IT is a Monday morning in Harare’s high-density suburb, Warren Park, as the 21-day nationwide lockdown entered the eighth day.A large crowd starts forming at a local supermarket after word circulated that maize-meal had been delivered in the wee hours of the morning. Maize-meal is the most sought-after commodity in the country. Zimbabwe has been hit by an acute shortage of maize-meal after two consecutive droughts. Though bread and rice are popular in Zimbabwe, maize remains the staple food.
The crowd continues to swell as news of mealie-meal delivery spreads. People wait anxiously for the shop to open. As the shop attendant lowers the shutters, she shouts at the impatient crowd: “I will not open until there is order,” but nobody pays attention to her rants.
People rush into the shop as soon as the shutters are fully open. At that moment, all advice on social-distancing and self-isolation to avoid contracting the deadly coronavirus is forgotten, as shoppers push and shove each other.
Minutes later, two truck-loads of police officers packed like sardines, arrive. The law enforcement agents wielding baton sticks jump out and immediately start beating up shoppers indiscriminately, who subsequently scurry for cover amid piercing screams.
Two officers stand guard at the entrance to ensure order, and only then do the shoppers start standing in a single file. Other police officers move in to ensure the shoppers stand in the queue two metres apart.
The baton stick, which in Zimbabwe is viewed as a symbol of brutality, is back in use as the police enforce the 21-day lockdown meant to contain the spread of Covid-19.
There are growing fears that police officers are abusing their new powers.With much of the globe under stay-at-home orders, police officers are the enforcers of a new coronavirus code that demands what humans naturally resist: total self-isolation.
Since the lockdown was effected, there has been several incidences where the police have threatened people with jail terms for violating the lockdown, even in instances where they are walking alone to the shops to buy vital supplies.
In some cases, enforcement has been aggressive and heavy-handed, giving rise to human rights abuse concerns.Videos and pictures circulating on social media have shown police and military officials administering roadside beatings to those violating the lockdown.
In one video that has gone viral on social media, a group of police officers and military personnel are seen forcing some young men to jog on the spot while doing a rendition of a popular christian song: Shandira Korona, whose loose translation is “work for the crown”.
In another video, three women are made to lie down on their bellies before being assaulted with sjamboks.
In yet another video, a group of men is pulled from an illegal beer outlet, commonly known as shebeens, before being subjected to savage beatings.
Another video shows a senior police officer in Mutare standing behind a truck from which a variety of vegetables are offloaded for disposal after being seized from vendors.
There have also been widespread reports that police have raided homes, arrested and fined tuckshop owners. Some tuckshop owners were assaulted.
All this came after a tweet on March 3 from @Jamwanda2, believed to be presidential spokesperson George Charamba, in which he said: “Maface angu ekuGhetto (My friends in high-density suburbs), kindly note that pranks and drinking sprees in streets this evening will come to grief!!! THE BOYS ARE BACK IN TOWN!!!!!!”
On Monday this week, he again tweeted using his @Jamwanda2 handle: “I have just got a plaintive appeal from a resident in Waverly, Kadoma, intimating wanton disregard of lockdown, especially by the youths. If indiscipline is not internally generated, it might have to be introduced externally. Musazoti mavara azare ivhu (don’t say we were not warned).”
Questions are being raised about violations of constitutional rights by the police.
Namibian-based Zimbabwean scholar Admire Mare said: “There is a long history of aggressive policing during pandemics and other crises, with officers guarding the sick, enforcing travel restrictions and issuing citations for spitting.
“What’s different now is that orders to stay home are more widespread, forcing countries, states, cities and towns to grapple with how policing should work when it’s not entirely clear what activities are prohibited, or why one might be riskier than another,” he added.
To legally promulgate the lockdown, President Emmerson Mnangagwa introduced three statutory instruments, which basically work to limit rights specified in section 85 of the Constitution.
For human rights activist Dewa Mavhinga, defining law and order gets more complicated when people’s daily survival is dependent on the need to go out and work.
He said when enforcing the nationwide lockdown, the security forces should approach it as a broad public relations exercise, to project a new, positive image of a security service that cares and supports vulnerable communities.
“Given the vulnerabilities of various communities, including that more than two million people in Harare and Chitungwiza do not have access to clean water, there is a role for the security forces to play in helping provide clean water and food to communities in dire need. A national lockdown is effective and it is enforced, not only through the law, but also through ensuring that the government discharges its obligation to provide food and water and health services to vulnerable members of its community,” he said in an opinion peace published in the Zimbabwe Independent last week.
Constitutional law expert Greg Linington said while the lockdown, in a way resembles a state emergency which allows the state to limit certain rights, the limitation should be enforced in a reasonable manner.
“A law can limit rights if it is justifiable in terms of Section 86 of the constitution. If an emergency is declared, then more onerous restrictions can be imposed. Even these must be rationally related to dealing with the emergency. Grounds upon which rights can be limited include public safety, public health and public order among others,” Linington said.
Numerous reports have emerged of police targeting people venturing out to buy essential goods or working in essential services such as pharmacies. Police have reportedly beaten people with sticks and, in certain instances, forced them to crawl or do pushups.