On 16 August 2019, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) initiated a wave of protests to register displeasure with the government in Zimbabwe. The first protest was in Harare where the police descended upon unarmed demonstrators with inexplicable brutality. I was in Bulawayo and our day of protest was 19 August 2019.
I was not going to miss it for the world!
However, on Saturday, two days before, police trucks spent the day moving around Bulawayo, instructing people not to attend the protests. Their message shifted from pleading, “please go on with your business as usual”, to threatening, “we will deal with troublemakers” to downright patronising, “we will be out here in our numbers to protect you from demonstrators!”.
As the ground troops conducted their intimidation tactics on the roads, army helicopters flew over Bulawayo at different intervals, in both the CBD and residential areas. I texted someone telling him about this and he responded with these chilling words: “It’s Gukurahundi all over again!”
The people of Matebeleland will never forget the helicopters that flew over Bulawayo in the early 1980s, marking the beginning of the genocide with this simple declaration of war on civilians by the government: “Seligonjolozelwe” (You have been surrounded.)
As the helicopters flew over Bulawayo from Saturday and all of Monday, silently this time, the unspoken message rang loud and clear in most of our minds … Bulawayo had once again, at the hands of the same perpetrators as 36 years ago, been surrounded.
That same Saturday, paid internet trolls were warning everyone that criticised the government or spoke about the protests about the danger of doing so. They were in panic mode. So much so, that instead of responding to my #ZanuPFMustGo comments with anonymous threats and behind the scenes bullying as they have been doing to me in the past, Nick Mangwana himself, the permanent secretary in the ministry of information, responded with this to one of my tweets: “Be careful not destroy many lives after you tie your fate to the removal of Zanu PF from power.”
People were scared. The protest was a flop.
What happened in August is evidence of how under Zimbabwe’s “new” government, human rights violations have continued. To understand why this is the case, we need to understand the past; we need to recognise the patterns of silence and impunity for gross human rights violations committed not only under colonisation, but also since 1980 in the name of independence.
In 1980, Zanu was declared the winner of the country’s first post-independence election. One would have thought this would be the beginning of freedom for Zimbabweans. We had not just come out of a war, but also out of a century of oppression under white minority rule. Colonisation, after slavery, was probably the world’s worst human rights abuse system, so independence for Zimbabweans, was seen as the beginning of an era where blacks could finally enjoy basic human rights, which before, were enjoyed only by white people.
But that was not to be.
It seems Zimbabwe has been in turmoil since inception.
Being declared the winner of the 1980 election was not enough for Zanu. Irked by the idea that ZAPU had so much support, that they had the potential to beat them in an election, Zanu immediately declared war on ZAPU and the Joshua Nkomo-led opposition. Joshua Nkomo was so popular across Zimbabwe’s geographical demarcations and across Zimbabwe’s 16 official language speakers that, until today, he is known as the father of Zimbabwe.
However, his popularity did not sit well with Zanu, which was obsessed with the idea of a one-party state. Robert Mugabe, assisted by his then minister of state and now President of Zimbabwe, Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa, invited a group of North Koreans to train a branch of the army they dubbed “Five Brigade”. Five Brigade was under the command of Bigboy Samson Chikerema, codenamed “Black Jesus”; his catchphrase to his victims during the operation is said to have been: “Your life is in my hands. I decide whether you live or die.”
This infamous commander now goes by the name Perence Shiri. He is Zimbabwe’s current minister of agriculture.
The job of the Five Brigade was simple. They were to be Zanu’s Gukurahundi, a Shona term for the early rains that sweep away the chaff. The chaff in this case was Zanu’s main opposition, ZAPU and ZAPU supporters. They were unleashed on Matebeleland, ZAPU’s stronghold in 1982. By 1986, they had killed more than 20,000 civilians, all of them suspected ZAPU supporters.
On December 22 1987, Joshua Nkomo submitted to Mugabe’s ultimatum and signed the unity accord that merged Zanu and ZAPU to form Zanu-PF. Mugabe and Zanu got their one-party state and the genocide immediately ended.
Nobody was punished for any of the murders, disappearances and other political, social and economic crimes. Perpetrators were not asked to explain or reveal what they had done to the disappeared. Victims received no form of therapy or compensation. There were no lustrations. Zimbabwe went on like nothing had happened.
In 1999, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) was formed and once again, the one-party state was under threat. Much to their shock, in 2000, Zanu-PF lost a referendum for a new constitution. Blinded by rage and desperation to appease war veterans and the rural population who were feeling betrayed and forgotten, Zanu-PF invaded white owned farms and forcibly and violently evicted the owners. It is said the eviction and killing of white farmers was also a form of punishment for the Western countries that were funding the MDC. The farm invasions were named “Hondo yeminda” Shona for “war for land”.
Then Zanu-PF rebranded themselves as the party that had given back the land to the people and branded MDC as the sellout party that wanted to sell the country to white imperialists. MDC supporters were murdered, beaten and driven out of villages for being sellouts, enemies of the state. Zanu-PF managed to yet again hold on to power. The perpetrators stayed in office. Untouched by the law.
In 2008, Zanu-PF lost the elections to MDC. They held on to the results for just over a month, but eventually had to release them. It was said the MDC did not garner the required percentage for them to be declared winners so there was to be an election runoff. In the meantime, Zanu-PF went into the rural areas and embarked on operation “wavotera papi?”. Shona for “who did you vote for?” As in the Gukurahundi genocide, all who were suspected of having voted for the opposition were killed, beaten and driven out of villages.
Morgan Tsvangirai, upon realising that what Zanu-PF was doing could turn into yet another genocide, submitted to Zanu-PF as Nkomo had done back in 1987, and entered into a government of national unity. Mugabe and Zanu-PF stayed in power.
The killings and violence ended.
The impunity continued.
In 2017, Robert Mugabe was removed through a coup by his army generals and replaced with Emmerson Mnangagwa. Zimbabweans were euphoric. Most never thought they would ever see Mugabe leave power. Mnangagwa called this the new dispensation and promised Zimbabweans he would be completely different from his predecessor.
“I am soft as wool,” he said.
But on August 1, 2018, two days after the first election following Mugabe’s departure, Mnangagwa responded to protests from people demanding the release of election results, by gunning down fleeing protestors with live ammunition. Never had such a thing happened in Zimbabwe. We went into a state of shock. And just like that, any illusion of this being a new dispensation ended. In true Zanu-PF style, they had yet again unleashed maximum force at the threat of opposition.
To date, no perpetrator has been arrested for the crimes.
In January 2019, defiant youths took to the streets to protest a fuel price hike. They were quickly dispersed by army and anti-riot police. But the government did not think that was enough. They sent the army on door-to-door raids and beat, raped and killed civilians in the dark of the night. To prevent information about the atrocities spreading, they shut down the internet. The abuses continued for days.
Nobody has been brought to book for these crimes.
Each time, opposition parties and trade unions demonstrate or gather, the police have come in full force to disperse them Gestapo style. Public protests have been criminalised in Zimbabwe. This at a time when prices increase unchecked; civil servants, being teachers, nurses and police among others, are earning an average of R1,000 equivalent monthly; hospitals are incapacitated with patients having to bring in their own gloves, drips, needles and anything else to be used to treat them; chronic medicines are unaffordable and thus many have defaulted from their diabetes, HIV and hypertension drugs.
As all this is happening, Zimbabweans are not free to express how they feel about it.
Doctors have been on strike since June 2019 over their salaries as well as the incapacitation of hospitals. The government responded to the strike by abducting without trace the leader of the doctors’ union, Peter Magombeyi who they released after five days, tortured and suffering from amnesia. They have also fired the majority of the striking doctors. The government claims they are themselves incapacitated because of sanctions. People have rejected that claim as the sanctions have failed to prevent the president from spending over USD$35-million on hiring a private jet over two years. Despite sanctions, the vice presidents and other senior government officials go abroad for health care. The government is living lavish lifestyles as the people perish.
By branding all dissenting voices enemies of the state, looters, violent dissidents, “regime-change” agents, puppets of the West etc, the Zimbabwean government in the past four decades has perfected the art of dehumanisation of opposition and anyone who tries to hold them accountable. In their minds and in the minds of their supporters, anyone who criticises the government is unpatriotic, a sellout and therefore not worthy of any human rights. They must be punished for painting the country in a bad light, inviting sanctions and airing our dirty laundry.
At the helm of Zimbabwe’s “new” government are people that have perpetrated crimes against humanity. The country is run by people who have killed and looted with impunity for 39 years. Is it pragmatic for us to imagine that they could reform? What are the chances that they would reform themselves out of power and probably straight into prison? People that have no respect for humanity are incarcerated in prisons but in Zimbabwe it is those people that are in charge of the state coffers, the judiciary and prisons.
This Human Rights Day, I found myself wondering if Zimbabweans will ever know peace. From the days of colonisation when Arnold Tonybee wrote: “What shall we, the Lords of creation, the white people, do with the natives we find? Shall we treat them as vermin to be exterminated or shall we treat them as hewers of wood and drawers of water?”
To the days of Zanu-PF where President Emmerson Mnangagwa once promised in 1983 that: “Blessed are they who will follow the path of government laws for their days on earth will be increased. But woe unto those who will choose the path of collaboration with dissidents for we will certainly shorten their stay on earth.”
Zimbabweans have been brutalised and treated inhumanely by past and present oppressors leaving indelible scars. To recover our dignity, we will first need to rediscover our humanity. MC
Thandekile Moyo is a writer and human rights defender from Zimbabwe. For the past four years she has been using print, digital and social media (Twitter: @mamoxn) to expose human rights abuses, bad governance and corruption. Moyo holds an Honours degree in Geography and Environmental Studies from The Midlands State University in Zimbabwe
By law Pluto remains a planet in New Mexico.