Authoritarianism and Dissent: 21st Century Horizons with Dewa Mavhinga

Dewa Mavhinga, former Southern Africa Director of  Human Rights Watch and former Regional Coordinator for the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, addresses the 2nd Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.


Full remarks


Dewa Mavingha: Thank you and thank you to UN Watch and the Geneva Summit for inviting me to speak on this occasion. I would like to speak briefly on the challenges that human rights defenders are facing in Zimbabwe. 

A brief history of Zimbabwe is that about 50 years ago a political party called ZANU-PF was formed with the sole objective of fighting a liberation struggle against former colonizers, the British. During this struggle, this party formed a military wing called ZANLA. Then in 1980, Zimbabwe gained its independence and then the military wing was transformed into the National Army and ZANU-PF began to rule. But this fight for attaining political power and retaining political power was achieved through the barrel of the gun. So the principal of ZANLA-PF was that to attain power you have to use force, to retain power you have to use force and their only methodology has been to use force. Within a short period of time they began to lose support among the population. To retain that support by force, they deployed four mechanisms. 

The first one was to militarize the states and different institutions. At this level the group of “War Veterans of the Armed Struggle,” who were deployed to force ordinary people to support the ruling party, to force ordinary people to go along with the wishes of the government. The second layer was to form a youth militia, which was called the National Youth Service Brigades. This militia was a party structure but we shaped some aspect of being a government program and you would find that today the government has just discovered that there are at least 16, 000 youths who are on the payroll of the government but who are not employed by the government in any capacity. And then from this, there was suppression through the use of repressive laws. Several laws have been passed in Zimbabwe targeting dissent, targeting free media, to ensure that there is no free expression at all [in] any way in Zimbabwe. So you would find that now we have repressive laws that make it difficult for journalists, from local media or international media, to practice freely in Zimbabwe. 

The second level of control was to target economic institutions. And firstly, the ZANU-PF policy and program was to forcibly take over farms, predominantly from white commercial farmers, who owned these farms. These farms were taken and used as tools of patronage to pay and buy support from the military, from senior police officers, from the judiciary to the extent that all senior government personnel became compromised and partisan to ZANU-PF. Of the 23 High Court judges in Zimbabwe, at least 16 were each given a commercial farm that was forcibly taken from white commercial farmers. So this has led to support of the government through patronage. 

At another level, ZANU-PF has also gone over to check over mines and now, just this week, through their control they have announced that at least 51 % of all companies should be given to local black Zimbabweans. But this is not a genuine program of supporting black Indigenous people. But, it is a way of getting hands on cash and mines to support a regime that is authoritarian. 

In 2008, through the use of the named war veterans, the youth militia and active military ZANU-PF began a campaign to win an election against all odds as the MDC Alliance had come into power and ended strong support on the ground. This was a very brutal and violent election, in which at least 163 people were killed. And again, although ZANU-PF had clearly lost the election, the presidential result was not announced for at least 35 days, in which they were trying to come up with ways of dealing with this defeat. Eventually there was a deadlock announced and there had to be a presidential runoff in which so many people were killed, so many disappeared, others fled the country. At least four million of our people have fled Zimbabwe and are living outside the country at the moment, mainly in South Africa and as far abroad as the UK and here in Switzerland. After this fight, ZANU-PF considered that it could not form a regime on its own budget to join hands with the opposition the MDC. 

So now there is a new picture on the ground, that there are new players and we have what is called a coalition or a power-sharing government. But effectively, the ZANU-PF military regime continues to control all power and continues to exercise its authoritarian tendencies as was before this power-sharing government. As we speak, the military has all the control and continues to abuse power. The perpetrators of violence and human rights abuses from before [the] elections in 2008 continue to enjoy power. They have not been arrested, they have not been brought before the courts, and in fact have been rewarded by the ZANU-PF regime. The work of human rights defenders continues to be even more difficult now because real conditions on the ground are not changing. The military regime is not relented but is only given way to accommodate the opposition on the power-sharing table and it appears now that because of this accommodation there is a view internationally,  which is wrong, that things have improved and have changed in Zimbabwe. 

The authoritarian regime continues to control all the levers of power. There is no change, there are no human rights improvements and the ZANU-PF regime refuses to ensure that the people of Zimbabwe can enjoy freely their fundamental freedoms. ZANU-PF has used this time of a power-sharing government to reconsolidate and strengthen itself again. It has been using violence specifically to retain power, so at times there is an impression that the authoritarian regime is no longer there simply because violence and repression is unleashed at certain points. Especially around elections, with the specific purpose of retaining power and coercing voters to support the former ruling parties on appeal. So now violence has become seasonal, associated with electoral periods. And, as we now have discussions that there could be a national election in 2010, the real possibility of a fresh outbreak of violence and repression is looming. And on the ground, there have been no genuine reforms to speak of that can assure the people of Zimbabwe, and the international community, that there is change towards democratization, political stability and tolerance in Zimbabwe. 

Our messaging appealed to the international community and comrades here present is for solidarity and support and for the need to search for the truth with regards to what is happening in Zimbabwe. Because, the perception that is given by the ZANU-PF regime is that it is a genuinely pan-African movement that is fighting for the liberation of Zimbabwans; but this is a lie. What it is, is a group of power-hungry leaders who are enjoying the fruits of the world nation, just a small group, and who will not relinquish power at any cost. This group is tormenting the people of Zimbabwe for the sake of retaining power. It is not interested in the welfare of Zimbabweans. It is not interested in the fundamental rights of Zimbabwans. And, it has for a long time misled the international community to believe that it cares about the ordinary people in Zimbabwe when it does not do any such thing. The chaotic and violent farm invasions from 2000 led to the displacement and disenfranchisement of thousands of black farm workers  when the claim was that this was to support the local black people of Zimbabwe in terms of economic empowerment. 

Recently in 2006, there was a discovery of diamonds in the east of the country and the military was quickly deployed there. And, in the process of trying to regain and assert control over those diamond fields, the military of Zimbabwe killed more than 200 local and former miners in that area. There has been no formal investigation by the Government of Zimbabwe; nothing has been done about this and people in this area continue to suffer while a few well connected individuals, associated with the military of Zimbabwe, enjoy the benefits of these diamonds in the country. 

So really, in brief, this is what is happening in Zimbabwe. And unfortunately, there has not been sufficient support from regional players, perhaps because of economic interests. South Africa has not strongly spoken for a speedy resolution of this crisis.The Southern African Development Community (SADC) has also not been very strong on pushing the ZANU-PF regime to reform. The same applies at the UN level. So, we are bidding for international support at [the] civil society level to push for change and real change in Zimbabwe. 

Thank you.

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