Where other countries’ governments might shroud their repressive tendencies with plainclothes agents and unmarked vehicles, Zimbabwe proudly owns its repression of what it calls ‘bad apples’. Ruling ZANU-PF party spokespersons and politicians openly blame all the country’s ills, including the state’s own human rights violations, on the actions of these ‘agents of the West’. Judging by the data from Zimbabwean human rights organisations there must be a lot of these agents, or at least a lot of people influenced by them. The number of cases of assault and intimidation committed by groups of ZANU PF supporters against opposition candidates or community activists, or both, numbers close to two thousand this year alone.
Owning the judiciary
Even so, some in the ruling party openly declare that all actions taken against such people are justified. In November 2022, Housing Minister Daniel Garwe was filmed saying that ZANU-PF ‘owns’ the judiciary and the security forces and that the ruling party and its supporters will do ‘anything’ to ensure President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s re-election in 2023 polls. Judging by the ever-increasing rates of arrest and detention of opponents, and even more so by a sudden and dramatic rise in cases of intimidation, assault and even murder by ruling party mobs in areas where such opponents are suspected to be active, his statement accurately describes the current Zimbabwean reality.
‘It would be difficult to respect human rights as long as sanctions are in place’
According to Zimbabwe’s leaders, suppressing the people described by acting ZANU-PF spokesman Patrick Chinamasa as ‘hired hooligans and hoodlums’ is simply the right thing to do. Anybody who speaks on behalf of the state is quick to explain that all would be well in the country if it wasn’t for endless interference by imperialist agents and the persistent raft of Western sanctions in whose firm embrace the country’s leadership had found itself gripped since the days when the wheels began to come off the government of modern Zimbabwe’s founder, the erstwhile dictator Robert Mugabe.
Zimbabwe’s elite routinely blames these sanctions, which target the wealth, travel and business of a small inner circle of political leaders, for the nation’s increasing poverty and dilapidated state services, in particular the collapse of the once-famous healthcare sector, which is in shambles. Justice Minister Ziyambi Ziyambi has even blamed the sanctions for the state’s attacks on its opponents. ‘It would be difficult to respect people's rights as long as sanctions remained in place’, Ziyambi said in August of 2019 while launching an anti-corruption campaign sponsored by the European Union. Three years later, in an address to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on August 18th 2022, Ziyambi repeated his argument that Western sanctions were ‘hampering the government from ensuring the full protection and promotion of human rights.’
A once proud flag
Zimbabwe’s opposition members and civil society activists, however, have long rejected this narrative. Circulating pictures of Zimbabwean produce for sale in European shops - which show that sanctions do not affect routine trade and income from exports - as well as of crumbling clinics and Mercedes’ driven by the elite, they maintain that not sanctions, but mismanagement and corruption are to blame for the bad state of the country. A mass protest in 2016, ignited by a Facebook clip called ‘This Flag’ in which a pastor called Evan Mawarire talked about his sadness when looking at Zimbabwe’s once proudly independent postcolonial flag, had played a part in precipitating dictator Mugabe’s ousting a year later.
The coup of November 14th 2017, orchestrated by Mugabe’s former Vice President and Defence Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa, aided by the military, had initially been cautiously welcomed both in Zimbabwe and internationally thanks to the newcomer’s warm words about good governance as well as the growth of anti-Mugabe sentiment in the country itself. On November 18, four days after the coup, Reuters still reported crowds ‘oozing with confidence’ and ‘scenes of jubilant defiance’, with cheering people draped in the Zimbabwean flag waving to passing cars ‘as drivers honked their horns in celebration’.
Many made the heartbreaking decision to emigrate
However, it soon became clear that the governance was not improving, with several mineral smuggling scandals hitting the headlines, tainting party and army leaders. Meanwhile, for ordinary citizens, the cost of living kept spiralling, and many made the heartbreaking choice to emigrate. Some travel to seek healthcare in neighbouring South Africa and elsewhere, while others join the colossal brain drain emptying the nation of its medical workers and other professionals. Well-educated and English-speaking, Zimbabweans find themselves being wooed by wealthier nations even as they are ignored at home. An estimated one-third of Zimbabweans now live outside the country.
Opposition activism, which Mnangagwa had sought to deflect through his coup, also began to rise again. In July 2018 a vote was held to legitimise the coup, but protests against perceived fraud instead escalated and the army was summoned, culminating in a massacre in early August which left six people dead and scores wounded. In the same year, the NGO Zimbabwe Peace Project documented around 1,840 cases of assault and intimidation by state agents and ZANU-PF mobs against opposition activists and critics all over the country. In 2017 there had been just 1,339 such cases documented. In 2019 fresh protests against a jump in fuel prices fed another rise in cases, climbing to around 1900. Meanwhile, in the same year, the share of politically-motivated arrests and detentions multiplied five-fold, from around twenty to over a hundred.
COVID-19 aid embezzlement
In June 2020 journalists Hopewell Chin’ono and Mduduzi Mathuthu exposed the diversion of US$ 60 million worth of donor cash which had been earmarked for the COVID-19 pandemic response. Their investigation revealed that Health Minister Obadiah Moyo had paid large chunks of this money to friendly businessmen in dubious procurement deals. Public outrage reached boiling point. An online campaign began uniting behind the hashtag #Zimbabweanlivesmatter, capitalising on media coverage of the #Blacklivesmatter movement which was sweeping the US at the same time. It worked: the campaign reached hundreds of thousands, catching even the attention of international celebrities including Ice Cube, Thandiwe Newton and Beyonce, as well as African former presidents Ian Khama (Botswana) and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Liberia). Sensing the momentum, protest leaders began to plan a mass anti-corruption and anti-poverty protest in the streets of Harare. It was scheduled for July 31st, with the hashtag #31July also going viral.
ZANU PF supporters were called to resist ‘hired hooligans and hoodlums’
But the authorities were not going to be caught on the back foot. On July 11th, acting ZANU-PF spokesman Patrick Chinamasa called on ‘ZANU-PF supporters, cadres and sympathisers, wherever you are’, to ‘defend our people, their property and most importantly defend peace in your communities against these malcontents, these hired hooligans and hoodlums who rejoice at burning properties and looting’. Hopewell Chin’ono, who had vocally supported the campaign, was arrested on July 20th together with activist and opposition politician Jacob Ngarivhume, who had headed the #31July call. Both were charged with ‘incitement to public violence’. On July 30th security agents also raided the home of Chin’ono’s colleague, editor Mduduzi Mathuthu in Bulawayo. Mathuthu was not home, so the agents instead abducted his nephew, journalism student Tawanda Muchehiwa, who was detained and tortured for three days before being released and fleeing into exile in neighbouring South Africa. On the day of the planned protests, another sixty activists were arrested, including award-winning author Tsitsi Dangarembga and opposition Movement for Democratic Change spokesperson Fadzayi Mahere.
Since then the journalists who exposed the COVID-19 corruption scandal have faced ongoing persecution. Chin’ono continues to find himself in and out of jail on various ‘public incitement’ charges, while Mathuthu has spent frequent and extended periods in hiding. In stark contrast, the corruption trial against Health Minister Obadiah Moyo has fizzled out. The evidence published by Chin’ono and Mathuthu could not be disputed, and Moyo was reluctantly charged on July 9th 2020. However, he was acquitted on October 8th 2021 after the High Court ruled that the indictment was ‘imprecise’ and did not ‘disclose an offence.‘ The verdict prompted Muleya Mwananyanda, Amnesty International’s deputy director for Southern Africa, to express her concern at an emerging trend where ‘critics of the government and members of the opposition are consistently harassed and denied bail by the courts, brought to court in shackles and at times denied access to their lawyers, while high-profile political elites facing criminal offences [were] treated entirely differently in most cases.’
The activists’ decomposed body was found in a disused well
The trend appeared to be confirmed recently again when human rights lawyer Job Sikhala was arrested for ‘inciting public violence’ during protests sparked by the murder of an opposition activist. On May 24th 2022 Moreblessing Ali, an active member of the opposition Citizens' Coalition for Change, was abducted outside a pub. Her decomposed body was discovered in a disused well almost three weeks later, on June 11th. Pius Jamba, the young brother of a local ZANU-PF chairperson, was soon arrested but the case against him appears to be less urgent than the one against Job Sikhala. Sikhala, who had started to assist Ali’s family as a lawyer and who had publicly accused ZANU-PF of complicity in the killing, appeared in court in shackles and handcuffs. He faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
Sikhala, also a vocal supporter of the Citizens' Coalition for Change as well as a member of the National Assembly, may well rank among the ZANU-PF government’s main enemies. He has certainly been among the most targeted: this present arrest is his 67th, on charges including ‘disturbing the peace’, ‘plotting to overthrow the government’, ‘stating falsehoods,’ ‘instigating violence’ and ‘incitement’. He is yet to be convicted on any charge, but the sheer number of arrests led judges in his most recent case to rule that he should not be released on bail because of his ‘propensity to re-offend.’
Zimbabwe’s rulers’ tightening grip on the judiciary is supported by an ever-growing arsenal of laws which, as seen in the cases of Sikhala, Chin’ono and others, effectively penalise opposition. Charges like ‘incitement’ and ‘disturbing the peace’ build on the Mugabe-era regulation banning ‘communicating false statements that are prejudicial to the state and/or undermine or insult the President’ (2004). Enforcement agencies were also granted the power to monitor telephones, mail and the internet through the Interception of Communications Act (2007). But President Mnangagwa has gone further still. In 2017 his party, which commands a parliamentary majority, voted to adopt the Cyber Crimes and Cyber Security Bill, which exposes all internet users to digital surveillance and possible charges.
The new bill ‘hides behind the excuse of fighting terrorism’
In 2021 the same majority gazetted the Private Voluntary Organisations (PVO) Amendment Bill, a law which curtails the activities of civil society organisations through strict registration and rules designed to prevent money laundering. The PVO Bill is ostensibly meant to comply with recommendations of the global money laundering and terrorist financing watchdog FATF (Financial Action Task Force). NGOs fear, however, that its true purpose is to make it difficult for undesirable organisations to receive outside financial support. The UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association, Clement Nyaletsossi Voule, publicly stated on July 20th 2022 that Zimbabwe’s government was 'hiding behind the excuse of fighting terrorism and money laundering’. ZANU-PF Information Secretary Christopher Mutsvangwa apparently agrees: in February 2022 he stated that the bill would ‘protect Zimbabwe’s sovereignty against NGOs that have been at the forefront of subversive activities.’
Most recently, in June 2022 ZANU-PF's chief whip, Pupurai Togarepi also proposed a ‘Patriotic Bill’, designed to punish all those who ‘tarnish’ or ‘denigrate’ the country. Amongst other effects, the bill would make it a criminal offence for Zimbabwean journalists to talk to foreign diplomats without the government’s express authorisation.
Invoking the Constitution
The opposition has not meekly accepted this usurpation of the judicial system by the ruling party, however. In politicised cases, civil society and bodies such as Lawyers for Human Rights continue to invoke the Constitution's guarantee of freedom of expression, and a rare victory was achieved in 2020 when the dreaded AIPPA (Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act), a law designed to severely curtail press freedoms, was replaced by the much more equitable Freedom of Information Act. Also in 2020, the Media Institute of Southern Africa won a High Court order interdicting the police from harassing and detaining journalists during the COVID pandemic. Yet another glimmer of hope presented itself on June 6 2022 when a long-demanded National Security Council Bill was published. If it is adopted, it may finally bring the security services under civilian control.
But civil society has all but buckled under the security crackdown of recent years. ‘It’s maybe just not worth it’, says human rights activist Makomborero Haruzivishe, who recently spent 11 months in pre-trial detention without bail for whistling during a police round-up of unlicensed street vendors at a bus terminal in the capital Harare. According to the police who arrested him on February 17th 2021, his whistling was intended to ‘incite’ the vendors to ‘commit public violence and resist arrest’. When Haruzivishe protested that he had done nothing wrong, the police added a charge of resisting arrest. ‘You cannot afford to spend 11 months in jail without income when you have to feed your family’, reflects Haruzivishe. ‘I never was one of those who wanted to emigrate. But maybe I’ll have to.’
In jail for whistling
Activist journalist Hopewell Chin’ono still wants to stay and fight. But he, too, feels that there is a need for help from outside. ‘I have spoken to other journalists, young ones, who are now afraid of touching corruption stories because you can get harassed, or your camera can be taken away. It would be good if someone could say "no, this is wrong, we're going to give them another camera”. Just to step in whenever they lose something or their constitutional rights are not respected.’ But besides helping Zimbabwe’s civil society with money, a tactic which is at risk from the new PVO bill, there is not much else the West can do. Its means of applying pressure have been exhausted with the sanctions regime presently in place. The calls of Haruzivishe and others for more political pressure to be placed on the regime are therefore mostly directed at the African Union, the Southern African Development Community and the United Nations. ‘My last hope’, says Haruzivishe, ‘is that the AU and SADC might actively intervene to exert pressure on the Zimbabwean authorities to convene credible elections in 2023’. Little pressure has been forthcoming from the various intra-African bodies to date, however. The SADC and other African heads of state have instead vocally and repeatedly supported the Zimbabwe government’s call for the lifting of sanctions.
There is a need for help from outside
Meanwhile, ZANU-PF’s ‘ownership’ of the judiciary claimed its first home-team victim in May of 2022, when a tribunal appointed by President Mnangagwa found High Court judge Erica Ndewere guilty of ‘incompetence’, leading to her sacking. The action against her is widely seen to be a consequence of her granting bail to Job Sikhala during one of his detentions in 2021.
Shortly after being interviewed for this story, Makomborero Haruzivishe also fled into exile.
Brezh Malaba has edited Zimbabwe’s biggest newspapers. Two years ago, he co-founded The NewsHawks, which has quickly made a name for itself as the country’s leading investigative reporting and breaking news platform. Drawing on his experiences in public and private media as well as several cross-border collaborations, he steadfastly believes in the role of the media as ‘a potent instrument for social justice’, adding that ‘Zimbabwe is one of the most difficult places to practise journalism. The authoritarian government often sees reporters as enemies of the state rather than important partners in socio-economic development.’
Read all the investigative articles in this series:
Cry Freedom | Trends of repression and resistance in five African countries
Nigeria | Death by tax collector by Theophilus Abbah
Cameroon | The truth is a dangerous business by Chief Bisong Etahoben and Elizabeth BanyiTabi
Uganda | How to remove a dictator remotely by Emmanuel Mutaizibwa
Kenya | The hidden cost of free and fair by Ngina Kirori