*Trigger Warning: This article contains information about rape and sexual assault, and may be triggering for some readers.*
“The response so far is just a foretaste of things to come.” – George Charamba, spokesman for President Emmerson Mnangagwa (referring to the initial armed forces’ violent crackdown on protesters in Zimbabwe)
January has been a particularly painful month for Zimbabweans. Protests broke out during the #ZimbabweShutdown on the 14th, after a hike in fuel and food prices, chronic cash shortages and a doctor’s strike. Police officers and army soldiers were sent to ‘restore calm’. As usual, they did so with a disproportionate use of force. This resulted in over 600 arrests, 12 deaths, over 70 cases of gunshot wounds, mass beatings, and cases of rape.
While this was happening, President Emmerson Mnangagwa (nicknamed ED) was cozying up to government officials in Russia, Belarus, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. The President’s trip was cut short before he went to Davos, after Zimbabweans demanded he return to fix the mess he’d made. (Although one could argue that he would have wanted to avoid being grilled on his poor economic policies and his government’s rampant corruption and incompetence.) ED’s response to state sanctioned violence has been less than satisfactory, with no real effort made to stop the army and police’s actions. Other state officials aren’t helping either. Police spokeswoman Charity Charamba shocked no one when she said that “rogue elements” in the police force had stolen official uniforms, guns and cars and were responsible for the violence, not real officers and soldiers of course. The irony here is, if we assume she’s telling the truth (which I obviously do not), that we’re expected to trust a police and army force that can’t even prevent the theft of official uniforms, equipment and vehicles from being stolen. (A uniform? Maybe. An army truck? Come on, now.)
“The Zimbabwean Way”
ED had chosen to feign ignorance about police and military brutality, until SkyNews reported on the extent of police and army brutality. It’s important to note that even though Zimbabweans at home and abroad have been protesting, writing petitions, conducting campaigns on social media and mobilising donations for support for victims of violence, it was a foreign media channel that triggered ED’s empathy:
I was appalled by today’s @SkyNews report. That is not the Zimbabwean way. I have instructed that the individuals behind this be arrested and encourage all those impacted to contact the authorities and file an official complaint
— President of Zimbabwe (@edmnangagwa) January 28, 2019
But what is the “Zimbabwean Way”?
What I think ED is alluding to is that in Zimbabwe, armed forces and police do not use disproportionate force against civilians; that any member of the army or police that abuses their power will be prosecuted; that the rule of law prevails and that Zimbabweans are always treated with dignity and respect throughout the legal process. None of this is true, and the president knows this. George Charamba’s comments on the military intervention before ED’s tweet were a glimpse into the President’s true feelings. The army’s brutal reaction was but a “foretaste of things to come” for our people. Now that, unfortunately, is the ‘Zimbabwean way’ that I’m familiar with.
For decades, the Zanu-PF led government has openly approved of using state police and army officials to enact violence against civilians. The most shocking and shameful example is Gukurahundi, where soldiers, under the 5th Brigade, attacked, killed, raped and destroyed property of Ndebele civilians. We have seen state sanctioned violence over and over again during election season, to rid urban areas of street vendors, to ‘teach’ peaceful protesters a ‘lesson’, and to prevent the opposition from gaining support. The ruling party has been unable to separate itself from the state, using state apparatus to maintain Zanu dominance. Zanu-PF is truly the thing that goes ‘bump’ in (both) the night (and day). You’re either with them or against them, and the latter could get you killed, jailed, maimed and even raped. The real ‘Zimbabwean way’ is therefore the Zanu way, and the Zanu way is littered with a trail of dead and violated bodies.
Women’s bodies: a battlefield for political violence
Rape crimes in Zimbabwe often go unreported, particularly when they’re committed by soldiers and police. The ones that are reported are often the last to come to light, mostly because victims are afraid of being targeted after they make a report. National statistics in the first quarter of 2018 showed that over 7000 women and girls were raped in 2017 and less than 50% of those cases were satisfactorily dealt with through the courts. More than 60% of rape cases involve minors, an important statistic when considering how many minors have been arrested and assaulted in the past two weeks. Worryingly, cases of rape in Zimbabwe increased by 81% between 2010 and 2016.
Politically motivated rape in particular has been a part of the fabric of the ruling party’s violent ways for years. Women’s rights activists and feminist groups have been conducting research and speaking out on it for decades now. The highest number of rape cases linked to political violence occur during elections and periods of public protest/unrest, where women and girls are often raped and sexually assaulted as a ‘punishment’ for their (or their spouse’s/family’s) support for the opposition. It is designed to destroy women’s dignity and harm them into silence and obedience.
ITV did a report on 11 women that said they were raped by soldiers during door to door raids after the protests. One soldier allegedly admitted to the crime, with no remorse. He was just following orders. His statement suggests that if those giving the order to ‘punish’ civilians for their dissidence are not directly telling their subordinates to rape women, they’re definitely not actively warning them not to either. This kind of punishment leaves lifelong scars and trauma, cultivates a culture of impunity for rapists, and entrenches the power of a ruling party that will do anything, including using brutal force against its own people, to stay in control.
As long as the “Zimbabwean way” is the “Zanu way”, Zimbabwean citizens will continue to be victims of state sanctioned violence, and we will have to continue fighting a system that exists to exploit and harm us.