/ 23 August 2023

The wait for a ‘new Zimbabwe’ continues

Voting Opens In Zimbabwe Elections
Voters cast their ballots for the Zimbabwean general elections at a polling station in Midlands, Gweru, Zimbabwe on August 23, 2023. (Photo by Mkhululi Thobela/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The rule of former president Robert Mugabe was characterised by violence and gross human rights violations and that of President Emmerson Mnangagwa has squandered the hopes of many who saw the ousting of Mugabe as an opportunity for a “new Zimbabwe”. 

As the country holds its general elections on 23 August, Zimbabwe has yet again experienced an escalation on human rights violations, contrary to the pledge by Mnangagwa during his inauguration in 2018, when he promised “to act fairly and impartially, without fear or favour, as a president of all Zimbabweans”. 

This comes as no surprise because Mnangagwa and Mugabe had worked together for decades. Mnangagwa was present throughout Mugabe’s tenure and played a role during the Zimbabwe war of independence. Since then, he has held influential jobs in the government, including that of vice-president. 

Despite this, there was hope that Mnangagwa would do things differently. Instead he continued from where Mugabe’s 37-year rule ended, which is a government that was marred by allegations of abuse of due process and widespread violence and intimidation. The Gukurahundi massacre, in which Mnangagwa allegedly played a significant role (which he denies); the food riots; Operation Murambatsvina; and the violence surrounding the 2008 presidential elections are some of the legacies that Mugabe will be remembered for.

Under Mugabe, Zimbabwe enacted several repressive laws including Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) in 2002 (later repealed), the Broadcasting Services Act (2001) and the Public Order and Security Act (2002), all aimed at protecting and increasing the state’s power over the people and clamping down on human rights. 

The Mnangagwa administration has continued the legacy of enacting repressive laws that are inconsistent with Zimbabwe’s Constitution and depriving people of their rights. The Data Protection Act, the Freedom of Information Act (replacing AIPPA) and the Maintenance of Peace and Order Act (replacing the Public Order and Security Act) still infringe on rights provided for by the Constitution. The Private Voluntary Organisations Amendment Bill and the recent passing of the Patriotic Bill (now a law), all pushed under the pretext of protecting national security, have been and continue to be used by the government to silence peaceful dissent and target members of the political opposition parties and government critics. 

The failure to deal with these human rights violations leads to a culture of impunity and severely limits and infringes on human rights provided for by the Constitution and international and regional human rights treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights to which Zimbabwe is a state party. 

Journalists, human rights defenders and political activists have been intimidated, harassed, assaulted, arrested and detained by state security for doing their work. In May 2020, three opposition members of Citizens Coalition for Change were arrested for leading an anti-government protest over the authorities’ response to the Covid-19 pandemic and widespread hunger in the country. On the same day, they were forcibly disappeared from police custody, sexually assaulted, tortured and dumped 87km from Harare. The women have since endured almost three years of abuse by the government, prosecuting them for “faking” their own abduction while the suspected attackers roam free. 

Civil society is increasingly restricted and critical voices are silenced. The state continues to use the police to suppress and undermine activities of civil society organisations and the opposition parties’ rallies and meetings. Authorities have either barred or violently dispersed peaceful protests. In 2018, six people were shot and killed after the government deployed the army to stop people protesting delays in releasing the August 2018 electoral results. The Motlanthe commission report into the killings revealed that the deployment of the soldiers was unjustified and excessive. 

During and after a national stayaway in January 2019, at least 15 people were shot and killed by security forces, with others treated for gunshot wounds, several hundred arbitrarily arrested and some prosecuted in fast-tracked trials on bogus charges of public violence or subverting a constitutional government. 

Mnangagwa’s inaugural speech focused primarily on economic reforms, but he also committed his government to “constitutionalism, the rule of law, and the independence of the judiciary”. These commitments remain unfulfilled; no meaningful investigations have been conducted to provide access to justice and effective remedies to victims and families, and no one has been held accountable for the deaths, adding to a lengthy list of injustices perpetrated against the people of Zimbabwe by their own government.

Contrary to the promise of an “independent judiciary”, the courts have been used as a tool to criminalise peaceful dissent. Tsitsi Dangarembga was convicted for “inciting violence”, the Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe members were arrested for peacefully protesting against poor wages; six University of Zimbabwe students — Benjamin Watadza, Emmanuel Chitima, Comfort Mpofu, Lionel Madamombe, Gamuchirai Chaburumunda and Darlington Chigwena — were arrested for staging a peaceful protest and spent more than a month in jail; and opposition party leaders including Jacob Ngarivhume and Job Sikhala are languishing in jail for exercising their right to freedom of expression. 

It is disheartening to see history repeating itself, especially the violence and escalating crackdown on human rights ahead of the elections, reports of attacks and banning of opposition parties’ rallies, and the killing of opposition party members. The government continues to ignore the violence and divisions that have engulfed the country and the culture of impunity that is deeply entrenched in state entities, diminishing all hope and the promise of a “new Zimbabwe”.

The Mnangagwa administration did not make good on its promises of a “new Zimbabwe” for all by prioritising full respect for human rights and the rule of law and ensuring adherence to the 2013 Constitution. 

The new government must ensure the protection and promotion of human rights and create a peaceful environment for the people of Zimbabwe to engage meaningfully with the government with the aim of building a rule of law-based society.  The courts play a vital role in protecting human rights and their impartiality and independence are essential for justice and effective remedies for victims of human rights violations. And the authorities must promote the active and effective participation of civil society organisations in their efforts to promote and protect human rights. 

Tshidi Leatswe is the Country Campaigner, Southern Africa for Amnesty International.