HARARE: Zimbabweans stayed at home on Wednesday and foreign banks and most businesses in the capital shut down operations in one of the biggest protests against high unemployment, an acute cash shortage and corruption for nearly a decade.
The national "stay-away" day, fronted by social-media movement #ThisFlag, followed violent clashes between taxi drivers and police on Monday that led to the arrest of 95 people. It also coincided with a strike by doctors, teachers and nurses over delayed payment of salaries.
The country has been gripped by a devastating drought, compounding economic hardships including high joblessness and an acute cash shortage that have angered its citizens.
#ThisFlag was started in April by 39-year-old Zimbabwean pastor Evan Mawarire to protest against the government "for allowing corruption, injustice and poverty".
The campaign has attracted thousands of followers who have been speaking out against government excesses. Wednesday's protest was organised via Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp.
"We have got to a point now where everyone is saying enough is enough. The response has been outstanding...This is what we all needed, something that we can all do together," Mawarire told Reuters TV when asked about the success of the protest.
State telecoms regulator POTRAZ said in a statement it would arrest people sending "subversive" messages that cause unrest.
President Robert Mugabe, in power since Zimbabwe's independence from Britain in 1980, was on Wednesday attending a scheduled meeting of his ZANU-PF's politburo, the party's top executive organ. Party spokesman Simon Khaya-Moyo declined to say whether ZANU-PF would discuss the recent protests.
In the volatile township of Mufakose, to the west of Harare, hundreds of youths barricaded roads to stop people going to work, Reuters witnesses said.
Schoolchildren run past a burning barricade in Harare
A national police spokeswoman said there was no need to seek military help and that police had arrested more than 40 people across Zimbabwe, including an Australian tourist in the resort town of Victoria, for blocking roads and unlawful protests.
"The military is not there because in our assessment, for now, the situation has not deteriorated (enough) to warrant the presence of the military," Charity Charamba told reporters.
Local units of Barclays and Standard Chartered shut their branches in central Harare while clothing retailers Edgars Stores and Truworths also closed stores.
Siyaso, one of the biggest and oldest informal markets in Mbare township near central Harare, was also shut down and there were few vehicles on the roads of the capital.
Government departments were open while supermarkets like Pick'n'Pay, Ok Zimbabwe and Choppies reported little business.
"As you can see there are very few customers here. It is not usual for a Wednesday to have these small volumes," a supervisor at an OK Zimbabwe store in the central business district said.
Local private media said Zimbabweans in other major cities had also stayed at home, with most businesses closed. Zimbabwe last witnessed such a protest in April 2007.
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