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Peace Activists Face Daunting Challenge
Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR)
Yamikani Mwando (AR No. 141, 31-Oct-07)
October 31, 2007

Zimbabwe - like many African democracies - has been plagued by election violence since the country opted for multi-party politics upon attaining black majority rule in 1980.

Violence has escalated since the 1999-2000 electoral campaign, when the main opposition party the Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, gave the ruling ZANU-PF a run for its money. Houses have been burnt, people abducted, pro-democracy activists tortured and killed.

Politicians and the ZANU-PF government in particular have routinely been accused of fanning violence before, during and after elections and stoking tribal conflicts in the process.

Non-governmental organisations involved in peace-building initiatives are already reporting politically motivated violence and killings ahead of Zimbabwe's potentially bruising presidential and parliamentary elections early next year.

While some communities have begun efforts to make this election violence-free, they agree it is not - and has never been - an easy job.

Themba Phuthi, 36, a volunteer for the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, CCJP, is involved in efforts to ensure tolerance of diverging political views. He works among communities where the expression of political loyalty has, in the past, turned bloody.

At a time when there is widespread resentment of all things political, the CCJP is in the vanguard of preaching peaceful co-existence amid growing agitation amongst locals as the nation prepares for next year's polls.

"This is a job one has to do," Phuti told IWPR from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second largest city - which was considered a hotbed of opposition politics before the MDC was rocked by divisions.

The local authority has been controlled by the MDC since the 2000 legislative polls. Political temperatures have risen with each approaching election as President Robert Mugabe tries to wrest control of the city from his political nemesis, explained Phuthi.

During the 2000 elections - which threatened to oust the Mugabe regime - Phuthi said he was on the receiving end of political violence, which convinced him to preach a new gospel of political tolerance.

"This was the time when we were all excited by the prospect of voting for change and I was one of the people who actively took part in the activities of the new political opposition," said Phuthi, referring to the MDC.

Today, however, instead of luring neophytes to a particular political party, he preaches tolerance of opposing political preferences.

"I work with a team of volunteers and we use the platform of the church to educate our communities," he said.

Working from parish premises has made the job easier for him, as people from different political persuasions come in as members of the same church and are encouraged to raise these issues with their non-Catholic neighbours.

Because of Zimbabwe's restrictive security laws, NGOs say it has become increasingly difficult to organise public meetings where issues of a political nature are discussed.

Such a meeting would require police clearance under the strict Public Order and Security Act - which was introduced in 2002 and makes it illegal to "undermine the authority of the president" or "engender hostility" towards him - because the authorities maintain such a meeting is likely to breach the peace.

So instead, the CCJP has organised meetings of that nature as "prayer meetings" within parish premises, John Nkatazo, the CCJP coordinator in Bulawayo, told IWPR.

Nkatazo has made inroads into rural Matabeleland in southwestern Zimbabwe, organising workshops on political tolerance. He said it is especially difficult working with these communities.

"These are areas where the ruling party says it enjoys majority support so you can imagine how difficult it is coming to these areas preaching peace and tolerance," said Nkatazo.

Moreover, "because we are from the CCJP we are viewed with suspicion", he added.

The CCJP was accused by the regime of working in cahoots with enemies of the state after it published a damning report documenting government-sponsored atrocities in Matabeleland in the early 1980s, and their relationship has been stormy ever since.

The report accused the government of launching a massive security clampdown against bands of "dissidents" who were killing civilians and destroying property, and also against supporters of the former opposition party the Zimbabwe African People's Union.

During this, said the CCJP report, "thousands of unarmed civilians died, were beaten, or suffered loss of property during the 1980s, some at the hands of dissidents and most as a result of the actions of government agencies".

Working as a peace activist like Phuthi takes a great deal of courage.

A recent report by the Zimbabwe Peace Project - a non-governmental organisation involved in documenting political violence and human rights abuses - notes that the project recorded more than 4000 human rights violations between January and June this year, which were politically motivated in most cases.

Seemingly echoing these findings, the internationally respected Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum says 2007 is set to be the worst year for human rights violations by police and government agents yet.

This increasingly restrictive climate presents one of the biggest challenges for volunteers, such as Phuthi.

"It's easy to attract the attention of security agents who are largely blamed for the abductions, but the fact that we work within parish walls, though very limited in our outreach efforts, we manage to escape their wrath," said Phuthi.

For Nkatazo, the biggest challenge is instilling values such as tolerance in parishioners, who also wear another hat as activists of a particular political party.

"I have had instances where a parishioner is a fervent supporter of the ruling ZANU-PF and has embraced the party's beliefs and philosophies about who are the real perpetrators of violence, its enemies, etc. So when you try to explain such issues as tolerance, instead of understanding these issues from the point of view of the Church, they will tell you that is not their party's position, but rather that they have an enemy to fight," he said.

"They actually try to convert you to their party. You can imagine the frustration we have to deal with."

* Yamikani Mwando is the pseudonym of an IWPR journalist in Zimbabwe.

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