During elections nine years ago, Zimbabwe ruling party thugs banged on Nonoza Ncube’s door at 2 a.m., took her to a temporary military-style base and beat her on her back and legs with batons.
Yet when she heard that ruling party ZANU-PF war veterans were staging a mass rally in Harare, the nation’s capital, to support the removal of President Robert Mugabe, she just had to come.
In scenes of wild jubilation that many said reminded them of Zimbabwe’s independence day ending white minority rule in 1980, the streets of Harare and a nearby stadium Saturday overflowed with joyous crowds.
“We are free! We are free!” beamed Milkah Naraha, 62, who supports the opposition.
Thirty-seven years after the joy that exploded with Mugabe assuming Zimbabwe’s leadership as a liberation hero, Zimbabweans celebrated his expected departure.
It was an extraordinary moment in a nation where dissent is repressed, opposition activists have been beaten, arrested and disappeared, and anti-government protests have met a heavy handed response.
Saturday’s rally was called to thank Zimbabwe’s military for its role in taking control of the country to convince Mugabe to step down, pressure he has so far resisted. Instead, he may be impeached in parliament in the coming week. Parliament convenes on Tuesday.
The march of tens of thousands of people is Zimbabwe’s first real show of people power calling for Mugabe’s departure. Broadcast on state-owned television, the rally sent a strong message to Mugabe that his time is up. Eight of the 10 ZANU-PF provinces have passed no-confidence votes, calling on him to quit.
People clung to vehicles, waved flags, danced, sang and punched their hands in the air rejoicing about a “new Zimbabwe.” Some draped themselves in flags or wore them as capes, another small freedom after the Mugabe government banned people from doing so because of an activist group #ThisFlag that is critical of the government and Mugabe.
Saturday’s rally also sent a strong message to other African leaders clinging to power for decades that a military intervention or a coup is possible, even for the likes of Mugabe. Some analysts believe his determination to stay on has encouraged leaders in the region like Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza and Democratic Republic of Congo’s Joseph Kabila to ditch or avoid a two-term limit on power.
Ncube, an activist with the main opposition party, the MDC, came to Saturday’s rally because she wanted to drive Mugabe from power. A woman from ZANU-PF had the same motive. The difference was that the opposition supporters were willing to be quoted by name while most ZANU-PF supporters were still afraid of repercussions from their party.
Ncube’s arrest and assault happened during the 2008 elections, the country’s most violent election in post independence history. MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai won the first round of a presidential election, provoking a storm of violence orchestrated by the military against opposition activists.
She said police and ZANU-PF youth worked together at the time harassing opposition activists, arresting them and beating them. She was also beaten during 2013 elections.
“I’ve got a very painful leg from being beaten by the police when I was demonstrating against Mugabe in 2013 during the elections,” said Ncube, a widow with three children who relies on a nongovernmental organization for the schooling of her children. She scrapes out enough to survive by selling vegetables, a common occupation for women in an economy with 90% unemployment.
“I came here because I am celebrating the end of Mugabe. But I want elections,” she said. “For today, we are celebrating. Then tomorrow we have to go on registering to vote in elections.”
Ncube feared that with the military controlling events, a government similar to the one led by Mugabe might emerge. But she did not believe a ZANU-PF figure such as sacked Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who has the support of the military, could win election. Mnangagwa’s dismissal by Mugabe helped trigger the military intervention.
“That’s why I want elections — because these people have worked together for a very long time and they’re the same,” she said referring to the military, Mugabe and ZANU-PF. “We must follow the constitution. If Mnangagwa runs as president, he won’t win if it’s a free and fair election.”
A ZANU-PF member at the rally said she had to sell 12 cows to enable her daughter to finish university. But then, because of the lack of opportunities in Zimbabwe, her daughter had to go to South Africa to find work and ended up a domestic worker.
“I want her to come back to Zimbabwe and work for our country,” said the woman, who declined to give her name.
Nearby, an elderly woman held a hand-painted sign reading, “An old man must go to the country and rest.” In Zimbabwe and other African countries, people working in cities often leave them when they retire and return to the rural villages where they grew up or have relatives.
“I want to get rid of Mugabe,” said the woman, also a ZANU-PF member. Her daughter left Zimbabwe and lives in the United Kingdom and sends cash regularly. But because of a currency shortage in Zimbabwe, the woman is unable to withdraw enough money to cover her expenses. She often sleeps overnight outside banks to try to be among the first in line to draw on the limited funds made available each day.
Naraha, an MDC supporter with six children, came to the rally to celebrate “because Mugabe is gone.”
“We want a new Zimbabwe. We want our children to be happy. We want food on our tables. We want jobs. Free education. Free health. Yes!” she said.
According to Reuters, Mugabe’s nephew Patrick Zhuwao said that his uncle and his wife were “ready to die for what is correct” and would not step down because it would legitimize a military coup.
The military insists it is not a coup because Mugabe remains in place as president. However, he has been stripped of executive powers and confined to his residence.
Mugabe’s domestic and regional support has evaporated and he remains isolated with no realistic means of clinging to power.