On March 5 2015, I received a Facebook message from Itai Dzamara.
“Mukoma I need to engage you over some crucial issues. May you respond please,” he wrote.
Alex T Magaisa
“My week gets better towards the end. Tomorrow is a better and more relaxed day. Or this evening after 6?” I wrote back.
“Ok mukoma. I will get in touch tomorrow,” he wrote.
“Ok,” I wrote in response.
Tomorrow came and I did not hear from him. On the March 9 2015 news arrived that Itai had been abducted and caused to disappear. He has not been seen or heard from since. As each day passes, I realise I will probably never know what he wanted to talk about but it obviously sounded very important.
Each time I think about it, I kick myself and say maybe I should have spared a moment on the 5th to hear what he wanted to say.
I had known Itai from my time working in Zimbabwe. The boy I knew was respectful and full of energy. He was impatient, in a positive sort of way. One day I had given him a lift into town. We had spoken life and politics. Keep it up mukoma, he had said as he disembarked to rush to the kombi.
A few weeks before our brief March 5 exchange he had written to me;
“Mukoma, you did a good piece on Zec. I heard Dumiso Dabengwa commend it and had to look for it. Keep it up. The nation needs you to use the gift for a new Zimbabwe.”
“Glad to know the work is receiving attention. It’s important to generate ideas,” I had written back.
I knew he was doing a lot more to challenge the system than most of us. He was right there at the coal face and to receive his kind words was a humbling affair, more humbling now given that the risks he took seem to have materialised.
Dzamara was an ordinary boy who simply sought to be heard. I might never know what he wanted to say. But most of the time, being the eternal optimist, I imagine he will return one day with many tales to tell. It is harder and harder, of course, for those of us who knew him before his disappearance.
But not half as hard as it is for his two kids and wife. For his mother and father. For his brothers and sisters. For his family. It is not possible to imagine the pain they must be going through at this time, the pain of not knowing what happened to their father, husband, child and brother. No-one has to go through that experience.
This single act has done more to hurt Zimbabwe’s image than most things that have happened in recent years. There were positive vibes emerging around Zimbabwe at the time, but these have since dissipated.
Yet the mysterious disappearance of Dzamara is not a first in post-independent Zimbabwe. A number of names that come to mind include Captain Nleya, a military officer who disappeared without trace in the 1980s amid claims that he was privy to sensitive information involving poaching and illegal trade in the rhino-horn by senior state officials.
Then there was the case of Rashiwe Guzha in the 1990s, who also disappeared into oblivion in controversial circumstances. The head of intelligence who was later implicated in her disappearance, Edison Shirihuru later died a mysterious death before trial. Thus the case was closed and nothing has ever been said or known about Guzha’s whereabouts.
The case of Patrick Nabanyama is yet another mysterious disappearance that has never been resolved. Nabanyama was an election agent of former MDC MP and later Education Minister, David Coltart when he contested in 2000. He was abducted and his whereabouts have never been discovered. In 2010, a court declared him dead following an application in accordance with the law.
There are others who have been abducted but have been lucky to return alive. The most high-profile of these is Jestina Mukoko, a prominent human rights activist who in 2008 was abducted by state security agents and kept incommunicado for weeks. During that time, as the Supreme Court later found, she was tortured and subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment by state security agents.
Despite the court’s findings, none of the perpetrators has ever been brought to trial. The police and prosecution authorities have done nothing to bring the perpetrators to book.
It is this involvement of state security agencies and the inaction by the state authorities in cases like Mukoko that leads people to think, reasonably, that the state is involved in the abductions and disappearances of many others. Apart from that, inaction promotes a culture of impunity.
Although Mukoko was tortured and violated, many others have not been lucky enough to return alive to their traumatised families. In 2000, Cain Nkala, a Zanu PF politician, was found dead weeks after his abduction. At the height of the presidential election run-off campaign in 2008, Tonderai Ndira, an MDC activist and youth leader, was abducted from his Mabvuku home and his body was later found decomposing in the bush. Many others across the country met a similar fate.
But back in the 1980s, people living in the Matabeleland and Midlands provinces had seen the worst of it well in advance. In a campaign known as Gukurahundi – the rain that sweeps the chaff – an armed unit called the Fifth Brigade, operating outside the conventional military structures was unleashed upon the region, ostensibly to fight dissidents. In fact, according to a Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace report, they were went on a rampage, massacring entire villages and burying them in pits and old mine shafts.
Critics say this was actually a campaign aimed at eradicating PF Zapu, the opposition political party led by veteran nationalist, Joshua Nkomo. Nkomo had to flee into exile. Thousands were killed or maimed. Other prominent leaders like Dumiso Dabengwa and Lookout Masuku were detained without trial, the latter eventually succumbing to death while effectively in state custody.
The state has never officially accepted its role in these massacres, nor has it apologised. Reports of independent commissions that investigated the massacres have remained locked in the state vaults. President Robert Mugabe has only referred to it as a “moment of madness”. It only ended after Nkomo and his party acquiesced and were swallowed by Mugabe and Zanu PF. They signed a Unity Accord in 1987, under which PF Zapu became part of Zanu PF and Nkomo became Vice-President under the leadership of Mugabe.
The people of Matabelend and the Midlands are rightly bitter about this dark period of Zimbabwe’s history. Professor Jonathan Moyo, who is now Higher Education, once tried to sponsor a Gukurahundi Bill in 2007. At the time he had been thrown out of Zanu PF and was an independent MP. Chances of the Bill succeeding were always slim, but the attempt was an important symbolic effort at official recognition of the gross human rights violations of that era.
Moyo was later re-admitted into Zanu PF and the Bill was shelved.
No-one in government talks about Gukurahundi. State narratives fondly remember Nkomo as Father Zimbabwe, a title he enjoyed during the liberation war in the 1970s, and only regained in public discourse after his death in 1999. But his persecution and the persecution of people in Matabeleland and the Midlands is conveniently expunged from the narratives.
For their part, the Western countries looked the other way when these atrocities were being committed in the 1980s. In fact, Zimbabwe was hailed as a progressive state. Mugabe was feted in the West from London to Washington DC. He was accorded honorary degrees by Western universities, including the prestigious Edinburgh University in Scotland, and the highest honour of them all was an honorary Knighthood awarded by Her Majesty the Queen of England.
It was only post-2000 that the tables turned and Mugabe became a pariah in the West.
He still targeted the opposition but he had turned focus onto the white commercial farmers and attacked the institution of private property. For these human rights violations, Mugabe earned sanctions from the European Union, the United States and other Western states.
They were said to be targeted sanctions but they went further, with the US’s Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act (Zidera) effectively barring financial loans and support from international financial institutions since the US directors of banks like the IMF, AfDB, World Bank, etc were directed to veto any loans and guarantees to Zimbabwe.
Thus the discourse around Zimbabwe has focused very much around human rights. The current violent removal of vendors, including the burning of their properties, brings back memories of Operation Murambatsvina in 2005, when the state bulldozed and destroyed so-called illegal homes and businesses built in urban areas. The United Nations sent a mission to investigate what had happened and condemned the actions of government as a violation of human rights and livelihoods.
Facing pariah status and banned from travelling to Europe and the US under sanctions, Mugabe has turned to China. For years, Zanu PF has chanted its so-called Look East Policy, reference to its policy of working with China as opposed to the hostile West.
China has been receptive. It has a huge appetite for raw materials to feed the economic juggernaut in its backyard and Zimbabwe has these resources. For its part, Zimbabwe needs a Big Brother friend, which China is. China has a deliberate policy of not scrutinising the internal affairs of states, let along it human rights record, unlike the West.
Last week, Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa and widely-regarded as the heir-apparent to the Presidency in Zimbabwe, was in China. He was ostensibly following up on “mega-deals” signed between the two countries last year when Mugabe visited China, but it would seem that politically, this was an introduction of the heir-apparent to Zimbabwe’s biggest friend.
Mnangagwa and others worry about their alleged roles in previous human rights violations, including Gukurahundi, a subject that has cropped up time and again, and having China, which does not concern itself with human rights issues, nearby is very helpful as he prepares the path to take over.
Two years ago, Zimbabwe adopted a new constitution, replacing the multi-patched up Lancaster House charter that had been amended several times since independence. It’s supposed to be more liberal and open. But two years later much of it is yet to be implemented. Government keeps pleading that they are preparing the Bills in order to realign the law with the new constitution.
A new National Peace and Reconciliation Commission (NPRC) was supposed to be established soon after adoption. Designed to work like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of 1990s in South Africa, it was heavily opposed by Zanu PF. When it was eventually agreed, it was only given a limited remit and just 10-year lifespan. However, with two years gone before establishment, it will now have less than eight years to accomplish its mammoth task.
The new constitution includes a vast array of socio-economic rights, including the right to health-care and the right to food, but the government is too broke and impecunious to satisfy these rights. Bad governance stands in the way of enjoyment of these rights. All in all, the post-independence government’s human rights record has been abysmal, to say the least. Right from the early years of Independence in Matabeleland and the Midlands, government has dealt with the opposition in a heavy-handed manner. The abductions and disappearances are a serious cause for concern. What has happened to Dzamara is not new and given the time that has elapsed and previous cases, people must fear for the worst.
But someone somewhere must have an idea what happened to Dzamara.
The state claims that it doesn’t know. But it has a constitutional obligation to protect its citizens. It has a constitutional obligation to at least show some interest in finding out what happened to one of its citizens. Yet it does not seem to have shown any interest at all. That’s sad.
Some senior government officials say those who say he was abducted must prove it. But how do people who report an incident prove that he was abducted? Is it not the state’s job to investigate and find out what actually happened to one of its citizens? It is almost futile to ask a state which is showing no interest in the matter to do a good job of investigating.
But surely, there is someone out there, a human being born of a loving woman, someone with a conscience, who must have an idea about the whereabouts and fate of Dzamara. They might spare a thought for his two kids.
Every day, when the sun rises, they wake up hoping their father will come back home. Then, at dusk, as the sun sets, as the birds stop singing, and darkness takes over, they don’t see their father. They wait and wait until sleep overcomes them. Hoping to see him the next day. It has been like this since March 9. Last week on July 9 marked four months of the same tortuous routine. Whatever happened to the hearts of men and women? This is tragic.
Magaisa is a law academic at Kent Law School, the University of Kent at Canterbury and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org You can read his work at his website www.alexmagaisa.com