from the Chinese government. But many Zimbabweans are skeptical of such gestures. Few regard it as unadulterated altruism. And the lack of transparency fuels speculation.
China’s extensive leverage in Zimbabwe, and elsewhere, does not look like the postcolonial partnership promised in the 1970s. Indeed, the legacy of racist settler colonialism provides an alarming comparison for Zimbabweans when they hear stories of managers shooting employees or, as happened in Zambia recently, Chinese vendors denying service to black customers.
This is a particularly sensitive time for Sino-African relations. In April, reports of African migrants in Guangzhou, home to China’s largest African community, being targeted for forced testing and quarantine, evicted from their accommodation, and denied hospitality went viral and sparked outrage on social media. Human Rights Watch accused Guangdong authorities of “textbook” discrimination. Many feel that it is one rule for the Chinese in Africa and quite another for Africans in China.
The COVID-19 crisis has also elevated concerns about debt, at a time when economic paralysis is hampering governments’ ability to maintain payments. About 20 percent of African government external debt is owed to China. According to reports, China has offered relief from interest-free loans, but these loans make up less than 5 percent of its total lending.
In a recent interview, former Zimbabwean minister Gordon Moyo, now director of the country’s Public Policy and Research Institute, described China’s lending as “illegitimate” and said the East Asian country was at risk of being “a new imperialist.”
Having been shot repeatedly in both legs, Kenneth Tachiona faces the prospect of being disabled for the rest of his life. But with a wife and five children, his concerns are very pragmatic. In an interview with VOA, he said: “Of course I want the law to take its course, but I’m now disabled, and for me, the most important thing is to be compensated adequately.” Money being his most pressing concern reflects the same hard realities facing his government.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa has emphasized the importance of impartial justice in this case. Likewise, the Chinese embassy declared its respect for Zimbabwe’s right to handle the situation “in accordance with the law.” At the same time, however, they asked to see Zimbabwe “protect the safety as well as legitimate rights and interests” of Chinese nationals in the country. President Mnangagwa echoed the sentiment and did not accept the view that the shooting was reflective of “systemic and widespread” abuse by Chinese employers, as some prominent civil society groups have claimed.
With mounting debt, a health crisis, and uncertain support from the West, there is little prospect of Zimbabwe—or any of its neighbors—untangling itself from Chinese interests.
Jesse Samasuwo is a London-based analyst writing and researching international affairs, primarily focused on energy, trade, and politics.
The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) has accused mobile money platform EcoCash of playing a role in the rapid devaluation of the country’s currency, and characterizing it as a “Ponzi scheme” in court documents. This about-face comes after the RBZ recently released figures showing that mobile money transfers made up the bulk of Zimbabwe’s National Payment System, the financial mechanism used by the Reserve Bank to manage commercial and financial transactions.
With more than 11 million users, EcoCash is the dominant phone-based money transfer system in Zimbabwe.
This has not stopped regulators from alleging that EcoCash has been committing illegal currency dealings by allowing its agents to have an overdraft on their EcoCash accounts, funds the bank believes are used to buy foreign currency and artificially inflate the exchange rate.
Zimbabwe’s financial woes are compounded by international sanctions.
Millions of Zimbabweans have come to depend on mobile money wallets to handle not only digital payments but also salaries and remittances. The convenience of digital cash has made it popular in the country’s informal economy sector—the largest in Africa and second-largest in the world—but it also comes with its own set of risks, namely the difficulty in acquiring hard currency due to exorbitant commissions charged by these mobile money platforms.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Zimbabwe’s financial woes are compounded by a famine in the north threatening millions and international sanctions. African Union chair Cyril Ramaphosa has been urging the G20, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank to lift sanctions on Zimbabwe to help the nation deal with the pandemic.