Zimbabwe: charities keep faith despite Mugabe’s brutal regime

Charities have faced persecution under Mugabe's regime.

Non-governmental groups continue to campaign for human rights in spite of the risk of beatings, abduction and torture

As Zimbabwe's autocratic presiden

As the charities struggled to help an increasingly desperate
population, left hungry and impoverished by government corruption and
incompetent economic reforms, dozens of their workers suffered
beatings, abduction, imprisonment and torture.

Even after the establishment of a new government this month, with
Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the main opposition party the Movement for
Democratic Change (MDC) and now prime minister, many charity workers
remain locked up in terrible conditions, according to the National
Association of NGOs of Zimbabwe (Nango).

"This is Zimbabwe’s Guantanamo," says Cephas Zinhumwe, chief executive
of Nango, which represents more than 1,000 non-governmental
organisations across the country.

"Some of our members are still in jail. Mugabe blames them for the
regime change. Tsvangirai said when he was sworn in they would be
released. But they haven’t been yet. Some of them [the charity workers]
are sick and won’t survive in the jails. We want to make sure they’re
allowed to get to hospital and get treatment. No one – them or any
other prisoners – should be in those conditions."

Zinhumwe was in the UK last week to attend the annual conference of
Nango’s British counterpart the National Council of Voluntary
Organisations, trying to build partnerships with international NGOs to
help his members in their efforts to revitalise Zimbabwe.

He also met with the foreign secretary, David Miliband, to lobby for a
change in the government’s approach to his country’s plight. He opposes
the international sanctions on Zimbabwe, arguing they have not been
effective. "It’s the poor women and children who are suffering from the
sanctions," he says.

The aims of his visit to the UK reflect Nango’s changing role in
Zimbabwe. It was founded in 1962 as a non-partisan umbrella body for
social welfare organisations but has increasingly found itself
embroiled in the country’s political turmoil. Its championing of the
interests of the poor, the marginalised and the vulnerable, and defence
of the independence of its member organisations, brought it into
conflict with Mugabe and his supporters over the past decade.

"We were combating the excesses of the government," says Zinhumwe. "We didn’t think it was serving the people.

"Our major concern is to have a government that is well run and
concerned about our people. We were far ahead of other African
countries but now we are 10 to 20 years behind. We have people with no
food, no medicines, no doctors.

"If it wasn’t for the NGOs, the situation in Zimbabwe would be much
worse. Our members are sourcing funds and medicines to contain the
cholera epidemic. As it is now, our government has no capacity to
contain it."

However, in pressing Mugabe’s government to tackle issues such as the
independence of the judiciary and the media, Nango’s members found
themselves treated as political opponents.

"The only sector [of our members] to have come into direct
confrontation with Mugabe is the human rights and governance sector,
which is challenging the government on a range of issues, even
violence," says Zinhumwe.

"What we are saying is that we can’t live in a country with this level
of violence, where the government is not providing schools and
hospitals and the judiciary is not independent. But once you do that,
you are seen as the enemy of the state and a collaborator with the US
and UK.

"Thirty to 40 of our members were detained last year. Some of our
members were beaten, harassed heavily and questioned by the police.
Last year some were abducted, including Jestina Mukoko, director of the
Zimbabwe Peace Project, and two of her staff."

Mukoko, a forthright campaigner for human rights, was dragged from her
home in Norton, near the capital Harare, in December in her nightdress
by armed men. She was tortured – beaten with rubber truncheons – and
interrogated, and has still not been released despite demands from
international human rights bodies and politicians.

But it is not just Zimbabwe’s human rights organisations that have
borne the brunt of the political violence. In the run up to last year’s
general elections, Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party tried to wrest control of
food distribution from independent humanitarian organisations.

"They [Zanu-PF] said that food was distributed in a partisan manner
that swayed votes, says Zinhumwe. "They wanted to see and control where
the food went."

Three years earlier, the government had tried to push through a law
that would allow the regime to manage NGOs. But thanks to concerted
efforts by a coalition of NGOs, the labour movement and the churches,
the president never signed it into law. Nango now wants a law to be
drawn up that will enable charities to operate freely while ensuring
they are independently monitored.

Nango is also lobbying for a new national constitution and a truth and
reconciliation process similar to that held in South Africa after the
end of apartheid. Zinhumwe believes this could bridge Zimbabwe’s
political divide and resolve grievances on both sides.

"The challenge will be the demand for restitution," he says. "People
have been killed, buildings destroyed, livelihoods ruined. They want to
get on with their lives and revenge won’t help."

Despite the country’s dire straits and cynicism about the new
power-sharing arrangement between Zanu-PF and the MDC, Zinhumwe is
optimistic about his country’s future.

He says: "Some people think the MDC sold out. But we will support this
government because there’s no alternative. We hope it will at least
produce a positive impact. There will be a little bit of stability. The
country has lost trust in our government and our banks, but with this
new government this could change.

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