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Writing from Harare, Keith Goddard, from Gays and Lesbians Zimbabwe, reflects on the long list of political and practical problems facing ordinary Zimbabweans, why "they" aren't out on the streets in outrage and how the international community may, or may not, help

An end in sight?

Over the past three years, one of the most frequently asked questions in Zimbabwe (and often asked of me by my 79-year old mother) has been “why are they not taking to the streets and doing something about the situation?” My reply has generally been “who do you mean by they and why are you not on the streets yourself?” But then I am not either!

Many people explain away their inaction by claiming they are not part of the critical mass (in other words the poor) which is seen alternately as being the hardest hit by the crisis and having the least to lose. But the crux of the matter is that people are too scared to show public dissatisfaction in any direct manner because the state responds swiftly by unleashing sledge hammers of violence to crush any protestor resistance. Unlike in Apartheid South Africa where funerals and street marches were platforms for, often violent, protest, Zimbabweans are more passive and reserved and reluctant to enter into situations that might turn dangerous. Besides,in the past, peaceful demonstrations have been purposefully overrun by state-employed thugs. The state has then turned round and arrested the march organisers for “spreading alarm and despondency”.

The state is allowed to threaten violence: Mugabe once used state-controlled television to claim he has degrees in it. Yet, around the same time, the opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai was arrested for saying at a rally that, if Mugabe will not go peacefully, he must be removed violently. The court dismissed the charges but Tsvangirai is on trial again now because a dodgy tape made by a Canadian consultancy firm, on which Tsvangirai is heard to state that Mugabe must be eliminated, is being used as evidence to suggest that Tsvangirai was plotting the assassination of Mugabe. The tape is clearly an attempt at entrapment but the words “violence” and”eliminate” are extremely unfortunate ones for a major politician to be using,especially in such a politically volatile climate. But the truth remains that the opposition MDC has done much to try to restrain the violence and to bring about peaceful change through a return to democracy and law and order.

Who pulls the trigger?

Would assassinating Mugabe solve the problem? Certainly he is the problem, and many quote Hitler and Stalin as prime examples of where a timely bullet would have saved the lives of millions. I refuse to be drawn into these historical parallels of”what if'?” The assassination of Mugabe would probably prompt an immediate military coup (under the guise of a state of emergency) and the abandoning of even a pretence to democracy. Some of us have said that we should never give the state the excuse to do its worst and, besides, who determines when a person has overstepped the mark and deserves to be assassinated? And what becomes of the person who pulls the trigger?

Mugabe's greatest concern at the moment is to ensure a safe exit plan for himself. Tsvangirai has promised him immunity should he bow out gracefully. The belief amongst some is that Mugabe must be made to pay for his crimes and there is every reason for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to be set up in order that people hear acknowledgment of the crimes committed against themselves and their families. For others, like myself, revenge is not necessary. I realised this after I had talked to a Croatian musician friend who had fled to Austria during the Bosnian war. I suggested that the arrest of Milosevic must give him some sense of welcome relief. He told me that Milosevic was totally irrelevant to him and that he did not care whether the man lived or died. The fact that he could do no more harm was sufficient.

Passive resistance

In general, Zimbabweans are not confrontational. In fact, until recently, few people took any interest in the political process at all and the turn-out at elections was small because there was no effective opposition to vote for. That changed in 1999 with the collapse of the economy and the advent of the MDC as an effective opposition in the2000 parliamentary elections.

In 2002 Tsvangirai gave Mugabe a run for his money in the presidential election. But although Zimbabweans turned out in droves to vote, we have been unable to effect any positive change. With reports of wide-scale rigging and intimidation (especially in the presidential election)many people have lost faith in political processes as a way of making a difference. But Zimbabweans have developed their own highly effective strategy for expressing their displeasure and applying pressure --the “stay-away”, which is basically a general strike. The last and most successful one, which took place in mid-April of this year, resulted in most businesses in urban areas closing for three consecutive days. In the past, a Harare cafe', the Italian Bakery, has not supported stay-aways and the rich elite have sat there and sipped coffee whilst deliberating idly about whether or not the stay away was working (not thinking that perhaps they should have avoided patronising a business that broke with it and also stayed at home themselves). This time the bakery was at least closed on the first day and even most of the financial institutions respected the call to stay at home. The police in some towns ordered managers to fetch their workers and tried to force people to go to work, but people, having been pushed onto public transport, got out later and took the next bus home. Commuter omnibus drivers, faced with having to introduce stiff fare increases, were told that if they withdrew their services on the three days they would have their operator licenses revoked. “People are too scared to show public dissatisfaction in any direct manner because the state responds swiftly by unleashing sledge hammers of violence.” In the late 1970s the US effectively dealt the final blow to the Rhodesian regime by sending Henry Kissinger to South Africa. Ian Smith, under the pretence of going to South Africa to watch rugby, met with Kissinger. Smith was handed the suitcase deal which spelled out that South Africa would pull the plug on Rhodesia if the latter did not agree to majority rule. Rhodesia, like Zimbabwe, could not survive economically without its biggest trading partner, South Africa, and so was forced to give in. Thabo Mbeki knows he can exact the same power today, but he lacks the strength to make firm decisions and has couched this in terms of “quiet diplomacy”. His indecisiveness has led to plain economics making the decisions for him.

Food is a weapon

Zimbabwe runs on oil and the fuel bill the country has run up with the South African oil company, SASOL, has reached such proportions that fuel is now being sold tous on a cash-only basis. But Zimbabwe has no foreign exchange to pay for the imports because the country's agricultural industry was destroyed as a result of the poorly-managed land seizures. The national airline, Air Zimbabwe, is virtually grounded and long lines of empty cars are parked abandoned outside fuel stations. Industry is further effected because we cannot pay our electricity bill to South Africa.

The situation with food has been the most critical. The famine results, to some extent, from the recent serious drought, but more generally from the chaotic land redistribution programme. Most of the irrigation equipment, which once staved off the effects of drought, has either been removed or destroyed. A country that was well able to feed itself previously and generally exported to other parts of the region is expected to produce only 25% of its needs this year.

The World Food Programme helped with the importation of maize last year but struggled with a government that tried to politicise its distribution. In opposition strongholds, only people with ZANU-PF party cards could expect to be awarded maize. Much of the food distribution has been supervised by what are popularly known as the “Green Bombers” --ZANU-PF youth, trained at militia camps around the country. Their official role in society is not clear other than acting as general bully boys. Reports from the marginalised Tonga minority in the remote Zambezi Valley, one of the areas hardest hit by drought, is that the Tonga are constantly plagued by the Green Bombers. But when asked for party cards at food drop offs, the Tonga simply walk away from queues refusing to bow to pressure to associate with a party that they do not trust and that forces them to obey. The old grandmothers have been returning to their traditional art of boiling poisonous tubors in order to keep their families alive.

And then there is AIDS. Let us believe that the end is in sight.

GALZ, P Bag A6131, Avondale, Harare, Zimbabwe (tel: +263 4 741 736; fax: 740 614; email: galz@mweb.co.zw).

Keith Goddard is the Director for Programming, Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ).