Sign Up

Zimbabwe as South Africa, Circa 1990 (Part I)

When it comes to Africa, can we learn from our mistakes instead of endlessly repeating them?

April 2, 2007

When it comes to Africa, can we learn from our mistakes instead of endlessly repeating them?

JOHANNESBURG — In Southern and East Africa, there are few citizens aged 30 and over who do not remember the ignominies of colonialism, Afro-imperialism — or apartheid.

Whether it was the indignities suffered at the hands of European 'overlords,' the shameful dictatorships into which many of our first leaders degenerated or the systematic depersonalization of apartheid's separate development policies, we have lived through periods of state-sponsored torture, harassment and, in some cases, state-sanctioned genocide.

This millennium has brought with it a new optimism that such abuses are a thing of the past. The spirit of the African Renaissance is at last bearing fruit, as evidenced by proactive bodies such as the continent's Peace and Security Council.

It has brokered peace negotiations in conflict-torn regions and managed to implement, albeit with limited success, Africa's first peacekeeping mission in Darfur.

Despite a narrow mandate, the Pan-African Parliament has begun to articulate the concerns of the continent's citizens. Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo have held free elections. Perhaps most tellingly, the past decade has seen several African heads of state actually relinquish power after their terms have ended.

But it seems that, at the very time in our history that we are truly moving towards more inclusive and participatory democracy, an ulcer has blighted this landscape. The recent and increasingly defiant consolidation of state-sponsored brutality in Zimbabwe and the blatant disregard for human rights are the oozing suppurations of this ulcer.

The use of water cannons. The beating of women and young people. The closing off of urban streets and the raiding of offices allegedly in search of subversive material. All of these happenings arouse memories of South Africa in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Back then, student life was accompanied by on-campus harassment from sniffer dogs and rifle-toting teenagers who destroyed study materials in their search for "treasonous literature." A shopping trip was apt to turn into a sprint away from rubber bullets and tear gas. And just being present on certain streets at specific times was enough to make people vanish without a trace.

And here we are — again. The March 11, 2007 killing of Zimbabwean activist Gift Tandare at point-blank range. The subsequent removal of his body by state authorities to his rural home. The abduction of opposition activists and parliamentarians from their homes and shopping centers.

All of these events evoke bitter echoes among South Africans, Kenyans and others whose loved ones were maimed, killed or magicked away into nothingness during times that we would prefer not to dwell on.

The ordeal of Last Maengahama, the Zimbabwean opposition's shadow secretary for local government, echoes that of many South Africans under the states of emergency imposed in apartheid's dying years. He was snatched from a shopping center in the Harare suburb of Borrowdale on March 27 and subsequently found by local mine workers more than 100 kilometers outside the capital, with what his colleagues have described as life-threatening injuries and a badly swollen body.

Maengahama recalls that he was forced into a Mitsubishi truck after attending a memorial service for Tandare. He was stripped naked and blindfolded with his clothes before being beaten all over with an unidentified object.

Harassment of family members is another familiar theme. The father of two well-known opposition activists in Zimbabwe, Joshua Mukoyi, has twice been abducted and remains missing after the second incident.

Women have been particular targets in the recent spate of carnage, in what one analyst described as a "violent backlash from highly patriarchal security forces … who believe that women should have no opinions of their own, let alone dare to participate in political affairs." She added: "They will punish you even harder when you have dared to marry a white man," making reference to the especially brutal assault on Sekai Holland, who is married to an Australian citizen.

Sixty-four-year-old Holland endured hours of beating and sustained over 80 injuries, including several fractures and a head wound. Again, this is reminiscent of the vicious assaults on the many South African women who dared defy the National Party regime, and the particular vindictiveness directed at women in cross-racial relationships.

From being a country whose leader was revered as a liberation hero by those of us who fought for freedom in South Africa, Zimbabwe today bears many of the hallmarks of South Africa two decades ago. The refusal of access to legal representation and medical care for detainees is a case in point.

Though torture methods have become increasingly sophisticated in this century, the crude brute force used in the violent suppression of the Save Zimbabwe Campaign mirrors apartheid leader PW Botha's unleashing of police death squads. And it is reminiscent of the army's clandestine dirty tricks unit, the Civil Cooperation Bureau, to crush the United Democratic Front in South Africa.

Another interesting comparison is the palpable fear among rank-and-file policemen and women in Harare, comparable to the disenchantment that gripped South African security forces in the late 1980s, even as they were at their most vicious.

Police congregate on Harare street corners in the evenings, menacing with their riot paraphernalia — yet strangely menaced themselves. Huddling in groups behind their helmets and shields, their eyes will not meet yours and their tight-knuckled grip on batons is evidence of the stress under which they labor.

While rumors abound of financial payoffs for those who carried out the March 11 and subsequent beatings, there are also reports that war veterans and the ruling party's notorious “Green Bomber” youth brigades were awarded huge pay increases in March, so that these people now earn more than most civil servants.

Such reports can only exacerbate the disaffection of police and other security workers, and may well trigger mutiny amongst those on whom the Zimbabwean government has traditionally relied to enforce its will.

In a region where food insecurity is high, the incumbent government has also used food aid and patronage of tribal chiefs as tools to coerce support in rural areas.

Editor’s Note: You can read Part II here.

More on this topic