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Burnett, Patrick  (2007) Zimbabwe: Is this the year?. Pambazuka : -.

This week, police in Zimbabwe used tear gas, water cannon and live ammunition to crush Sunday's gathering by the Save Zimbabwe Campaign, a coalition of opposition, church and civic groups, in Harare's western township of Highfield. Police shot and killed one opposition activist, Gift Tandare. Lawyers and fellow opposition activists said Tsvangirai had suffered a suspected skull fracture after being beaten by police. Patrick Burnett summarises voices from the ground and highlights some key messages from articles published in Pambazuka News in the recent past. Is it a year of hope or will it all simply collapse into a quagmire?

'In pairs we were being led to the cells where there were five people dressed in police uniforms holding baton sticks who were beating the hell out of us," relates an unnamed woman opposition activist. "They would beat each pair for between 15 and 20 minutes after which they would order the pair out to fetch the next pair from the van." The woman describes how her head was banged against a wall causing her to fall down to the ground. "It took a long time according to what I was seeing and I was only praying if they could stop," she tells the camera in this video as her testimony is interspersed with shots of police brutally beating arrested protesters with batons in order to force them into a police van.

Another activist states in the same video: "We wanted the government to see and show the world at large that the Zimbabweans are suffering. The money they are getting is peanuts, it does not take them anywhere. It is the government that regulates the prices. You can hardly pay for a child at school. You have to feed the family and sometimes you have only one meal a day. We wanted to show the leadership of Zimbabwe that what they are doing is not fair."

Even video sharing site knows what's happening in Zimbabwe. This video was not testimony from Sunday's protest, though, but of a peaceful labour union demonstration in September 2006 in which 23 people were beaten and tortured. No doubt, videos of Sunday's march will find their way onto youtube, providing a valuable window into the situation – the above video already has over 12 000 views - but in the meantime compare testimonies from the video quoted above with that of MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai, as told to the BBC:

"It was almost as if they were waiting for me…Before I could even settle down I was subjected to a lot of beatings, in fact it was random beatings but I think the intention was to inflict as much harm as they could. I suffered injuries on the head, six stitches, body blows, a broken arm. I also suffered injuries on the knees and on my back several body blows, but I think the most serious injury was the head injury because I lost a lot of blood. They have just administered almost two pints of blood."

Police used tear gas, water cannon and live ammunition to crush Sunday's gathering by the Save Zimbabwe Campaign, a coalition of opposition, church and civic groups, in Harare's western township of Highfield. Police shot and killed one opposition activist, Gift Tandare. Lawyers and fellow opposition activists said Tsvangirai had suffered a suspected skull fracture after being beaten by police.

World outrage followed news of the crackdown, with calls for more stringent sanctions and renewed engagement with Zimbabwe. African leadership, long muted on the issue of Zimbabwe, was also more strident. Ghanaian President John Kufuor, also the African Union chair, said: "I know personally that presidents like (South Africa's Thabo) Mbeki tried desperately to exercise some influence for the better," as reported by numerous media. "Please don't think that Africa is not concerned. Africa is very much concerned. What can Mbeki as a man do? Are you proposing that Africa compose an expedition team to march on Zimbabwe and oppose? It does not happen like that. We are in our various ways trying very hard."

As demonstrated by the youtube video and numerous human rights reports in the past months and years, Tsvangirai's beatings are the result of long term repression to which numerous Zimbabweans have been subject over the past years.

At this stage its worth trolling through a few of the articles published by Pambazuka News about Zimbabwe over the last five years, not because they are the only record of the Zimbabwean crisis or because they comprehensively cover all the issues faced by the country, but because they show the progression of events in the country, and provide useful analysis and insight into the complex Zimbabwean situation. At times like this its important to remember that short-term political outrage shouldn't mask the long-term nature of the situation in Zimbabwe – nor the long-term nature of political inaction.

Perhaps the most useful insight into Zimbabwe's path is provided in a series of articles written in March of each year since 2002 by Mary Ndlovu, a human rights activist from Zimbabwe. Her articles take readers into the heart of life in Zimbabwe, documenting the politics and effect of the land reform crisis, the controversial elections and the downward economic spiral and its effect on the Zimbabwean people.

In March 2004, Ndlovu writes: "On our side of the looking glass, the mounting catastrophe has political, economic, social and cultural components. Most objective observers would trace the economic problems back at least to the late 1980's. Certainly the introduction of structural adjustment at the beginning of the 90's can be seen as the process which eroded the living standards of Zimbabweans, and spawned the first broad-based opposition party. It also generated pressure from interest groups such as war veterans and ambitious black businessmen who felt they had waited too long to share in the country's wealth. The government's response to these developments sent the country into the downward spiral which today ensnares us. Instead of taking the criticism and the pressure and sitting back to plan a coherent strategy of how to deal with the inter-related issues, ZANU PF panicked, saw their ruling position threatened, and from 1997 on have responded piecemeal, reactively and irrationally, bringing us to the tragedy which unfolds before our eyes."

In another article, she writes: "In February 2000, ZANU PF discovered, in a rare moment of truth, that they were unpopular enough to be defeated at the polls, in spite of all the advantages they had in controlling most of the media, the electoral machinery and all the state security apparatus. They immediately began the process of ensuring that no matter what the people wanted, never again would ZANU PF lose a vote. The electoral process would be turned into a stage-managed spectacle."

Following on from this and assessing the 2005 Parliamentary elections, Ndlovu warns of economic collapse and "dire consequences" for the region should ZANU PF take power against the wishes of Zimbabweans. She makes three points on the back of this:

- SADC unwillingness to insist that regional electoral standards be upheld appears to signal that they are not prepared to implement them for their own countries either.

- Democrats should be aware that governments cannot be trusted with the task of defending democracy, in their own countries or anywhere else.

- There is a long road ahead for the building of democracy in Southern Africa, "from the bottom up, with much struggle to claim rights against the autocratic tendencies of all the governments and ruling parties of the region".

The startling lack of progress on the Zimbabwean front is evident in Ndlovu's articles. In March last year, Ndlovu wrote that: "Certainly we know that the multiple crises which embody Zimbabwe's millennium experience are intensifying, making life barely livable for the majority of the population. The crises have engulfed the working world, the learning world, the consumer world, the world of the supermarket and even of sport. The economy limps along, agriculture crawling, tourism virtually defunct, manufacturing crippled, and mining, the one still flickering light of the economy, under recent assault from government policies. Electricity comes and goes at will, water likewise in many places; fuel supplies (black market only) are erratic and prices exploitative. Schools are places of confusion, teachers demoralized, pupils unable to afford textbooks if they manage to pay fees, and only finding bus fare for half the school days. Courts barely function, police cells are filthy putrid hell holes, prisons even worse."

Writing in 2004, Steve Kibble points out the long-term nature of Zimbabwe's problems. "The inheritance of violent colonial dispossession and dehumanisation with the response of (in Brian Kagoro's words) a 'violent and hegemonic struggle for decolonisation…culminated in a largely symbolic independence devoid of material gain for the majority black population.' This meant an authoritarian elite unable/unwilling to transform the repressive state colonial structures into democratic institutions, and the emergence of neo-patrimonialism and clientilist structures along with long lasting cultures of intolerance and impunity."

In pointing to why regional responses to the Zimbabwean situation have been muted, Kibble writes in another article that: "The 'national security' strategy of the ZANU PF elite has led to economic collapse, severe repression, flight and severe economic consequences for the region, but as yet there has been no concerted regional reaction to this in terms of security. This in turn relates to national elites being unable to formulate a path directed to human security, and largely because of their lack of engagement with and mistrust of new social forces (which of course are not themselves necessarily united or coherent)."

Kibble questions how to shift the security focus from military to human security to focus on those without power and those affected by poverty, environmental degradation and human rights abuses. Values would include peace and the promotion of human rights. "It may not seem obvious when there seem more immediate concerns, but the fight against repression in Zimbabwe illustrates much of this, and involves what values postcolonial states and regions should have, their road to development, democracy and overcoming of colonial and apartheid structures, all of which pose human security dilemmas."

Patrick Bond and David Moore, in April 2006 ask what can be done to offer solidarity with the people of Zimbabwe: "…the real solidarity action ahead may revolve around COSATU and broader civil society forces. They must shake free of Mbeki's influence and establish a strategy for longer-term support. This would more forcefully and surgically target Mugabe and his cronies, and nurture the unpredictable resurgence of Zimbabwean protests, which certainly still lie ahead." More broadly, one could add to this the need for pressure on the African Union and other regional and international human rights bodies.

Perhaps the last word, before noting that based on the progression of events in Zimbabwe the happenings of the last week are hardly surprising and without concerted effort on behalf of all stakeholders worse will surely follow, should go to Ndlovu, writing in 2006: "The tension of expectation is building as the people's misery becomes unsustainable. Will this be the year, and if it is, will it hold hope for the future, or will we simply all fall down together?"

* Patrick Burnett is contributing editor of Pambazuka News
* Please send comments to or comment online at

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