On 27 October 1922, voters in Southern Rhodesia participated in a referendum. They had two choices: to establish self-government or to join the Union of South Africa.
Before this, the territory was administered by the British South Africa Company (BSAC) which had been granted a Royal Charter in 1889. A Legislative Council established in 1898 was dominated by representatives of the company. Essentially, the colony was under company rule.
There was a sharp division between those who preferred joining the Union of South Africa, which had been established in 1910 and others who preferred self-government. This culminated in the referendum.
The electorate was predominantly members of the white settler community. 59% voted for self-government rejecting the option to join the Union of South Africa which got 40% of the vote.
I have recounted this episode of our history for two reasons. First, as a reminder of the fact that our country is the product of complex processes of imagination, some of which were beyond the control of the majority. If the referendum had gone the other way, Zimbabwe could easily be a province of South Africa. The pro-Unionists had managed to get some tentative terms of joining from the Jan Smuts administration in the Union of South Africa.
Second, is for the irony that while the option of joining the Union of South Africa was soundly rejected, present-day Zimbabwe is operating like a province of South Africa. It may be politically independent, but socially and economically, it has become a surrogate province of its big neighbour. Estimates suggest that at least a couple of million Zimbabweans have made South Africa their home. They are largely economic refugees.
Thousands cross the border, even at illegal points, to go to South Africa, either to look for employment or as cross-border traders. Nowadays they also cross the border for medical treatment, with Zimbabwe’s public health-care system having virtually collapsed. Zimbabwe itself has become one big supermarket for South African businesses.
But what prompted thoughts about the historic moment of 1922, is how Zimbabwean state media has virtually abdicated its responsibilities under the constitution and surrendered to South African media. The Constitution of Zimbabwe requires state-owned media to show impartiality and “to afford fair opportunity for the presentation of divergent views and dissenting opinions” (Section 61(5)(c)). There is no compliance with this requirement.
The ZBC which is the major national broadcaster with overwhelming control of the airwaves is brazenly partisan and always parrots the ruling party’s view. International and domestic election observers have time and again recommended media reforms to no avail. The ZBC does not provide fair opportunities to opposition parties and civil society groups to present their views. Everything is pro-ZANU PF and there is no room for dissenting opinions.
This is deliberate because control of national television and radio broadcasting ensures that ZANU PF retains control over the national narrative and how it’s shaped. However, this partisanship has left a significant gap in the Zimbabwean broadcasting market. There is no room for independent players because ZANU PF wants to retain control of the narrative. In many ways what is happening to Chin’ono is a sign from the government on how they want those in the media to behave. You don’t touch the President, his family or associates.
This gap has been filled by South African media, moreso today than ever before. The average Zimbabwean now relies on SABC, the South African national broadcaster, than the ZBC. South Africa’s free and vibrant media presents multiple options, which means eNCA and ETV are also providing great coverage of the Zimbabwean crisis. The irony is that when these South African broadcasters cover the Zimbabwean story, they always give ZANU PF a chance to be heard.
On one recent occasion, a ZANU PF spokesman, Tafadzwa Mugwadi complained that the SABC had not been giving his party fair opportunities to present their case. This was ironic because the ZBC, which his party monopolises and abuses, never affords the opposition a chance to be heard. That is the arrogance, hypocrisy and self-entitlement of ZANU PF. It demands fairness in foreign media and yet it does not care about fairness on state-media, which it controls.
It’s embarrassing that generations after the country rejected joining the Union of South Africa, it is ever so reliant on South Africa, even for basic rights such as fair media coverage. Since SABC is state-run, the South African taxpayer is providing a service to Zimbabweans which the Zimbabwean regime is failing to render. It’s a remarkable failure of governance. South Africa has 9 provinces. As things stand, in media terms if not more, Zimbabwe is literally becoming the 10th province, the SABC, eNCA and ETV filling the gap vacated by the ZBC. .
The Leaked Tape
Last week, a telephone conversation between Temba Mliswa and Kuda Tagwirei was leaked and attracted much commentary. Telephone recordings are to be treated with caution. As I warned at the time, the problem is you don’t know who is doing the recording and what else they have in their vault. If society normalises the recording of private conversations, no-one is safe.
It’s worse if the government is responsible for the recordings. This would mean a fully-fledged surveillance state in which the government not only listens to private communications of opponents but weaponises them for political ends.
Indeed, if private communications were to become fair game, political and business careers as well as personal relationships would be at severe risk. There is a certain freedom of speech that one enjoys in the privacy of their personal spaces which would suffer greatly if everybody thought the government is not only listening but recording them as well.
That said, I expected the government to treat the leak professionally. The professional way would be to say it does not comment on leaked recordings of private communications. But in his haste to defend his boss Mnangagwa, the Secretary for Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services, Nick Mangwana gave the leaked recording life when it could have been smothered. He tweeted that although it had not been verified, the leaked recording showed that Mnangagwa was his own man. This was a mistake. Once the government spokesman had commented with the aim of taking advantage of it, the leaked tape became fair game.
Contrary to Secretary Mangwana’s attempt at spinning the leak, it did not demonstrate that Mnangagwa was his own man. The utility of the leak lies in the fact that it gives some insight, through the eyes of two men who have some proximity to power, of Mnangagwa’s presidency. Mliswa and Tagwirei express some frustration over Mnangangwa’s running of the presidency but Tagwirei comes across as someone who has a disproportionate amount of influence in the corridors of power. He speaks with authority when he reassures Mliswa that Fortune Chasi, the former Minister of Energy and Power Development is safe from arrest. That an individual non-state actor can give such a guarantee concerning the use of state power is a measure of the confidence and knowledge that he has.
Although Tagwirei clearly has influence, the leak also shows that he would like more. This is revealed in his suggestion to Mliswa that there is a need to have a favourable person in the Office of the President and Cabinet who would look after their interests. It’s clear from the conversation that both men are not amused by the current setup headed by Chief Secretary, Misheck Sibanda who was inherited from the Mugabe administration. They see him and his team as having “destroyed mdhara”, a reference to Mnangagwa, by misadvising him.
Tagwirei’s quest for influence is also revealed when he expresses concern over the appointment of Dr Ngoni Masuka as the new minister in charge of agriculture, replacing Perrance Shiri who died last month. He suggests that they would need to sit down with Masuka so that he understands that he can do whatever he wants but leave Command Agriculture. Tagwirei has major financial interests in Command Agriculture through Sakunda. A new minister might disrupt the existing arrangement which has been heavily criticised for corruption.
Both men appeared nonplussed by the appointment of Soda Zhemu as replacement for the sacked Chasi at the Energy Ministry. Mliswa did not have any kind words for the new minister whom he described as an unknown and without competence. He went so far as to compare Mnangagwa with Mugabe, arguing that at least Mugabe was wiser in that he appointed people that he knew whereas Mnangagwa is appointing people that he doesn’t really know. He was critical of the appointment of Kirsty Coventry as Minister of Sport, arguing that she brought no value to ZANU PF and Mnangagwa had erred by leaving out party mandarins like Patrick Chinamasa. He was at pains to plead the case for Chinamasa – another sign of the sense of entitlement and patronage that is pervasive in ZANU PF politics.
It is also fascinating and reveals just how “independent” Mliswa is. He is not independent by any means – he is deeply invested in ZANU PF politics and seems to want even greater involvement – this is important because he is supposedly an independent MP. Clearly he is not. How he conducts business in the house may be informed by his interests in propping up ZANU PF. After all, he is a beneficiary of the ZANU PF system as revealed by the BSR on the RBZ Mechanisation Scandal.
Mliswa was also critical of Mnangagwa’s style of governance in the way that he has compromised anti-corruption institutions. He was highly critical of the Special Anti-Corruption Unit which Mnangagwa set up in his office. Mliswa described it as a “thuggery, an extortionist movement …” and expressed wonderment as to why Mngangwa needs it. Mliswa’s point about the problem with Mnangagwa’s anti-corruption unit is not new. When it was set up, the BSR argued that having prosecutors under the President’s office compromised the independence of the Prosecutor General’s office. The presidency is the highest power in the country with great potential for corruption. Housing an anti-corruption unit in its structures compromises the anti-corruption fight.
Overall, it is clear that Tagwirei is certainly a man of some influence in the presidency. He has the ear of the President and he even thinks he is doing very well, which also points to the delusional nature of the men and women influencing governance in Zimbabwe. They genuinely believe in their minds that they are doing well, although evidence on the ground is to the contrary. The majority of Zimbabweans are worse off today than they were 3 years ago. The problem is not only that these influential people around Mnangagwa tell lies; it is that they believe those lies.
Abduction and Torture of Tawanda Muchehiwa
The abduction and torture of Tawanda Muchehiwa last month is yet another case that illustrates the sadistic nature of the Mnangagwa regime and the continuities from the Mugabe era. Muchehiwa is a 22-year-old journalism student at Midlands State University. He is a nephew to Mduduzi Mathuthu, editor of Zimlive.com, a leading news website.
Mathuthu has been in hiding for over a month following the arrest of fellow journalist Hopewell Chin’ono who is still held at Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison. The two journalists were at the forefront of exposing the corruption over the procurement of COVID19 goods which implicates members of the Mnangagwa family.
A few things stand out from the Muchehiwa case.
A sadistic regime
First, Muchehiwa was abducted by state security agents who have obvious sympathies for ZANU PF. The horrific account shows that Muchehiwa’s abductors were acting as a partisan unit in support of ZANU PF. For a long time, the regime has rejected accusations of abductions and torture by its agents. The Muchehiwa case debunks those denialist narratives. There is CCTV footage of the whole episode during which Muchehiwa was abducted. His account is detailed and impeccable. One of the most troubling features is that the police seemed to have worked hand in hand with the rogue unit.
The brutality of Muchehiwa’s treatment is consistent with accounts of similar treatment given to other activists who have been abducted in the past. The government has made no headway in previous abductions, citing lack of evidence. It has denied that they were abductions. The regime would have similarly dismissed Muchehiwa’s account. But the system made gross errors in this case. There is too much evidence. If ever ZANU PF’s allies abroad doubted claims of abductions, the Muchehiwa’s case is a classic example of the sadism at the heart of the Mnangagwa regime.
Someone doesn’t trust George
The second thing is that suspicions abound between factions within the regime. According to Muchehiwa’s account, the abductors wanted to know whether his uncle Mathuthu was in communication with George Charamba, who is the Deputy Chief Secretary in Mnangagwa’s office. He is in charge of Mnangagwa’s communications, and is another of the relics from the Mugabe era. Part of the reason why Mnangagwa never moved an inch from his old boss’ authoritarian style of leadership is that he retained the linchpins of Mugabe’s office, people like George Charamba, Misheck Sibanda and Munyaradzi Kajese. They represented continuity at a time when change was required. Old habits die hard.
But why would Muchehiwa’s abductors inquire into the relationship between Mathuthu and Charamba? It seems they don’t trust Charamba. They probably suspect that Charamba was leaking information to Mathuthu. It was Mathuthu’s website which first broke the story, now known as the DRAX scandal, of the corruption surrounding the procurement of COVID19 goods on 21 April 2020. This is probably why Charamba has been aggressive, vile and insensitive in the wake of the Muchehiwa revelations.
Charamba posted some highly disagreeable tweets mocking the deceased Lavender Chiwaya, an MDC Alliance Councillor whose lifeless body was dumped near his home in Hurungwe. The opposition suspect that Chiwaya was murdered by state agents after an abduction. Charamba is trying desperately to sound combative to his peers in the regime who no longer trust him. In ZANU PF, one’s loyalties are demonstrated by how vile you are towards the opposition and Charamba is trying too hard to repair his credentials.
The final thing arising from the Muchehiwa case is the perennial problem of infiltration and divide and rule within the opposition. According to Muchehiwa’s account, which is corroborated by his cousins who were arrested in the same incident that he was abducted, the state agents appear to have been led to him by an MDC Alliance official, one Tendai Masotsha. It isn’t clear whether Masotsha acted voluntarily or was under duress but it would be useful for her to give her side of the story. As it is, there is a reasonable suspicion that she assisted the abductors. She should certainly have more information on the abductors given that she brought them to Muchehiwa.
However, as Muchehiwa’s account also shows, it is not uncommon for State agents to use their captives to lead them to other targets in the opposition. He recounts how they tried to use his phone to waylay other activists, including Thandekile Moyo, who initiated the ZANUP MUSTGO hashtag and Samkeliso Tshuma. Both were wise enough to avoid falling into the trap. However, Muchehiwa’s friend, Collen Dhlamini fell for it when he was baited with a WhatsApp message from his phone. He was also given a severe beating. In this circumstance, Dhlamini could have thought his friend had sold him out, but it had happened under duress.
This incident is a lesson to activists to be more circumspect during times of heightened crisis. The system uses the people closest to you to draw you out of your safe space. If the system does not use duress, it can bribe friends and other cadres to sell strategic information. They will be promised freedom and protection in return for information. Therefore, it is advisable to treat everyone, including those closest to you with circumspection. It’s not nice but that is life under an authoritarian regime: vigilance is key. As for the MDC Alliance, the problem of infiltration has long been a concern. With increasing levels of poverty and desperation in the country, opposition activists are financially vulnerable, which makes them easy prey for recruiters. The party has to strengthen its systems and controls otherwise the several spies in its ranks will continue to undermine its efforts and expose fellow cadres.
Justice in chains
I started this BSR with an account of how Zimbabwean state media institutions have vacated their role, which space has been filled by South African media. It is the SABC and other South African broadcasters that have moved in to provide fair and balanced coverage of Zimbabwe’s tragic story. This is a sign of gross failure of the Zimbabwean State. But it is not just media institutions that have been emasculated. There is another area where, if it were possible, South African institutions would be more than welcome by the long-suffering people of Zimbabwe. It is the justice system.
The justice system under Mugabe was in bad shape. But for all his weaknesses, at least Mugabe had some understanding of statecraft. There were some limits. Mnangagwa has shown no restraint. The justice system is now a mirror image of what you would find in a totalitarian state. How else does one explain the persistent refusal to grant bail to Zimbabwe’s political detainees? It’s as if a State of Emergency was declared, where the State insists on preventive detention and keeps detainees for long periods without trial.
This is what happened in the 1980s, when colonial-style emergency laws were retained for 10 years since independence. It was under those laws that hundreds of political prisoners were kept in jail. The most prominent were Dumiso Dabengwa and Lookout Masuku. The latter eventually died in hospital but he was still without freedom. The charges that Hopewell Chin’ono, Jacob Ngarivhume and Job Sikhala are facing are not as severe as charges that have been preferred against other accused persons in the past. They are charged with incitement to public violence whereas in the past several persons have been accused of attempting to remove a constitutionally elected government. They have been granted bail after a few days, a couple of weeks at most. But Chin’ono and Ngarivhume have been in jail for more than a month. Three times they have been denied bail. The reasons for denying them bail are weak. It’s been a case of assertion of raw power, just because they can.
The case of Godfrey Kurauone is even more reprehensible. The young MDC Councillor has been in jail for more than a month. He is accused of undermining the authority of the President. When his case came for trial this week, the prosecution asked for a postponement. The grounds for postponement was that the prosecution did not have prosecuting authority from their boss in Harare, the Prosecutor General. They wanted a month-long postponement.
This is a most bizarre case. If the prosecution has no prosecuting authority, why are they holding him in jail and refusing him bail? Why are they opposing his bail. If the State has a case and if the accused is so dangerous that he cannot be let out on bail, how come the state does not have authority to prosecute? And why ask for a month-long postponement while keeping the accused in detention?
One would expect the magistrate to apply their mind to these questions and come to the reasonable conclusion that there is no need to keep the accused on remand, let alone to keep him in custody. But no, the magistrate granted the prosecution’s application for a month-long postponement. This means Kurauone remains in jail while the State drags its feet for a month awaiting prosecuting authority from Harare. There is no justice in this. It makes no legal sense even to a layperson. But this is all about power. The prosecution has it. The magistrate has it. But Kurauone does not. It’s abuse of state power. It’s abuse of judicial authority. But this is Zimbabwe, where the strongest do whatever they want because they have state power.
Zimbabweans can only look across the Limpopo to a judicial system that actually works. There is nothing special about it. The rules there and ours are the same. The difference lies in what I have previously referred to as the Human Factor. At the end of the day, all the beautifully crafted rules mean very little unless the human agents who are charged with implementing and upholding them are decent, well-meaning and genuine. The essential difference lies in the people who administer and interpret the laws.
It is in this area that South Africa is still fortunate. The men and women in charge of the judicial system are decent people with a sense of duty to the people they serve and the oaths they took under their constitution. The men and women in their political institutions have their weaknesses, but they still have respect for these institutions. They do not interfere. They do not use national institutions to settle personal scores.
Regrettably, these are the essential elements of a political system that have long vacated our space. This makes us some of the most vulnerable and miserable people in the world because we have nowhere to run for cover. The situation of Chin’ono, Ngarivhume, Sikhala and Kurauone vividly illustrates the predicament of the Zimbabwean citizen. It is in regards to the justice system that Zimbabweans might wish they were the tenth province. Sadly, the boundaries are much harder in the justice system than they are in the media where the SABC and others have moved in to fill the breach. Zimbabweans must make do with a severely compromised justice system.