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What can communities do to protect themselves against political violence? - Peace Watch E-Discussion Forum
Septebmer 01, 2010

From the Facilitator

We continue to receive contributions to the E-Discussion Forum on the issue of violence and how communities can protect themselves. This is a matter that touches all Zimbabweans in that everyone knows a family, friend, colleague, acquaintance, community and, most importantly, a fellow citizen, who has been affected by violence. It is a brutal reality in this country and it continues to cause untold anguish and suffering in many communities. What makes the situation even more deplorable is the fact that violence should no longer be prevalent after political parties agreed under Article 18.5 (a) of the Global Political Agreement [GPA] “to promote the values of tolerance, respect, non-violence and dialogue as means of resolving political differences.”

Although political violence has seemed like an insurmountable problem for many years, some recent developments have shown that communities are not totally helpless. It has been demonstrated that having the courage to take a principled stand against attacks can be an effective defence.

Below are edited summaries of a selection of responses received so far on the E-Discussion topic. Remember the discussion is still open and you are still free to submit original responses and to comment on what others have said.

Contributions from E-Forum Members

1) A good example is a village in the Makoni district of Manicaland. The villagers refused to be targeted for harassment and attacks. The story is told of how the village elders took the bull by the horns by approaching the leaders and youths at a militia base in their area to make it known that they did not want any violence in their village. The elders explained that no one was a stranger in their community and every one had a right to belong.

They stressed that the people of the village looked out for one another and political differences were no reason for anyone to be beaten up or killed. The elders said they had nurtured this community spirit and cohesion even during the liberation struggle and would continue to guard it jealously. They said the youths and their leaders were welcome to visit the village in peace to educate the people but that they should not expect anyone to be receptive to their message if they insisted on resorting to violence. This no-nonsense approach worked and the village is reported to be an oasis of calm and harmony while neighbouring communities continue to be vulnerable to violent disruption and harassment. [Chido]

2) Communities should organize themselves into self-defence units. Hopefully, once faced with such a united front, the biased police force would have no option but to act professionally. Currently they know they can take advantage of divisions and mistrust to drive a wedge between groups by interpreting and enforcing the law selectively. Another solution would be to retire top officials in the police force who are complicit in fomenting political violence and turning a blind eye when communities come under siege. [Moses]

3) Community radios are the answer. People need to focus on community development and how they can work together to improve the quality of their lives. But to do this, they need to have access to relevant and correct information. We at the Zimbabwe Association of Community Radio Stations [ZACRAS] believe that lack of information and communication platforms has contributed greatly to political violence. It is dangerous for communities to rely on rumour. This leads to unfounded suspicion and mistrust, thus creating fertile ground for conflict and violence. [Henry Masuku, National Director, ZACRAS]

4) Confound perpetrators of violence by yielding to their demands. Communities must adopt survival tactics to escape political violence. One effective tactic is simply to yield to the demands of their tormentors and reserve their ammunition for the polling booth. Members of communities should turn up for the rallies of all political parties. This will confuse the politicians, who will not know how much support they truly command until polling day. But it takes voter maturity to teach the perpetrators and sponsors of violence such a lesson. Zimbabweans should learn to love one another and refuse to be used by politicians at the expense of community harmony and security. [Taurai]

5) Nullify electoral results from areas where violence has been documented. This rule should come into effect immediately and be communicated to all Zimbabweans. Those intending to disrupt participation in the ongoing constitutional outreach process and the subsequent referendum by resorting to violence and coercion would know their efforts would not benefit their political parties in any way. Hopefully, they would leave communities alone once they realized the futility of their violent approach. [John Collins]

6) It may be too late for communities to fight back. It would be easier to mobilize communities to take a stand against political violence if Zimbabwe was a democratic country. But because Zimbabwe is not a democratic state, those who mercilessly commit atrocities against innocent people get away with it because they know the victims cannot get protection from the police. People have lived in fear for too long and have become skeptical. Zimbabwe has been turned into a place where one cannot trust the next person. Genuine brotherhood no longer exists. [Khanyisile Thatshwele Gabellah]

7) Name and shame. Communities should adopt a two-pronged approach as a way to protect themselves. Communities should empower residents with information making them aware that human rights are universal, inalienable and are enshrined in international law. Community members should know about the right to life, liberty, security and integrity of the person. They should be made to realize that the government has an obligation to protect all citizens from torture and cruel, degrading treatment or punishment. It is only when communities are aware of these rights that they can take the next step, disclosure. As a defence mechanism against being targeted for further attacks, communities should identify and expose perpetrators of violence and human rights abuses both locally and internationally. Perpetrators and sponsors of violence may be protected under local law but will find it impossible to conduct their affairs internationally. [Tony Lampard]

8) A whistling campaign. Fearful villagers in Chipinge and Nyanga have devised a whistle strategy to combat increasing attacks from ZANU PF thugs and war vets, as the police stand by, refusing to come to their aid. Douglas Mwonzora, the national co-chairperson of the Constitution Parliamentary Committee [COPAC], said on Monday that locals were fed up of being harassed at outreach meetings and have resorted to citizen action. "Local people have now devised this strategy of whistling, so that they mobilize each other in the event of an unlawful attack. This is because the attacks are being done by very few people who do not have the local support. There is strength in numbers," he said.

How does it work? According to Mwonzora the plan is that: "Once a person is attacked or an attack is imminent, they whistle, those who hear the whistle also whistle while advancing towards the location of the first whistle, so there will be a lot of whistling. Firstly it puts off the attacker and confuses the attacker. It then mobilizes people towards the person being attacked," he explained. On arrival at the scene of violence locals hold down the attackers and also take note of who they are. Then they are taken to a police station and the hope is that the police will actually do something.

Citizen Action in Nyanga. It is not surprising that locals have now resorted to devising their own scheme to arrest the political thugs as the police are supporting the ZANU PF attackers by refusing to arrest them for unlawful acts and violence. This citizen justice was put into practice over the weekend when locals held down Mugabe supporters who became violent. "Over the weekend I was having a rally in Nyanga North. Before I arrived, a group of seven ZANU PF people wielding axes went to the gathering and ordered everyone to disperse. They started attacking people with axes. The people then retaliated and subdued them. They were then handed over to the police," he said. [MP Douglas Mwonzora quoted in by Irene Madongo16 August 2010]

Facilitator’s Comments

We have cited the example of a village in Makoni district where the elders have taken proactive steps to safeguard their community against violence and harassment. But can anything be done in the heat of the moment when an attack is imminent or is already under way? Yes. The law recognises that anyone has the right to defend himself or herself or someone else against violence. It also recognises that private citizens may arrest persons they see actually engaging in violence, e.g., assaulting or threatening to assault people. This appears to be what has been done by villagers in Chipinge and Nyanga as described in the SW radio report. But it is important to note that only reasonable force may be used and that anyone arrested by a private citizen must be promptly handed over to police.

Please will those joining the E-Discussion Forum write in and give us your opinions on this question.

Simply reply to this message. Please indicate clearly if you do not wish your name to be published.

The Role of the Facilitator

The Facilitator will circulate the replies with contributions to the whole discussion group, but will reserve the right to omit any that may be offensive to the aims of promoting peace, e.g., that incorporate hate speech. Comments that are too long may have to be shortened. Preference will be given to thoughtful and original contributions. Periodically the Facilitator will wind up one discussion topic by summarising the contributions and will send out a new topic for discussion to members of the Forum. If the points raised are of wide general interest these summaries will be included in a routine Peace Watch to the wider mailing list and they will also be forwarded to relevant policy makers.

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