President Emmerson Mnangagwa has issued a stern warning to his critics, saying he will flush out "bad apples" that are weakening his administration. Rights activists say his words could be interpreted as a threat.
Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa said that his administration was facing many hurdles including "divisive politics of some opposition elements."
Mnangagwa warned that he would flush out the people he called bad apples who have attempted to divide Zimbabweans and weaken the country's system.
Those who know Mnangagwa say his current statements were not mere threats and they were not new.
"This sort of incendiary rhetoric may seem shocking, but in fact, it's the norm for Mnangagwa well before he was president," Jeffrey Smith, director of Vanguard Africa, a nonprofit pro-democracy initiative, told DW.
When he was deputy president in 2015, Mnangagwa likened Zimbabwe's political opposition to Satan and announced to an assembled crowd in Midlands that "we have come to cleanse you of the sins of the MDC", Smith recalls.
Mnangagwa is also accused of being chief architect of Gukurahundi -- a series of massacres of Ndebele civilians carried out by the Zimbabwe National Army from early 1983 to late 1987. He was then minister of defense under Robert Mugabe.
"The most worrying aspect here is that these aren't just toxic words being espoused by a head of state," Smith said, adding that: "They are red flags, clear warnings of future action."
According to Smith, there is clear intent as evidenced by the decades of massive human rights abuses allegedly committed by Mnangagwa and the ZANU-PF regime.
Crackdown on dissent
"We hope it's not what we think it is," Ngaba Matshazi of the Media Institute of Southern Africa Zimbabwe chapter (MISA), told DW.
"We believe he [President Mnangagwa] is going to target the opposition, target journalists, target lawyers, and target doctors," Matshazi said.
MISA, a non-profit organization promoting media freedom and freedom of expression across the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) region, has documented more than 25 violations against journalists and media workers between March and June 2020.
Several more cases have been reported before and during peaceful public protests on July 31, 2020.
"People are being abducted, arrested, detained, harassed and tortured, Matshazi said. "It always feeds into a powder keg and it seems it's going to explode anytime soon."
Among those arrested was top Zimbabwean writer Tsitsi Dangarembga and Fadzayi Mahere, a lawyer and spokeswoman for the main opposition party Movement for Democratic Change Alliance (MDC-Alliance).
Both were charged with inciting public violence and released on bail.
What did President Mnangagwa say?
In a surprise address on state-owned television, the Zimbabwean leader said his country's problems were caused by his enemies who do not want his government to turn the country's misfortunes for the better.
"My administration has faced many hurdles since its inauguration. These include the divisive elements of some opposition elements, the illegal economic sanctions, cyclones, drought and most recently the deadly COVID-19 pandemic," Mnangagwa said.
"We will overcome attempts of destabilization of our society by a few rogue Zimbabweans acting in league with foreign detractors," he added.
"Those who promote hate and disharmony will never win. The bad apples that have attempted to divide our people and weaken our system will be flushed out. Good shall triumph over evil."
Young people targeted
The latest government clampdown sparked outrage on social media with the hashtag #ZimbabweanLivesMatter trending worldwide on Twitter since Monday.
Young people have been targeted by security forces, mostly arresting them in the early hours of the morning. "Security forces are breaking into your house, kidnapping people and then bring them back tortured," Mantate Mlotshwa, an advocate of gender equality, equal rights and civil liberties, told DW. "Zimbabweans are heartbroken beyond words," Mlotshwa said.
"If you can't say that a country is chaotic without getting arrested for it, what's the point of freedom of expression guaranteed in our constitution?" Mlotshwe asked.
The 25-year-old activist accused the state of deploying the police and military to intimidate locals who are trying to speak out.
"What does it take for the government to listen to us? They don't know how we feel, so we have got to tell them how we feel," Mlotshwa added.
Zimbabwe - a nation that causes pain than pride
Even before President Mnangagwa's speech on Tuesday, Zimbabwe's political situation was already polarized, Takura Zhangazha, an independent Zimbabwean blogger, said.
"The general public is mainly preoccupied with dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and economic survival," Zhangazha told DW.
Zimbabwe's economy is in crisis, dogged by a weak currency, fuel shortages and high inflation.
There is a bit of loss of hope in a better Zimbabwe, Mlotshwa said. A lot of people say that if it weren't for COVID-19, they would be leaving Zimbabwe.
"I think it's an unfortunate place to be in. A nation where youth say they are done. They're done with the country that causes them pain than pride."