Zanu-PF’s stormtroopers — the police

Two weeks ago, a young woman lay in a hospital bed in Harare, one of her eyes closed tight. A few days before, as Zanu-PF supporters wrestled her to the floor at the party’s provincial headquarters in Harare, a boot struck her face. In hospital, several days after the attack, she and eight colleagues of the Progressive Teachers’ Union of Zimbabwe still bore the marks of their beatings.

The beatings were inflicted after an initial group was picked up by Zanu-PF militants for daring to distribute pamphlets protesting teachers’ pay (the equivalent of R300).

Other colleagues had sought to come to their aid but were themselves dragged into the headquarters where each was made to lie face down before being beaten. Police were then called to the scene and took them to the central police station where, for some time, they were denied legal representation and medical attention.

For those who follow developments in Zimbabwe, none of this must seem new. And yet even in Zimbabwe there have been few such obvious examples of police partisanship. When police collect obviously bruised and bloodied individuals from ruling-party headquarters and lay criminal charges not against the perpetrators of the bloodshed but their victims, there can no longer be even the pretence that the police are anything other than the ruling party’s agents.

This most recent incident of violence, occurring so close to the elections scheduled for March 29, must raise anxiety levels about the intensity and extent of violence that might happen over the election period. Because far from demurring from its use, as international attention increasingly focuses on Zimbabwe in the run-up, it would seem that Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and his supporters increasingly believe that violence is the only means by which they can retain control.

In recent weeks Mugabe has raised the salaries of all civil servants, and while teachers are barely able to survive, even the lowest- ranking army officer receives more than double what a teacher earns. It isn’t hard to guess whose loyalty Mugabe is most intent on keeping.

But it isn’t Simba Makoni’s entry on to the scene that has provoked a change in tactics. Greater militarisation of an already overly militarised state seems merely the logical extension of a plan long settled on. Nonetheless, Makoni’s candidacy does raise a variety of new possibilities and unquestionably raises the pitch of fear, perhaps most dangerously inside Zanu-PF circles.

Amid all this uncertainty, it can only be guessed that Mugabe is likely to become more paranoid and afraid. He is, as one Harare commentator observed, that most frightening of political animals, ”a leader with no legacy left to protect”. There is no clearer example than that a Mugabe-led Zanu-PF, a party that put in place an education system reckoned to be the best in Africa, now beats its teachers at party headquarters.

Still, there may be reason for some small measure of hope. The desperation suggests the centre cannot hold: the fractures are all too apparent, even within Zanu-PF itself. And the large number of individuals registering themselves for election — as independents or the opposition — suggests real courage and a willingness to risk reprisal. The hope must be that the electorate, and the risks for them are very great, reflects that same courage.

Nicole Fritz is the director of the Southern Africa Litigation Centre

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