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blot on Africa-s copybook
from IWPR (AR No. 103, 20-Mar-07)
March 20, 2007
"Man's capacity for justice makes democracy
possible, but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary."
In a keynote address
last week, Professor Walter Kamba of the University of Zimbabwe
used this quote from the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr to emphasise
that true participatory democracy goes beyond the mere holding of
The elderly yet energetic Professor
Kamba ought to know – in an illustrious career spanning several
decades, he has been involved in democracy-building efforts in several
countries, not the least of which was his nomination to South Africa’s
first post-apartheid electoral commission in 1994.
It is both apposite and ironic that
the same week as activists and opposition party members were being
arrested, beaten and shot at in Harare, the Zimbabwe
Election Support Network, ZESN, convened a regional dialogue
in the same city on the subject of democracy and elections in southern
Africa. Attended by delegates from election monitoring bodies and
parliaments as well as civil society representatives, the event
showcased lessons learned from both good and bad practice in the
region and beyond.
"It is with a heavy heart that
I stand here today," ZESN’s vice-chair Noel Kututwa told the
meeting in opening remarks which captured the sombre mood of the
audience. "We have a fundamental problem in Zimbabwe… rights
enshrined in our constitution are not being upheld."
Every example of the erosion of democratic
rights and freedoms cited during the March 15-16 event had been
played out in the environs of Harare in the days preceding the roundtable.
In the week between Sunday March 11
and 18, Zimbabwean activists were severely beaten, arbitrarily arrested
and refused access to medical care and legal representation.
On the first Sunday, leaders of both
factions of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC,
were arrested and youth activist Gift Tandare was shot dead.
The following Sunday, following a week
in which harassment and assault of opposition leaders was rife,
the outspoken member of parliament Nelson Chamisa was brutally assaulted
at Harare airport while preparing to travel to a meeting in Brussels.
The erosion of freedoms, rigged elections,
kleptocracy and abuse of executive power are common themes on this
continent, even if in most cases the political and economic meltdown
has not reached the levels currently seen in Zimbabwe.
In most instances, citizens revolt
and depose their government, or else regional and international
players pressure the leadership to negotiate with the opposition.
In Zimbabwe’s case, as illustrated by events in recent weeks, attempts
to mount protests are met with assault, torture and even indiscriminate
Such actions breach numerous conventions
on human rights, yet the censure from neighbouring states and regional
bodies such as the African Union has been very mild, and limited
to expressions of concern.
On March 15, President Robert Mugabe
had a five-hour meeting with his Tanzanian counterpart President
Jakaya Kikwete, who chairs the regional security arm of the Southern
African Development Community, SADC. This prompted hopes that SADC
was at last exerting some much-needed pressure.
But Mugabe came out of the talks thumbing
his nose at his detractors, and used the joint press conference
to tell his critics in the West to "go hang".
Tanzania, Namibia and Lesotho, the
three countries responsible for regional security in SADC, will
meet on March 26 to discuss the Zimbabwe crisis.
Ghanaian president John Kufuor, whose
country currently holds the presidency of the African Union, said
during a visit to London last week that "the African Union is very
uncomfortable. The situation in [Zimbabwe] is very embarrassing."
Meanwhile, Alpha Konare, the chair
of the African Union’s commission, acknowledged the "need for the
scrupulous respect for human rights and democratic principles in
But so far, the continent-wide body
has failed to come up with any effective strategy to compel the
Mugabe regime to uphold these rights.
South Africa, which happened to occupy
the rotating chair of the United Nations Security Council in March,
has quashed suggestions that the Zimbabwe situation be debated by
the council. China, Russia and African nations have taken a similar
stand in the past.
"We do not believe that the issue
of Zimbabwe belongs to the Security Council, because it is not a
matter of international peace and security", said South Africa's
ambassador to the UN, Dumisani Kumalo.
That is a contentious point - the influx
of thousands of refugees and illegal immigrants from Zimbabwe into
neighbouring countries certainly has the potential to affect regional
stability, while the threat of a state of emergency imposed by Mugabe’s
government is likely to escalate the population displacement.
The silence of key architects of an
African renaissance, and in particular the New Partnership for Africa’s
Development, is truly a blot on Africa’s copybook. Their commitment
must be thrown into question if they remain mute when confronted
with evidence of gross human rights violations against citizens
of an African state.
The most high-profile individual critic
of this silence has been the Nobel Peace prizewinner Archbishop
Desmond Tutu, who put the question in eloquent terms.
"How can what is happening in
Zimbabwe elicit hardly a word of concern, let alone condemnation,
from us leaders of Africa?" he asked. "What more has to
happen before we who are leaders, religious and political, of our
mother Africa are moved to cry out 'Enough is enough’?"
Meanwhile, civil society organisations
across the region have publicly expressed their outrage and concern
at the human rights abuses and deteriorating situation in Zimbabwe.
Marches and protest meetings have been held in South Africa and
Namibia, and petitions have been signed by thousands of people from
across the continent.
As the ZESN conference closed, individuals
and civil society organisations represented there gathered to draft
a message of solidarity, and called upon all parties in Zimbabwe
and the region to come together to assist in negotiating a way out
of the current mire.
Such public expressions of concern
highlight the response of Africans to the sufferings of people in
Zimbabwe. They should also serve to jolt the consciences of African
Governments and regional organisations
in Africa would do well to give serious consideration to another
question from ArchbishopTutu, "Do we really care about human
rights? Do we care that people of flesh and blood - fellow Africans
- are being treated like rubbish, almost worse than they were ever
treated by rabid racists?"
*Ayesha Kajee is Programme Head for
Democracy and Political Party Systems in Africa at the South African
Institute of International Affairs.
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