This week I tasted the bitter-sweet fear that is keeping Zimbabwe on its knees. Narrowly avoiding detention in a notorious Harare prison, fleeing the country in hiding, and escaping persecution due to a case of mistaken identity, are all in a day of the life of a civil society activist in Southern Africa’s failing state.
I arrived in Harare on my first visit to Zimbabwe after the short journey from my new home in Johannesburg into a seemingly calm and attractive city. Yet the tree-lined, tranquil streets hide a tragic story. Robert Mugabe’s destruction of Africa’s bread basket is well-known. Less well known is what happens to those who struggle for the education, health and equality for the country’s population. Speaking out on behalf of the people the state fails to provide for is a dangerous feat in Zimbabwe and civil society activists frequently put their lives at risk. I spent just two days listening to the people who work for non-governmental organisations that seek to improve the quality of education for women, run peace-building projects with church youth groups and ensure access to essential ARVs for people living with HIV, before I had to flee the country.
By bringing civil society organisations within Zimbabwe together to talk about the challenges of working within such a restrictive environment, I was also considered a threat to the government. Our meeting was specifically targeted by the security authorities who are increasingly clamping down on any civil society activists. It was due to sheer chance that a last minute change of date for our meeting meant that I unknowingly avoided the undercover security authorities. Unfortunately a German NGO worker wasn’t so lucky.
Suddenly I was feeling the sickening, crushing fear that rules the lives of the common man and woman in Zimbabwe. The threat of punishment from the authorities was invisible, yet it engulfed me. I desperately wanted to exercise my right to freedom of expression and coming together with other citizens, but knew I was putting my own and the lives of others in danger. I work for CIVICUS because I strongly believe in justice and equality, and this motivation urges me to speak out against those that suppress others. I don’t profess to be brave or courageous but I believe in fighting against injustice, and the government’s actions to silence dissenting voices are something that we shouldn’t allow to happen.
The threat of harassment, raids, detention, torture and possibly even death are omnipresent in Zimbabwe. With an estimated 1 in 5 people thought to be informants for the government authorities, infiltration of civil society meetings is commonplace. I knew it was only a matter of time before I came face-to-face with the brutal and irrational regime. I had the means to flee the country upon receiving the warning signs that the authorities did not want me working with a local civil society organisation to bring their everyday reality of repression and harassment to the outside world. The other 30 participants from the workshop did not have this option. They had to return to their homes and offices, knowing they might be followed and beaten. I marvel at their courage and wonder whether things will ever change in that country.
We are familiar with the challenges of the international community condemning Mugabe’s regime and a sense of despair and hopelessness fuels Western apathy about the situation. Yet it is the local people who are paying the price for the paralysis of coordinated international action. Mugabe is fearfully looking over his shoulder as citizens pay attention to and take courage from the revolutions in the Middle East.
It makes me sad that a whole generation of Zimbabweans have had to spend their lives in fear of unaccountable and brutal political systems, whether before or after liberation. As human beings each one of us has a responsibility to stand in solidarity with the Zimbabwean people. As citizens, we must urge our governments to ensure that ending the impunity that is responsible for the silent fear that rules the country figures high on their diplomatic agenda.