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is a country in crisis
Clare Doube, CIVICUS
March 21, 2007
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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.
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
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Doube is Manager of CIVICUS’ Civil Society Watch. She can be contacted
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