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Of public drinking and MDC rallies
*Marko Phiri
March 21, 2005

On Saturday 19 March, I attended an MDC rally at a local community hall. It was held between 1and 5 in the afternoon. Ten hours later I was locked up in a local police cell. My arrest had nothing to with the rally some five or so hours earlier. While it has become almost customary that attending an MDC rally has its hazards which include running battles with a bellicose police force seemingly under instruction from the executive to deal with the opposition accordingly, the Sizinda rally seemed too good to be true. And that is at least for me who was to later spend half an hour in a police holding cell.

During the MDC rally, the party’s provincial youth chairman made sure to remind the crowd that this was the same hall where some two years ago the so-called Talibans (the Green Bombers) were camped and beat up law abiding citizens at regular intervals like they were responding to a call of nature. The March 19 rally was a success by any standard, and if it is to be used as a pointer to March 31, Gibson Sibanda, the MDC vice president and candidate for Nkulumane, is headed for another five years in parliament. And the crowd that cheered him on was in stark contrast to the twenty or so people I had seen earlier in the week gathered at the Zanu PF Tshabalala offices being addressed by the party’s candidate for Nkulumane, Zanu PF youth leader Absalom Sikhosana. But as everybody left the MDC rally in high moods, little did I know that a visit to the local pub to take my sorrows for a good swim and reflect on the day’s events would include a more than reflective thirty minutes in a cell reeking of urine. Not that I would have loved having been arrested for attending an MDC rally, no.

The very fact that the police were absent at the MDC rally was good enough as the ruling party seemingly attempts to give this election a facade of being free and fair. And this as an election that would have Zanu PF officials (and Thabo Mbeki) saying "this time there were no reports of police interrupting MDC rallies." Read the fine print. "This time" always means there was a last time, and that tells us a lot about the claimed free and fair 2000 and 2002 polls whose result is still being disputed by the MDC even today as we approach another legislative election. So there I was thinking 9 PM was too early for me to retire for bed. Alongside a friend we go to a local pub where it is known the cops pick you up for public drinking as soon as you leave the pub’s doorstep never mind the hour. But then we just want one or two of those browns to woo some sleep. But what do you know. As soon as my friend opens the bottle and hands it to me, a plain clothes cop literally gets it before I go on a swallowing spree and announces that I am under arrest. Not fair my throat yells for the deprivation of a swallowing marathon.

We always complain about how rude those commuter omnibus touts can be especially when there is an audience to receive the foul language. Just listen to these cops. They seem to think everybody arrested for public drinking is a hopeless sod who only understands the language of corporal punishment - sjamboks. And this I saw them use when the door was opened on my release. Some guys perhaps smelling fresh air, naturally did think it was not a bad idea to try and talk to the officers who had opened the holding cell. "Go back in," one of the officers barked to my fellow inmates. But as the men tried to negotiate, the officer, in a fashion reminiscent of those white cops called iJoni during the Smith years, raised his sjambok. He did not try to scare them, but raised it up high as they scurried like frightened rats. And I always thought this was reserved for political activists, but I was seeing drunks being beaten up for public drinking! Zimbabwe sure is a land of many ironies. I surely would not have been totally surprised had I seen this earlier in the day during the MDC rally. So what has changed? Is it adherence to SADC protocols about freedom of association and movement that has led to the absence of youth militias and police officers at MDC rallies? And now they are taking out on people who can afford the drink despite the circumstances?

The irony here is that there was a time when the green bombers "arrested" people for public drinking outside some of Bulawayo’s pubs in the high density suburbs. The ironies galore. A cop who appeared to be in charge of the travesty of treating public drinking as the force’s public enemy number one, much as the Prof has been treated by his erstwhile paymasters, was actually saying to a guy who was not too eager to pay the fine: "why are you being stingy with Mugabe’s money?" He spoke in SiNdebele and you could not tell whether he was mocking Mugabe’s money as being useless, or simply mocking this man for having a stiff arm. Nobody laughed. The other officers were busy haranguing other men arrested for public drinking. A wise guy who pointed to a newspaper on the desk saying the police should be arresting those dangerous criminals reported in the paper and not drunks was threatened with arrest, and you could see the awe with which these cops are held by us mere mortals. The thought of sitting on the other end of the police counter was enough to silence the man, never mind that he had a point. The women were there too. Two women were picked up where I had been when they got out of their car to buy something for an eight month old baby.

The fact that they had the baby with them was not good enough for the arresting officers. "We have heard that line a thousand times before," the cops said. The two women were arrested for soliciting, never mind that the husband of one of them was there. Another officer actually suggested they should arrest the husband as well, but it was not clear for what. His suggestion was not taken up. Now the part that takes the biscuit. When I was arrested, I had not even taken a sip of the beer, but when we got to the police post about four or five hundred metres from the pub, I noticed it was almost half empty! The officer was helping himself to the spoils. I am sure it tasted like he had bought it himself. What I had done was behave like a typical hopeless sycophant, opened the beer and handed it to him for his drinking pleasure. It sure was a perverse pleasure watching these men in uniform behaving like they owned our lives, and this time not because we were some spies writing news dispatches about Zimbabwe to foreign papers or MDC or WOZA or NCA activists, but simply because of an itching thirst for a cold lager.

I did think though about those scribes who have had the "pleasure" of spending nights in Harare’s notorious remand prison. You do get a sense of identifying with what it must have felt like for those brave men. If they could be treated as such - and spend days inside - and this for men (and women) who would safely claim to know their rights, what about the anonymous imbiber who does not even know under what law he is being arrested? It’s a jungle out there. Imagine the ruling party losing hundreds of thousands of votes as a protest for being arrested for public drinking! After all, Zanu PF has left no doubt in people’s minds that it owns the police force. Small consolation then that there were no arrest during the MDC rally. What then about other constitutional liberties?

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