WOZA coordinator Magodonga Mahlangu speaks to SW Radio Africa journalist Lance Guma about their arrest and detention in April after a WOZA demonstration against power utility ZESA and the appalling conditions in the prison.
Interview broadcast 16 September 2010
Lance Guma: The filthy state of holding cells at Harare Central police station is set to become the subject of a landmark law suit by pressure group WOZA following their last arrest and detention in April this year.
Jenni Williams, Magodonga Mahlangu, Clara Manjengwa, Selena Madukani and 67 other activists from WOZA are suing co-Home Affairs ministers Kembo Mohadi and Theresa Makone over their detention in cells that had toilets overflowing with human waste and no running water.
Now this week I have one of the WOZA activists Magodonga Mahlangu joining us on the programme. First things first Miss Mahlangu describe for us conditions inside the cells at Harare Central that prompted you to make this decision.
Magodonga Mahlangu: Yah Harare Central is very filthy and not fit for anyone to be kept there in cells or even to be working there. The moment you step at the front of the detention room, the smell, the stinking smell it just suffocates you. Once you are in the cells the cells are filthy with fresh human faeces, old, as old as three weeks or a month, it has never been cleaned and theres also urine all over the floor. You name it you can find condoms, you can find pads, anything on the floor, that place is not being cleaned yet we are supposed to go there, sleeping barefooted wearing just one bottom and one up.
Guma: Now you say in your letter stating your intention to sue that you were forced to remove your shoes and all undergarments until each of you had a single top and bottom. Were you given any explanation why this was necessary?
Mahlangu: Unfortunately at Harare central police station or any police station if you try for example you ask something you are told that the moment you are arrested you have no rights. They say if you are a prisoner or if you are a suspect for that matter you dont have any rights so at the time we asked we did not get an answer, in fact there just confrontation, we tried to say we have the right to do this, we can do this, why are we not allowed to wear clothes, they will just tell you, harrass you further, even the use of a toilet paper. Can you imagine, we had to fight to use that, because the moment I stepped into that police station, the smell it just made me have a running stomach there and then so I had a running tummy and I wasnt allowed to keep a piece of toilet paper, I had to fight, I kept it by force.
Guma: You have been arrested and detained at Harare Central police station before in your many years of activism, what was different in April that prompted you to contemplate this law suit?
Mahlangu: The conditions of the toilets. You cannot even keep animals there, it is worse now, and its surprising that this is the time were they can buy disinfectants and other detergents to clean the cells but they are not doing that, they are not giving priority to that. They are only arresting people and then dumping them there. Even for the police officers who work there, its not healthy for them. But for you, someone who has to sleep there, eat there, theres no running water, everything is filthy.
Guma: Just remind our listeners in case they have forgotten why did they arrest you in April in the first place?
Mahlangu: Yah we had a peaceful protest to Megawatt ZESA office in Harare where we were saying that its very unfair, its grossly unfair for them to be charging us, billing us exorbitant bills yet we are not getting any supply any electricity supply. We carried out a survey that showed maybe within a month we get seven days full supply of electricity so we had gone there for them to address this issue because now we had kept incurring bills, especially those with fixed billing meters. Whether you had electricity or no electricity, you still had to pay the full amount of electricity for the month. If you dont pay it incurs interest so you are always incurring debt, you are always spending more money on alternative energy like paraffin, wood and other things, gas and other things and the candles.
Guma: It must make you angry that even the police who arrested you suffer because of these power cuts that you were demonstrating about, so its kind of sadly funny that they should be doing this to you when you are raising an issue which also affects them.
Mahlangu: Yah its very sad and the fact that we were kept there for six days and then we were never taken to court because the AGs office said there was no case against us. Six days in those filthy conditions to be told there is no case. Moreover to mention something that is very crucial here this was the week of, the period of independence day it went in the independence day, the 18th of April we spent it in custody yet the liberation fighters, our brothers, our fathers and our mothers fought so that we could be able to free express ourselves and get our issues across freely by the means that we choose.
Guma: Now I spoke to co-Home Affairs minister Theresa Makone in July this year and she blamed a lack of resources for the appalling state of cells. She was previously Public Works minister and said where she needed a budget of US$ 90 million to maintain government buildings throughout the country, she was lucky if she got more than two million in a year. Do you believe this is the reason why conditions are like this, that theres no money to maintain the police cells?
Mahlangu: I dont think thats the case because, I think they are prioritising that because what we are talking about, the infrastructure is there, everything is there, only it needs to be maintained, kept not by renovating or painting, its just cleaning with detergent and water, keeping, making sure policing the people who are cleaning because I will tell you the tax payers money is going to someone who is being paid to clean those facilities, those premises, they are not doing that.
What we have seen that they will use urine with a mop, mopping urine and then they will mop the entire place, theres no supervision and the political power, power from ministers involved, concerned and the commissioner himself and other people involved in this ministry to make sure that this job is done. We are not talking about millions of money. We are just talking about someone doing their job and being monitored just basic things that are used.
Guma: Do you sense Miss Mahlangu the absence of any political will to address the issue of the conditions in the holding cells because to a large extent ZANU PF uses them to detain political opponents on many occasions so it suits them to keep conditions the way they are.
Mahlangu: Yah thats the problem in Zimbabwe if you are a suspect or arrested, going, being arrested, you are serving a sentence whether you are guilty or not guilty. And the only thing that I want the listeners to know is that if you are kept in filthy cells, you can have your property stolen. I personally had my memory card from my phone stolen by the police officers, of which after that I went and reported, I have a case number, since then, since April they are still investigating who stole yet I told them that the person who stole my memory card from my phone is anyone who was on duty from the 15th of April when we were arrested and then between 5.30pm and the 20th of April that was Tuesday at 10am when we were released because when I booked in my phone it had everything and Im not the only one who had lost items, its only that Im the only one who had the guts to complain to the police. Police are stealing peoples, prisoners things and they go Scot free.
Guma: Its been quite a whirlwind last 12 months for you Magodonga with some of the awards that you have received, particularly in the United States, meeting the Secretary of State, meeting the President. Describe this for us, how have those experiences been? You go through all this and at the end of the day you do get recognition for your work. How does that make you feel?
Mahlangu: Yah it is something that is very, it gives us a moral boost as an organisation and as individuals but we dont want recognition from outsiders, from, yes its good to get recognition from the States and other organisations, the international community but we very much hopeful for our own leadership, our own government to recognise us because we are not doing this to be recognised we want to fix this country, we want to be proud of our country, thats why we are doing this job.
They must recognise the work that we are doing. Its not that we are against them as rulers but they are not delivering the promises of independence and social justice should be recognised. Inhuman conditions shouldnt be there, they should see that we are human beings, simple things like cleaning the toilets, clearing sewerage from the streets, picking rubbish weekly, doing simple things.
We are not saying they should pour in money, we are saying that should see that they are trying as a nation if you are trying and struggling as a nation to bring a nation to a better place, its OK for us but the problem is that these politicians are not concerned about us, they are just concerned about power.
Guma: My last question for you Miss Mahlangu is a general one. We now have had two years of a coalition government between ZANU PF and the two MDC formations, what would you say have been its successes and what would you say have been its failures, just in brief?
Mahlangu: I think the major, the successes that maybe we now can have access to some people who are in government that we can address our issues to even though they dont do much the fact that they are aware of those things even if they dont do much its something that is consoling that we can talk to some government officials unlike before. Before, we couldnt do that.
But the worse thing that we are hoping, that an ordinary person was hoping for in Zimbabwe was that they would address the education system, they would address the collapsing health delivery system but unfortunately that is not happening. Yes the schools have opened but what we are seeing is that there are more dropouts because of the teachers, they are not paying teachers enough, incentive for teachers, the parents are literally running the schools, they are buying all the things for the school.
Its not like they dont have money because we realise that most of our candidates at O level and A level did not sit for exams because of failing to pay and yet we have the audacity, the Minister of Sport and Culture in the government itself have the audacity to spend US$ 1.8 million that was used to invite Brazil (national football team) to come and play for 90 minutes in this country. That money could have gone to the education of our children, those 13 000 that had failed to sit for exams could have sat for the exams if the authorities had paid to subsidise their exam fees. This is one thing thats makes us very mad as an ordinary persons that there is no prioritizing, they always get their priorities wrong.
Guma: That was Magodonga Mahlangu from Women of Zimbabwe Arise otherwise known as WOZA joining us on Behind the Headlines this week. Miss Mahlangu thank you very much for your time.
Mahlangu: Thank you very much for having me.
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