By Janice McLaughlin

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March 17, 2002


I feel as if I’m watching history repeat itself. The actors are different but the script is the same. Twenty-five years ago, Ian Smith, then Prime Minister of Southern Rhodesia, declared that he would never allow the black majority to rule: “Not in a thousand years.” “Not in my lifetime.”


In 2002, Prime Minister Robert Mugabe made virtually the same statement regarding the strongest opposition that he has faced since he first came to power in April 1980. “We will never allow the MDC to rule,” he declared, claiming that the Movement for Democratic Change, a new political party launched in 2000 from a coalition of trade unionists, intellectuals, youth and business people, was a puppet of former colonial interests that would indirectly reinstate white minority rule.


Both used similar tactics against the opposition - violence, smear campaigns, arrest, detention and even death. The presidential elections held the 9th and 10th of March gave Mugabe 56% of the votes cast and another six years in office. Few observer missions certified these elections as free and fair. “From our experience on the ground, we cannot accept the legitimacy of the electoral process and therefore its outcome cannot be free and fair,” declared the Churches in Manicaland, an ecumenical group encompassing all Christian churches in Eastern Zimbabwe.  “The electoral process ignored the basic minimum electoral norms and  standards compiled and accepted by the SADC (Southern Africa Development  Community) countries,”, it said, citing the abduction of polling agents,  beating, harassment and detention of polling agents and those supporting  the opposition candidate, and the lack of security for ballots. The statement called for “rejecting the culture of lies and hypocrisy, intimidation and violence that has flourished in recent times and the promotion of honesty, truth and self-sacrifice within private and public institutions.”


In spite of the almost universal condemnation of the presidential poll where thousands of urban voters were denied the vote by reducing the number of polling stations and by changing the electoral laws, Mr. Mugabe was sworn into office on 17 March, verbally attacking all those who voted against him and vowing to send away all those who are opposed to his rule.  Like his predecessor, Ian Smith, he seems not to care what becomes of the country and its people. Already many nations have imposed sanctions and hunger is looming. Zimbabwe may soon be as isolated as was Rhodesia after Smith made his infamous unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) from Britain in 1965. In response, the United Nations imposed sanctions on the rebel nation and nationalist guerrillas launched a liberation war that took the lives of an estimated 80 thousand people until peace was negotiated at an all party conference convened by Britain in 1979.


One hundred and ten people have been murdered in political violence over the past two years. One of the victims was Takatukwa Mupawaenda, the cousin of Maryknoll Sister Claris Zvareva, who works in the Institute of Bio-ethics at the Catholic University of Bolivia in Cochabamba. She was visiting her family in the rural areas when her 70 year old cousin was dragged from his home early in the morning to a nearby field where he was beaten to death. “Every rib in his body was crushed,” reported Claris’s brother, Jacob. According to newspaper accounts: “He was accused of mobilizing chiefs, headmen and other traditional leaders against President Mugabe in next month’s presidential poll. Mupawaenda was attached by more than 30 ZANU PF supporters in his home…. They used sticks and sharp instruments to kill him.” The irony is that Mupawaenda was a respected religious leader in the area and had given Mugabe’s guerrillas spiritual guidance during the liberation war.


Like many others, he had become disillusioned after twenty years of Mugabe’s rule. “We had such high hopes after Independence,” recalls Mrs.  Agnes Mapfumo, a youth trainer at Silveira House, a leadership-training center on the outskirts of Harare where I work. Mrs. Mapfumo knows Robert Mugabe personally as well as two of his sisters who used to work at the Center. “Our lives improved at first,” she says. “The first ten years after independence saw enormous gains being made in health and education. Rural development was also a priority of the new government. Irrigation schemes were built, loans were made to small-scale farmers and new markets were opened for their products. We were happy and felt that the sacrifices we had made during the war had not been in vain.” Now she is one of those calling for change.


Chaz Maviyane-Davies is another outspoken advocate for change. Zimbabwe’s leading graphic artist, Chaz has won numerous international artistic awards. But he is proudest of the work that he has done at home to overcome voter apathy. Both in the 2000 parliamentary elections and the 2002 presidential elections, Chaz produced one poster each day for a month that visually reminded viewers of the importance of their vote. Powerful graphic commentaries on the problems in the country, these “Portals of Truth”, as he called his latest series, have appeared in the media both nationally and abroad. His courageous expressions have not earned him applause in the ruling circles and he was deliberately bypassed in recent government awards to Zimbabwe’s leading artists.


I met Chaz shortly after Independence when he was just starting his own studio. Although he needed new clients to survive, he always volunteered his work free of charge to non-governmental groups like those for whom I worked. Recently he designed the cover of “Tusimpi”, a book of Tonga proverbs that grew out of an advocacy program that I am promoting among one of the most disadvantaged groups in the country. The Ttonga people are calling for the preservation of their language and culture. Chaz used some of the proverbs from the book in his “Portals of Truth.”


People ask me how I feel personally when the former liberators, who I once supported, are now the oppressors. “Did we make a mistake?,” a friend in the anti-apartheid friend recently asked me. “I would do it all over again,” I replied. “I supported what they stood for in the 70s. I cannot support what they stand for now.” As a result, I am involved in groups that help to expose what is happening in present-day Zimbabwe such as Amani Trust, an organization that provides medical, legal and counseling services to the victims of violence. Amani is a founder member of the Human Rights Forum that brings together nine of Zimbabwe’s leading justice and peace groups to document violations of human rights. The Forum has produced some of the most thorough and well researched information about Zimbabwe’s descent into lawlessness and anarchy.


In 1977, as press secretary for the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Rhodesia, I compiled similar reports about the atrocities committed by the Smith regime. I am proud to be supporting a new generation of prophets who are exposing present-day atrocities. I do not believe that isolation will change Zimbabwe, any more than it changed racist Rhodesia.  Sanctions may make it more difficult for Mugabe’s government to do business as usual but they will also cripple those working for change. Rather I would call on the international community to support the courageous civic groups, organizations and individuals, like Chaz Maviyane, Amani Trust and Silveira House, that are working peacefully to bring change.


Janice McLaughlin, MM, is the leadership development coordinator at Silveira House, a Jesuit training center that offers civic education and advocacy, conflict resolution and mediation, sustainable agriculture, community-based AIDS education and practical skills training. She is also on the board of Amani Trust and the African Forum for Catholic Social Teaching.


A version of this article will appear in Maryknoll magazine.  Thanks to Maryknoll for permission to post this article.