Zimbabwe's capital Harare was shutdown on 6 July by a nationwide strike and protests against President Robert Mugabe's government and socio-economic and political challenges within the country. But what are Zimbabweans protesting about, and what does it mean for the country with a population close to 16 million?

On Wednesday (6 July), civil society organisations called for Zimbabweans to carry out a strike to pressure Mugabe, 92, into tackling the nation's economic issues. The 30th civilian-led protest against bad governance since January 2016, dubbed 'stay-away day', effectively closed businesses. The strike is seen as a landmark, as the result of such protests are rare in Zimbabwe.

In some suburbs of the capital Harare, burned tyres crippled public transport as protesters attempted to block streets to prevent cars from reaching the city centre. In retaliation, local media reported that police fired warning shots and teargas at small gatherings of people.

Demanding action over Zimbabwe's economic woes

The day of action follows an announcement by the Finance Ministry that it was delaying pay for civil servants – including doctors and the military – amid a worsening cash and currency shortage which forced authorities to impose strict limits on the amount that ordinary people can withdraw from bank accounts.

Other demands included the arrest of corrupt ministers, police harassment and the abandonment of a law banning the importation of some basic commodities.

"Whilst we do not condone the use of violence by citizens, it is quite clear that most of the actions have been sparked by 36 years of authoritarian rule, corruption and flagrant violation of the rule of law," the group said in a statement on 5 July.

Is Zimbabwe running out of cash?

In 2009, Zimbabwe stopped printing its own currency to end hyperinflation, after paper money became worthless.

Instead, it started using a basket of currencies for daily transactions. Zimbabweans now use US dollars, South African rand, the Chinese yuan and British pounds.

However, a fall in commodity prices and a severe drought in the past few months have weighed on exports. This means Zimbabwe is earning fewer dollars abroad.

This shortage of dollars – by far the most widely used currency now – has led to queues forming at some banks and ATMs in recent months, and the government has been trying to encourage people to move away from the dollar to the rand as South Africa is one of its most prominent trading partners.

In May, Harare announced it would start printing its own version of the US dollar – known as new bond notes.

Dumisani Nkomo, a spokesman for the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition campaign group, told the AFP news agency the protest "is a sign of economic collapse which has left people with nothing more to sacrifice and nothing to lose".

Nkomo added: "We are heading towards a tipping point as a country, where citizens will express their pain by any means."

Government warned demos to continue 'if no action taken'

Following Harare's shut down on 6 July, civil society organisations said the national protest "was a huge success".

One of the organisers and leader of an anti-government group known as #ThisFlag, Baptist pastor Evan Mawarire, was quoted as saying the protest would intensify if the government did not address the issues outlined above.

In a message on the live video streaming app Periscope, Mawarire warned: "If we are not hearing from you government next week on Wednesday (13 July) we shut down and this time we add another day... Wednesday and Thursday (14 July)". In the video, the pastor thanked the population for heading the call, but told protests: "Remember, no violence".

The spokesman for a youth movement which supports the protests, Promise Mkwananzi, meanwhile, warned Mugabe the strike would carry on today (Thursday 7 July) and Friday.

"This is a message to (President Robert) Mugabe that he must do the long overdue and most honourable thing of stepping down and allowing this country another chance to make progress, to create employment and economic opportunities," Mkwananzi was quoted as saying.

Dozens of arrests after regime's warnings

In an announcement on state television, the government regulator warned that those found dissenting or sharing "abusive and subversive material'' – for instance, anyone caught sending text messages that "may be deemed to cause despondency, incite violence, threaten citizens and cause unrest" – would face arrest.

"All Sim cards in Zimbabwe are registered in the name of the user, so perpetrators can easily be identified," the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority said in its announcement.

Telecommunications were difficult with internet down until around 2pm (CAT). TelOne network provider, which is government-run, apologised for the disruption. WhatsApp messaging services – the main communication tool that Zimbabweans were using to mobilise and share information – were also disabled. Freedom of expression watchdog Misa Zimbabwe condemned the move.

The Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) group, meanwhile, said at least 20 people had been arrested across the country. Police Assistant Commissioner Charity Charamba confirmed at least 19 had been arrested in Harare, while a 20th person in Zimbabwe's second city Bulawayo was arrested for possessing "homemade petrol bombs". An additional 17 were arrested for "staging an unlawful demonstration", in the western area of Matabeleland North, Charamba revealed.

Zimbabwe protests
A man checks a message on his mobile phone, in Harare, Zimbabwe, July 7, 2016. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo