Conducting research in the midst of a coup: Streetbees’ findings as Mugabe was ousted

Robert Mugabe ruled Zimbabwe without challenge for 37 years. Until, one day, he didn’t. We spoke to the country’s people to find out what the future holds for the former African powerhouse.

A step too far: Robert Mugabe’s forceful removal of one-time ally Emmerson Mnangagwa sparked a chain of events that had the world’s glare fixed on Harare.

In November this year, Robert Mugabe’s now-well-publicised exit from power was beginning to take place.

Africa’s longest-serving head of state was about to be removed from office, and the country had descended into its own version of chaos. For the first time since Mugabe swept into power in 1980, the people were able to find their voice — without the threat of military force to keep them at bay.

Harare was buzzing. Almost a million people were estimated to be out on the streets to protest, something that would have been deemed illegal just days before. This time, many felt the military were — finally — on their side; with Mugabe under house arrest, the generals moved in and the Central Committee expelled him as leader.

Cue the sounds of car horns, droning in celebration through the night and into the morning. Industry was at a standstill, the urban population in particular glued to televisions and radios as the impeachment process begun to unfold.

But alongside all of this? Streetbees was conducting field research amidst the madness and mayhem, all sparked by the prospect of a future without Mugabe.

Cultivating a community can be testing for many different reasons, not least the volatility of the environment in which the research needs to be completed. But, thanks to an on-the-ground Ambassador network, numbers grew across Zimbabwe by 124% during this period — with a recruitment drive launched on-demand.

Hundreds of photo responses, delivered directly from respondents in the heat of the moment, were submitted. And while we were there, we decided to ask some pressing questions about the political situation: on Mugabe, and on the future of Zimbabwe as a whole.

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It’s easy to view Mugabe through the prism of this coup but, in reality, he’s enjoyed periods of extended public support throughout his time in power.

Seen as the man who finally freed the country from colonial rule, many of the older generation still view him as a revolutionary figure, as opposed to the criminal that is often portrayed — with a lot of supporting evidence — in the global media.

In truth, he remains a polarising figure.

When asked whether said Western perspective was a fair reflection on the leader, and that he should be prosecuted for his crimes, 35% agreed and 33% opposed. The margins in this country are fine, which is what makes this pseudo-revolution such a fascinating spectacle.

The remainder of people, who said they were unsure, decided as such largely due to a lack of any legal wrongdoing on his part:

“I cannot say he is a criminal because I do not know his criminal record — nobody does”, said one respondent. “There haven’t been charges laid against him, so he can be only prosecuted if there are crimes that would be brought to light. So far, he has not committed any”, said another.

Contrast this with a worldwide perspective and the outcome is very different.

Streetbees posed the same question to individuals in the US, the UK and Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy, to understand the contrasting nature of Mugabe the Zimbabwean leader and Mugabe the global statesman. Almost half (47.4%) believe he should be prosecuted for both constitutional and violent crimes, with just 23% seeing him as exempt from trial.

One criticism that has always been labelled at Mugabe’s reign is his stranglehold on freedom of speech, which goes some way to explain the black hole of information surrounding the details of tenure in power.

Just 25% of the country believe they have complete autonomy over what they can say in public, even after the impeachment process, but this doesn’t seem to feed into an unavoidable sense of optimism now he has been forced aside.

“The people are open to new ideas. Our country is now open for business, for investment into our industries”. “We spoke, and we were heard. It is time for the country to engage with the citizens and help us all move forward. It is a second independence revolution”.

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A quick word on our methodology: The figures in the article are taken from a piece of field research, carried out in November 2017. 1700 people were involved in the study, spreading across all age ranges. All of the data was collected by mobile and web surveys, and the 95% confidence interval is 3 percentage points.

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