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Zimbabwe is a country in crisis
Clare Doube, CIVICUS
March 21, 2007

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The spiralling descent started years ago, with operations that left hundreds of thousands homeless and dispossessed; rising levels of starvation; life expectancy dropping to the extent that those who only a few years ago could hope to live to their 60s will now on average die in their 30s; laws passed that are designed to crush the independent media, civil society activism and any dissenting voices; and countless insurmountable challenges faced by citizens just wanting to live their lives in peace and dignity.

Last November, CIVICUS joined with Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition to facilitate a mission to Zimbabwe for civil society leaders from across Africa to see first hand the experiences of our civil society brothers and sisters in Zimbabwe. While clashing schedules prevented Kumi Naidoo from accompanying them, CIVICUS have heard their stories of the situation on the ground and the brave efforts of human rights defenders, and been reminded of the dangers and many acts of courage witnessed under a different dictatorial regime, that of apartheid South Africa.

In the last few months we have seen people’s patience running dry and their desperation and frustration has led them out onto the streets of Zimbabwe in increasing numbers. Tragically, the government response has been to restrict even this space, banning rallies and meetings in violation of Zimbabwe’s constitution and international commitments – some of these have recently been overturned, but others still remain in place.

These social, economic, medical, political and civil challenges have recently worsened even further and human rights violations have gone from appalling to completely abysmal. On Sunday 11 March, a prayer meeting organised by the Save Zimbabwe Campaign was disrupted and what followed was a severe escalation of violence and repression. Around 50 civil society and political leaders were arrested and assaulted and for days were denied access to their lawyers and medical treatment. On Sunday 18 March, some of the most badly injured who were trying to come to South Africa for treatment had their passports confiscated, and other activists were also so badly beaten that they apparently remain in intensive care in Harare. President Mugabe and his henchmen may be attempting to crush civil society and political leaders, but they are courageously fighting on. As opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai put it: "They brutalised my flesh. But they will never break my spirit."

But let us not dwell on the countless examples of the crisis – we need to look forward and see how the current reality can be used to promote change. At the same time as my deepest sympathies go to the people of Zimbabwe, particularly those who in the last week have been assaulted and to the families of those deceased; my hope is that through these disastrous recent events, a new future for the country can emerge. Sometimes it is only after hitting rock bottom that we can make steady progress out of the abyss and back to level ground.

One reason for hope is that the levels of abuse to which the Zimbabwean authorities have descended, have prompted front page coverage in the papers and lead stories on television and radio for the past week. Such sustained coverage shows that the people of Zimbabwe do not stand alone in their struggle for freedom and justice. President Mugabe may dismiss the criticisms levelled at him as western propaganda, saying that the west can "go hang", but it is clear that such criticism comes from far broader sources, coming from foreign governments and concerned citizens not just from a few "western" nations, but from across the world – the global South of Africa, Asia and Latin America included. These diverse voices have one central message – that while many observers in the past have shown patience and restraint, and chosen quiet diplomatic spaces for airing any criticism, that enough is enough, and that the repression and violations must immediately cease.

In Southern Africa lies the greatest understanding of Zimbabwe: an appreciation for Mugabe during his early years leading a country out from under the iron fist of colonial rule and gratitude for the ways in which so many Zimbabweans assisted their comrades in South Africa during the struggle against apartheid; moving to disappointment that Mugabe’s desire for unchecked power has led to so many broken promises and distress that our bothers and sisters in Zimbabwe are bearing the burden of rule by a tyrant who has resorted to violence and repression where democracy and acceptance of dissent once stood.

It is therefore to Southern Africa, as well as more broadly across the continent, that we look for leadership in finding solutions to the crisis engulfing the country. It is clear that the "quiet diplomacy" approach has failed – while his counterparts remain silent, it is no surprise that Mugabe’s government believe they can act with impunity. A new approach is therefore needed. Not only must we stand up in public support of human rights in the region, but Zimbabwe’s neighbours must recognise that a worsening internal crisis will only continue to spill across borders and so it is in their practical best interests to act now.

Muted expressions of official concern from South Africa, Zambia and Mozambique have raised glimmers of hope, but far stronger words are required if they are to provoke genuine change. As Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu said on the weekend: "We Africans should hang our heads in shame. How can what is happening in Zimbabwe elicit hardly a word of concern, let alone condemnation from us leaders of Africa?"

Zimbabwe is of course not the only country where human rights violations and attacks on civil society are occurring on a daily basis, but current events have given us an opportunity to make a difference and we must grasp it. Civil society from the SADC region and beyond has recognised this with numerous condemnations of the violence and calls for action but it is primarily to our governments that we turn to for leadership on this issue. As we all know, no government is a united monolith, and the reported difficulties Mugabe is facing in getting unanimous support from his cabinet to declare a state of emergency attests to this and should give us hope. This, and the mood in the country and its neighbours, shows the country may be at tipping point – if President Mbeki and friends act strongly now, not only may they prevent further blood from being spilled, but they may be remembered in history as leaders with the courage to step in when friends are in need. Let us intervene now, rather than watch the country descend into greater violence and mayhem.

*Clare Doube is Manager of CIVICUS’ Civil Society Watch. She can be contacted at

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