By an Anonymous Zimbabwean

 What happens when known killers are promoted to the most senior positions in government, the military, and state-run offices? What happens when cruelty and coldness achieve the same social status as bravery and courage? Answer: the result is a disturbing social malfeasance, in which violence is celebrated by those in power and the rule of law is cosmetic and artificial, while any “peace” and “human rights” initiatives are considered treasonous.

I write from Zimbabwe, where in recent weeks I (like many others) have hidden runaway children and faith community leaders who have been forced from their homes under threat of violence and arrest. We have spent countless hours comforting people who have been brutally beaten, while treating their broken limbs. We have sat with traumatized women who have been sexually assaulted, providing psychological counseling and emotional support.

In the midst of this national crisis, I can safely say if our nation’s foundations are not radically revisioned, the structural violence and oppression now being witnessed in Zimbabwe will likely cause even greater damage to our future.

Historical Background

Zimbabwe fought one of Africa’s most brutal wars for independence. Signs of the genocide are everywhere. Unmarked graves across its rural landscape and skeletons in unused mineshafts bring back devastating memories of that era. Estimates say 20,000 people died in that eight-year war in the 1970s.

As our country celebrated its hard-won political independence in 1980, people became so consumed with elation that there was no consideration to developing a deliberate strategy to “demilitarize success.” In retrospect, what we needed was a simultaneous and systematic commitment to renounce future violence as means to social and political transformation.

Instead, for the liberation war’s fighters – who had suddenly become the backbone of the Zimbabwean government, army, police, and security services – the culture of violence had been normalized. Those who continued to deploy violence, and who spread it like a cancer, were rewarded. While the language has been sanitized, we have seen the clear evidence of this traumatic policy in succeeding years, including through language like “defending the gains of liberation.”

Zimbabwean soldiers alongside peaceful protesters in November 2017, when a coup overthrew former President Robert Mugabe. Photo credit: Tafadzwa Tarumbwa/ Public Domain Pictures.

Following independence in 1980, Robert Mugabe was elected president of the liberated Zimbabwe, putting into power a leader of the anti-colonial resistance. Through more than 35 years in power, he became infamously described as one of the continent’s most brutal and corrupt elected leaders – refusing to cede power until finally being pushed from office in a November 2017 coup d’etat that brought Emmerson Mnangagwa to power.

Six months later, in July 2018, Mnangagwa was controversially elected president in the first national election in the post-Mugabe era. Although he had been a close ally of Mugabe, having served multiple positions during more than three decades within the ZANU-PF party’s hold on power, many within and beyond Zimbabwe expressed hope that his presidency, despite its disputed results, would mark a major step forward for economic stability, human rights, and transparency.

The January 2019 Zimbabwe Protests

Last month, on January 13, President Emmerson Mnangagwa held a nighttime press conference to announce a 240% fuel price increase that would become immediately effective at midnight. Zimbabweans felt they were being sacrificed on the altar of poor governance and economic mismanagement. This pushed citizens – particularly those in the cities – out into the streets. The right to peacefully demonstrate is enshrined in the Zimbabwean constitution, and people were determined to put down their tools and to participate in a national work stoppage that became known as #ShutDownZimbabwe.

To those in power, this was seen as an attack on the government. The state media revived a narrative of a “foreign-sponsored regime change agenda,” and it was propagated by the government’s many information agencies. With that narrative in place, the army, police, and security services went into their “default” setting of “defending the gains of liberation” and every protester became an “enemy of the state” or “an agent of the regime change agenda.”

What has followed during the past three weeks has been a period of systematic violence against protesters, including the use of torture. This has consisted of indiscriminate and severe beatings of people, even in their homes (especially at night), the rape of women, and widespread arrests, in some instances even those of school age. The number of victims may never be known – the government forced an internet shutdown, and people are still scared to make reports to the police – but the open secret is that many have died, many women were raped, many were seriously injured, and more than 1,000 have been jailed thus far.

What Can the Righteous Do?

The Zimbabwean issue is a foundational crisis. The present political situation was founded on violence, it has been sustained by violence and intolerance, and – like a black mamba snake – any perceived obstacle is a potential threat that must be dealt with ruthlessly. Especially fearsome and tragic is the fact that a new generation of security personnel and state bureaucrats are being raised with these foundational beliefs. These ambitious and power-hungry younger powerbrokers are proving to be even more zealous than the old guard.

To counter this, civil society has to operate at two levels: the policy level and the grassroots level.

Changing the mindset of the present crop of leaders may be impossible; I submit they will only be forced into reforms (real or feigned) by political or economic pressures – and this must be done at the policy and advocacy levels.

To complement the policy approach, a coordinated community-based nonviolence education and training program would have a profound impact. Working strategically through community organizations, churches, private schools (government schools are difficult to penetrate), trade unions, and local traditional leaders, such a nonviolence program could rebuild Zimbabwe. The nation’s foundations have been corrupted by widespread violence and intolerance, making the rule of law a luxury at best and a falsehood at worst.

Some of us are presently running such a nonviolence program at a small scale, but this social transformational work needs to be extended to all political players – including both the ruling and the opposition political parties. Otherwise, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, the process of taking an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth will create a blind and toothless nation.

In recent years, civil society movements in Zimbabwe and other African nations have successfully run campaigns to reduce HIV infection rates, eradicate malaria, and reduce cancer. Now it is time for Zimbabwe in particular, and Africa in general, to initiate a serious Violence Eradication Initiative. If we were able to achieve success in countering malaria, I believe we can also do so in the face of societal violence.

The number of people who have been killed, injured, raped, and displaced – combined with the trauma suffered by children who have been forced to watch their mothers being raped, their fathers beaten, and their houses raided – is enough of a reason for us to sober up, rally together, and design a program that will end these ills.

So much has already been done by Zimbabwean civil society. Nevertheless, there is more we must do to nurture and sustain a culture of nonviolence. Small-scale programs have often proven more effective to pursuing personal, social, political, and economic transformation, but if we are to rebuild our national foundations on the basis of nonviolence, love, and the respect of humanity, we must be deliberate, strategic, and broad-based.

What we have recently experienced has been so traumatic for some Zimbabweans that it has prompted us to realize the delicate and priceless value of peace.

I remain inspired by movements across the globe, and the words of the African-American Freedom Movement – made known to me by Pete Seeger – have provided solace and fortitude during this traumatic time:

…“Deep in my heart

Oh, deep in my heart

I do believe

We shall overcome, someday

We shall live in peace

We shall live in peace

We shall live in peace, someday

Oh, deep in my heart

I do believe

We shall overcome, someday”

The anonymous author is a faith community leader in Zimbabwe and an active nonviolence practitioner.