The praise afforded those who attacked the police signals a deep-seated frustration with authority.
In most countries in the world a brutal attack on police officers supposedly acting to protect the interests of abused children and women would have been roundly condemned by an entire nation. But not in Zimbabwe.
Several police officers, journalists and leaders of the Apostolic Christian Council of Zimbabwe (ACCZ) were attacked by members of the Johane Masowe weChishanu led by Madzibaba Ishamel Mufani on the outskirts of Harare’s
Budiriro high-density suburb last Friday, leaving several policemen in hospital.
The baton-wielding police officers, who were dressed in riot gear, had visited the shrine with ACCZ members to “close down” the church for allegedly abusing children and women.
Church leaders were allegedly barring church members from allowing their children to go to school or visit hospital and the church was also alleged to be carrying out virginity tests on young girls.
The attack shocked many Zimbabweans but strangely did not disappoint them, if reactions on social media are anything to go by. Many commentators viewed the apostolic sect members as heroes.
One of the country’s main daily newspapers, NewsDay, broke the story of the attack. Within a short time the story had garnered 9 400 “likes” on Facebook and 327 people had retweeted the story.
A total of 382 people commented on the story with the majority being in solidarity with the apostolic faith members and celebrating the attack on the police. Some went as far as encouraging other Zimbabweans to take a similar stance against the police, whom they accused of brutalising citizens for a long time.
Abrams Munyanyi wrote: “Too good to believe that this is happening in Zimbabwe.” Some said they would drink to celebrate the attack.
Despite the many messages of support, though, there were some Zimbabweans who expressed anger at the reaction of the majority.
“It’s being short-sighted for someone reasonable to rejoice over police assault, for now you can rejoice but think of the women being forced to marry those men. If they can do that to the police what will they do to defenceless poor women,” wrote a reader by the name of Jusy.
The attack came a day after Zimbabwe Republic Police Commissioner General Augustine Chihuri collapsed at a passing-out parade at Morris Depot in Harare.
There was also little sympathy for Chihuri, with some even wishing him dead.
Dr Julius Musevenzi from the University of Zimbabwe’s faculty of social studies said the show of support for the apostolic sect members was because of a long-held belief many Zimbabweans have that the police are being used in areas that should not fall in their mandate.
He said the fact that the police officers went to the shrine in anti-riot gear may have led the apostolic faith members to believe they were being heavy-handed as they are known to be.
“What probably came into the mind of the churchgoers is that an iron hand was being used against them. The symbol of the iron hand was a baton stick-wielding police officer in riot gear. They were intimidated and under attack and they took solace in their numbers,” he said.
Musevenzi said it was unfortunate that the attack had overshadowed allegations of abuse but said the fact that many people were rejoicing was a reflection of their belief that the police were too heavy-handed.
He said many people were questioning the police presence at the shrine, an observation also made by a retired senior police officer who spoke to the Mail & Guardian on condition of anonymity. The retired officer suggested that the police should have summoned the leaders of the apostolic sect to their officers and read the riot act to them or simply arrested them and taken them to court rather than invading their shrine in front of thousands of worshipers.
Historian Phathisa Nyathi said the celebrations over the police attack and Chihuri’s collapse were unfortunate and “unAfrican”.
“In Ndebele we say Inxeba lendoda kalihleka [You don’t celebrate someone’s misfortune] and that’s the same teaching in other African cultures. We are taught to be sympathetic to someone’s plight and not to wish others bad. It’s unAfrican to do so, more so to wish someone dead,” he said.
“It’s unfortunate that the two incidents have been politicised. I would like to believe it is now politics at play. The anger against the police is because they are seen as agents of a political order, but Zimbabweans should be condemning the attack on the police and, equally, the attack on the shrine should also be condemned.”
After the attack, Zanu-PF youths marched to the shrine, in the presence of police officers, and destroyed fabrics and clay pots they found on the site. They equated the attack on the police to an attack on President Robert Mugabe.
A clinical psychiatrist who spoke on condition of anonymity said the celebrations, though unfortunate, were testimony of bad relations between the public and the police.
She said there was a need for the police to improve their public image by being professional as they were generally viewed as being biased and partisan. “As a nation we should be worried when the police are attacked because their duty is to maintain law and order and ensure that peace is maintained throughout the country. They are supposed to be there for our protection and it is natural that we should be supportive and sympathetic to them, and even assist
them in the discharge of their duties,” she said.
“The celebrations would seem
to mean they did something wrong along the way. Most of the negative comments I read seemed to suggest that the police are in fact oppressors. It seems they are associated with brutality and this may be because of their role in politics, where they are often used to arrest political activists or disrupt rallies and so on.
“For most people, therefore,
the attack on the police represents some sort of victory over tyranny,” she said.“Most of the negative comments I read seemed to suggest that the police are in fact oppressors”