Silence is not an ethical option

When the cloud of apartheid still hovered over our heads, an atmosphere of fear pervaded the country, pushing its way into the thoughts of every activist — the fear that the car trailing you might pull you into detention, the jolt of adrenalin that woke you when a car stopped outside your house at night, the stories of torture and brutality meted out by the authorities and the pain of saying goodbye to loved ones in the morning, not knowing if you would be returning to kiss them goodnight.

During my visit to Zimbabwe this past weekend, I was reminded of those fears. While differences obviously exist between the struggles of South Africa’s anti-apartheid activists and Zimbabweans today, the daily reality is similar, as are the underlying demands, for equality and justice, for the full enjoyment of our human rights and to be treated with respect and dignity. These are not fanciful requests, but promises contained within regional and international treaties the Zimbabwean government has agreed to implement. These words linger on paper, but are far from the living reality of Zimbabwe.

Our brothers and sisters in trade unions, NGOs and church groups told me of their struggles, exacerbated by the economic and humanitarian meltdown that renders even middle-class families unable to afford basic essentials as inflation skyrockets and shortages of food, medical supplies and petrol continue.

I travelled to Zimbabwe along with my colleague Clare Doube, to deepen our understanding of the crisis in this once proud country.

In Bulawayo and Harare, and in our car trip between the two cities, we were struck by the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis that is manifest in a variety of ways: the disintegration of the health and education systems; the “disappearances” of citizens, which some observers estimate has reached 600; the meltdown of the economy where the street value for hard currency is 80 times the official exchange rate; the fragmentation of families and the lives lived in fear and trepidation.

We spoke with representatives of beleaguered organisations who told us of growing government threats against civil society, legal limitations on their work, particularly in organising public meetings, and a frightening rise in both open and clandestine attacks against peaceful civic activists. One particularly disturbing example is Opposition Forces in Zimbabwe: A Trail of Violence, a new government report that attempts to undermine peaceful civil society organisations, including some of Civicus’s [the world alliance for citizen participation] partners, by criminalising their legitimate activities and falsely accusing them of promoting violence.

On Saturday, we witnessed such intimidation first-hand. I was invited to join civic activists and church leaders in speaking at a prayer meeting in Bulawayo, the first public gathering in Zimbabwe since the viciously repressed March 11 meeting in Harare. While the event went ahead without disruption, disturbing tactics were used to intimidate people from attending, including roadblocks and displays of water cannons, and heavily armed riot police. It was even more worrying to read a leaked memo from Zimbabwe’s Police Commissioner, Augustine Chihuri, stating that the police should identify the “ringleaders” of the event and “not to hesitate to shoot to kill”.

It was particularly the short, random conversations on the streets that really gave me the flavour of everyday life in Zimbabwe. While chatting one night to a young man working at our hotel, for instance, I asked how things were in his city and was moved by his reply. “I love my country and I love my city, but I am leaving next month. I don’t want to leave, but no one can survive here,” he said. Sadly, people who are dedicated to their country are being forced to leave, simply to survive.

While our country, the Southern African Development Community and the African Union choose to label the crisis in Zimbabwe as a political one, we insist that the real struggle is not seen on political platforms, but in people’s homes. It is the people of Zimbabwe who are truly suffering. When South African citizens were fighting the demon of apartheid, organisations and governments from around the continent stood behind us, gave us protection within their borders and pressured the regime through sanctions and boycotts. While our fears always remained, we knew our African comrades were on our side, standing in solidarity with us.

Today, when our neighbours in Zimbabwe need the same support, we stand aside, arguing that the problems can be rectified merely through political party negotiations. Our government and our regional bodies — founded on the defence of justice and human rights and funded by our taxes — have a particular responsibility to act with integrity and strength. We especially encourage the South African government, which has taken the difficult role of the mediator, to also engage the people of Zimbabwe through NGOs, trade unions and religious groups. We must look beyond politics and listen to the voices of the people of Zimbabwe. It is imperative that all Africans stand up and offer solidarity. This is not a time for indifference, inaction and platitude. Silence is not an ethical option.

Kumi Naidoo is secretary general of Civicus

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