/ 12 July 2013

Words can kill, in politics

Prominent Harare lawyer and Zanu-PF member Jonathan Samkange is suing his political rival for saying he belongs to the opposition
Prominent Harare lawyer and Zanu-PF member Jonathan Samkange is suing his political rival for saying he belongs to the opposition

Being a member of the opposition is a risk that can result in death. That's according to Zanu-PF member Jonathan Samkange.

Two high-profile political defamation lawsuits brought by politicians against their rivals reveal how politicians across the political divide are feeling the electioneering heat.

In the first case, the Mail & Guardian can exclusively reveal that Samkange, a top Harare lawyer who is running for Parliament on an independent ticket for the Mudzi South constituency, is suing Zanu-PF's candidate for the same area, Eric Navaya, for $5-million for statements he allegedly made at a political rally.

According to the summons issued against Navaya, Samkange said he was running as an independent candidate after being improperly disqualified to run on the Zanu-PF ticket. His rival, Navaya, was "decampaigning" him at rallies, alleging that he was an a representative of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T) party – something that Samkange said could get him killed.

Samkange said that, for Navaya, the sole defendant in the matter, to label him an MDC-T member was not only defamatory but also put his life in danger.

"Defendant, in associating the plaintiff with the MDC party, intended to injure plaintiff's reputation and personal security especially in light of Zanu-PF's slogan, namely, 'Down with MDC' means kill MDC members. Defendant is inviting Zanu-PF members to kill plaintiff. The threat is real and potentially injurious to plaintiff's physical being, feeling and association with other members of the Mudzi community," Samkange said in papers filed in the Harare High Court.

"The defamatory words are intended to make people not to associate with plaintiff. Plaintiff's family, relatives and friends are hurt with such malicious defamatory statements. Plaintiff has been emotionally hurt. Defendant deliberately intended to injure plaintiff's feelings emotionally, mentally and physically."

Zanu-PF membership​
Samkange said he had been a Zanu-PF member since the 1970s when he was studying law at the then University of Rhodesia, now the University of Zimbabwe, and had only decided to stand as an independent candidate after being blocked to run for Parliament by some officials within the party.

The lawyer said he was still a member of Zanu-PF and did not belong to any other party, as alleged by Navaya.

According to Zanu-PF policy, any member of the party who stands as an independent candidate is automatically expelled from the party, but to boost its numbers in Parliament it has been forced to embrace winning independents.

So far there has been no official communication that Samkange is no longer a member.

Navaya said he has not seen Samkange's papers but denied that he had told a rally that Samkange was a member of the MDC.

"I have not yet addressed any rally, but Samkange does not have a party. He expelled himself from the party the moment he decided to stand as an independent candidate, that is what party rules say so he is not a Zanu-PF member," said Navaya.

Samkange said he had been practising law for more than 30 years and was renowned for his work in Zimbabwe and around the world.

Samakange, who also runs a law firm in Namibia, has represented Zanu-PF officials and other individuals sympathetic to the party. They include the party secretary for legal affairs, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who is also defence minister, and the disgraced Anglican bishop, Nolbert Kunonga.

In another case that could change how candidates conduct themselves in the next three weeks of electioneering, Zanu-PF's secretary for administration, Didymus Mutasa, is suing Finance Minister Tendai Biti, also the MDC secretary general, for allegedly implicating him in the death of Christpowers Maisiri, the 12-year-old son of an MDC activist.

Maisiri died in a fire in February. Media reports at the time said suspected Zanu-PF supporters had torched the hut in which he was sleeping to hurt his father.

Zimbabwean politicians, well known for insulting their opponents, may now find themselves having to watch their words.

Acting advocate
In an interview, Samkange said that he was acting as an advocate in the Mutasa matter. Samkange could not say how much Mutasa, who is also minister of presidential affairs, is demanding. He said he had been instructed by another lawyer, Gerald Mlothswa, who could not be reached for comment.

Mutasa confirmed he was suing Biti, but would not give a figure.

Biti was unavailable for comment.

In Zimbabwe, only Mugabe is immune to lawsuits, although insulting him can land you in jail under the country's many repressive insult laws.

It is an offence under the Public Order and Security Act, the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act, and the General Laws Amendment Act to make utterances that could engender feelings of hostility or cause hate, ridicule or contempt of Mugabe or his office. Ordinary people and politicians alike have been arrested for insulting Mugabe.

In March, MDC youth chairperson Solomon Madzore was arrested for saying Mugabe was a limping donkey.

But Mugabe, too, has gone on the attack several times, insulting local and international opponents alike. In the past he has likened Tsvangirai to a dog called Sekaurema he had when he was growing up.

'Street woman'
He has also not spared diplomats, calling President Jacob Zuma's international relations adviser, Lindiwe Zulu, a stupid and idiotic "street woman" last Friday.

In 2009, following a meeting with the then US assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Johnnie Carson, on the sidelines of an African Union summit, Mugabe said the American had a "condescending attitude", and was not only an idiot but also a "little fellow".

Carson's predecessor, Jendayi Fraser, was described as a "prostitute" in 2008 by Mugabe after she said he was trying to steal the election.

"You saw the joy that the British had, that the Americans had, and saw them here through their representatives celebrating and acting as if we Zimbabwe are either an extension of Britain or … America. You saw that little American girl [Frazer] trotting around the globe like a prostitute," said Mugabe.