Behind The Radio Silence: An Account of the Zimbabwe Internet Shutdown.
The first warning sign came on Sunday, January 13. A parody account named The Herald posted that ZANU PF would be shutting down the internet to avoid the violence that was going to potentially erupt during the stay away on Monday 14th. The 75% increase in the price of fuel had tipped the pot and anger was erupting all over Zimbabwe. It was unsettling and yet none of us thought to take it as seriously as we should have. We didn’t realize WiFi and VPNs wouldn’t save us.
Following the 2018 elections there has been a lot of talk about economic change and Zimbabwe being open for business. The hope died out close to a year ago, and even more so over the past couple of weeks. The price of basic commodities has gone past anything people living hand to mouth (which is most of the population) can afford. Cooking oil has gone from $3.50 to completely unavailable and eventually back on the shelves at $7.50. The bank queues start at 3am with people only getting $50 at a time. Following the budget speech post elections fuel shortages began and peaked in a space of a week. Lines going on as long as 10km have been scattered all over the country.
The papers report that social media has sensationalized the economic crisis and yet the queues are clear as day and the sense of struggle is thick in the air. The United States Dollar is currently selling at 100USD for 900 against the bond note (quasi greenbacks , paper rather , no longer recognized as legal tender by the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority mainly and many other institutions upon which our livelihoods are largely dependent). So while prices have increased at up to 70%, workers and civil servants are still paid in RTGS making the cost of living impossible. The butt of this joke is the relevant provision of the Bank Use Promotion and Suppression of Money Laundering Act states :
(1) No person other than a financial institution or moneylender shall exchange any negotiable instrument for cash at a premium.
Simply put: you need United States Dollars to survive but you receive your salary in money that means nothing and any effort to get those Dollars would land you in prison for 12 years. It is bizarre to write about because the chaos is straining to explain but it’s even more bizarre to live.
This was the third stand that people were taking. The first was This Flag led by Pastor Evan Mawarire. The second was the march to remove Robert Mugabe. And now people were simply staying away from their jobs because they could not afford to go. Between the price hikes, fuel shortages and now the increase public transport had increased by four or five times. A pattern was developing it seems. We protest, things get better and then they get so much worse by a milestone. The injustice was too uncomfortable to ignore. Zimbabweans have lost a way of life that the government has not been bothered to restore. It almost seems normal to hope an ailment disappears because all medication is sold in United States Dollars and at the relevant rate in the rare occasion they accept bank cards.
The rate at which lives are being lost and the petty sicknesses/injuries causing is indicative of a complete disregard for the less fortunate. Funding for the health sector has clearly been misdirected because despite the international help international NGOs claim to be giving, surgeries are being done with plastics and doctors remain on strike for not being paid sufficiently. The situation is worse than it’s ever been.
On Monday January 14, some employees had been threatened into showing up at work, and it was truly to their own peril because multiple commuter buses were torched, stoned and violently forced off the road by disgruntled citizens. Military intervention (teargas from helicopters and soldiers releasing fire) was a given, bodies were injured and many lives were lost. Between the propaganda and the governments efforts to ensure people could not communicate with each other, there are multiple accounts of violence that will not make it to mainstream media. One account went as far as to say soldiers may have at some point been dressed as citizens to allow the post shut down headlines to say the desperate citizens were hysterical and shooting each other. There’s is no conclusive proof of such allegations but I’m not one to put anything above politics. Children that actually made it to school were sent home and the stores began to close up one by one because the looting in the city Centre was spiraling and business owners were no longer willing to risk it. At some point on Monday Zimbabweans had stopped checking their phones. The internet was not coming back up.
January 15th was quiet. It was dead. The people were sick and tired and it was more obvious than ever because they didn’t even have the energy to march. The internet had previously informed us the stay away would only end on Wednesday and the violence from the previous day had everyone afraid of what was coming next. I spent a lot of time thinking about what it was like on the outside and whether it was clear to the international community that they were not hearing anything from anyone in Zimbabwe. The radio silence might not be so deafening if we could least speak to each other. If you had something to say you had to make an actual phone call, network allowing. I suppose that wouldn’t be so terrible if the price of voice credit itself weren’t so exorbitant you could only buy it a few times a week (and this comes from what I imagine to be a privileged position. No one was going to spend money on voice credit with no idea of what their fate was.) The roads were quiet and the number of people that walked past easily could have been counted. The pharmacies were closed and so was every store within a 15km radius from the city Centre.
On Wednesday 16th a few vendors were back on the street. The tragedy of standing up for yourself is that you often can’t do it the whole way if those you are standing up to have everything you need. The vendors needed to be on the street because we have reached a point where if they do not sell, they cannot eat. There were people on the street. None at work because everything was closed. I know they had come out in search for food because those that live on the left overs of others, at this point had nothing. Most of them spent a lot of time passed out at busy intersections where passer bus are likely to donate food or money.
The feeling of entrapment really intensifies after after hours of being completely unable to let the world know of the injustices we have been surrounded by. Most stores remain closed come Thursday 17th. The grocery stores are open, but packed to the brim with disoriented starving citizens panic buying food items. In Spar the line to the till curves twice within the store and the bread line has at least 100 people with only one loaf of bread allowed per person. The store opens for 30 minutes at a time to avoid any sort of stampeding in the vicinity. A few hours into opening, they are no longer accepting the country’s main form of payment which is Ecocash (the equivalent of mobile banking expect it only works in grocery stores and selected stores at the United States Dollar Equivalent). The state of affairs is completely out of control and one cherry on top of this poverty of a disaster is that the Leader of the country is currently in Europe and is yet to meaningfully address the people on the chaos.
The government is yet to address the internet shut down and I’m sure anyone who is familiar with our oppressor know they will say it was done to eliminate any chance of mobilization that might lead to violence. What it is, is public torture and punishment for daring to stand up to the very people who rid us of the former oppressive regime.
They want to keep us apart so when we tell stories of what happened they’re dismissed as rumors.
Its difficult to conclusively write about a situation that worsens every-time you blink but noise needs to surround the Zimbabwean crisis because intervention is necessary before more lives and dreams are destroyed.