HARARE – As we hurtle towards the 2018 elections the Zimbabwe Human Rights Association (ZimRights) — a grassroots-based organisation with membership across the country’s 10 provinces — has raised the red flag, with reports from its monitors on the ground suggesting strong indicators of political violence in communities.
Our assistant editor, Maxwell Sibanda, caught up with ZimRights director Okay Machisa (pictured) and below are excerpts of the interview.
Q: As the 2018 general elections approach, what is your assessment of the political environment?
A: As ZimRights, we have representatives throughout the country, even in the remotest of areas and from their reports there are strong indicators of violence already.
Q: What are some of the indicators?
A: Our monitors have reported the re-grouping of militias and they say the political toyi toyi is increasing by the day. They are also starting to report of strangers and suspicious characters who are just sprouting in their midst.
And we have been saying to these communities, it is them who can stop all this by reporting these outsiders who are coming to destabilise their lives. The people should not allow outsiders to disturb their peace.
Q: Who do you think is bringing in these strangers in the communities?
A: It is the politicians; that is what they do. They hire foreigners to come and cause havoc, hence disturb once peaceful environments. These strangers are there to plant fear in the electorate and manufacture all lies, including the assertion that they would be able to identify who you vote for. But we know it is a lie. People should not be fooled because your vote is your secret!
Q: Are you saying politicians are behind the political violence?
A: To a greater extend, yes. You hear them at their political rallies using hate language against opponents. You hear them say; pasi nanhingi (down with him/her) – down where, in the grave?
Mature politicians need to understand that there is another side of the coin to being liked. People can hate you, if you promote violence, and people will like you, if in your campaigns you build communities through love. And you have politicians boasting that this is a no go area for other parties; that is wrong, we need free movement and association.
Q: But past experiences have shown that when political violence breaks out, the people always complain that no one protects them, even the police?
A: Yes, and we appeal to the Zimbabwe Republic Police to conduct themselves professionally and not take sides during such times. The police should protect the people, not for the people to end up protecting the police. If there are political rallies the police should be able to protect all political parties — large and small — without choosing.
Q: But there are others who commit crimes and want to hide behind politics?
A: Yes, and Zimbabweans have to be warned that if you commit a crime you get arrested, regardless of which political party you belong to. The police are allowed to arrest you, if you commit any politically-motivated violence. We know of other several contested cases, hence our plea to the police is that they should not to just arrest people arbitrarily — there should be clarity on arrests.
Q: Are people prepared for any violence?
A: The first thing is that Zimbabweans have been exposed to several past elections that have been associated with a lot of manipulation, intimidation, violence, voter apathy and a whole lot of other dirty things. While violence in communities during similar times of electioneering as this may not be news anymore, it is important that Zimbabweans are warned beforehand of such indicators.
We hope government and institutions like the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission and Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission will respond to these indicators of violence and address them before they get out of control. We hope the aforementioned will prepare the ground now and this should not only be left to them alone but it should also involve Zimbabweans across the divide, the churches and civil society.
Q: So, what are you advocating for as ZimRights?
A: We are advocating for a free non-violent 2018 election that is free from manipulation. It is important for Zimbabweans to acknowledge and be proud that these elections are theirs. They should be able to use the little experience they have from past elections to overcome any such obstacles.
Another important aspect of the elections that Zimbabweans should know is that elections come and go while Zimbabwe — the country — remains. There is only one Zimbabwe and after elections we are expected to revert back to living together in peace and harmony.
Political violence is not good because it creates enmity and mistrust. When you kill or beat up your neighbour, it may sound okay during the time you do it but when elections are over, you will meet the same neighbour. There is no need to fight each other.
Q: But should people in communities not differ, even politically and still stay together?
A: Our differences should not allow us to fight or kill each other; over the years we have built our nation through differences. Yes, we have built most foundations on the strength of opposing views. It is healthy in a democracy.
All we are asking for is for the politicians in Zimbabwe to unite even though they differ ideologically because this is our only country – we have no other.
Q: And in terms of voter registration, do you anticipate violence?
A: We anticipate a bit of violence during voter registration and as witnessed when people registered during the Constitution making process we had other political parties chanting their slogans at registration centres. This plants fear in others. It is our hope that the registration period is handled properly because that is where everything else starts and if it is spoiled then the whole 2018 election vote will be dented.
Even after the registration exercise, we still have the inspection period which is equally important; hence voters have to be protected. We urge all registered Zimbabweans to take time to inspect the voters’ roll and make sure their names appear on the register otherwise it would not help to complain when you want to cast your vote and you do not find your name.
Q: What is the role of traditional leaders in all this?
A: It is important that we always respect the Constitution as it very clear that traditional leaders should not dabble in politics. Instead of acting on behalf of certain political parties, they should actually be neutral and be in a position to keep communities at peace with each other. But once they become partisan; they then happen to fuel violence, they become part of the problem. Traditional leaders are actually custodians of peace and theirs should remain as such.
We know they might be promised vehicles and television sets, but that should not buy them.
Q: There is the issue of food aid and land; the traditional leaders have used these on behalf of the ruling Zanu PF to cow and lure voters. How can this be addressed?
A: Simple. Like I said, your vote is your secret. When the food comes take it and when they march everyone to their rallies – go. But your vote is your secret.
Q: But are people comfortable with this famous 1979 saying and do they believe that one’s vote is one’s secret?
A: That is where voter education comes in and we will be going out to communities to educate them about this. We in civil society, the churches and other election organisations will work closely with Zec like we have always done in past elections, so as to educate the voters on their rights.