South Africa

Maverick Citizen: Human Rights Op-Ed

Witness Zimbabwe: Human Rights in Time of Torture and Abduction

Saturday 21 March is Human Rights day in South Africa. Although public gatherings planned to mark the day have been cancelled because of Covid-19, this does not stop us from thinking about the issues and the importance of human rights. Human rights are universal. Yet the protections we take for granted in our Constitution are routinely denied in other southern African countries. In this article Thandekile Moyo, a Zimbabwean activist, exposes the threats of torture, abduction and state violence faced by activists in Zimbabwe.

It was August 2018. Zimbabwe was meant to be experiencing its new dawn of democracy. That day I watched with fascination as the police spectacularly and uncharacteristically retreated from the protest. To my knowledge, this had never ever happened in the history of protests in Zimbabwe. I remember theorising on why police were leaving the scene. It certainly was not because they were defeated, the crowd was not that large and the police had their usual weapons at their disposal – water cannon, tear gas and their favourite – batons.

So why were they aborting the mission?

I then told Baba, with whom I was watching as I live-tweeted the protests, that maybe the strategy was to starve the protesters of attention. The protesters seemed to be just as baffled by the retreat of the police. They lost steam and seemed unsure of what to do next. “Well, it’s over, [Emmerson] Mnangagwa may have more sense than Bob after all,” I grudgingly admitted to myself. And just as soon as I drew that naïve conclusion, I caught a glimpse of the first military tanker rolling down Rotten Row.

I experienced a series of emotions and physical reactions. An adrenaline rush like never before, surprise, excitement and a bit of confusion. Fear was not among the emotions I experienced; what was the worst they could do?

After the surprise wore off and as more tankers and military trucks zoned in on the demonstrators, movie-style; and the crowd immediately as if on cue, turned their backs and ran, I told myself, “Now this is the Mnangagwa I know!” A bit of overkill to deploy the army, I thought; not for a second did I think those balaclava-clad, gangster-like, AK47-brandishing soldiers would actually shoot anyone.

I went on to post this tweet:

We are officially a military state! Riot police ordered to withdraw and soldiers unleashed on protesters. People beaten willy-nilly, crowd ran away but they seem to be regrouping. #ElectionsZW #Zimbabwe Where is Mnangagwa’s pre-election peace promise. We are an abused people.

One of the reporters screamed “Gunshots! I heard gunshots!”, before I actually heard them myself. With those gunshots, a dark cloud descended upon Zimbabwe, killing any hope of freedom and change that any of us may have held.

As that was happening I was frantically tweeting this:

Army on the streets. Shots fired. Live bullet casings on the ground! Journalists retreating to safe positions. How can Zanupf turn such a peaceful election, a peaceful country into a war zone? If they won they wouldn’t be doing this. Soldiers beating up passers by #ElectionsZW

The next few minutes were horrendous. Soldiers shot indiscriminately into the backs of fleeing protesters. It brings tears to my eyes to recall that traumatic day. I feared for the lives of my comrades and friends who were at the demonstration.

The same thought kept playing in my mind: 

I should have been there.

I could have been there.

I would have been there.

But I had gone back home to Gwanda to vote. This was two days after the July 30, 2018 elections, the fateful day of August 1, 2018.

I posted this tweet a few hours later, still reeling from the shock:

But guys? Why live ammunition? Why not rubber bullets? Why not tear gas? Why not… This is so so sad. My heart is broken. #Zanupf must fall! Imagine a soldier shooting at the public from a building sniper style! What craziness is that? #ElectionsZW

The 1 August massacres were a message not only to us Zimbabweans but to the world that there was a new sheriff in town. To date, nobody has been punished for the extrajudicial killings.

On 3 August, I posted this tweet:

So I just woke up to a Mnangagwa “victory”. Inga! Imagine knowing you won, but still sending army to murder anyone who thinks you didn’t win & to clear the streets so that by the time you announce, there’s none to dispute. Then announcing in the dead of the night, like a thief.

Fast-forward to today

This morning, Thursday 12 March 2019, 19 months after the army gunned down fleeing protesters, I woke up to the news that former head of the Presidential guard Anselem Sanyatwe has been added to the sanctions list by the US. Sanyatwe is the one who commanded the force that gunned down protesters and passersby on 1 August. I am happy about the news, but sad and angry that as a country we are not yet in a position to see justice served internally, for the murder of civilians by the Zimbabwean armed forces under Emmerson Mnangagwa.

Also added to the sanctions list is Owen Mudha Ncube.

Owen Mudha Ncube was appointed Minister of State for Midlands in December 2017, soon after the coup, a move many thought was meant to reward him for allegedly being Mnangagwa’s hitman and foot soldier over the years. He is notorious for running the machete-wielding gangs that started the Kwekwe gold wars that have shaken the Midlands province to the core and are spreading across the country.

On 8 September 2018 Mnangagwa appointed Owen Ncube Minister of State Security, a position Mnangagwa held under Mugabe (1980-1988) throughout the Gukurahundi genocide (1983-1987) that massacred more than 20,000 civilians in Matebeleland. Mnangagwa is alleged to have been responsible, as Minister of State during Gukurahundi, for ordering and facilitating the disappearance, torture, rape and murder of civilians by the 5th Brigade in Matebeleland, the then opposition party Zapu stronghold. The commander of the 5th brigade was Bigboy Samson Chikerema who now goes by the name Perence Shiri and is currently Mnangagwa’s Minister of Lands and Agriculture.

Mnangagwa’s reputation of being murderous and violent stems mainly from his role in the genocide. He was known as Mugabe’s enforcer, hitman and “errand boy”. Owen Ncube is undoubtedly, to Mnangagwa, exactly what Mnangagwa himself was to Mugabe during the Gukurahundi genocide and many other atrocities they committed during Mugabe’s horrendous reign.

It was Owen Ncube who ran the January 2019 operation that had state security agents abduct opposition members, trade unionists, activists, artists and anyone they considered to be leading voices of anti-government sentiments.

It was Owen Ncube who shut down the internet for Zimbabweans in January 2019 to prevent people from organising further protests against the fuel price increase that sparked protests and also to ensure they could beat, rape, abduct, torture and kill civilians without fear of videos circulating on social media. The internet shutdown did for Zanu-PF what the curfews and travel ban did for them during Gukurahundi; it managed, at least for a few days, to allow the army, police and state security agents to terrorise people in their homes with not much word of it getting out.

More than 700 people were arrested and kept in custody for their involvement in the January 2019 protests. Gukurahundi style, they moved detainees from prison to prison, a move that frustrated human rights lawyers for, try as they might, they could not get hold of their clients.

Civil society victims

In the past 12 months, the Mnangagwa regime has unabashedly abducted, tortured, intimidated, terrorised and arrested human rights defenders, trade unionists, opposition members and student leaders, among others.

It was under Owen Ncube that State Security agents abducted Dr Peter Magombeyi, then President of the Zimbabwe Hospital Doctors Association (ZHDA) doctors union that organised 2019’s months-long doctors’ strike. Magombeyi was abducted on the night of 14 September 2019 when he sent a message to a colleague saying he believed he was being kidnapped, and disappeared without a trace until the evening of 19 September 2019, five days later.

He was dumped in Nyabira, 33km out of Harare, with no recollection of what had happened to him save for the fact that he had been taken to a basement and electrocuted. It is suspected that he was drugged to induce amnesia and it is suspected this is the reason why, when he was found, the police immediately put him under hospital arrest. They refused to let him leave for South Africa where he was to get medical attention and where specialists could investigate what had happened to him. He was only allowed to leave a few days later.

It is under Owen Mudha Ncube that Samantha Kureya, a comedian popularly known as Gonyeti, was abducted naked from her home on the night of 21 August 2019 and driven to an unknown location where she was tortured, beaten and forced to roll in sewage water and drink it. She remembers being asked who she thought she was to be “attacking” the government. They dumped her naked in bushes far from her home. Her “crime” was that some of Gonyeti’s skits were critical of the government. She won a Human Rights Defender of the Year award for her skits from the Southern African Human Rights Defenders Network in 2019.

I had the privilege of spending time with both Dr Peter Magombeyi and Samantha Kureya in November 2019 and both are unsurprisingly scarred by the attacks on them.

Magombeyi, a young man whose career was only just starting, has had to flee the country and has since resigned from his position as the president of the ZHDA. Typical of many trauma victims, not once did he mention his abduction. The vulnerability in his eyes though was so raw that it tore into my soul. Kureya also didn’t say much, keeping to herself most of the time. At the time, she had not moved back to her house since the abduction. It is despicable what Mnangagwa’s government is doing to Zimbabwe’s young leaders.

Targeting student and trade union leaders

These are just two out of dozens of cases of people abused by the state on a daily basis. Most of Zimbabwe’s present and former student leaders no longer sleep at home out of fear of being abducted.

One victim is 30-year-old Makomborero Haruzivishe who has been harassed by the state since his days as secretary-general of the Zimbabwe National Students Union (Zinasu).

Makomborero was unfairly suspended from the University of Zimbabwe to prevent him from participating in student politics in a move that shows how much control state security has over our universities and colleges. Many Zinasu leaders and members have over the years been suspended and expelled from tertiary Institutions. Makomborero has been abducted and arrested several times on various charges. Whenever he is acquitted, fresh charges are laid against him. His “crimes” against the government include participating in the 1 August 2019 demonstrations and testifying as a witness in the sham Motlanthe commission appointed by Mnangagwa after the August massacres.

Obert Masaraure and Robson Chere, President and Secretary-General of the Association of Rural and Urban teachers (Artuz), are also victims of persecution by the state. Their “crime”: demanding better wages for Zimbabwean teachers who earn an equivalent of less than R1,000. They have been arrested, abducted, tortured and terrorised by the Zanu-PF government for months. Robson Chere has not been paid his salary for the past 14 months, a clear indication of the control state security has over the government as an employer.

Opposition leaders have not been spared. Joana Mamombe was abducted and arrested in 2019, only to be released after spending days in jail.  

Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) Youth assembly Chairperson Obey Sithole and Secretary-General, Gift Ostallos Siziba, are also continually victimised by the state. The MDC Alliance as a party is a victim of unjustifiable attacks and searches at their Harvest House offices by the police. People have been beaten up simply for attending meetings and conferences by opposition leader Nelson Chamisa.

Mentioning names of only leaders of some of the organisations engaged in the struggle against oppression in Zimbabwe does not do justice to the many fighters, many of them unknown, whose stories never make it to the media; who are abducted, terrorised, tortured, fired from their jobs and driven from their homes by Mnangagwa’s government. An inquiry into crimes committed by this government since the November 2017 coup will reveal the systematic attacks against opposition and dissenting voices by the Zimbabwean Government using army, state security and police. An inquiry must be made into the crimes against humanity being committed by Zanu-PF.

A crisis in health and education

The people of Zimbabwe are victims of serious human rights crimes by the government. They have no access to education as the battles over salaries between teachers and government continue. In January and February 2020 there was a strike which had teachers only teach anything between once a week, twice a week and three times a week for the lucky ones. Teachers are yet again threatening to go back on strike as the salary increment they were given in February has already been eroded by inflation. Quality education is now only accessible to those who can afford private tutoring for their children.

We have no access to adequate healthcare as the hospitals are incapacitated and doctors and nurses go on strike more often than not.

We have no stable currency and unemployment is at its peak. Government officials looted ZIM$3-billion from the Command Agriculture Scheme and we are on the brink of what, in November 2019, a UN expert called “man-made starvation”.

The government of the day has completely failed to govern the country. To continue ruling despite their misgovernance, they have, as always, turned to repression. They must be stopped.

Sanctions from other countries will not stop the repression and oppression of Zimbabweans by the Zanu-PF government. They have failed to do so. And those on sanctions continue to oppress us in spite of the sanctions.

It is only us, the people of Zimbabwe, who can free ourselves. Elections have failed us as the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) is clearly under the control of Zanu-PF. Without major electoral reforms, judicial reforms and armed forces reforms, elections in Zimbabwe are a waste of resources.

Opposition leaders are so petrified of this government that they have completely failed to heed the calls from people to lead protests against the government. Civil society leaders go out of their way to articulate their struggle for human rights as being non-political. Some out of fear, some out of being pro-government and others to secure donor funds from organisations that do not fund political organisations. None of the current crop of leaders seems to have what it takes to liberate Zimbabweans.

At this point, only a Sudan style, non-violent uprising by the people of Zimbabwe can save us. If we die, we die. 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.