It is time for SADC states to break with Zimbabwe

It is time to stop turning a blind eye to what is going on in Zimbabwe, where the government has shown over and over that it is violent and willing to do anything to stay in power, writes Jamie Mighti.

Am I my brother’s keeper?

This moral question is one that often confronts most people at some point in their lives. Young black professionals have to confront it in the form of black tax. We all have to consider it in some form when we encounter beggars on the streets. It’s a question that interrogates our internal value system, our capacity for empathy. Outside of myself, outside of my family and loved ones, what duty do I owe to the other, if any?

This moral question also comes up at the level of the state and at the level of the region. Trigger moments like pandemics, human rights abuses, environmental catastrophes and elections frequently bring the question sharply back to the surface. Recent events in Zimbabwe have brought that question back to the fore once again.

Hopewell Chin’ono, a Harvard trained investigative journalist, was arrested at his home on Monday 20 July and accused of inciting public violence for reporting on calls by Jacob Ngarivhume, an opposition politician, for a nationwide protest. This protest was scheduled for Friday 31 July and themed as a “national protest against corruption and political challenges”. Ngarivhume himself was also arrested on similar charges.

Many did not find the charges to be authentic as Chin’ono has recently, through his reporting, exposed corruption scandals implicating people within President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s inner circle. His exposé on COVID-19 corruption to the value of R1.020 billion led to the dismissal of the then-minister of health Obadiah Moyo and his arrest on charges of corruption. 

Still in prison

It was this reporting and savvy use of social media which contributed to wide-scale public frustration with the levels of corruption in Zimbabwe. In fact, when he was arrested his Twitter account was immediately deleted, a further indication that this was about silencing an effective critic and not about security concerns.

While the corrupt minister was given bail immediately and did not see the inside of a prison cell, Chin’ono and his co-accused have been repeatedly denied bail and are still in prison 10 days after their arrest.

So the question once again is – what is the Southern African Development Community (SADC) going to do about it? What is South Africa going to do? What are the obligations of SADC and the African Union to Zimbabweans?

The crisis in Zimbabwe worsens while the influential leaders in the region adhere to a concept of quiet diplomacy, or to a head-in-the-sand approach. There seems to be some adherence to the principle of sovereignty and to the solidarity of having fought in a liberation struggle together.

I think it’s time to stop putting the burden just on the citizens of Zimbabwe to free themselves from this oppressive Zanu-PF entity. They have made efforts and those efforts are always suffocated in the incubation phase.

On 13 May, three female opposition youth leaders were abducted, tortured and sexually molested after taking part in a protest. They had to be hospitalised when they were eventually found. They were missing for three days and only showed up after widespread outcry on social media. These young women Cecilia Chimbiri, 33, Joana Mamombe, 27, and Netsai Marova, 25, were then charged with faking their own abductions by the state. They have been in prison and have later released on bail.

These examples illustrate one truth. The regime is violent, the regime has a sophisticated intelligence infrastructure and the regime is willing to arrest journalists, opposition leaders and activists to remain in power.

To be honest, the regime is willing to do anything necessary to remain in power, and quite frequently they have shown that through action – from the Gukurahundi massacres in Matabeleland in the 80s to the disappearance of political activists like Itai Dzamara, whose family has been searching for him since March 2015 when he disappeared under mysterious circumstances.

To simply say to the people of Zimbabwe “why don’t you do something about it”, is to ignore the impact of 40 years of repression, to ignore the disproportionate imbalance of power between the citizens and the state.

Looking at it from an economic perspective, the Zimbabwean market is one of the largest export markets for South African goods and services. However, that market is restricted in what it can purchase because of the prevailing economic collapse. This economic collapse is due to the prevailing political climate.

In order to truly resuscitate the Zimbabwean economy, Zanu-PF will have to be confronted. A Zimbabwe that is back on track, a Zimbabwe that is growing economically will contribute to a South Africa that is growing economically.

There was a time when African leaders helped civilians to fight an evil and oppressive regime. Zambia was a base for Zimbabwean freedom fighters. Mozambique was a base for Zimbabwean freedom fighters. Members of uMkhonto we Sizwe were based in many countries in the region.

At that time, the concept of respecting sovereignty was understood to be illegitimate because the colonial and apartheid entities were clearly not legitimate and were suppressing the will of the majority. At that time, it was understood that doing nothing was not an option.

It can honestly be said that Zanu-PF has reached that same standard of illegitimacy. They can no longer be declared legitimate custodians of democracy and are acting in ways that subvert the will, the well-being and the legitimate aspirations of the people.

The media has been suppressed. Political parties have been harassed and suppressed. People have been prevented from exercising their political rights. The Constitution of Zimbabwe has been violated by the administration entrusted with upholding it. When do we reach the point where quiet diplomacy is discarded and active diplomacy is engaged?

Now is the time

I would submit that now is that time. I would submit that we reached that point in 2002, again in 2008, again in 2017 and now we have reached that point in 2020. In the last iterations, SADC and the AU to the side of the military regime, this time they have to side with the people.

31 July was supposed to be a day of civilian-led protest against corruption and violations of the Constitution and human rights law. Peaceful protest is a legitimate part of democratic action. Voting is how you hold a government to account at the ballot, at election time, but democracy doesn’t happen every five years. Protesting is one of the ways you hold them to account as citizens in the interim period.

Last year, Africa witnessed two protest movements that actually brought about change for the civilians of those states.

It was the protests in Sudan which brought the civilian government that currently exists. A government that is finally taking former president Omar al-Bashir to the International Court of Justice to be held accountable for his actions. A government that is finally seeking answers to the democratic injury of the 1989 coup.

It was the protests in Algeria that brought about the removal of former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika who had been in power for 20 years and was trying to run for a fifth term of office, even though it was widely known he was not physically fit and proper to run a state. The octogenarian had suffered a stroke in 2013 and had not been seen in public for six years.

Zimbabweans are being denied their protest moment. The Zimbabwean regime is enabled and emboldened by the silence of the region. They see they can publicly shoot civilians using live ammunition without regional pushback. It encourages them to test the limits even further. When they see they can shut down the internet and kill activists, it encourages them to go further. Now they see they can impose sham lockdown regulations to suppress protest, arrest investigative journalists and once again the region will look the other way.  

This cannot and should not continue.

What is my obligation to my brother, to my sister, to my neighbours and my neighbourhood?

The answer is to help them as far as possible within my capacity to alleviate their pain and suffering. It’s to do everything I can if their lives are at stake.

Do you remember that old Phil Collins song In the air tonight? The moral of the song was that we should help those who are drowning. Can you not hear the screams of a drowning people screaming for help? Can you not feel it coming in the air tonight?

– Jamie Mighti is a law graduate from Wits University, an independent political analyst and social commentator. Jamie is also the host of the Jozi to Lagos podcast, available on all podcasting platforms.