Mugabe’s tyranny rolls on

Last year I met Ms Sekai Holland on a sunny Saturday in Auckland. She was visiting New Zealand to lobby our Government to support the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in its campaign to oust Robert Mugabe from power in Zimbabwe. She was an engaging, energetic, middle-aged woman and explained the threats to Zimbabweans who opposed Mugabe’s tyrannical rule.

Her words were dramatically underlined last week when she was one of the 49 leaders of the MDC arrested, assaulted and beaten by Mugabe’s henchmen when they tried to hold a prayer meeting (public meetings are banned). Her husband, Jim Holland, returned from a trip to Tanzania and circulated this message:

“At 11pm I managed to get to see Sekai in hospital. She has been badly injured, suffering from extensive bruising and lacerations all over her body from many hours of beatings from a team of 15 members of the CIO (secret police).

“She fell unconscious twice from being beaten in the head. They ended up deliberately breaking her arm and her foot, then forced her to walk on the broken foot. She is due to go into theatre in the morning to have pins inserted to help heal the breakages, and she will also need a CAT scan to see if she has any hidden head injuries.”

Such treatment of opponents of Mugabe’s rule has become commonplace.

It is the routine brutality which goes hand in hand with political repression.

Twenty-seven years ago things were different. Zimbabwe was a country with so much promise. The regime of Ian Smith, based on white- minority rule of the country then called Rhodesia, had been discredited and the armed liberation struggle had gained effective control of most of the countryside. A negotiated agreement followed which saw the first Parliament elected and a landslide political win for Mugabe who became the first President of a democratic Zimbabwe.

But from the outset Mugabe’s hands were tied. A typical feature of the transition from colonial rule to independence all over the world involves the colonial rulers, Britain in this case, ensuring that while everyone will get the vote, the economy and resources will effectively remain under the control of the same individuals and companies with ties back to the colonial homeland.

The biggest issue was land ownership but before the first democratic vote was cast, Mugabe had agreed to allow land to remain in the hands of white settlers whose freehold titles would be protected by law. Twenty years after his election as President just 4500 white farmers still owned 75 per cent of the most productive land in the country while millions of blacks continued to live in landless poverty.

When Mugabe’s support inevitably waned in the face of black frustration he reacted first by accusing white Zimbabweans of selfishness and holding up black development. This was frequently true but the fault was Mugabe’s failure to implement an effective plan to manage land resources and bring hope that things would improve.

As his support slumped further he responded with the time-honoured tactics of despots and tyrants through the centuries. Vicious attacks on political opponents, brutal repression and electoral fraud. A reign of terror has been in place for several years now.

Two years ago New Zealand had the chance to do something effective through cancelling the Black Caps’ cricket tour to Zimbabwe. The Government cranked up the rhetoric but in the end there wasn’t so much as a simple Government request for the cricketers to abandon the tour. The Black Caps played and Mugabe relaxed.

A powerful gesture such as this would have sent a strong message to black Zimbabweans struggling for freedom from oppression. It would have been an important step in isolating Mugabe and undermining his regime. This was at a time when the international spotlight was sharply focused on New Zealand which planned to tour while Mugabe bulldozed squatter camps and forced their inhabitants to relocate to rural areas where there were not even rudimentary facilities.

At the time, Foreign Minister Phil Goff tried to deflect attention away from Government inaction by saying New Zealand would work with other Commonwealth countries to build pressure for a wider sports ban on Zimbabwe.

Two years on and there is no evidence of any moves in this direction. A Zimbabwe cricket team is currently playing in the Cricket World Cup alongside New Zealand, without a squeak from our Government.

The last word here should go to Sekai, from her husband’s circular:

“In spite of the injuries and pain, Sekai was in amazingly good spirits, as she knew that they had won. She said that none of the leadership cracked under the torture, and they are all determined to continue the fight for justice.”

Kia Kaha Sekai.