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  • Index of articles on enforced disappearances in Zimbabwe

  • Fighting for Jestina Mukoko
    Maureen Isaacson, Sunday Independent
    December 28, 2008

    Elinor Sisulu's office is baking. It is Tuesday, 30°C in Johannesburg and there is no air-conditioning on the premises of the South African division of the Zimbabwe Crisis Coalition (ZCC), the umbrella for 200 organisations.

    We are here to discuss the chilling fresh wave of abductions that has swept Zimbabwe since the signing of the September 17 power-sharing agreement by Zanu-PF and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

    Jestina Mukoko, the director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project (ZPP), which monitors political violence and creates early-warning systems, was forced out of her home at gunpoint at 5am on December 3. Barefoot, in her nightgown, she left behind her 15-year-old son. The gardener who works for her was later beaten up.

    The modus operandus of the abduction of Mukoko and several other human rights defenders, MDC activists and journalists echoes those carried out during the run-up to the June 27 "run off".

    Also with Sisulu in her hot-box office is Barbara Nyangairi, a ZPP staffer, who has courageously decided to be the public face of ZPP, which is under siege. A week before Mukoko's abduction, three ZPP staffers were arrested (and released soon after) for photographing a clinic that treats cholera. The week after Mukoko's arrest, two ZPP staffers, Takawira Broderick and Pascal Gonzo were abducted.

    Sisulu says: "You cannot imagine what it like to sit across the desk from someone who has been tortured, who says, 'our house was burned, my wife was abducted and I have two small children'. There are mothers who come here who will not eat because they want to keep the money they receive for their children."

    Nyangairi interjects: "In addition to this, there is the trauma of guilt. You feel bad that you were able to run. I am traumatised from living in a society where there is no official government recognition . . . people will identify privately [with issues] but not on a public platform."

    Mukoko was a role model in this regard. She was passionate about human rights, says Nyangaira. "The day before she was abducted she spoke about women and police violence, in an address to the Women's Coalition in Mount Pleasant."

    When a middle-aged woman was thrown off a moving truck in Harare last week, there was talk that it was possible that she was Mukoko. The woman, who died, has since been identified.

    Although we are talking about her in the past tense, Mukoko might still be alive. When Sisulu's phone rings and she says: "Jestina has been found! She is alive!", Nyangairi wonders: "What condition is Jestina in and what will be the conditions of her release?"

    How can Sisulu be sure that the information is correct? The police have responded to a high court order to locate Mukoko in one of the country's prisons by saying she is nowhere to be found. Sisulu says that she and some others spoke to "some African women" who undertook to speak to people "at the highest level". She says the abductions of people have been ongoing this year.

    "But it was clear that the abduction of a middle-class woman would clearly arouse public interest. That is why we decided to go public with Mukoko's case."

    She cites the ultimatum given by Morgan Tsvangirai, the MDC leader: "Produce the abductees by January 1, or charge them in court - or the deal [the shared government agreement] is off."

    Sisulu says: "If Tsvangirai becomes the prime minister of Zimbabwe the people will demand that he delivers. The MDC is under intense pressure from Zimbabweans inside the country, in contrast to the line that Thabo Mbeki is trying to push, that Morgan is listening to friends in the West.

    "I have been very critical of Mbeki's mediation process. It has been profoundly undemocratic because of the secrecy. And any time anybody wants to put pressure on Zimbabwe, we are told not to because there is a deal in the offing. South Africa is at the forefront of staving pressure off this regime."

    Sisulu says that people feel let down after the September power-sharing agreement was signed but not implemented. The MDC had made an impassioned move to control the home affairs department, but the Extraordinary Summit of the SADC leadership, held on November 9, resolved that a government of national unity should be formed immediately and that the ministry of home affairs be co-ministered by the MDC and Zanu-PF.

    Sisulu says: "These abductions show how important it is to take Home Affairs out of the hands of Zanu-PF. Also, the Justice ministry should be in the hands of the MDC. No one wanted to take responsibility for Jestina's case. But it seems as if the pressure is taking effect."

    But, as it turns out, the action will be stymied. On Tuesday evening, we will hear that Mukoko has been denied bail. On Wednesday afternoon we will hear that Mukoko has been denied bail. In the evening in a chamber application, Judge Yunus Omerjee will order that Mukoko and eight others, including a two-year-old child, be taken to hospital. There will be an order for the release of another 23 abductees who suddenly appeared in police cells earlier in the week. The order will be defied.

    They will be accused of recruiting or attempting to recruit Zimbabweans for military training in Botswana, to topple Robert Mugabe's regime. The trumped-up charges include a range of improbabilities. The judge will order that the "accused" be sent to hospital to undergo medical observation; an indication that there is evidence of torture.

    The elegant 52-year-old Mukoko, a former Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation newscaster, will appear on television, as she is led into court, looking dishevelled and expressionless, her skin will be blotchy. On Christmas Day, the police will defy the court order and the abductees will be transferred to the notorious Chikurubi maximum security prison. Lawyers will be denied access to the abductees and will not be permitted to provide food and medical assistance to their clients.

    On Friday, Beatrice Mthethwa, Mukoko's lawyer will say on South African radio that the state authority has removed the abductees and taken them to unknown places.

    "We saw Jestina. Of course someone who has been tortured cannot look good. She was seen by a doctor who is working in cahoots with her torturers, they [usually] want to make sure [the effects of] her torture [are] not too visible."

    Mthethwa will say that some judges are in cahoots with the torturers too. "We will undergo court proceedings, but at end of day there is no certainty they will comply."

    But now let us return to Tuesday, to the interview with Sisulu and Nyangairi. The latter says that abducting Mukoko, the director, "is obviously intended to place a dent in the organisation and to stop it from monitoring the elections that Zanu-PF is talking of holding."

    As Mugabe grasps at the last light of his regime's dying embers, the last thing his party needs is the ZPP's thorough reporting on human rights violations. Nyangairi talks about the comprehensive impartial reports on violence following the March election: "These looked at Zanu-PF, the army and the police, as well the MDC. Reports have shown consistently that MDC perpetrations constitute 5 percent of the total and those of Zanu-PF constitute 72 percent," says Nyangairi. MDC violence was shown to be retaliatory. The ZPP reports also show that food distribution is politically biased.

    Sisulu says: "We believe that Zanu-PF is punishing ZPP and it is a warning to others, and we believe it is setting the stage for another intense wave of violence. If ZPP is not there to report on the torture camps and other matters, everyone is vulnerable."

    She describes the abductions as "a Vlakplaas operation. Unfortunately, it is impossible to verify the rumours in the absence of a strong independent media. Levels of trust are breaking down. Soldiers are going on the rampage; we hear rumours that 16 have been executed. These have not been confirmed but if there is an onslaught there is no protection for the people."

    Sisulu says the idea of military intervention, currently touted internationally and by some at home, is a red herring.

    "Nobody is going to intervene if they cannot hold Mugabe accountable. Diplomatic and moral pressure could be brought to bear. I do not believe that this problem cannot be solved by Africans.

    "Those opposed to him could refuse to recognise Mugabe. They could rotate the leadership of a new shared government."

    Sisulu is upset that some South Africans compare the active resistance during the South African struggle to the "passivity" of Zimbabweans.

    "The South African government was under pressure internationally - they harassed the media but they were under pressure. Also, South Africans were not grappling with HIV/Aids - with 16,3 percent of the sexually active population [infected], according to the latest statistics from US AID, and a staggering 5 percent death rate from cholera.

    "South Africans were not grappling with malaria and starvation. There were always sectors of society that lived in poverty, that were without food, but even the professional people in Zimbabwe are now living on one meal a day."

    Sisulu is also upset by the contradictory response of South Africans to the xenophobic violence in May.

    "The bulk of Zimbabweans are received by the poorest, most materially deprived sections of society but the middle class uses Zimbabwe as a political football. The voices of the West are privileged. When Jendayi Fraser, the United States assistant secretary of state for African affairs, speaks, people react but the voices of Zimbabweans on the ground are not heard. It is as if Zimbabweans have no agency."

    She returns to her expressed conviction that Africans can solve Zimbabwe's problems, but insists that this will happen "only if Mugabe is held responsible for his actions and if there is the political will within SADC to do so".

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