MDC youth activists opt for fight over flight

MDC-Tsvangirai supporters mob Solomon Madzore, who was released on bail in November after spending 14 months in detention awaiting trial. (Aaaron Ufumeli)

MDC-Tsvangirai supporters mob Solomon Madzore, who was released on bail in November after spending 14 months in detention awaiting trial. (Aaaron Ufumeli)

Spending more than a year in prison has not softened Madzore, who leads the youth wing of Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change. It seems to have hardened him.

President Robert Mugabe's government has long used arrests and detentions to cow opponents, but it appears this tactic is only strengthening the resolve of activists, creating a radical element willing to take more risks to unseat him.

"We are ready to pay the ultimate price, if that's what it takes," Madzore said, echoing the kind of extreme pledges one would normally hear from Mugabe militants.

"If that's what it takes to win freedom, then so be it," he said.

His office is bare, save for three Tsvangirai campaign posters and a picture of a hand holding up a red card with "Let's finish it" written above it.

Madzore was one of 29 activists charged with killing a policeman in 2011. The group denies the charge and sees it as a continuation of an old tradition of arbitrary arrests.

Usually, activists are held for a few days before being released.
But the "Glen View 29" spent over a year in jail and were denied bail countless times.

Activists expect imprisonment
The group became a rallying point for critics of Zimbabwe's unity government. It was a sign, they said, that the coalition had failed to deliver on promised political reforms. Tsvangirai came under fire from some supporters, who claimed he was not doing enough to push for the group's release. Most of the accused have now been released, but five remain in prison.

With election talk building, Madzore expects more activists to be arrested, but believes this will only serve to fortify the anti-Mugabe resistance.

Activists live in constant fear, he admitted. "But it's a choice between flight and fight; we choose to fight."

At Chikurubi, Zimbabwe's largest maximum-security prison, he was kept away from other inmates. "They said I would incite others," he said.

Madzore claimed that in jail he was approached by "senior securocrats" who tried to get him to turn against his party. "They would come to me and say: ‘We can make all of this go away; you can walk free.' It was on condition I renounce my party. I said no."

To fill the long, empty hours in jail, he immersed himself in books — over 100 of them, he said. One of them was Nelson Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom.

"I said he [Mandela] must have said to himself: ‘If this is what it will take to bring democracy to South Africa, then let it be.' He had a choice to sell out, but he chose to stay the course."

Unashamedly servile in his loyalty to Tsvangirai, he said he had imagined "President Morgan Tsvangirai coming to fetch me from jail in his presidential motorcade".

"That Tsvangirai will be the next president of Zimbabwe is as sure as the rising and setting of the sun," he said.

But what of the military, whose top brass remains fiercely loyal to Mugabe? "We know that there are a few individuals. But [army general Constantine] Chiwenga is not the army. [Police commissioner Augustine] Chihuri is not the police. They must respect the will of the people."

The youth vote
Zanu-PF is targeting the youth vote, handing out loans and promising shares in foreign companies, a strategy that even many within the MDC privately acknowledge is attractive. But Madzore said the empowerment crusade is just one big con."

The youth can see through all that. They know what they want. They want a properly run economy that creates jobs."

Last year, civic group Youth Forum reported that only 18% of voters in the 2008 elections were aged between 18 and 30. But Madzore said young people are becoming more active. "They are saying: ‘We are prepared to defend our vote.'"

When asked how the youth would "defend the vote" in the face of possible violence, Madzore paused. Choosing his words carefully, he said: "We will not be violent. But we will not keep quiet while people are maimed and raped."

A life of activism has put pressure on his family, he admitted. He speaks glowingly of his wife, Charity, describing her as "my pillar, my star". He has two young sons, who "understand the work I do and what's at stake".