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A Blot on Africa's Copybook

While African civil society mobilises in solidarity with Zimbabweans, governments and regional bodies remain silent.
By Ayesha Kajee
"Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary." In a keynote address last week, Professor Walter Kamba of the University of Zimbabwe used this quote from the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr to emphasise that true participatory democracy goes beyond the mere holding of elections.



The elderly yet energetic Professor Kamba ought to know – in an illustrious career spanning several decades, he has been involved in democracy-building efforts in several countries, not the least of which was his nomination to South Africa’s first post-apartheid electoral commission in 1994.



It is both apposite and ironic that the same week as activists and opposition party members were being arrested, beaten and shot at in Harare, the Zimbabwe Election Support Network, ZESN, convened a regional dialogue in the same city on the subject of democracy and elections in southern Africa. Attended by delegates from election monitoring bodies and parliaments as well as civil society representatives, the event showcased lessons learned from both good and bad practice in the region and beyond.



“It is with a heavy heart that I stand here today,” ZESN’s vice-chair Noel Kututwa told the meeting in opening remarks which captured the sombre mood of the audience. “We have a fundamental problem in Zimbabwe… rights enshrined in our constitution are not being upheld.”



Every example of the erosion of democratic rights and freedoms cited during the March 15-16 event had been played out in the environs of Harare in the days preceding the roundtable.



In the week between Sunday March 11 and 18, Zimbabwean activists were severely beaten, arbitrarily arrested and refused access to medical care and legal representation.



On the first Sunday, leaders of both factions of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, were arrested and youth activist Gift Tandare was shot dead.



The following Sunday, following a week in which harassment and assault of opposition leaders was rife, the outspoken member of parliament Nelson Chamiya was brutally assaulted at Harare airport while preparing to travel to a meeting in Brussels.



The erosion of freedoms, rigged elections, kleptocracy and abuse of executive power are common themes on this continent, even if in most cases the political and economic meltdown has not reached the levels currently seen in Zimbabwe.



In most instances, citizens revolt and depose their government, or else regional and international players pressure the leadership to negotiate with the opposition. In Zimbabwe’s case, as illustrated by events in recent weeks, attempts to mount protests are met with assault, torture and even indiscriminate killing.



Such actions breach numerous conventions on human rights, yet the censure from neighbouring states and regional bodies such as the African Union has been very mild, and limited to expressions of concern.



On March 15, President Robert Mugabe had a five-hour meeting with his Tanzanian counterpart President Jakaya Kikwete, who chairs the regional security arm of the Southern African Development Community, SADC. This prompted hopes that SADC was at last exerting some much-needed pressure.



But Mugabe came out of the talks thumbing his nose at his detractors, and used the joint press conference to tell his critics in the West to “go hang”.



Tanzania, Namibia and Lesotho, the three countries responsible for regional security in SADC, will meet on March 26 to discuss the Zimbabwe crisis.



Ghanaian president John Kufuor, whose country currently holds the presidency of the African Union, said during a visit to London last week that "the African Union is very uncomfortable. The situation in [Zimbabwe] is very embarrassing."



Meanwhile, Alpha Konare, the chair of the African Union’s commission, acknowledged the "need for the scrupulous respect for human rights and democratic principles in Zimbabwe".



But so far, the continent-wide body has failed to come up with any effective strategy to compel the Mugabe regime to uphold these rights.



South Africa, which happened to occupy the rotating chair of the United Nations Security Council in March, has quashed suggestions that the Zimbabwe situation be debated by the council. China, Russia and African nations have taken a similar stand in the past.



“We do not believe that the issue of Zimbabwe belongs to the Security Council, because it is not a matter of international peace and security”, said South Africa's ambassador to the UN, Dumisani Kumalo.



That is a contentious point - the influx of thousands of refugees and illegal immigrants from Zimbabwe into neighbouring countries certainly has the potential to affect regional stability, while the threat of a state of emergency imposed by Mugabe’s government is likely to escalate the population displacement.



The silence of key architects of an African renaissance, and in particular the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, is truly a blot on Africa’s copybook. Their commitment must be thrown into question if they remain mute when confronted with evidence of gross human rights violations against citizens of an African state.



The most high-profile individual critic of this silence has been the Nobel Peace prizewinner Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who put the question in eloquent terms.



“How can what is happening in Zimbabwe elicit hardly a word of concern, let alone condemnation, from us leaders of Africa?” he asked. “What more has to happen before we who are leaders, religious and political, of our mother Africa are moved to cry out 'Enough is enough’?”



Meanwhile, civil society organisations across the region have publicly expressed their outrage and concern at the human rights abuses and deteriorating situation in Zimbabwe. Marches and protest meetings have been held in South Africa and Namibia, and petitions have been signed by thousands of people from across the continent.



As the ZESN conference closed, individuals and civil society organisations represented there gathered to draft a message of solidarity, and called upon all parties in Zimbabwe and the region to come together to assist in negotiating a way out of the current mire.



Such public expressions of concern highlight the response of Africans to the sufferings of people in Zimbabwe. They should also serve to jolt the consciences of African leaders.



Governments and regional organisations in Africa would do well to give serious consideration to another question from ArchbishopTutu, “Do we really care about human rights? Do we care that people of flesh and blood - fellow Africans - are being treated like rubbish, almost worse than they were ever treated by rabid racists?"



Ayesha Kajee is Programme Head for Democracy and Political Party Systems in Africa at the South African Institute of International Affairs.