The very public social media groundswell behind Mawarire was instrumental in his safe release.  Zimbabwe’s police have typically responded to protest action with brutal force, and last week was no exception, according to reports. In 2007, opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai was badly beaten after being arrested by police. The disappearance of newspaper reporter-turned-activist Itai Dzamara was also on people’s minds. Dzamara has not been seen since unknown assailants bundled him into a car in March last year. Before his disappearance, Dzamara held a sit-in protest in Harare, called Occupy Africa Unity Square, holding up a poster declaring “Mugabe must go.”

Once a poster of post-independence success, Zimbabwe was known as Africa’s breadbasket for its successful post-independence agricultural production and its high literacy rate. But the policies of its 92-year-old leader, now in his 36th year as president, and ruling party, the ZanuPF, have left the country bankrupt and floundering.

Last week’s protests were some of the most overt anti-Mugabe protests Zimbabwe has seen since independence. With 90% unemployment, the vast majority of Zimbabweans earn a living in the informal economy as vendors and traders. A new law banning the import of goods sold by vendors—like peanut butter, canned fruit and body lotions, from neighboring countries—incensed residents. Unpaid civil servants also joined in, as did taxi drivers fed up with police roadblocks they say are fronts for extortion.

“Zimbabwe may be witnessing a change in the idea of citizenship,” wrote Brian Raftopoulos of the Solidarity Peace Trust, an NGO working on human rights issues in Zimbabwe. “In the coming period it will be important to track not only the future of such activism but, just as importantly, the responses of the state beyond the current brutality of the police interventions.”

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