Tag Archives: human rights

The Swazis who dare to demand democracy

You know a monarchy is feeling the heat when errant subjects face a beating with spikes. Last month, the prime minister of Swaziland, Barnabas Dlamini, threatened to use “sipakatane” — the beating of the feet with of metal or wooden spikes — to cow pro-democracy activists into submission. His comments came after a protest march triggered fifty arrests and the deportation of several South African trade unionists from Africa’s last absolute monarchy.

King Mswati III has led Swaziland since 1986. Ruling by decree, he has maintained the state of emergency his father, King Sobhuza II, instituted in 1973 — five years after independence.

Forbes magazine estimates Mswati’s wealth to be $200 million, making him the world’s 15th richest monarch. In a country with the world’s highest prevalence of HIV (at 40%), and with seven out of ten citizens living in poverty, Mswati’s lavish lifestyle (funded by an annual allocation larger than the education budget) has provoked outrage. Plans to buy a $45 million Bombardier jet in 2002 were shelved but the king’s penchant for heavy metal persists, with a purchase of ten BMWs (one for each of his wives) in 2005 and 20 armour-plated Mercedes last year.

The Swazis are losing patience with this conspicuous consumption, however. In August 2008, hundreds of women marched through the streets of Mbabane, the capital, to protest against a shopping trip for nine of the king’s wives to Europe.

In February this year, the Swaziland Democracy Campaign, an umbrella body of Swazi and South African organizations, including trade unions, churches and NGOs, was formed. The organization rallied hundreds to march for democracy during a common market of Eastern and Southern Africa summit on the seventh of September, as Mswati played host to 19 African heads of state.

The police responded in brutal fashion. Mario Masuku, president of Swaziland’s banned political party, PUDEMO, was put under house arrest while his deputy, Sikhumbuzo Phakathi, was arrested at the border. Phakathi remains in detention, fuelling concerns he will meet the same fate as Sipho Jele, a fellow activist who died in police detention earlier this year.

Zanele Matebula, the deputy international secretary of South Africa’s largest trade union, COSATU, was one of the 50 activists detained. After four hours of being questioned by police, she and four colleagues were booted out of the country.

“To deport five people, they mobilised about 300 members of the police, military and other officials. It was ridiculous. It was all about the pretence of a strong state,” Steve Faulkner, a union spokesman, told the M&G. “But this is a turning point for Swaziland,” he added. “In spite of the intimidatory behaviour, the confidence of the people is soaring and they’re really getting organized.”

Swaziland’s future is uncertain, but what is clear is that its nascent civil rights movement is gathering a momentum not seen since independence. With Swaziland economically reliant on South Africa, the latter is ideally placed to capitalise on this momentum and pressurise Mswati to reform. But as its approach to Zimbabwe shows, South Africa is notoriously reluctant to step on the toes of her neighbours. It will be up to the rest of the international community encourage Swaziland’s monarchy to modernise.

According to the Swaziland Solidarity Network, the EU provides £65 million in aid to Swaziland annually, while the US donates approximately $200 million. Donor countries should stop turning a blind eye to Mswati’s excesses and should rather use this funding strategically to encourage democratisation.


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Is Tsvangirai an anti-gay bigot like Mugabe?

The BBC recently reported that Morgan Tsvangirai, Zimbabwe’s prime minister and head of the opposition MDC, had declared support for Robert Mugabe’s refusal to protect gay rights in Zimbabwe’s new constitution. If his comments are accurate, they represent yet another step backwards in the long walk towards tolerance and respect for human rights in Zimbabwe.

According to The Zambia Post, Tsvangirai said, “The President has spoken about gay rights, about some men who want to breathe into other men’s ears. I don’t agree with that. Why would you look for men when our women make up 52% of our population? Men are much fewer than women.” The two leaders were sharing the platform at an International Women’s Day celebration. Mugabe had declared that protecting gay rights in the constitution “is not debatable, it’s not up for discussion”.

As in many African countries, homosexual activity is still illegal in Zimbabwe and gay and lesbian Zimbabweans have faced decades of repression, persecution, blackmail and assault. Mugabe has had a long history of homophobia, describing gays as “worse than pigs and dogs” in 1995. His recent pronouncements on the constitution, while inexcusable, are therefore unsurprising.

Tsvangirai’s endorsement of Mugabe’s view, however, is bitterly disappointing. He is, after all, the leader of an organisation supposedly fighting for constitutional democracy and a respect for human rights.  Showing contempt for sexual minorities and the suffering they face in Zimbabwe on a daily basis, his comments undermine the credibility of his stated commitment to human rights, and reinforce an already bleak climate of discrimination and intolerance.

Tsvagirai’s remarks also contradict his very own party’s stance on sexual orientation rights. According to the Post:

Under the Bill of Rights section, the MDC position paper states that: “In addition, the right to freedom from discrimination, given our history of discrimination and intolerance, must be broad to include the protection of personal preferences, that is gays and lesbians should be protected by the constitution.”

I’m curious about the man’s motives. Did he think a spot of gay-bashing was an easy way to reach common ground with his [not so] erstwhile foe? Or does he really believe that gays are fair game, and that depriving them of their rights is the best way to ensure they conform to prevailing cultural “norms”. Perhaps he believes by letting persecution flourish – a good beating, the occasional raid, and some punitive fines – they will be “cured” of what he apparently sees as an “abnormality”.

One would have expected more empathy from a man in charge of a movement whose members face ongoing harassment – including arbitrary torture, kidnappings and arrests.

Tsvangirai has let the Zimbabwean people, and not merely its gays and lesbians, down. This is because, a country cannot be truly free unless the rights of all those who live in it are respected and protected. The first step towards that, albeit by no means the only one, is to have those rights enshrined in a constitution. He should be ashamed.


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If killing the boers is OK, how about blacks, women and gays?

ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu has defended Julius Malema’s lusty renditions of the infamous “kill the boers, they are rapists” song, arguing (according to this Sapa article) that the “the lyrics of the song had been quoted out of context”.

“This song was sung for many years even before Malema was born. Julius doesn’t even know who’s the writer of the song. He got it from us [the ANC]. You must blame the ANC, don’t blame Julius. But when you blame the ANC, then contextualise it,” Sapa quotes Mthembu as saying.

By Mthembu’s logic, it is completely acceptable inciting people to kill others, provided there is “context”. What does that mean? Well, so as long as “kill the blacks” was an old apartheid song, embittered racists can chant it from the rooftops. So long as “kill the women” was some sort of misogynist anthem, chauvinists can do the Macarena to it in male-only clubs. So long as “kill the gays” was a major hit for bigots as they set lesbians alight, they can scream it as they throw the gays off bridges and into manholes.

That’s the logic behind ANC’s defence of Julius Malema’s call to kill. But it is, most likely, an unintended logic. Because one gets the sense from Mthembu’s inelegant explanation behind Malema’s behaviour that singing “kill the boers” is acceptable simply because of the group it is targeting. In the ANC’s eyes, this, surely, is a way of putting a “vanquished” people in their place, reinforcing the ANC’s Africanist political hegemony, reminding white Afrikaners — yes, after all, that is what the word “boer” is a term for — that they are “guests” staying in this country at the almighty ANC’s behest, and that their livelihoods, and indeed lives, are at the mercy of the ANC.

The ANC equates the black majority with its own political majority. It equates the Afrikaans minority with a political minority, a minority that is supposedly stubborn, resistant to change and unwilling to accept the political majority’s power. This is a dangerous, unfortunate perspective because it negates the nuances of political thought and tramples on the concepts of individual freedom, liberty and expression. It forgoes any notion of equality and inclusiveness.

The Afrikaners are South Africans and Africans. They are equals and deserve to be treated as such. Provided our Constitution and laws are respected, they are as entitled to live in whichever way they want to, to say and do whatever they want — as any other South African, of any culture, race or creed, should be able to do.

By supporting Malema’s calls for the demise of the Afrikaners, as implied in “kill the boers”, the ANC shows contempt for this concept of equality and individual liberty — and for our Constitution which guarantees this. Why? Because the ANC believes that minorities (whether racial, political or intellectual) require subordination and domination. This impulse shares the very same roots as the heinous National Party’s urge to dominate and subordinate groupings it considered “other” and inferior. But that’s no surprise — whatever its claims to contrary, the ANC has shown again and again that it is cut of the same cloth as the National Party — like its predecessor in power it is racially nationalistic, adhering to the politics of domination and exclusion.

Malema’s recent pronouncements — and the ANC’s sprightly defence of them — are no exception.

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Zimbabwe heading towards a Rwandan genocide

Once upon a time there was an African country that after several years of instability seemed to be moving shakily towards reform and democracy. Its ageing despotic president had signed a power-sharing deal with the opposition that created a unity government that would precipitate a new constitution and elections.

Sounds rather like Zimbabwe, doesn’t it? But I was actually describing Rwanda in early 1994 – only months before a genocide that would claim almost a million lives. While the Arusha Accords were being haphazardly implemented (but more often than not being ignored), fanatics in the countryside were setting up militia training bases. Arms and military advisers were being flown in to train and equip these ragtag groupings. President Habyarimana’s assassination in April 1994 was the catalyst for a hundred days of massacres, rape and torture.

Zimbabwe is in an eerily similar situation to the one that Rwanda was experiencing before its genocide.  After a decade of brutality and economic devastation, it is tempting to hope that Zanu PF’s “partnership” with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) shows that Zimbabwe is irreversibly on the road to recovery.

Sadly, however, what we see in Zimbabwe is nothing but a false dawn: a Potemkin peace designed to lure us into the same indifferent complacency with which the world viewed Rwanda in 1994.

The violent repression that has characterised Zanu PF’s rule continues, flouting the provisions of the Global Political Agreement (GPA), the power-sharing agreement signed with the opposition in September. Zanu PF considers the unity deal after its defeat at the March 29 polls last year as a mere speed bump in its path of continued authoritarian rule – a speed bump which creates the illusion that it is prepared to accept reform and genuine democracy.

Don’t be fooled. Activists, lawyers and MDC supporters continue to be unlawfully harassed and detained. Senior opposition leaders face death threats. Opposition members of parliament are being targeted with ridiculous criminal charges by a brazenly partisan police and judiciary. Five have already been convicted (MPs have to resign if they serve a jail-term longer than six months).

The Zanu PF militias that unleashed a wave of brutality on suspected MDC supporters as punishment for the 2008 election result, have been accused by teachers of setting up “terror bases” at schools.

Even more frightening (and chillingly reminiscent of the prelude to Rwanda’s genocide when French weapons were despatched en-masse to Kigali) is the build-up of weapons in Zimbabwe.

Last month the International Peace Information Service (IPIS) revealed that in April 2008, Chinese arms (including several million rounds of ammunition as well as RPC7 rockets and mortars) destined for Zimbabwe reached to Luanda, Angola. It has been confirmed that the arms have subsequently reached Harare. Later, in August, an additional 53 tons of ammunition were flown to Harare from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in August 2008.

There’s more. David Maynier, the Democratic Alliance’s defence spokesperson, has revealed that South Africa is seeking authorisation from its National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC) to export ammunition to its neighbour. Maynier has been subsequently vilified by the ANC ruling party which seems more obsessed by how the opposition MP found out about the application than about what the arms will be used for should they be authorised for export.

President Mugabe has unleashed his military on innocent civilians before – in 1982 he used North Korean-trained troops to torture and massacre thousands in Matabeleland for their alleged support for Zapu, a rival anti-colonialist movement that he eventually forced to merge with his own party.

His army’s abysmal rights record continues, with Human Rights Watch recently exposing the army’s invasion of the Marange diamond fields in November 2008 where it has subsequently subjected locals to forced labour, torture and murder.

Two South African MPs, Wilmot James and Kenneth Mubu, who returned earlier this month from Zimbabwe on a fact-finding mission reported, “There are reports from credible sources of increasing paramilitary activity in the countryside…”

They explained, “Under his [Mugabe’s] personal control he has a paramilitary machine consisting of soldiers, thugs, the so-called war veterans and ZANU political commissars. There are the hit squads. The police also collaborate…” They also have reason to believe that in addition to the arms exports uncovered by IPIS, “Mugabe is talking to Venezuela, Cuba and Korea to fund a war-chest in preparation for the referendum and election following on the implementation of the GPA.”

While Rwanda’s genocide was powered by ethnic hatred, this was merely a pretext: the tragedy was deliberately orchestrated by a shadowy ruling clique which knew its power was in jeopardy, and which refused to sacrifice it at all cost.  So while ethnic tensions in Zimbabwe are no where near the levels of those in Rwanda in 1994, a similar intensity of hatred exists, as does the same desperate willingness for its rulers to do whatever it takes to remain in power.

The arms flooding in and the paramilitary training in the countryside are deliberate preparations for war – a war to be inflicted by homegrown postcolonial imperialists on an innocent and undeserving citizenry so that Zanu PF’s rapacious supremacy can continue.

We cannot ignore the warning signs. We know what happened in Rwanda in 1994. The world looked away while almost a million people were slaughtered. Will we let this happen in Zimbabwe?

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South Africa exporting oppression with dodgy arms sales

South Africa’s National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC) has approved the sale of South African-made weapons to Syria, Libya and Venezuela — three countries with appalling human rights records, the first two vicious dictatorships, the third a sham democracy that stands accused of arming FARC — a Colombian terrorist network.

But that’s not all. Currently waiting for approval are the sale of ammunition to Zimbabwe, aviation suits to Iran and yet more arms to Syria. The NCACC has also approved the exhibition and demonstration of radar warning receivers for submarines to North Korea.

These are the findings uncovered by the South Africa’s official opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA). For more detail about the findings and the type of arms being exported, click here. Watch the shadow defence minister’s press conference below:

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Massacres, forced labour haunt Zimbabwe diamond fields

Military control over diamond mining in Zimbabwe’s eastern Marange district has resulted in a brutal mix of massacres, forced labour, beatings and rape.

This is according to a comprehensive report released last week by Human Rights Watch (HRW), the New York-based rights NGO, which interviewed over 100 people in the region in February 2009.

Mining in Marange began in 2006. Initially the government allowed anybody to prospect in the area. Then it started clamping down. Recognizing the mines as an important revenue opportunity, the Zanu PF-controlled army invaded the mines in October 2008, massacring over 200 miners in the process.

Helicopters swooped down over illegal miners, shooting live ammunition and teargas. 800 soldiers were sent in to secure the area. Illegal miners were forced to dig mass graves for their murdered comrades. The report says:

A local headman told Human Rights Watch that in the three weeks of the military operation, Chiadzwa resembled “a war zone in which soldiers killed people like flies.” Another headman was forced to bury five bodies of miners; all five bodies had what appeared to be bullet wounds. None of the bodies were identifiable.

With the army in control of the area, the violence has continued and illegal mining – which the police and military were ostensibly supposed to shut down – has continued to flourish, this time in the hands of soldiers.

The army is forcing at least 300 children to work without pay in the mines. A woman forced to work on the mines told an HRW researcher: ‘We worked together with about 30 children of ages between 10 and 17 years. The children worked the same 11 hours each day as adults did. The soldiers had a duty roster for all villagers in Chiadzwa to take turns to work in the fields, irrespective of age.’ The woman explained how men did the digging, while children and women carried the ore, then sieved it before sorting the diamonds. The women and children were forced to work without breaks, with soldiers not even providing food and water, and beating those working too slowly.

Soldiers have also been plundering impoverished villages, stealing items like cellphones, maize and blankets. In addition to this, the report reveals that:

Several witnesses and victims told Human Rights Watch that soldiers continue to assault, harass, and subject the local community to torture…

Two such incidences occurred in February 2009 when:

[F]ive soldiers beat three Muchena villagers for over five hours using a rubber hose without stating any reasons for the assault. The same night, eight soldiers assaulted a family in Muedzengwa village using open palms, clenched fists, rifle butts, and booted feet. The soldiers then allegedly stole several items of personal property. During the beatings, the soldiers demanded information on local miners, which the villagers did not have.

Zanu PF party apparatchiks have also threatened to forcibly remove those who live in the area, estimated by HRW to be about 7000 families. The reign of terror and military oppression continues, with the illicit profits from smuggling (diamonds are sent illegally to Mozambique and Johannesburg, South Africa) benefiting soldiers and senior Zanu PF officials.

HRW has called on Zimbabwe’s power-sharing government to intervene and place police control over the area, ensuring ‘that the police abide by internationally recognized standards of law enforcement and use of lethal force.’ It also calls for the government to launch an investigation into the rampant human rights abuses in the area.

Unfortunately, the unity government is unlikely to do anything. While Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai is eager to claim that Zimbabwe has made great strides in governance reform, and that his nemesis President Robert Mugabe is accepting this process, nothing could be further from the truth.

As I have discussed in the past, Zanu PF is doing its utmost to stall reforms proposed in the unity agreement. Furthermore, human rights activists, lawyers and opposition MDC politicos continue to be unlawfully harassed and detained. Hundreds of prisoners die of starvation in jail. And land grabs and persecution of farmers occur with impunity.

Zanu PF’s undemocratic participation in government is only further aiding Zimbabwe’s disintegration and prolonging the suffering of our ordinary Zimbabweans. The world cannot look away from the horrifying abuses and continuing tyranny in the Marange diamond fields and elsewhere. It is no use pretending that Zanu PF is prepared to surrender its illegitimate and strangulating hold on power. Zimbabwe will continue its agonizing implosion if the West decides to prop up this sham unity government.

Regional powerhouse South Africa as well as Europe, Britain and the US need to act in the best interests of all Zimbabweans and force Zanu PF to accept the rule of law and ensure that the obligations in the unity agreement are adhered to. The suffering citizens of Marange, and of Zimbabwe as a whole, deserve nothing less.

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Special Assignment to expose Zim prison horrors

Tonight at 9.30 pm on SABC3’s investigative journalism programme Special Assignment, there will be an expose on the horrors of Zimbabwe’s prisons. Below are some details from Special Assignment‘s website (thanks This is Zimbabwe):

This Tuesday Special Assignment takes you into Zimbabwe’s prisons – which have become virtual death traps for prisoners.

This exclusive, never before been seen video images, were captured following an intense three month investigation and brave co-operation of officials within the Zimbabwean prison system.

The officials filmed day to day events inside prison on hidden cameras. The result is a grim picture of a huge humanitarian crisis within the penal system.

Inside we meet Brian Gumbo who is half way through his two year sentence for housebreaking…and it seem unlikely that he will make if out of there. The camera follows him around as he shuffles from his cell to a room where he receives a bowl of sadza-a thick porridge made from maize meal. Like many others he is also suffering from pellagra-a deficiency disease caused by a lack of vitamin B3 and proteins.

According to a report by the Zimbabwean Association for Crime Prevention and Rehabilitation of the offender (ZACRO), at least 20 prisoners are dying each day across the country’s 55 institutions.

Some of the prisoners featured in the programme have already died and others like Brian Gumbo are on the brink of death.   

“Hell Hole” was produced by Executive Producer Johann Abrahams and Godknows Nare.

Read This is Zimbabwe‘s article on Zimbabwean prisons here.

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