Harare — Earlier this month, Zimbabwean opposition leader Nelson Chamisa announced that his party, the Movement for Democratic Change, was taking to the streets. He said they were protesting against the rapidly deteriorating economic situation, and promised to bring the nation to a standstill.
The demonstration, when it happened on August 16, fell far short of that promise. In Harare, only a few hundred people turned out, in defiance of a last-minute government ban. Chamisa was not among them. Riot police locked down the city centre and dispersed the protesters with extreme force. The protest was over before it really began.
That day, the repressive tactics of President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s administration were on full view and were broadcast to the world. But a cross-section of members of the political opposition and civil society activists — none of whom are strangers to government brutality — said this was merely the public face of a crackdown that has been longer, more systematic and less predictable than any other they can remember.
“You know, under [former president Robert] Mugabe, we knew what we could do and what we couldn’t do. We knew where the line was. But now there is no line. The repression is much worse,” said one journalist, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The crackdown has come in two waves. The first was in January this year, in response to a much more successful protest: a national stayaway sparked by a sudden rise in fuel prices. Protest leaders encouraged citizens to stay at home, and they listened, shutting down the country for several days and prompting a vicious backlash from the government.
This backlash took two forms. In the first, uniformed members of the police and army were accompanied by plainclothes paramilitary units aligned to the ruling Zanu-PF in a largely indiscriminate wave of violence unleashed across the country. This was supposedly in response to the looting that had occurred during the protest.
In addition, opposition party supporters, union leaders and civil society leaders were targeted. Some were abducted and assaulted, while others were thrown into jail and charged with a range of crimes, including treason. Not all the abductions were by men in uniform, but all seemed to be operating on government instructions. Several of those targeted mentioned the existence of a “list” against which their names were being checked.
In the space of a single week, the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum had recorded 844 human rights violations that included 12 deaths, 78 gunshot injuries, 242 incidents of assault, torture and inhuman and degrading treatment; 46 incidents of vandalism and looting; and 466 arbitrary detentions.
The second wave of the crackdown took place this month, with serious abuses taking place before and after the August 16 protest. The latest statistics from the forum show that prior to the protest, at least six people were abducted, assaulted and tortured by “suspected state agents”, including one person who had caustic acid poured on his body. After the protest, at least 128 people were arrested, and 12 needed urgent medical attention following injuries sustained at the hands of the police.
The abductions have continued.
Last week, Samantha Kureya, a popular comedian who goes by the stage name Gonyeti, was at her home in Harare’s Mufakose township when masked gunmen burst in and bundled her into a vehicle. Over the course of several hours, she was severely assaulted and forced to drink sewage water, before being dumped naked on the side of the road.
The attack was explicitly related to Kureya’s work, which makes fun of the government. “According to the guys who took me, it is the type of content we create which they don’t like and it includes the recent skit titled Statutory Instrument of Evil Servants. When they took me they kept referring to that skit,” said Kureya.
She and her family — who were at home when she was abducted and assaulted — are being counselled. “Imagine someone pointing a gun at a seven-year-old … just a sound from outside can make everyone panic.”
Kureya said that she will not be silenced by the attack. “Yes, I am scared but we can’t stop doing our work. Comic relief is a key aspect of our society. Humour keeps the ordinary citizens going in this tough situation. Our content doesn’t just entertain, we also inform and educate, so we feel that we are playing an important role in getting youths and women engaged in key issues of society. So stopping is not an option.”
Earlier this week, six armed men descended on the home of Makomborero Haruzivishe, the outspoken former leader of the Zimbabwe National Students Union. He was lucky; he was not there. This is not the first time that he has received such unwelcome attention.
“Two days before the January demonstrations began, we were raided at midnight at a guest house where we were having a youth conference under the auspices of the Global Network for Youth Action. I managed to escape the raid by 12 armed men with AK-47 rifles but my colleagues from the Democratic Republic of Congo and one from the United States of America were abducted and interrogated for six hours,” said Haruzivishe.
He was arrested two days later and charged with working with foreigners to subvert the government.
Although the alleged perpetrators of these attacks are not always in uniform, there is no doubt in the minds of civil society leaders that they are operating at the government’s behest.
“Artists and creatives are deeply concerned that a rogue and criminal behaviour operating outside the realms of law and human decency is taking over our law enforcement,” said two Zimbabwean arts groups, Nhimbe Trust and Rooftop Promotions, in a joint statement in response to the attack on Kureya. “Someone must be responsible for this lawlessness that seems to be acting on behalf of the government. Unfortunately the buck stops with the law enforcement agencies and our government.”
The government disagrees. Although the information ministry did not respond to a request for comment, in a previous statement — released before the August 16 protest — the ministry blamed the spate of abductions on a “force comprised of discharged and disgruntled former members of the old establishment, of whom some are trained”. This force is apparently loyal to Mugabe, and intent on discrediting the new president.
Whoever is responsible for the violence, there can be no doubt that it is having a chilling effect on all forms of opposition to the government. And although Kureya insists that the show must go on, not everyone agrees.
“The stakes are too high now. These guys can do anything,” said one high-profile activist, speaking on condition of anonymity.
This activist, who is known for his outspokenness, has never before requested to keep his name out of the newspaper, but felt that the risk of retaliation had become too high for him to speak freely.
“It has never been this bad,” he said. Other sources echoed this sentiment.