Something unusual has happened in the past few days in Southern Africa. School children have led protests for human rights in Zim & Malawi. Primary school children in Malawi. Secondary school children in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. @ansothom @dailymaverick pic.twitter.com/b4DpmSc3eT
— Leila Dougan (@leiladougan) January 22, 2020
If you have followed any news about protests in Zimbabwe and Malawi in the last few months, you will have heard that protest action in Zimbabwe has been done by adult Zimbabweans organised by trade unions, civil society or political formations. You will also have heard that the reactions to the protests by the authorities was the trademark violence, arbitrary arrests and detentions and in some instances shooting. Yes, shooting to kill unarmed civilians.
This happens when states become autocratic and intolerant to criticism and leaders operate on a psyche that power is an end in itself and therefore seek to hold into it at any cost.
This is why in Zimbabwe exactly one year ago, in January 2019, over 1300 people were arrested and detained and a number killed by armed forces for protesting against rising prices of petrol and food. The impunity for such killings is evidenced by the fact that even after the August 2018 killings, where former South Africa president Motlanthe recommended that the trigger happy soldiers who shot and killed six unarmed civilians be arrested and brought to justice, no one has ever been arrested.
Yet on 20 January 2020, we saw a different form of spontaneous protest action, this time by students from Njube Secondary School in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, protesting about the quality of their education. In Zimbabwe, like South Africa, basic education is a right. According to the 2013 Zimbabwean Constitution “the state must take all practical measures to promote – free and compulsory basic education for children” (section 27) and in turn “every citizen and permanent resident … has a right “to a basic State-funded education ..” (Section 75).
But in Zimbabwe as in South Africa the words of the Constitution are not matched by the reality of the education system.
As a result, students in Bulawayo were protesting the hiking of school fees by the authorities. They complained that the teachers’ conditions of service were pathetic and an affront to the dignity of the teaching profession.
According to Obert Masaraure, the president of the Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe teachers in Zimbabwe: “earned around the equivalent of $30 (R400) as salary for the month of January 2020. It is some contemporary form of slavery”.
The secondary school students at Njube saw this as unfair and, coupled with the increase in fees that made it difficult for them to enjoy their right to education, they protested in the streets until they obeyed the instruction of their headmaster to return to school.
In Malawi the protests that followed the disputed elections in May 2019 have generally featured the Malawi Human Rights Defenders Coalition led by activist Timothy Mtambo. These protests to demand electoral justice and accountability have seen large participation by Malawians of all walks of life.
However the post-elections protests were met with violence and threats by the police and ruling party “cadres” in Malawi. Such was the threat factor against unarmed civilian protesters that the Malawi Defence Forces took the unusual step of protecting civilians from the police and cadres from the ruling party. Mtambo has been the victim of an assassination attempt and his wife has faced cyber bullying, including WhatsApp messages encouraging any man who came across her to rape her. Other human rights activists also faced numerous threats. The judiciary’s independence has been threatened with credible reports of attempts to bribe judges who are presiding over the election petition.
Yet on 21 January 2020 outside the glare of public attention, primary school children in Muzuzu, Northern Malawi, went into a public protest marching in the streets “demanding that teachers be paid their December salary” according to Happy Mhango of the HRDC.
“The students were angered by the fact that teachers in Malawi have gone on an indefinite shutdown after some teachers were not paid in December 2019 following a bungled head count exercise by the authorities”, added Mhango.
These two events in important countries in Southern Africa where the authorities have been autocratic and clamped down on civil society show that the inter-generational passage of human rights values is active and alive. This gives hope that the struggles against inequality and injustice will continue from generation to generation.
We all know how on 16 June, 1976 in South Africa the students became the symbol of hope for a better South Africa; 20-21 January 2020 are therefore a significant addition to the history of the role of students in carrying out their generational mandate to fight for the rights and dignity of all people. MC
Arnold Tsunga is the Chairperson of the Southern African Human Rights Defenders Coalition and writes in his personal capacity