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Earlier this week three young female activists from the opposition MDC, including Joanna Mamombe who is the legislator for Harare West, led a flash demonstration in Warren Park suburb against Government enforcement of Covid-19 regulations and the impact lockdown measures are having on poor households.
The three female leaders were, according to pictures that circulated, in the company of an estimated 30 other people, including men.
By end of the day, the female activists – Mamombe, Cecilia Chimbiri and Netsai Marowa (Youth Assembly vice chair and deputy organising secretary, respectively) were reported missing, with police initially saying they were arrested before “clarifying” later that they had not been arrested and taken into custody.
Meanwhile, lawyers and human rights activists acting in the interest of the trio reported that they had looked for the young women at every police station in the environs of Harare.
Fears, and claims, that the trio had been abducted or subjected to “enforced disappearance” began to circulate and, on Friday morning the worst appeared to be confirmed as pictures of the young women appeared.
They were apparently humiliated, had their clothes torn off, soiled.
Opposition leader Nelson Chamisa on a visit to a health facility where the three were held, later charged that the women had been beaten all night and had their breasts suckled.
Once again, the matter has become a huge talking point with the diplomatic community – Western embassies, that is – making a chorus condemning the incident. (Some, like the EU are more circumspect, while the US has used more robust language).
But, the issue is divisive and Zimbabweans are as polarised as ever:
1) A Covid protest for survival
This is the first major controversy. It is almost an oxymoron.
Globally, there have been disagreements on the nature of lockdowns, as they have an impact on poor, imformalised economies. Zimbabwe typically survives “from hand to mouth” and continued freeze on movement and informal economic activity is having a negative impact on the poor.
This on paper was the stated motivation of the protest. That the women decided to throw kitchen sinks at rulers in protest, was in itself a powerful statement.
However, some people felt that amid the danger of Covid-19, which has killed 4 in the Southern African nation, the protest was immature. Further, the protestors exposed themselves danger by not observing social distancing.
Grace Kwinjeh, a founding opposition activists and journalist said, “That optic of my little sisters during days of Covid-19, with no masks on, does not sell here abroad…Wisdom…is now needed…”
2) Female face of struggle
There is a lot of symbolism that three female activists were the face of this protest.
It was of strategic purposes, no doubt, on the part of organisers. Matter of factly, in crises, women have been known to suffer the brunt.
There is an outpouring of sympathy for the young women and outrage as well with pictures emerging of them having been subjected to humiliation.
Noone is talking about the young men who were part of the protests and what happened to them, or whether they went home unharmed.
The pictures are likely to haunt the administration of Mnangagwa as Harare is accused of human rights abuses.
3) Mistrust – on both sides
Very few people, as of now, actually know what transpired, hence the pitched and polarised nature of the debate in the public sphere.
The State in Zimbabwe has a notorious history of ill-treating its opponents including enforcing disappearances, beatings, torture and killings dating back to the 1980s.
Some prominent names include the late opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, Jestina Mukoko and Kwinjeh herself. Unsurprisingly, this has come with heavy criticism and sanctions from the West.
However, there have some other reported cases of alleged abductions that have been flagged as false or misleading, with Government supporters claiming them to be attempts to soil the country’s image abroad.
This is not been helped by the fact that these alleged victims are seen to be rewarded with awards and scholarships to spite the Government.
Hence, the cynical view these incidents as motivated by desire to search for personal glory and financial rewards from Western organisations. Previously, Harare has accused a “Third Force” in orchestrating these incidents, although this has not been proven, either.
Government spokesman, Nick Mangwana wrote on Twitter, in apparent reference to the incident: “It’s a diversionary tactic. A poorly choreographed attempt at throwing a curve ball at the system…”
What happens from here?
There is likely to be frenzied discussions of the matter in the coming few day as Zimbabweans angrily disagree on the facts and import of the incident.
A diplomatic fallout is already afoot between Western governments and Harare. We can expect the latter to soon issue an angry defensive statement.
On the other hand, no serious probe will be made to establish the true facts of what transpired.
We have been down that road before. – R&M