Editor’s Memo..Faith Zaba
Beating up of MDC supporters, people in bank queues and passers-by on Wednesday morning by riot police at and around the opposition party headquarters — the Morgan Richard Tsvangirai House in Harare’s central business district — has ignited public disapproval of the country’s seemingly trigger-happy law enforcers.
In widely shared videos and images circulating on social media, at least 150 police officers in riot gear are seen brutalising MDC supporters, who were not more than 50, and passers-by. The videos show people lying on the ground while being repeatedly kicked and hit them with baton sticks. In two images, which have gone viral, a police officer trips a woman in a white dress, while another shows almost 50 police officers closing space on 22 people, as baton sticks rained on their backs.
Most disheartening were images and videos of an elderly man with a gash on his head and blood flowing down his face, a head-bandaged woman in a red dress, with blood flowing all over her face and a young woman with a fractured knee. The sight of more than 150 fully-armed police officers with shields, baton sticks, teargas guns and two or three with AK47 rifles, five troop carriers and two water canon carriers in a 100-metre radius in the city centre jarringly mirrored images Zimbabweans once thought were confined to repressive police states or military dictatorships. It also evoked the cruelty of South Africa’s apartheid era or Rhodesia’s callousness. Sadly, this is happening in an independent Zimbabwe.
In the usually quiet Harare streets, the law enforcers also fired teargas as they employed heavy-handed tactics to disperse such a small gathering that awaited opposition leader Nelson Chamisa’s speech dubbed Hope of the Nation Address. Before the attacks, the police had approached the MDC leadership telling them to instruct their supporters to leave the streets and go inside the building.
They also demanded that the party supporters stop toy-toying and singing on the pavements, alleging they were disrupting peace in the CBD.
The video clips reminded people of armed police and soldiers that attacked and killed protesters in August last year and in January this year.
In the past few months, the police have blocked MDC rallies and demonstrations at least nine times, alleging that they could turn violent because they were being held at a time Zimbabweans were suffering as a result of the crippling economic meltdown. However, in this incident, the police maintain that they had given MDC permission to hold a rally at Freedom Square near the Harare Agricultural Showgrounds, but the MDC cancelled late on Tuesday night.
While the police blame the attacks on lawlessness, it is the brutality against citizens that has riled the people. Whether the police were provoked, as government claims, nothing justifies brutal attacks on civilians. The police in their huge numbers could have easily dispersed the paltry crowd without lifting a baton stick or firing teargas. What happened on Wednesday goes against what liberation war combatants fought for. They fought against gross human rights violations, repression and intimidation of opposing voices.
In an interview in 1974, responding to a question on what guarantees were there that a new post-Independence government would not be similar to the repressive Rhodesian regime, Eddison Zvobgo declared that Zimbabwe would uphold and respect basic human rights and freedoms.
“We do not want to create a socio-legal order in the country in which people are petrified, in which people go to bed having barricaded their doors and windows because someone belonging to the Special Branch of the Police will break into their house,” he said. “This is what we have been fighting against.
Every one of us has been in jail 10 years, 14 years, I myself nine years without trial. Every one of us has lived and has had to live scared of the police. How on earth would we create a society which is exactly like that? We don’t want it. We are fed up of it. This is why we are in this revolution for as long as it is necessary to abolish this system.”
In any democratic country, political parties should be able to co-exist. After all, political conflict disrupts the economy, upsets the social order and affects human life. We normally concentrate on the human aspect of violence, forgetting that it also destabilises the economic and social order.
Police brutality should be condemned in the strongest terms. Section 58 of the constitution gives every Zimbabwean the right to freedom of assembly and association. Section 59 gives the right to demonstrate and this must be exercised without hindrance.