With few obvious hassles, a local pressure group, Bulawayo Agenda, kicked off a string of public meetings late last year.
Twenty-nine gatherings, held as part of its “township series”, provided residents of townships with a rare platform to speak out on issues of concern. Recurring complaints included poverty, the hijacking of food aid by ruling party functionaries and rising transport fares that were forcing commuters to walk long distances daily.
Although most expected the absence of official interference to end, particularly after the grievances repeatedly pointed towards mis-governance, organisers admit they were caught off guard when police turned down their application for an evening meeting last Thursday.
Under the Public Order and Security Act (Posa), the police have to approve a public meeting in advance. Last week officers simply said they no longer allow public meetings after 5pm.
Gorden Moyo, coordinator of Bulawayo Agenda, says by insisting that meetings are held during the day, authorities plan to minimise attendance. After all, people can’t leave work.
“It’s tantamount to incapacitating us,” he adds. “The police’s motive is people should not attend these meetings; they should not voice — or hear — other views.”
Bulawayo Agenda is not the only organisation at the receiving end of the new police directive. Tabitha Khumalo of the constitutional change pressure group, the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), says the organisation applied for permission to hold a public meeting on February 26. Police turned down this request too, citing the new regulation.
“They just don’t want us to talk,” Khumalo says, adding: “We are telling people the country’s problems stem from the Constitution.”
The NCA — which includes civic organisations, unions and churches — maintains it is self-defeating for Zimbabweans to participate in another election before a new constitution is in place. It maintains the outcome of future elections is pre-determined, thanks to a skewed electoral playing field that allows the ruling party to dominate.
Moyo adds that, when combined with the closure of the independent newspaper, The Daily News, the meeting ban is part of a wider strategy to stem debate ahead of next year’s parliamentary elections.
“The police are trying to gag us,” he says. The organisation believes participation leads to democracy and is gearing up for more “debate, discussion and dialogue” in Bulawayo and the two Matabeleland towns of Gwanda and Hwange.
In the meantime, Bulawayo Agenda rescheduled its cancelled Thursday meeting for Saturday afternoon. The topic — “Is the government’s anti-corruption crusade a genuine policy or a mere political calculation?” — remains unchanged.
But chairperson Peter Khumalo is not excited. “When you choose the time for a meeting you’re considering the audience. Usually people are ready towards the end of the week because they want to relax, to chat.” On weekends, however, he says most people are away.
When contacted for an explanation, provincial police spokesperson Inspector Smile Dube referred questions to his superior, who was not available.
Inspector Shepherd Phiri, of the police’s national press office, says deciding who can hold a public meeting, and when, is at the discretion of the officer commanding an area.