ZIMBABWE is celebrating 35 years of Independence from British colonial rule. This freedom was won at a high price on April 18 1980; 16 years of guerrilla warfare, sacrifice, bloodshed and lives lost.
The nation can now speak of Rusununguko, a Shona term for freedom. Ironically, more than three decades on, questions remain on whether most human rights are being enjoyed by Zimbabweans?
Zimbabwe today is a country whose mention evokes feelings of disappointment about opportunities squandered.
With people holding on to slipping hope, the country is riddled with human rights challenges — abductions, police brutality, torture, forced evictions and bitter political power struggles.
On top of these there is high unemployment, a shrinking economy, widening socio-economic inequalities, a civil society under attack and poor service delivery, effectively denying millions the basic necessities of life. The idea of Independence was to unchain people from the bondage of colonial rule which reduced them to second class citizens. Every person must be accorded the freedom to freely express themselves — voicing their opinion, questioning leadership and demanding accountability from those that occupy positions of power.
Use of excessive force, muzzling dissenting voices and criminalisation of enjoyment of basic human rights is incompatible with the idea of Independence, but all these are synonymous with Zimbabwe 35 years later.
The irony of this year’s Independence commemorations in Zimbabwe is that it took place under a dark cloud of anguish with citizens wondering what had happened to journalist and government critic, Itai Dzamara. On March 9 Dzamara, ironically aged 35 meaning he was born at the dawn of Independence with its promise of freedom and abundance, was abducted while having a hair cut near his home in Harare’s suburb of Glen View.
His abductors allegedly accused him of stealing cattle before handcuffing him and forcing him into a white truck; he has not been seen since.
The mystery around Dzamara’s abduction bears a striking resemblance to state-sponsored targeting of the ruling Zanu PF party’s real and perceived political opponents that took place in 2008. Some were beaten and released, others, after being held incommunicado for weeks, were hauled before the courts facing a litany of charges which the state failed to sustain. Sadly, some people lost their lives during the same period and perpetrators are still free to roam the streets.
In 1980, then Prime Minister Robert Mugabe said: “Our majority rule could easily turn into inhuman rule if we oppressed, persecuted or harassed those who do not look or think like the majority of us”.
Thirty-five years on a fair proportion of people in Zimbabwe still experience oppression, persecution and harassment. Freedoms of assembly, association and expression are routinely violated with total impunity by authorities. Police show total disregard for the rule of law and human rights. They use excessive force to crush peaceful protestors and the leadership seem not to care.
Human rights non-governmental organisations like Amnesty International have repeatedly condemned these violations, but the authorities continue to fail to provide effective remedies. Those who have made it a culture to abuse human rights feel buoyed by the leadership’s inertia.
In a free country, people must be allowed to petition their leaders, demonstrate peacefully and freely associate. These rights are also enshrined in the new constitution adopted in May 2013. When protestors get beaten for exercising their constitutional and internationally recognised human rights it becomes very disturbing and is a sign of failure of government and leadership to fulfil the dreams of thousands who sacrificed their lives to achieve Independence.
Human rights cannot be seen as a favour extended to people by the leadership. Government is obligated to uphold them and do everything within its powers to ensure that those who have a habit of denying others their rights are brought to justice.
Recently, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions had to go to court to challenge the Public Order and Security Act (Posa), after the denial of a basic right to demonstrate. Labour protests are reflective of the socio-economic issues of a country and they provide platforms through which discontent is expressed. Needless to say, various sections of Posa are at variance with the spirit and letter of the constitution. It actually needs to be repealed and replaced by human rights-friendly public order legislation.
In April, protestors against xenophobic attacks in South Africa were beaten by police in Harare while walking back after protesting outside the South African embassy. The disturbing video clip of over 20 riot police beating a defenceless Sydney Chisi with batons went viral on the internet. Is this not what then Prime Minister Mugabe spoke against 35 years ago? How could it be happening now?
The problem in Zimbabwe might actually not only lie in the law. We think the biggest challenge lies in a political culture that says: it is right to demonise your political opponent, that it is right to beat up people you do not agree with, that those who commit violence on behalf of the state are assured they can sleep at home knowing government only pays lip service to accountability.
It cannot be right in any country, let alone an independent country. Yes, there is need to align the country’s laws with the constitution, but alignment of the laws with the constitution will not suddenly end violations by state agents. The ultimate solution lies in government genuinely engaging with the civil society, the general public and political opponents to put the country on course to attain the aspirations of independence — which presumably include the full and effective enjoyment of human rights.
Newspaper headlines in Zimbabwe paint a picture of political theatrics that will take the country nowhere.
The power struggles among the political elite in the country have since lost their entertainment value.
Names like “gamatox”, “weevils”, “renewal “or “original” are usually used to describe various political factions in the different parties in the country. What do these mean to people who are scared of the state, are jobless, have no farming inputs and cannot afford housing, healthcare or education?
After 35 years of Independence there is insufficient freedom to celebrate.
Simeon Mawanza/Vongai Chikwanda.