Lessons of the An Yue Jiang

In the past few days, media have carried reports that the An Yue Jiang did offload its arms cargo in Angola, that South Africa facilitated the process by refuelling the ship and that Zimbabwean government authorities confirmed receipt of the weaponry.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think the reports are true. They seem to be an assemblage of the speculation that has been doing the rounds for some time now and contradict a number of things we know as fact.

We know for instance that the ship took on fuel and supplies at Luanda, a process that would have been unnecessary had it only recently been refuelled at sea by South Africa’s navy. Human rights inspectors confirm that only construction cargo was offloaded in Luanda and so there was no offload of arms there.

Although the ship couldn’t be tracked at all times and reasons therefore are suspicious, its speed and location were nonetheless recorded with sufficient regularity to enable its course to be plotted with some precision.

It seems almost impossible that the ship tracked north of Luanda to discharge its arms cargo, as some reports have suggested, before returning south to reach Luanda on the dates we know it to have entered port.

It also seems incredible that the ship might have offloaded its arms cargo at any port south of Luanda undetected. As for an off-sea transfer of cargo to another ship, there appears to have been no vessels in the proximity of the An Yue Jiang capable of conveying such cargo and such a process is notoriously difficult and time-consuming.

Zimbabwe’s Deputy Minister of Information, Bright Matonga, claims that Zimbabwe is in receipt of the weapons already. But he has been making that claim for several weeks now.

Even if it is true, even if the arms are in Zimbabwe, that wouldn’t mean that the Southern Africa-wide opposition to the transfer of the arms—on the part of trade unions, churches and human rights organisations—was for naught. We know that in the interim the Zimbabwean government may have received any number of other arms shipments from a variety of unsavoury sources. The opposition action mattered because of the solidarity it showed with Zimbabwean people—a concern for their safety and well-being.

Matonga can take television cameras to record the serial numbers of the weapons he alleges were received and still he can’t defeat what the ship action represented.

Sadly, the recent spate of xenophobic attacks in South Africa on foreigners, principally Zimbabweans, can. Because far from standing with Zimbabweans, this violence suggests we would attack them in their hour of greatest need.

In the weeks since the Durban court order halting the transfer of arms across South Africa, we have been inundated with messages from Zimbabweans hoping that we might help in ways I wish we could. My email inbox is filled with the most horrific images: pictures of dead bodies, bandaged children, the skin of men’s torsos ripped through with bicycle chains and seeping from burns and now, almost ubiquitously, men and women’s buttocks, not just bruised, but so broken you can see the tissue beneath.

And then there are the accounts: of an electoral observer who has gone into hiding for fear of Zanu-PF vengeance, but whose 14-year-old son was caught and so badly beaten he had to be hospitalised. As much as the electoral observer wants to return home to his son, he can’t for fear that the perpetrators are waiting.

And of a 65-year-old woman who, with her husband—government recognised “compliance farmers”—has post-election been evicted from her farm, whose belongings were simply tossed outside and whose breast prostheses, presumably of no value to anyone except cancer survivors like herself, was taken during the eviction process.

These are just isolated snapshots of the widespread violence playing itself out across Zimbabwe: detail which disrupts the meaninglessness of massive atrocity.

But imagine fleeing all of that arbitrary and senseless cruelty only to find that in the place of your refuge—here in South Africa—you are again the victim of violence and intimidation.

May 25, which is traditionally commemorated as Africa Day, will see the launch of the Stand Up (for) Zimbabwe campaign. Events are planned in Lesotho, Botswana, Namibia and throughout the region. Cosatu and the Treatment Action Campaign will march to the Union Buildings in Tshwane.

The campaign is intended to allow church congregations and audiences at sporting and music events to stand up for a few minutes in a demonstration of solidarity with the people of Zimbabwe—a call to the region and the world to act decisively to end the violence in Zimbabwe and to resolve the political crisis.

The campaign is also intended to show that the only strangers to our country should be those who would use violence and intimidation against others.

Nicole Fritz is the director of the Southern Africa Litigation Centre

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