A Lawyer in Zimbabwe writes about the situation there
Covid-19 has been slow making an impact in Zimbabwe but has recently started multiplying. Lockdown restrictions may be necessary to stop the virus but it has brought great hardship and hunger as people cannot earn money to buy food. Naturally they protest especially when they see the life style of the elite, the new cars that are bought when the hospitals are starved of funds. Here is an account of a peaceful protest by a lawyer and her friends.
“Before we set out, I made a telephone call to my trusted long-time mentor, friend and lawyer – David Drury. I told him that we were about to go on a peaceful walking protest in the neighbourhood. I told him we had taken every precaution in the book to ensure we were compliant with the law. We wore face masks. We were walking within the permitted radius. We carried sanitizer. We were going to respect social distancing. There were 7 of us. Our actions were peaceful.
We had written placards that read “No Violence,” “I am protesting peacefully,” Babies’ Lives Matter,” “Covid Kills, So does corruption,” “Free Zimbabwe,” “I have a dream,” and “End Hunger”. When we were making these placards, we joked that each placard represented each person’s little prayer or wish for Zimbabwe. It was a gloriously sunny, blue-skied day but the air was thick and ominous. We had been online and seen that the army and riot police had barricaded all entry roads to the central business district. I had been advised earlier by phone that a case that I am acting in had been postponed because the magistrate had failed to get to court from out of town. I had been turned back at Churchill Ave while trying to get to work myself.
“No problem, Fadzayi. Don’t hesitate to call,” David Drury said. “I promise we will stay safe,” I replied. Moments after we left the house, a vehicle without a number plate was following us and taking pictures. We continued walking. Courage does not mean you’re not afraid. It means that you face your fears and choose to act in spite of them. What sort of society criminalizes a placard written “Save the Babies?” Who does not know that just a week earlier, 7 out of 8 new born babies had died at Harare Hospital because nurses and doctors are striking against their deplorable working conditions. In 2020, those levels of infant mortality cannot be accepted as normal. A day earlier, I had turned 35. I was born at the hospital where the babies died. I had suffered from foetal distress. Had there been no healthcare workers, I would be a statistic like those babies. Those babies lost their lives because of our failed healthcare system.
We continued walking. As we walked down the road, people stared at us in shock. As we passed a vendors’ flower market, everybody stopped talking. Some looked to the side. One could slice through the thick fog of fear with a knife. Several threats had been made earlier in the week by the state and “ruling party”. Anybody who dared to participate in the protest on 31 July would be severely dealt with. As a believer in the Constitution, it remained more important to me that the Constitution is supreme. It guarantees the right to peaceful protest. How could the government run roughshod over that? Why was the State at war with citizens making peaceful demands for a better life? What is freedom if you cannot ask, speak or act? I had haggled over these questions practically and philosophically for weeks as the number of abductions, arbitrary arrests and assaults on journalistic freedom had escalated.
We continued up a main road, peaceful and socially-distanced. We continued chatting. The conversation was rambly and stilted, mostly because we were now conscious that we were being tailed by a car full of people in plain clothes. Sensing danger, we managed to get a lift into a car where we established for certain that we were being followed. For what reason? We had not done anything wrong. We had not committed a crime. Firm in the conviction that we were innocent and had nothing to hide or run away from, we went to a coffee shop at a shopping centre. They followed us there too.
We observed from a distance that the persons in plainclothes were now changing into police uniforms. We telephoned David Drury who arrived with Emma Drury. As they arrived, riot police had flooded the shopping centre, armed with AK rifles. This scene was unfamiliar in this part of town. We remained seated until they started pointing at me “you, you.” They charged at us. I asked why and what the charge could possibly be if we were under any sort of arrest. “Inciting public violence!” the officer yelled as another leapt over the barricaded entrance to the coffee shop.
“What are you doing? This is ridiculous. Why do you find it necessary to jump over the entrance?” Mr Drury asked the police in an attempt to de-escalate their disproportionate advance towards us. “We want to see the placards in your car.”
The placard at the top when they inspected the car was the one that read, “No Violence” followed by the one that said “I am protesting peacefully.”
Of course, they bundled all 7 of us up into the back of a police truck and charged us with inciting public violence anyway. We lay and sat on top of each other as we drove to the Harare Central Police Station. When it comes to enforcing repression, all semblance of wanting to respect Covid 19 is thrown out the window.
At the police station, the inefficiency, underfunding and undignified state of the justice system was again laid bare. We were asked our ID numbers so many times that I ended up drawing a blank. The interrogation methods are outdated. The Constitution is not paid regard to in the slightest and our police officers did not have a copy of the Criminal Code. We were blessed to be surrounded by a team of competent lawyers who did everything in their power to defend our rights.
In my individual police interview, one of the questions struck at my core. “Did you not think that because of the position you hold and party you belong to, people would be incited to join your so called peaceful protest and become violent.?” Looking at Mr Drury, half in shock, half in anger, I said, “I did not know that my constitutional rights are suspended due to my political affiliation. I thought that as a citizen of Zimbabwe, I had the same rights as everyone else.”
At the police station we met Tsitsi Dangarembwa, Julie Barnes and other protesters who had been arrested for protesting peacefully – most had been holding up placards in their neighbourhood with peaceful demands. Tsitsi and Julie also told of having been tailed and photographed before their arrest. At the holding cells, we also saw Terrence and Loveridge who had been abducted, beaten and tortured. They had bleeding head injuries and were dazed. Their clothes were soiled in dirt. They said they had been blindfolded, told they were at Lake Chivero and threatened. Their abductors kept saying they were going to feed them to the crocodiles. The condition of the State, afraid and at war with citizens making legitimate demands was indeed a nervous one.
As night fell, we were taken upstairs to our cells. There was no water, just an overflowing pit latrine. There were puddles of urine everywhere. There was no sanitizer and no soap. One of the women among us was on her period. Bloody hell. At first we looked at the pile of dirty blankets and figured we could not use them because they were so dirty. By the end of the night, we had used every blanket in sight and huddled up very close to each other as the cold coursed through our veins.
After what felt like a millennium, morning came. Further inefficiency, confusion and slowness of the wheels of justice meant that we only got to court after lunchtime. We were granted bail with the strange condition that we had to hand in our passports. My little brother Simon Drury was taken to remand prison because they say his passport has expired and was therefore not competent fulfilment of his bail conditions. On hearing this, I wanted to scream. The ridiculousness, the injustice and the madness know no end.
For as long as we have to remain silent with no rights and remedies in the face of grave injustice, I assure you, we are not yet free. A free society is my wish for Zimbabwe. Anything less than that is an existence I will not enjoy being a part of. They must free Hopewell and they must free Jacob. Tawanda Muchehiwa must be delivered back to his family in one piece.
When things like this happen, the best of the Zimbabwean spirit is also placed on full display. Thank you to my beloved parents, Stephen and Winfrida. They want someone to be speaking out but they do not want it to be their daughter. It is normal for us to feel this way. It is sometimes the cost of freedom. Thank you to my siblings for their eternal support. Thank you Tafi for coming to court and praying. Thank you Tawi for the calls. Thank you Mudiwa for being my second brain and being the queen logistician during the crisis. Thank you Lenon for getting me pain and headache meds and showing up. Thank you to Emma Drury for showing up this and every time and taking charge. Thank you for standing up to that police officer who nearly manhandled you to get my phone. Thank you Vikki Drury for being a second mum and breakfast maker. Thank you Dr Gede for attending to us medically and to my beloved friends Cheryl and Zam. Thank you Rebekah for the warm clothes and care pack. Thank you Namatai for the food at the police station. Thank you to our amazing legal team – Chris, Paida, Alec and Andrea. Thank you to MDC Alliance officials including Tendai Biti and Miriam Mushayi for showing up at court for solidarity. Thank you to everyone for the support online and offline. I am so grateful.
To Nyasha, Tino, Jess, Jossee, Simon and Tinashe – I am so proud to know you and call you my friends. One day, we will look back on this with a deeper understanding of why things worked out the way they did, for better and for worse.
At a personal level, I am on a journey that some may not understand. That’s okay. My aspiration is that we live in a nation where there is freedom, fairness and opportunity for all. The journey is going to be long and often arduous. However, we must never stop fighting to win Zimbabwe for change. I will never stop imagining that Zimbabwe can be better than it is now. Save the babies – the unborn ones who deserve a brighter future than the crisis-filled nation.
These were 7 people on a quiet peaceful walk. What has become of this country? Please pray for us in Zimbabwe.
This article was contributed by Fr Nicolas Stebbing CR