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Fury at Mugabe Approval of Police Beatings

Zimbabweans have been enraged by their president's support for police violence.
By IWPR Srdan
Ordinary Zimbabweans are angry with President Robert Mugabe for what many are describing as unforgivable and irresponsible statements he has been making following the bone-breaking assault last month by his security forces on national trades union chief Wellington Chibebe and other top union leaders.

Addressing a rented crowd bussed to Harare Airport, on his recent return from addressing the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Mugabe said he would continue to sanction the beating of labour leaders who disregard police orders.

Rejecting widespread international condemnation of the assaults on the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, ZCTU, leadership, Mugabe said his government has no apologies to make. "There are some [foreign countries and human rights groups] who think we are not independent, who think they can organise demonstrations and look for pot-bellied people like Chibebe to demonstrate.

"We cannot have a revolt to the system. Some are crying 'We were beaten up'. Yes, you were beaten up. When the police say move, move. If you don't move, you are inviting police to use force."

Chibebe, the ZCTU's secretary-general, remains in hospital with critical injuries sustained when police attacked him and top colleagues as they began a small street protest in mid-September against low wages and the government's failure to provide anti-retroviral drugs for Zimbabweans who are dying from AIDS at a rate of more than 3,000 a week.

Chibebe suffered head injuries, a broken arm and hand, and extensive bruising in the street assault and subsequently in a police cell. Doctors report that they may have to remove one of the trade union chief's eyes. His colleagues also sustained broken limbs and other injuries.

Stopping in Sudan on his way back home from New York, Mugabe dismissed the trade unionists' demands as "nonsensical" and "stupid", and warned the United States, Britain and other critics to "keep you noses out of Zimbabwe". "Leave our politics to the people of Zimbabwe. You, Mr Bush, you, Mr Blair, should keep out of Zimbabwe. They [protesters] will be beaten up, so there is no apology for that," he said.

In interviews with IWPR, Zimbabweans said they were deeply affronted by the President's remarks.

This anger was particularly strong among elderly women who said 42-year-old Chibebe could have been one of their sons.

Seventy-seven-year-old Mbuya Mary banged the ground furiously with her walking stick as she said, "I can't believe that Mugabe can be so heartless about a person who is lying in hospital and could die from the beatings."

Mbuya Mary, one of about a dozen other elderly women at a funeral wake in the working-class district of Kambuzuma, to the west of Harare, the national capital, said, "What makes me so angry is that the demonstration was not political but was about the poverty we are all wallowing in. We are suffering and when our children want to ask for better working conditions and better wages, they get beaten up. It was not just an ordinary beating; to me, it looks like they wanted to kill him [Chibebe].

"Imagine a person representing the views of many people being beaten up like that in an independent Zimbabwe. My friends, I grew up in the colonial era. The nationalists were not subjected to such beatings during that time. Mugabe himself was a political prisoner. Wasn't he allowed to study while in prison? (Mugabe obtained three University of London degrees while imprisoned in the former Rhodesia). Was he beaten up like what they did Chibebe?"

Sixty nine-year-old Amai va Rose was equally angry with Mugabe, whom she had supported for more than three decades. "Chibebe could have been my son," she said. "How could they beat up someone like that? We haven't seen this happening before. What they did to Chibebe is what in Shona we call 'kafira pamberi' (meaning injuries so bad they can result in death)."

David Chigada, a Kambuzuma schoolteacher, said the assault on Chibebe conjured up memories of South African nationalist and Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko's death in police custody in 1977 during the apartheid era. "The difference with Chibebe's case, and what makes it more painful," said Chigada, "is that in Zimbabwe it was black-on-black violence in an independent country which claims to be a better democracy than President George Bush's United States of America.

"There are other similarities between the beatings of Biko and Chibebe. The security agents in both cases were brutal, severe and savage."

Amai Grace, 65, said she believed that Mugabe certainly has apologies to make "not to the United States or Britain, but to we Zimbabweans.

"Only if you could be in my head, you could see how angry I am. And if you could get into my heart, you will see how sad and mournful I am for Chibebe and his family and Zimbabwe. To have a leader defend violence perpetrated by people who should be protecting the public is unbelievable and sad. Mugabe's total disregard for his people's suffering is shocking. He doesn't respect his people. That makes him dangerous."

Another elderly woman suggested that perhaps only a demonstration of grandmothers and mothers to protest against the assaults and demand an apology from Mugabe would work in the present political climate. "We will see what he will do to mothers and grandmothers of Zimbabwe," she said. "Will he tell them to beat us up as well? Seriously, this is the time that women's organisations should act. If Mugabe gets away with this, we will have created a monster."

Elsewhere, Joram Nyathi, editor of the weekly Zimbabwe Independent, one of the few remaining non-government newspapers, wrote in his regular column, "Who will protect us from a vengeful police force so emboldened by a culture of impunity that they can break people's skulls in broad daylight without any fear of prosecution?

"We live under very trying times as a population terrorised by what in a democracy should be a people's police force, not a colonial institution."

Nyathi said the attack on the trade union leaders was no aberration. He said that on the same day some 70 other ordinary workers supporting the trade union movement had also been picked up and severely assaulted. However, they got no publicity.

"Police brutality has become the norm, especially among ordinary civilians who take the beatings for granted," wrote Nyathi. "When a president extols the virtues of police savagery it fills me with a sense of dread. Zimbabweans must be afraid, very afraid indeed. Mugabe has just opened for us the gates of Hell."

One prominent critic, however, said the trade unionists' attempted protest had been "just plain dumb". Professor George Ayittey, writing in the Zimbabwe Independent, said, "ZCTU leaders don't seem to have learned anything at all from their own experience or that of other African countries. Just because protest marches worked against the white colonialists, who were 'frightened' by a huge mass of black people, does not mean they will work against black neo-colonialists."

Professor Ayittey, the Ghanaian president of the Washington-based Free Africa Foundation, said the ZCTU leaders appeared not to have heard about security forces in other African countries arresting leaders of protest marches, beating up demonstrators and even opening fire on them.

"Have they not followed events in Ethiopia where 45 were killed when police opened fire on demonstrators protesting fraudulent elections?" wrote Ayittey. "The bottom line is this: if opposition groups in Zimbabwe cannot shut down the civil service or think imaginatively of effective ways of instituting political change, they will be politely ignored by the international community and the people of Zimbabwe will continue to suffer. Protest marches, appeals and petitions don't work against a regime that is blind and stone-deaf."

Sheila Pasi is the pseudonym of an IWPR journalist in Zimbabwe.

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