THE NGO NETWORK ALLIANCE PROJECT - an online community for Zimbabwean activists  
 View archive by sector


Back to Index

A one-man court of last resort: Tsunga helps victims navigate Zimbabwe's justice system
Human Rights Watch
October 18, 2007


View audio file details

The political crisis in Zimbabwe has pushed millions out of their homes, prompted countless abuses at official hands and left the country isolated, its people virtually powerless to seek redress.

Foreign journalists are rarely allowed entry into the country. Human Rights Watch is one of the few international organizations able to gather a picture of the worsening conditions in the country, and the scenario is grim.

As many as 3 million Zimbabwean refugees have fled into neighboring South Africa, threatening the stability of the entire region. Zimbabweans have the shortest life expectancy world-wide: the average life span has halved to only 35 years old today from 69 in 2000, according to the World Health Organization. The World Food Program says that up to 4 million people are in urgent need of food aid, and at around 7,000 percent, Zimbabwe's inflation rate is the highest in the world.

These distressing quantifications illustrate Zimbabwe's fall from shining beacon of Southern Africa after the country's independence from British colonial rule. But despite these numbers the international community seems unable to figure out how to improve the situation in Zimbabwe. And the statistics, however ugly, do little for the litigant seeking legal redress for official abuse or government disenfranchisement. This is lawyers' work, which is where Arnold Tsunga steps in.

Arnold Tsunga - a "key contact" in Zimbabwe, according to Human Rights Watch researchers - is the Executive Director of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, an organization that represents victims of human rights abuses and campaigns for respect for human rights in Zimbabwean courts.

In Zimbabwe, political dissent carries extreme consequences.

For Arnold, the path from commercial lawyer to leading human rights defender began in 2002 with a kick to the stomach. He was traveling with colleagues to visit a client when a distraught woman on the road stopped his car. As he talked to the woman, soldiers came upon the group and, without explanation, began beating everyone they could get their hands on. The group was then dragged to a police station, where again they were beaten. Speaking to the police commander in the station, Tsunga demanded that someone be held accountable for the unprovoked brutality.

But, he said, "Driving back home I realized a lawyer can't sit back and be quiet in this sort of declining legal environment." In an afternoon, Tsunga's life trajectory had changed. His wife was not surprised. His colleagues, however, advised him to leave well enough alone. "They felt I was making a huge error," Tsunga said in a telephone interview from his office in Zimbabwe.

But Tsunga was not to be deterred, and has spent the past four years seeking justice for the victims of Robert Mugabe's authoritarian regime.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal in 2006, Tsunga explained his motivations and his work. "After working for many years as a commercial lawyer in Mutare, I was abducted, tortured and threatened for simply defending individuals who stood in the way of Mr. Mugabe. My co-workers and I have been arrested and dragged to the courts for trying to document and create an official record of government abuses. Some people ask me why I bother using the legal system when the deck is so stacked against us. I answer that there is still a semblance of a court system and some brave judges who will uphold the law. But they are operating in straitjackets and desperately need support to continue doing the right thing."

Tsunga also acts as executive secretary of the Law Society of Zimbabwe, chair of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Association and a trustee of a private radio station, Voice of the People. Each of these organizations has been targeted and persecuted by the Zimbabwean government. Tsunga fears that this litany of oppression, which has already lasted longer than he feared, could trigger a deadly backlash.

"I thought it would be a space of one or two years before Zimbabwe returns to some form of normality. But the ability for this government to persevere is the real surprise," Tsunga said. "If the country continues along the path it is on, there is a real danger for wide-spread and deep violence in the country."

Tsunga lays the blame squarely at Mugabe's feet. "Mugabe had a lot of credibility as a liberator," he said. "But sometime in 2000 to 2002, we realized that we had rationalized his totalitarian tendencies. Mugabe is the main driver of the systemic abuses taking place in the country. He is now the symbol of evil." For Tsunga, it is Mugabe's ability to "sustain evil" that is the real shock.

But he does not see politics as the venue for his battle against Mugabe. "I don't have political ambitions but I have a strong sense of community service," he said. "I get motivated by what is happening around me, not depressed. The more the system tries to humiliate human rights defenders, the more it tries to rob people of dignity, the more I get motivated to help change circumstances in this country."

Audio File

Please credit if you make use of material from this website. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License unless stated otherwise.