They came from all over Zimbabwe, streaming into the streets of Harare in a carnival of protest and celebration, determined to seal the peaceful but incontestable end of Robert Mugabe’s long rule.
Tens of thousands of Zimbabweans of every age, class, political persuasion and skin colour turned out, singing, chanting, dancing and sometimes crying, all exhilarated at the prospect of change, so fervently hoped for and until now so painfully elusive. Homeless squatters and street vendors marched beside wealthy entrepreneurs; Zanu-PF stalwarts and war veterans mixed with white farmers they had forced off their land.
“I can pretty much say this is our second independence day – we have waited for this a long time,” said Nyikayaramba, a 32-year-old IT worker. “We have suffered, and I praise God that this has finally happened. It’s a great time to be Zimbabwean.”
The green, yellow, red and black of the national flag dotted the crowd, draped as capes, waved in the air, printed on clothes and painted on faces, on a day unmarred by violence. Others carried placards, a mix of blunt, funny, celebratory and obscene. “Mugabe must rest” placards included a picture of the nonagenarian snoozing; others played on his common nickname to declare “Bob’s not my uncle”. Those without flags or placards waved tree branches in celebration.
As they marched through town, tearing down mementos of Mugabe’s rule, from road signs to giant posters, each step made it clearer that his iron grip had finally loosened after nearly four decades, even if he had not yet been formally removed from office.
“We are making history today,” said Teclar Mazanhi, who was born in 1980, the year Mugabe came to power. “We want a new Zimbabwe.”
It had been a week of excitement and confusion, the oldest head of state in the world abruptly toppled, then reappearing smiling in photos with the military officers who had him under house arrest. Even more disconcertingly, he emerged to preside over a graduation ceremony on Friday as if nothing had changed.
The marches to demand his final removal from power were originally planned by the party machine of Mugabe’s own Zanu-PF, and veterans of the independence war. But they were taken over by ordinary Zimbabweans in a national outpouring of emotion.
“We are here to fight Mugabe. He must be gone today, not tomorrow,” said 28-year-old Clara Nkata, a street vendor who said she had never been to a rally before and didn’t belong to any political party.
For decades the country had inured itself to living under the control of one man, their leader defying the challenges of age and ambitious comrades to maintain control. Now power had been seized from him, it seemed as though the whole country was coming out to ensure he could not get it back.
“Mugabe must go, we are sick and tired,” said 49-year-old Elizabeth Muzadzi. “I couldn’t even go to my niece’s funeral last week because I didn’t have money for the bus.”
The unquestioned heroes of the day were the army, mobbed for selfies and handshakes as they watched the marchers from armoured personnel carriers and tanks, and celebrated in posters and placards for toppling Mugabe.
“With this peaceful takeover the army has given us our country back,” said Lizzy Dendamera, 34, surrounded by signs reading “Thank you ZDF [Zimbabwe Defence Forces]” and “Zimbabwe army: voice of the people”.
The crowd roared at the name of military chief and coup leader general Constantino Chiwenga, and helicopters buzzing above the crowd were greeted with ecstatic screams and whistles. Many years spent propping up Mugabe, often with extreme brutality, appeared to have been forgotten or forgiven.
It was a dramatic shift in status, and heavily-armed troops packed into a truck outside the main stages looked stiff and alarmed at the ecstatic crowd crushing towards them to say thank you. But, by turning on their commander-in-chief, they had unleashed years of pent-up hope. “We are so happy today, 100% happy,” said army wife Gladys Zimucha, at the march with friends because her husband was in barracks. “I am proud of him,” she added with a grin.
One of the most extraordinary aspects of Mugabe’s fall from grace has been how fast and completely the party that he controlled so tightly, for so long, has turned on him. “We were the ones who were with him in the bush, but now he is going astray,” said Ticho Njara, a 62-year-old war veteran and Zanu-PF member. “He better surrender his power today.”
On the eve of the march, regional party offices around the country unleashed on Mugabe the formal ritual of party procedure that he had so often deployed against rivals. All united to call for his resignation and the return of former vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa, 75.
A ruthless former guerrilla fighter nicknamed “the crocodile”, Mnangagwa’s ousting from the party earlier this month set in motion the political showdown that ended in the coup. He is widely expected to take over from Mugabe as leader, perhaps as part of a unity coalition. “Mnangagwa must be the one who leads today,” said Njara.
Mnangagwa is not an obvious face of change, even if restrained by opposition politicians within some kind of unity government. A Zanu-PF stalwart who was Mugabe’s righthand man for decades, he is implicated in most of the corruption, violence and human rights abuses that tarnished the president’s reputation.
That history is as well known in Zimbabwe as Mugabe’s own. But after years of economic collapse and political ossification under a geriatric autocrat, huge numbers of Zimbabweans say they will embrace whatever alternative the army hammers out with Mugabe.
“Any change is good,” said Roderick Chamisa, 35, a manager from Harare. “Even if they take a drunk and put him there [as president], even a cockroach.”
There were solidarity protests in other Zimbabwean cities and beyond its borders, from South Africa to London. “Diaspora come back!” urged one poster aimed at millions scattered by the country’s economic decay.
The slow disintegration of a once-powerful economy, with industry and farming devastated by mismanagement, has left up to 90% of graduates from one of Africa’s best education systems jobless or forced into exile or casual labour.
“There aren’t enough jobs… we are here to say enough is enough,” said Kuda Masvaure, out with his brother Tinashe, both graduates and both unemployed. “A week ago our best dream was to leave the country to look for work.”
For poorer Zimbabweans, the failure of the economy has left them even more vulnerable. “I’m struggling, with no place to sleep. I am a squatter and I don’t even know what cash is these days,” said Shepherd Gonde, 42. “I want Mugabe to go.”
There was also an intoxicating sense of political freedom, after many years when opposing the president was dangerous or even deadly. People lined up to share their political views, and jostled to get their placards and banners into press photos or on TV. “A week ago we wouldn’t be doing this interview,” said Regis Fungurani, 31. “If we gave you our names or let you take our photo, Mugabe would have come for us, but now he is gone.”
Anchors at the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, known for stodgy propaganda, seemed overcome by genuine excitement. The state-controlled channel even broadcast a live speech by activist Evan Mawarire, a pastor who has been repeatedly arrested for challenging the government.
With airwaves and stages shared by politicians from the ruling party and their war veteran supporters, opposition figures and even activists, the march provided a moment of extraordinary national unity. Hatred of Mugabe and the damage he has done to Zimbabwe even brought together people who had been bitter enemies for years.
“This is the first march organised by the war vets that I have attended,” said Chris Shepherd, a former farmer and chairman of the national water polo team, out with his wife and family.
“You must remember they organised the marches that enabled the destruction of our property rights. It’s fantastic to be here, and I’m glad to be a part of it, but it’s difficult to process.”
That spirit of hope, and the new alliances, are likely to be strained by the political battles to come, and expectations are so high they are almost certain to be disappointed.
But in a country where for decades it has been dangerous to challenge the government, or even dream of hope, Zimbabweans were determined to celebrate the power of a peaceful population unleashed, and enjoy the chance, finally, to speak their minds.
“We are fully aware of the possible risks and pitfalls beyond this tipping point,” Zimbabwean newspaper publisher and entrepreneur Trevor Ncube said on Twitter. “We are confident we will be equal to the challenges. Yes, we remember Egypt too. After 37 years of repression, allow us to soak in this moment.”