A worrying increase in dissent, human rights abuses and arbitrary arrests of journalists – this is how the opposition leadership and its supporters, including government critics, are characterising the Zimbabwean socio-political space in the run-up to planned nationwide protests against corruption under the hashtag #31stJuly.
Transform Zimbabwe leader Jacob Ngarivhume, supported by the main opposition MDC Alliance and many other civic organisations, including pressure groups, called for a nationwide demonstration on 31 July 2020 against corruption and demanded that the ruling ZANU-PF government should go.
But in the run-up to the protests on 31 July and thereafter, Zimbabwe police put the brakes on the protest when they arrested several high-profile figures, including international award-winning journalist Hopewell Chin’ono, politician and convener of the planned protests Jacob Ngarivhume, writer and 2020 Booker prize nominee Tsitsi Dangarembga and MDC Alliance spokesperson Fadzayi Mahere.
Dozens of activists have been incarcerated while some have gone into hiding since the call for protests began. Authorities issued a list of 14 wanted activists on the eve of the march. None of those on the list were arrested or availed themselves to the police for “interviews”, but the list had the effect of sending many into hiding.
On 31 July 2020, there was a strong police presence in Zimbabwe’s capital city Harare, patrolling streets and sending people home. The atmosphere was tense, and served as a grim reminder of the 1 August 2018 post-election violence which saw several civilians killed by uniformed forces.
Small groups of people tried to hold low-key protests in their respective residential areas after police and military shut down major cities and towns, and forced people to stay indoors.
Internationally acclaimed novelist Tsitsi Dangarembga, who recently published her sequel, This Mournable Body, which has earned her a nomination for the prestigious Booker Prize, was arrested with five others on 31 July 2020. They were carrying placards which read: “We want better, Reform our Constitution, #Free Hopewell and #FreeJacob.”
The state accused them of “participating in a gathering with the intention to incite public violence or bigotry” and “unnecessary movements”, emanating from the violation of lockdown regulations.
On Saturday, 1 August, Dangarembga, Mahere and six others were released on Zimbabwean dollar ZWL5,000 (about R235) bail each. They were ordered to stay at their given addresses, surrender their passports to the clerk of the court and not to interfere with state witnesses. They are expected to appear in court on 18 September 2020.
Upon her release, Dangarembga told Daily Maverick: “I feel that probably all Zimbabweans want a better life for all and the people who live here. I think that’s a very right motive to have, it’s a good thing to live by and to work for.”
MDC Alliance spokeswoman Fadzayi Mahere, who also spoke to Daily Maverick, said: “It’s a tragedy and an indictment on what we have become as a society in Zimbabwe that we don’t even have the freedom to step outside our homes and protest against corruption, and many other ills.”
One of the activists arrested with Dangarembga, Jessica Drury, told Daily Maverick: “One day, this country will have freedom of speech and freedom of expression, but until that day comes, we shall continue to voice our concerns.”
The weekend arrests followed that of Neiman fellow and CNN Best African Journalist award winner, Hopewell Chin’ono on 20 July 2020.
Chin’ono was arrested separately to Ngarivhume, but faced a similar charge of “incitement to participate in public violence”.
The two were denied bail and were remanded in custody. Chin’ono is expected to appear in court on 7 August 2020 while Ngarivhume will make his next appearance on 14 August.
Another prominent investigative journalist, Mduduzi Mathuthu, had an arrest and search warrant issued for him on the eve of the 31 July protests. Authorities searched his home, but after failing to locate him, police arrested Mathuthu’s sister, Nomagugu Mathuthu and his three nephews.
Everyone was released, but one of Mathuthu’s nephews, Tawanda Muchehiwa, went missing after authorities took him.
A Bulawayo High Court ordered the police to produce the missing Muchehiwa within 72 hours. Two days after his disappearance, Muchehiwa was dumped at his house on Sunday, 2 August with severe injuries that he said were a result of torture. He has since been taken to a private hospital for treatment. Mathuthu was the first journalist on 20 April 2020 to break the US$60-million Covid-19 procurement scandal (zimlive.com) which was later amplified by Chin’ono.
Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) spokesperson Kumbirai Mufundo said the organisation had “attended to more than 20 people countrywide, who have sought their legal service after they were arrested for allegedly participating in protests on Friday”.
“They appeared in court yesterday [1 August] in Harare, Bulawayo, Masvingo and Chiredzi. Even today, on Sunday we have seen some people being arrested,” Mufundo said.
Zimbabweans are gripped with fear due to the continued crackdown by security agents in residential areas. A concerned citizen, Mukundi Tigisi, described “a worrying increase” in police and army patrols.
“I am anxious because the last time when we had demos in January of 2019, lives were lost. I will be staying home when it comes to protests, I won’t be taking any chances,” Tigisi told Daily Maverick.
Political tensions are rising in Zimbabwe and the ruling ZANU-PF party last week gave a stern warning to protesters. On 1 August, ZANU-PF Director for Information Tafadzwa Mugwadi said it was “unheard of, unexpectable, nonsensical to say the least for a group of people to organise a demonstration or a protest of whatever kind when the world and our country, in particular, is seized with fighting the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The ruling party has pronounced itself very clearly and categorically that there won’t be any demos or protests of any kind,” Mugwadi said.
MDC Alliance member of parliament Joana Mamombe, together with youth leaders Cecilia Chimbiri and Netsai Marowa as well as their lawyer Obey Shava were on 1 August detained by uniformed forces at a roadblock as they were going to Harare Central police station for their routine reporting, according to the bail conditions issued to them.
The three are accused of faking their own abduction after they disappeared following a demonstration in Warren Park D, one of the capital’s residential areas, a few weeks before the planned #31stJuly protests.
The trio allege that they were abducted on 13 May 2020 by state agents at a roadblock along Bulawayo Road after leading a demo in Warren Park. They were then taken to an unknown location where they were allegedly sexually abused and physically assaulted. The three reappeared two days later, dumped in some rural community roughly 60km from Harare and they were later treated at a private hospital in the capital.
Activists have accused the Zimbabwean government of subtly using Covid-19 to stifle dissent as evidenced by the increasing numbers of intimidations, arbitrary arrests, torture, abductions and beatings of activists, and ordinary citizens.
A development and political analyst, Nyaradzo Charidza said: “Certainly, under the constitution of Zimbabwe, citizens have a right to speak out while leadership has the responsibility to listen and understand where citizens have issues. Corruption has become a pertinent issue in the livelihoods of Zimbabweans.
“It is unfortunate that we are also in a time of a pandemic and so it beholds leaders who have called for these protests to appreciate and understand how they are going to happen,” said Charidza.
According to Ministry of Health statistics as at 1 August 2020, the number of Covid-19 deaths stood at 69 while confirmed cases were at 3,659 with 490 cases being recorded in just one day. Of the 490 cases recorded in one day, 485 were local transmissions while only five were returnees from South Africa.
Among those who have died are Minister of Agriculture Perrence Shiri and Zimbabwe Defence Forces spokesperson Colonel Overson Mugwisi.
Covid-19 is compounding the economic woes as the country’s health delivery system crumbles. Healthcare workers countrywide are currently on strike, demanding personal protective equipment and remuneration.
Zimbabwe’s economy is faced with a possible cataclysm. Official inflation ranks as the second-highest in the world at 750%. At the same time, the economically beleaguered country recently signed an agreement pledging to pay US$3.5-billion towards compensation of former white commercial farmers who were displaced during the widespread farm invasions under the late Robert Mugabe’s leadership in 2000. DM