The 18th of April 1980 officially marked the end of British colonial rule in what was Rhodesia and the establishment of a nation called Zimbabwe.

This year Zimbabwe turns 41 amid growing fear among citizens, repression, human rights abuses and closure of democratic space. This is a day to celebrate, yet for many Zimbabweans, it is just like any other ordinary day as it symbolises a betrayal by the liberation generation who, from liberators, have morphed into oppressors.

Traditionally government-organised festivities (mainly attended by ruling ZANU-PF supporters) are conducted around the country. At the main ceremony, the so-called eternal flame of independence is lit each year for good wishes for the nation’s future. However, this will be the second year when no physical event will be held due to Covid-19.

As we reflect on the journey travelled over the past 41 years it is important to draw parallels between the character of the colonial era and the status quo. The simple dictionary meaning of “independence” is “freedom from the control or influence of others.” For Zimbabwe, that freedom was from the British. Independence was a product of a protracted liberation struggle mounted to ensure that there’s an equal and just society where fundamental human rights are respected, equal access to economic resources, ie land, and economic emancipation and an end to minority rule.

In essence, therefore, independence must encompass the enjoyment of such freedoms and rights by the citizens. It is tragic therefore that in independent Zimbabwe, the rulers have continued using the colonial legal system – an instrument upon which officials based their conception of a new social order, to suppress citizens.

Looking back…

The years of colonialism were characterised by state-sanctioned violence, racial discrimination and a rule by force. The majority, black people, were designated as subjects and not citizens, with only a few rights that they were able to practice. The law was used as an instrument of coercion to consolidate British control and proved a more effective means of colonial administrative control.

Force, for a while, could weaken the will of the conquered peoples, but it could not make colonial rule endure. According to Bonny Ibhawoh (2008), the process of consolidating and stabilising colonial rule was founded on law – and specifically the English legal system. Law, in the form of ordinances and proclamations administered through British-style colonial courts, became the cause for promoting British hegemony. Indeed, “in the hands of the British colonial administration, the law was a veritable tool, stronger in many ways than the Maxim gun.”

The present: What has changed?

More than four decades later, Zimbabwe has witnessed growing repression, abuse of human rights and closure of democratic space. The military coup of 2017 worsened the situation. So did the Covid-19 pandemic that has been used as a pretext to ban political activity and suspend elections, even as opposition members of parliament and councillors in local governments continue being “recalled”/dismissed from elected office without due process.

According to a report just released by the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (April 2021) titled Zimbabwe Human Rights Defenders Assets and Needs Assessment the “new” government, led by “military men”, has increasingly deployed the army to conduct policing – especially during protests – with no hesitation to shoot to kill unarmed civilians.

We are also now seeing a growing trend where the law, as in the colonial era, is being systematically used to suppress citizens and Human Rights Defenders. The new report shows how the country’s legal framework is once more replete with repressive legislation. For example:

  • the Maintenance of Peace and Order Act of 2020 which replaced the equally repressive Public Order and Security Act (POSA),
  • the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act (The Code)
  • and the Freedom of Information Act of 2020, which repealed the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) although some of its elements are yet to be replaced.

In essence, these laws reflect a continuation of the colonial legacies of rule by law. The use of Statutory instruments, which are executive in nature and content, and the gazetting of repressive Bills such as the Cyber Security Bill and the Patriotic Bill create a repressive framework that the state is using to curtail the rights of citizens.

The proposed Patriotic Bill seeks two objectives, namely:

“a) recognises and celebrates efforts made by Zimbabwean citizens at home and abroad to promote the country’s positive image and brand; and

“b) prohibits any Zimbabwean citizen from wilfully communicating messages intended to harm the image and reputation of the country on international platforms or engaging with foreign countries to communicate messages intended to harm the country’s positive image and/or to under its integrity and reputation”.

Former cabinet minister Professor Jonathan Moyo argues that the Patriotic Bill is reactionary in the extreme, and seeks to criminalise the very spirit and practice of solidarity, without which Zimbabwe would not be an independent country today. He argues that solidarity was a key to fight evils like UDI in Rhodesia and apartheid in South Africa.

Zimbabwe has a modern constitution with an expansive bill of rights establishing independent institutions to protect and entrench democracy and human rights. It also devolves governmental power and limits presidential terms of office. It was adopted after a historic referendum with more than 94.5% approval. Regrettably, the government now seeks to amend the Constitution to give more powers to the President and centralise power.

This will erode and wipe away democratic gains made in the 16 March 2013 historic referendum. A cursory glance shows a state further unwilling to respect the constitution by continuously using unilaterally gazetted statutory instruments to subvert parliament’s law-making role and oversight. In 2020 alone, close to 270 Statutory Instruments were gazetted. Several repressive laws are yet to be either aligned to the new constitution or implemented.

Using Covid-19 to attack human rights

In July 2020, the United Nations Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) expressed concerns over allegations that Zimbabwean authorities may have used the Covid-19 crisis as a pretext to suppress freedom of expression and peaceful assembly on the streets. The OHCHR spokesperson, Liz Throssell stated that people have a right to protest corruption or anything else.

Yet President Emmerson Mnangagwa and his ZANU PF party spokespersons have continued to issue threats that are meant to instil fear. The government continues to use arbitrary lockdowns under the pretext of fighting Covid-19 as a tool to bar free movement, freedom of association and expression and to suspend electoral activity and overdue by-elections in 26 parliamentary constituencies and around 80 local government wards.

To date, several activists including journalists have suffered the state’s heavy-handedness. On 8 January 2021, prominent freelance journalist Hopewell Chin’ono was arrested for the third time in six months on spurious charges by the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) of publishing or communicating false statements prejudicial to the State as defined in Section 31(a)(iii)of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act.

The arrest was a reflection of the muzzling of free expression, digital or internet rights and continued harassment of media personnel by the state.

The same week saw the detention of two top leaders of the opposition MDC Alliance, the party Vice-Chairperson Hon Job Sikhala and National Spokesperson Fadzayi Mahere on similar allegations. The state has also upped its gear in terms of persecution of student leaders and numerous arrests have been recorded over the past months.

On 26 February 2021 Zimbabwe National Students Union (ZINASU) leader, Takudzwa Ngadziore was arrested together with the ZINASU Secretary-General, Tapiwanashe Chiriga, on charges of convening a press conference in solidarity with incarcerated opposition activist Makomborero Haruzivishe.

On 1 March 2021, police arrested three students; Richard Paradzayi, Paidamoyo Masaraure and Lean Kanengoni on charges of unnecessary movement after they had attended court in solidarity with Haruzivishe.

On 5 March 2021, opposition MDC Alliance activists Joana Mamombe and Cecilia Chimbiri were arrested at the Magistrates’ Courts where they had also attended court in solidarity with Haruzivishe, and they continue to languish in remand prison. Mamombe and Chimbiri are victims of torture and sexual abuse at the hands of state security agents. This further buttresses the allegation that the state continues to entrench authoritarian rule through persecution by prosecution.

Last year in August, the #ZimbabweanLivesMatter campaign on Twitter drew the attention of international celebrities and politicians to human rights abuses in the country.

Social and economic inequalities 

The miscued approach by the government on resuscitation of the economy and use of ‘austerity measures’ has seen the deterioration of social services in Zimbabwe, with citizens having to bear the brunt of limited power outages, crippling strikes in the education and health sectors, drug shortages, erratic water supplies and an ever-increasing cost of living as families struggle to meet the financial and material demands to purchase basic commodities. The government continues to experience challenges in meeting the salary demands of the public service.

As a result, social rights are on the decline and in the absence of clear-cut reforms to the economy and political architecture, social inequalities will continue to rise for the foreseeable future. The lockdowns severely restricted freedom of movement, closed all but essential companies and schools, banned the sale of alcohol and tobacco, and introduced a night-time curfew.

Worryingly, the brotherhood approach in the SADC region has worsened the democracy and human rights situation as the leaders do not hold each other accountable for their actions and nobody calls the other to order. Civil society has been appealing to SADC to call the Zimbabwean government to end human rights abuses but the regional bloc has remained mum.

As Zimbabwe commemorates its 41 years of independence there should be the restoration of Constitutionalism. Regionally, there is a need for advocacy groups to review, kick-start and strengthen action-oriented processes that connect people-to-people solidarity and ongoing struggles against environmental, social and economic injustices and to the interventions against political injustices.

The removal of long-time dictator Robert Mugabe gave people hope that Zimbabwe would get back to a path to democracy and respect for human rights that would encourage millions of Zimbabweans forced into exile to return home. However, this has turned out to be a squandered opportunity as President Mnangagwa has turned out to be a more brazen authoritarian and who in his first year in power used the army to shoot and kill unarmed civilians in Harare CBD and major cities merely for protesting against the mismanagement of the economy and serial corruption.

SADC in its endeavour to promote democratic principles in the region must condemn the illegal infractions against people’s rights in Zimbabwe, including holding sacrosanct citizens’ rights to life and protection by the state, as well as discouraging impairments of rights of the media and ordinary Zimbabweans.

Article first appeared in the Daily Maverick.