The Campaigner

Veteran human rights activist Rose Benton is resigned to more years of drawing attention to abuses in home country.

The Campaigner

Veteran human rights activist Rose Benton is resigned to more years of drawing attention to abuses in home country.

On June 27, life was supposed to get easier for Rose Benton.

On that day, opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai was presumed to win the presidential election in Zimbabwe, ousting President Robert Mugabe. And after that, Benton would be able to take a break.

For almost six years, she has coordinated the weekly gatherings of a London-based group called the Zimbabwe Vigil. She co-founded the organisation in October 2002 in an effort to draw public attention to human rights violations in her native country.

Every Saturday from midday to early evening, members gather outside the Zimbabwean embassy. They sing and dance in peaceful protest and encourage passers-by to sign various petitions relating to the hardships back home.

Several long-time attendees arrive early for the vigil on this bright Saturday afternoon. They greet each other warmly and share their dismay at the current state of affairs back home.

“The preparation will start when Rose arrives,” said one woman.

Eventually, a small brown car pulls to a stop along the side street and three men who had been standing around hurry over to help unload what looks to be a trunk overflowing with cardboard posters and large Zimbabwean flags.

“I need help getting out of this car,” said a woman, and one of the young men pulls her up.

Rose Benton is ready to take charge. An assembly-line forms as she starts passing out materials that others will then post along a metal fence that is to become their protest pen. She grabs some tape and starts hanging signs but keeps getting interrupted by men and women who come up to greet her.

Then the questions start. “Where should these fliers go?” “Who should handle the petition today?”

Benton is unfazed. She has been doing this for many years.

“I work two full-time jobs,” she said. “This is all voluntary. I thought the election would happen and I’d have a chance to step back. My daughter is expecting her first baby this summer.”

No one seems to know what will happen next in their native country. But while the uncertainty remains, Benton said she will continue to hold the vigils.

Benton said she left Zimbabwe in 1969 “because I didn’t like what as happening”.

She taught history and English to high school students before she met her husband, a British citizen who grew up in South Africa, and the two decided to come to London.

“We met at a university party in Cape Town have been married ever since,” she recalled.

Finding a job in the UK at that time proved fairly easy

“I was a Rhodesian and I had dual citizenship,” she said. “I found a job in a research department very quickly.”

She said Zimbabweans coming to London today face far more difficult obstacles.

“When I came, you could get your papers sorted out very fast,” she said. “It is much more difficult nowadays, particularly for black Zimbabweans who have no ancestral help. A lot of white Zimbabweans have help from relatives. They have grandparents who are British. Black Zimbabweans don’t have that.”

She said she has two sisters still living in Zimbabwe and it was with their encouragement that she got involved in advocacy work.

“I was chatting with my sisters in 2000 and they were saying that things were going very badly and they asked me to do something from here,” she said. “It was really quite difficult to find anyone doing anything here at that time.

“There were a couple of demonstrations out in front of the embassy. They were really small – just a handful of people. And then someone said there was a regular forum on Monday night. I started going to that.”

Eventually she was asked to take a leadership role in what would become the weekly vigils.

“I never meant to get so heavily involved,” she said. “Somehow or other you can’t drop it. Once it’s started it has to continue.”

She said the number of attendees each week grew as the date for the run-off election neared, but she is not sure how people will react with the current turn of events.

“People are anxious,” she said. “We may see even more involvement. It’s just hard to predict.”

What is certain is that she will eventually need to train someone to take on a greater leadership role within the organisation.

“I have to slow down and look at what other people can do,” she said. “You never want to see that fail. The vigil has become a much bigger thing. There are far more e-mails coming in with ideas and requests. But it’s funny how few of them offer help.”

Jennifer Koons is an IWPR reporter in London.

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