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Licensed to drive

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Monday, November 11th, 2013 by Brenda Burrell

In Harare police have taken to setting up informal road blocks in places that cause congestion. I say informal because there is seldom any warning that one is approaching such a road block – unless backed up traffic counts as notification. There are no police signs anywhere to be seen.

Armed (and it’s no accident I use this word) with a lime green reflective vest and a receipt book, police in Harare camp out at comfortable locations and fund raise for themselves. Official fines are seldom raised, tickets seldom issued, but money certainly changes hands.

If the police force has any commitment to public safety or public good they should institute a system whereby reflective vests emblazoned with ‘POLICE’ and receipt books used to record fines should be strictly controlled – as one would weapons.

Ask anyone and they will confirm that crime in the capital is on the up. Gone is the quiet thief who strikes whilst you’re out or asleep. Common is the brazen thief who wants to catch you unawares at your home or carjack you on the road. They can be brazen because the police force has little interest in Real Policing.

Two current favourite policing activities are:

a) Stopping kombis (privately run transport operators) on any pretense and delaying them long enough to secure a bribe. Usually the driver will get out of his car, walk back to the police officer, shake his/her hand and start to negotiate.

b) Stopping cars on behalf of the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation’s licensing inspectors.

In both of these scenarios, the police have no interest in using this opportunity to check that a driver is licensed to be at the wheel, or that the vehicle is roadworthy. As long as you have a Radio Licence or will pay a bribe, you can drive a vehicle!

I think the collective term for police has traditionally been a ‘posse’ or something similar. These days it would be more apt to pick from one of the following:

An obstruction of police
A huddle of police
A den of police
A swagger of police

Cock and bull

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Monday, May 6th, 2013 by Brenda Burrell

I’ve wanted to take this photo for a while now because it expresses how I feel about politics in Zimbabwe. It’s all such cock and bull as politicians jockey for privilege and power for their own benefit. Maybe that’s politics the world over, but I find it very depressing at this time  in my home country. As the 2013 elections loom large more then ever there seems so little to differentiate between the main political players. Arrogance is writ large and self aggrandisement is the name of the game.

Cock and bull


Beatrice Mtetwa’s incarceration is a national disgrace

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Wednesday, March 20th, 2013 by Brenda Burrell

It’s hard to believe that Beatrice Mtetwa has this afternoon been remanded in custody until Apr 3 by Magistrate Gofa – in fact it’s a national disgrace.

Read this piece by Nicole Fritz – Director of the Southern Africa Litigation Centre, published in the Mail & Guardian

Beatrice Mtetwa’s arrest shows all is not well in Zim

Beatrice Mtetwa is paying the price of resisting authoritarianism – she is spending her third night detained in a Harare police cell.

“You know this has to be done, somebody has to do it, and why shouldn’t it be you?” That is Zimbabwe’s most prominent human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa’s matter-of-fact explanation for why she does the work she does.

Some might say that doing the same thing over and over – as Mtetwa does in providing legal defence in virtually every high-profile, politically motivated case in Zimbabwe – and expecting different results is the definition of insanity. In the context of Zimbabwe, it is the price required to resist authoritarianism.

At present, Mtetwa spent her third night detained in a Harare police cell, ostensibly for “obstructing the course of justice”.

In fact, she sought to provide assistance to a client, Thabani Mpofu, a top official in the prime minister’s office when his home was raided on Sunday morning, demanding of the police that they produce a search warrant.

As Mtetwa explained: “The view I take is that [the police] have been obstructing me in my duties as a lawyer. I have a client whose rights have been violated, and I am unable to help him because I am now an accused myself.”

More revealing than the arrest itself were the developments that followed. Throughout Sunday police indicated to Mtetwa’s lawyers that she would be released. Only late in the day, when it seemed unlikely that her lawyers could secure an urgent court hearing, were they informed that police intended to pursue the charges.

As it happened, her lawyers – Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights – were able to file an urgent application seeking her release. The order was granted by the high court just before midnight.

Her lawyers then attempted to serve the order on the various responsible parties but were deliberately frustrated as police transferred Mtetwa from one police station to another in order to avoid compliance.

As of Tuesday morning, having spent two nights in police detention, Mtetwa remains in custody.

There are several aspects to note about the pedestrian illegality with which the Zimbabwean police conducted themselves: firstly, this was not a raid specifically directed at Mtetwa.

She was collateral damage – caught up in action directed at officials from Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s office. There is no comfort to be drawn from this fact. Were Mtetwa to have been a direct target, deemed a sought-after antagonist, the police’s shameless flouting of the law might be more explicable. That the illegality regarding Mtetwa was opportunistic only points to how widespread and endemic the impunity enjoyed by police and the security sector is.

Secondly, Mtetwa’s arrest comes on the heels of a referendum to endorse a new constitution that, whatever its other limitations, contains strong protection of the rights of those arrested and detained. Constitutions are works-in-progress, to be given vigour and dimension by those who seek to uphold and extend their protections. Mtetwa might have been relied upon to breathe life into the new constitution. But without a clear and unambiguous departure from a past characterised by harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders and by impunity for Zimbabwe’s police and security sector, the promise of the new constitution will be laid to waste – its protections made impossible to realise.

Finally, Mtetwa’s treatment will not be unfamiliar to her. She knows well the modus operandi of the police. Mtetwa has described the experience of circling police stations on foot, calling out for her clients because police routinely denied holding them in order to deny them legal access. Only last week Mtetwa accompanied Jestina Mukoko of Zimbabwe’s Peace Project to Harare Central after police announced they were staging a hunt for Mukoko on the specious grounds of her running an “unregistered organisation”. In 2008 Mukoko was abducted by state security agents, tortured and detained for several months. Mtetwa has herself been brutally beaten by police on two occasions.

With Mtetwa in police detention, her court ordered release flagrantly ignored, it is hard to imagine that anyone can credibly contend that, as matters stand, there exist realistic prospects for free and fair elections later this year. But if concerned observers outside Zimbabwe can afford such enervating fatalism, it is not an option available to those inside Zimbabwe.

As Precious Chakasikwa of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights remarked: “For every Beatrice Mtetwa that these state agents and institutions put behind bars and attempt to embarrass, humiliate and punish without lawful cause, there are 10 other human rights lawyers waiting to take up the mantle.” As they must, if there is ever to be a different outcome.

Nicole Fritz is the director of the Southern Africa Litigation Centre.

No stampede to vote

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Saturday, March 16th, 2013 by Brenda Burrell

Courteney Selous School 2

Courteney Selous School 1

For some reason going to vote always gives me a thrill. However I wish this Referendum on the Constitution was more meaningful. Nonetheless I’ve had my say. As these photographs show there wasn’t a stampede to vote – a reflection of the apathy this time round. (Courteney Selous School)

Shopping for carpets in Tunis

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Thursday, March 7th, 2013 by Brenda Burrell

When I heard that I would return to Tunis this year I was delighted. I love their pastries, coffee and carpets! And there’s a lot more to like – dried fruits, nuts, fresh juices … You can see where my interests lie.

My trip to the giant Tunis medina began with a short walk down to the Metro accompanied by a big-hearted, energetic young Tunisian woman called Miriam who’d been attending our conference and happened to be on her way to a meeting near the the medina. The streets and buildings en route were grey and nondescript – the pavements narrow and uneven – not the most attractive part of Tunis. Miriam bought the tickets which cost 500 millimes each (about 30 US cents each) for our short journey and the two of us squeezed into the above ground tram that had just pulled in. Apparently the press of people around us were lunchtime commuters. Miriam said that the trams got fuller still at the start and end of each day which means they must get crammed!

We jumped out at the Metro stop at Place de Barcelone and started to make our way towards the medina. We hadn’t gone far when we found the sidewalk blocked by new rolls of razor wire running alongside the tram lines. This unsightly form of security is used in a number of places in the city to protect strategic buildings and more of it must have been added following the riots in early February 2013. Along the main boulevard you’ll also see the odd tank here and there – a further sign that Tunisia’s democracy is still very new.

The drab grey of the back streets gave way to the trimmed and manicured trees of the cafe-lined boulevard that leads up towards the medina. Progress was slow as the sidewalks were congested with formal cafes and informal street vendors selling food and cheap clothes and trinkets. Having missed lunch we took the opportunity to stop at a vendor and buy a favourite snack of Miriam’s – delicious fresh olive, onion and garlic bread rolls that went down very well.

We chatted a bit and then asked a few folk for advice about where to buy carpets. It seemed the place to head for was the Government Shop which is located in what used to be the King’s Palace. I was in luck, I was told, because today was the last day of the Berber carpet exhibition, an opportunity to buy carpets at wholesale prices (if you’re a large buyer I presume). The medina covers many square kilometres, so there are a maze of alleys in which to lose your bearings amongst the small stalls, plenty of them replicas of each other. And it’s very slow going as the alleys are narrow, the shoppers and sellers many and no one seems to be in a rush to go anywhere.


Since my time was short I set out as fast as I could along the fringes of the market hoping I’d recognise the Government Shop at some point. I hadn’t gone far when I’d already had to stop and puzzle over which alley to take next. To my surprise a man called out from behind me and introduced himself as a security guard from the hotel at which I was staying. Talk about a small world! His father had a small perfume shop near the Government Shop so he said he’d walk me up there. We took a number of twists and turns that I doubt I’d have worked out for myself, so it was a happy coincidence that we’d bumped into each other and I could make it to the shop in quick time.

Before getting down to the business of carpet buying I was given a quick tour of the old building. First to the rooftop which boasts a great view of the city. I was assured I could see as far as Zimbabwe on a good day! The walls up there are covered in beautiful old tiles – supposedly the original tiles that decorated the King’s summer palace. Next was the king’s original double bed – a grand, gilded affair big enough to sleep 5 comfortably (he had 4 wives!). And then finally to the large rooms stocked with thousands of piled and rolled and hung carpets.

I sat on a carpeted ledge and sipped on sweet mint tea as the salesman ran through the main types of Tunisian carpets and the pile in front of me grew higher and higher. His 2 helpers, a small old man and a tall younger man, fetched and unfurled and rolled up carpet after carpet, sometimes standing next to each other to hold up carpets for comparison. So much choice! Which type to buy, which colour to choose, which size to go for. I eventually settled on a nice-sized Berber carpet and a tiny silk carpet, both of which folded up into neat parcels that would fit into my suitcase. I have a feeling I paid way over the top for the carpets – I should have tried to do a bit more homework before I went shopping – but the feeling of being outsmarted was compensated for by having really enjoyed the spectacle and the process.

The security guard from the hotel was still there when I finished at the carpet shop, determined to make sure I visited his father’s shop which was indeed very nearby. His Dad sprang into action, dotting my wrists with different scents. Using a lighter to assure me of its oil rather than alcohol base. Eventually steamrolling me into buying a couple of small roll-on bottles. In the end I think the medina shopped me rather than vice versa!


Birdy and the Long Hearts

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Wednesday, December 5th, 2012 by Brenda Burrell

4m down, down to the car park
Grounded, stranded, flightless

Familiar sounds but strange vibrations
Of others passing by
Then gentle hands and soft voices
A box is home for now

Fear and fragile hope
As strange faces frown
And sigh and worry, peering in
At me

Nervous, shaking fingers
Try feeding me
A foreign diet of clumsy

Long nights alone, alone
Then welcome hands and sotto coos
Bring hope
Day after day

And slowly she becomes
As familiar as my heartbeat
The rhythm of my days
A constant in my life

I lie against her heart
Lean in along her neck
Look up into her eyes
And see the sky reflected

And there behind her shoulder
Leaning in with eyes of love
Another warm and caring
Long heart to give me life