/ 25 May 2023

Zimbabwe elections are ‘an act of war’

Elections under Mugabe were marred by corruption
Zimbabwe president, Emmerson Mnangagwa. File photo

Despite a progressive Constitution with a broad Bill of Rights, Zimbabwe is unable to shake its legacy of brutality, rendering its people powerless, its government a “monster”, and its elections “an act of war”. 

The country has failed to transform beyond its name, according to Dzikamai Bere, renowned human rights activist and national director of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Association.

Bere made the comments on Wednesday evening during the online launch of a Research & Advocacy Unit (RAU) report titled A Short History of Organised Violence and Torture in Zimbabwe — 1972 to 2020. 

Also at the launch were Tony Reeler, senior researcher at RAU; Human Rights and constitutional lawyer Musa Kika; the executive director of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, Roselyn Hanzi, and Annah Moyo of the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation. 

The release comes as the country prepares to head to the polls for general elections in the coming months. 

“The report is an indictment on our nation, and on the nation building project of Zimbabwe,” said Bere. “At a time when we are supposed to be celebrating 10 years of a new Constitution, that Constitution, as the report finds, has not helped us to conquer [our] problems.” 

The report provides a detailed overview of the organised violence and torture (OVT) that has afflicted Zimbabwe since 1980, as well as the violations that took place from 1972, when the country was still known as Rhodesia, to 1980, when independence was finally attained, according to RAU.

It found that although there had been changes in the players over the decades, torture, abductions and displacements were still experienced in 2022: “The biggest problem is that OVT has become normalised. It is a normal part of political problem solving and frequently advocated as normal and necessary. The evidence for this comes from the violent rhetoric that always follows challenges to the political power of Zanu-PF. This has been the case since 1980, with the use of hate speech and violent rhetoric being comprehensively documented over the decades.”

Said Bere: “Organised violence and torture has not decreased since 2013, when we adopted a new Constitution, it has not decreased since the establishment of the second republic in 2017 through a military coup …. [The report] is an indictment on us as a people. It confronts one of the worst evils of mankind — violence, a pre-colonial evil that persists today.”

The Zimbabwean government has been harshly criticised by local and international human rights groups under the administrations of former president Robert Mugabe and the current president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, as a country where freedom of association, peaceful assembly and expression remain threatened.

Harassment and intimidation of the media and opposition politicians and party members have made international headlines, as have violent attacks on opposition party members. Political violence is known to flare up prior to and during elections, something that the report also highlights.

 “Every decade since the 1970s has seen significant amounts of OVT, ranging from frank civil war, the inevitable consequence of the settler state of Rhodesia failing to meet the legitimate aspirations of the majority of its citizens, through the low intensity civil conflict of the 1980s, and two decades of very violent elections. In every decade, perhaps excepting the Liberation War, the state and the government has been identified as the major perpetrator.”

Between the country’s liberation war and Gukurahundi — the massacre of Ndebele by Mugabe’s Fifth Brigade — at least 80 000 people died, according to the report, “but the actual figures can only come from a fully-fledged transitional justice process”.

The prevalence of organised violence and torture over the decades can only mean that there are hundreds of thousands of torture victims in the country, according to the report.  

“This is a shameful history, and the fact that it persists today in the 21st century, in a country that has been independent for 40 years, is unacceptable. No amount of rhetoric about the threats of neo-colonialism or imperialism can disguise the fact that OVT continues in a country that claims to be democratic and playing by the rules of the democratic game: the continuous OVT belies these claims.”

The desire to transform the state was rhetoric, said Bele, mere “public relations”.

“On the ground, the violence continues.

“Elections are supposed to bring hope, they are a moment to embrace the promise of power to the people, rule by the people. But when elections are held in a context of violence, they become a war, a tragedy, because they deliver dead bodies.”

Specific measures should be undertaken by the state to prevent recurrences of organised violence and torture, according to the report, including:

• Ratify the United Nations Convention against Torture (UNCAT);

• Domesticate UNCAT into the criminal law of Zimbabwe;

• Prosecute those who perpetrate organised violence and torture;

• Provide the support and autonomy that the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission requires to carry out its mandate; and

• Create a culture of mutual toleration and institutional forbearance.

The report also found it was necessary to rehabilitate victims and survivors of organised violence and torture, but that there was simply not adequate capacity to do such. 

There was also “an urgent need for the establishment of a comprehensive national mental health service capable of meeting the general mental needs of the country”.

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