Sokwanele – Enough is Enough – is a regular newsletter based in Harare. This latest dispatch, written yesterday, suggests the imminent possibility of non-violent revolution in Zimbabwe, a popular movement hampered by the regime’s tight control of information.
A week ago, Zimbabwean pro democracy activists, campaigners, political leaders and supporters tried to attend a rally in Harare, organised by the Save Zimbabwe Campaign. Their purpose was to come together and collectively, peacefully, protest against the terrible conditions in Zimbabwe. The government’s forces were lying in wait for them.
Riot police surrounded the venue and many of those trying to attend were arrested en masse. Gift Tandare, a young NCA and MDC activist was killed, shot by the police while running to escape. Those taken to Machipisa were viciously tortured and many suffered serious injuries. In fact, the attacks were so brutal and callous, that those being beaten struggled to comprehend the enormity of what was actually taking place. Tendai Biti, who witnessed the attack on Morgan Tsvangirai, described the experience as “like being in an old bad violent movie, surreal, but where you find that you are one of the actors”.
International audiences learned of all these atrocities within a relatively short space of time, the news spreading like wildfire through the international media; images and interviews prompting analyses, comment and endless interpretation. By the time the news – our news – filtered through Zimbabwe, it was already “old news” in neighbouring countries and abroad. Zimbabweans held hostage by Robert Mugabe’s repressive AIPPA laws (Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act) struggled for information and updates.
Tracy Chapman famously informed us in song that “Talkin’’ about a revolution sounds like whisper”. Zimbabweans could add that “talking about a revolution looks like an SMS message”. The first message I received from Harare read “mass arrests @ rally. 1 killed. lots beaten by police. v v bad. r u ok where u r?” It was the first of many SMS messages that day. The details of our collective experience filtered down slowly via texts, emails, and phone calls from concerned family and friends in the diaspora who have blissful access to extensive information.
Those involved with, or on the fringes of, activist work benefit from a network of trusted friends who freely share their information among themselves. Those outside the network, occupied with the daily business of trying to survive in Zimbabwe, exchange the information they have in guarded language – eager to find out more, but careful or fearful of whom they can trust. The majority of people in Zimbabwe do not have the luxury of an internet connection or a cell phone, and they rely on second or third hand information, constantly recycled and checked. On their way to work they walk past newspaper billboards broadcasting disinformation and blatant lies. If they are lucky enough to have a radio, the state controlled media brings more of the same to their ears.
On Monday 12 March, the day after the torture and assaults, The Chronicle’s headline was “Mugabe ready to stand in 2008 poll”. On Tuesday, as the news started to trickle down, the headline changed to “State warns MDC against lawlessness”. The article emotively and deceptively informed its readers: “Tsvangirai and Mutambara were actually commanding (hooligans) using children as shields”. Wednesday’s headline: “Suspected cop killer appears in court.”
On Thursday, the propaganda machine kicked in with an article titled “Govt warns MDC on violence”. A lengthy article consisting mostly of quotes by Zanu PF Minister of Information and Publicity, Sikhanyiso Ndlovu, ducked all mention of torture by deftly sweeping it under a sentence that described the police action as an “appropriate response from officers of law and order”. The images of Morgan Tsvangirai with a swollen battered face, so widely circulated in the international media, have still not been seen by the majority of people in our country. But by Thursday, a tiny minority of Zimbabweans with DSTV subscriptions had seen the footage and images on their screens of the government’s barbarity – most notably in the 24 hour news programmes (BBC World, Sky News and CNN International) – and detailed descriptions will have started filtering down. Note the channels that horrified Dr Ndlovu the most; note too how any condemnation of violence and brutality is rewritten in the Zanu PF lexicon to be an “unconditional statement of support” for the opposition:
Government has noted with utter dismay the unconditional statements of support to the violent MDC by a number of Western governments, including those of Britain, America and New Zealand. It also notes the role played by big Western media networks, led by the British Broadcasting Corporation and Cable News Network, in seeking to absolve and whitewash the MDC from obvious and inescapable blame of public violence.”
Information threatens Mugabe. Days after the attacks, Grace Kwinje and Sekai Holland were prevented from leaving the country to receive specialist medical attention on the spurious grounds that they required a letter from the ministry of health granting permission to leave Zimbabwe; Arthur Mutambara was arrested while trying to leave Zimbabwe to visit his wife in South Africa. Violence was shamelessly used to stop Nelson Chamisa from attending an EU-ACP meeting in Brussels – he was viciously attacked at Harare International Airport by men with iron bars.
This is the Zanu PF regime’s way of silencing their voices. Kept within the country, their first hand accounts of torture and brutality can be moderated by limited access to the international media. Outside the country, the press would be queuing up to interview and speak to them.
The fight for information is key to the looming non-violent revolution in Zimbabwe. A colleague described how she had watched the BBC News footage with all her friends and associates assembled together. The footage concluded with a statement by one of the opposition leaders that Zimbabweans were angry and ready to take action. There was silence in the room until someone said, “I’m ready, but how?”
How to get the message of the revolution to the people is one of the biggest challenges facing the Save Zimbabwe Campaign, how to synchronously organise and mobilise a nation from within an information vacuum. Information will also help ensure a non-violent revolution; chaos is Mugabe’s friend and his excuse. Ordinary Zimbabweans can help too. The message to them is to be less careful, to share information more freely. If you have not signed up to mailing lists delivering information by email, then do so now. Share with others. Print out articles and images and leave them in a public toilet as reading matter for the next occupier of the cubicle. Think about how we can collectively fill the silence with sound.
Zimbabweans are ready. The initial shock at the brutality is wearing off and has been replaced with outrage and anger at the regime’s vicious tactics. Perhaps the single most important outcome from the recent events are the strong messages of unity emanating from the opposition movement. Morgan Tsvangirai has said: “They […] brutalised my flesh. But they will never break my spirit. I will soldier on until Zimbabwe is free”. And Arthur Mutumbara has said: “I can assure Robert Mugabe that this is the end game. We are going to do it by democratic means, by being beaten up and by being arrested – but we are going to do it.” Unified messages like these reinvigorate hope and bolster flagging spirits.
The excessive violence was designed to instil fear in the population and to intimidate the opposition leaders. But by being so extreme, Robert Mugabe also revealed his fragile position, and for the first time looked weakened. Rather than being his usual despotic self, using dirty tactics to stay one step ahead, Mugabe looks increasingly like a crazed dictator cornered and fighting his last fight. He is a man surrounded by battles and by enemies he has created for himself. They are coming at him from within his own party, from the opposition, from Zimbabwe’s civil society, and from the international community. His biggest enemy is the economy.
People who are struggling to survive, talk openly and endlessly about their daily battle to feed, educate and care for their families. People who are careful about “talkin’ about a revolution” are less careful about talking about the internal succession battle within the Zanu PF party. We are looking for someone to be accountable for our misery. The combination of poverty, Zanu PF conflicts and outrage at the torture inflicted on our leaders has left ordinary Zimbabweans feeling a little more emboldened.
Mugabe is famous for once saying: “absolute power is when a man is starving and you are the only one able to give him food”. But what happens to the person holding the reins of power when the food runs out and the cupboard is bare?
Mugabe is on the brink of finding out.