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Surveillance and scepticism

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When I first heard about the Zimbabwe Republic Police’s (ZRP) Trail of Violence report, I was sceptical if it was even a legitimate document. But seeing a link to it on the Government of Zimbabwe Ministry of Home Affairs website gave me confidence in its existence as a document genuinely produced by the Zimbabwean Government. Even if big question marks still linger about its contents.

The report outlines the activities of “the opposition” in Zimbabwe in the form of the Broad Alliance which it describes as including:

It claims that the agenda of these organisations is to “mobilise people for regime change in Zimbabwe.” The leaders of these “opposition forces have been addressing numerous meetings across the country, drumming support for anti-Government activities and civil disobedience.” To prove this, they chronicle rallies, public meetings and demonstrations which these groups have put together.

It’s a thorough, careful and – aside from the petrol bomb side of things – accurate feeling report. The activities, recounted in excruciating detail, are clearly intended to portray “the opposition” as an organised, violent, ruthless force aimed at destabilising the government. It fits snugly into the government’s own propaganda strategy. It’s easy to imagine how they’ll roll it out at regional summits or in conversations with the likes of South African President Thabo Mbeki. It’s written to illustrate that the Mugabe government is under threat, and that any restrictions on civil liberties, human rights or freedom of movement are “measured and necessary” – even if this includes beating activists, arresting them and holding them indefinitely.

It’s hard not to laugh at the report’s desperation. What awful things have the Save Zimbabwe Campaign done? They’ve distributed flyers urging people to clap, hoot and shout for a better Zimbabwe. What mischievousness is the MDC up to? Well, they are holding rallies attended by thousands of people and discussing the need for a new Constitution. They are marching through Bulawayo with placards saying “Pay the Police” and “We demand Jobs.”

From one perspective it’s a record of an impressive array of pro-democracy activities. Between the MDC, NCA, ZINASU, Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, ZCTU, the Christian Alliance and WOZA, hundreds of people have attended meetings or participated in demonstrations not only across Harare but in Bulawayo, Masvingo, Mutare, Kadoma and Gweru as well. Unsurprisingly, given that the ZRP wrote the report, a lot of attention is given to the alleged beatings and petrol bomb attacks on police officers. None to the beatings of opposition activists whilst in police custody, which have resulted in at least 225 people needing medical attention in the past month are mentioned.

It sounds callous, but the pictures of the allegedly petrol bombed women police officers aren’t in the least convincing. If you’ve just survived having a petrol bomb thrown into your home and your face and body are burnt to the excruciating extent they’re made to look, would you really be sitting up in your hospital bed with a nurse giving you tea straight from the cup? Wouldn’t your lips be too sore to sip?

Outside of critique and incredulity, what can we learn from this document?

The report spends several pages detailing the different ambassadors who have been seen in association with opposition activities. The Mugabe government falsely believes Zimbabweans are incapable of organising resistance without outside prompting or support. If the government is convinced of this, how useful is the presence of these ambassadors at jails, hospitals, courts, and rallies? What does it achieve, and at what cost?

Do any of the organisations which feature in the report have as thorough a record of their own activities? What can we learn from this documentation, and how can we use it to help enhance activities within and across civil society organisations in the future to develop strategies and grow membership?

Finally, one could read the report and get intimidated. It is 58 pages of names and dates and locations and events. But this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Most pro-democracy activists and organisations in Zimbabwe are aware of the potential for government surveillance, and the possibility of a CIO agent in every meeting. Mugabe wouldn’t be running a dictatorship if he wasn’t good at keeping tabs. Everyone knows this, but if activists are becoming a bit lax, the report reminds us that Mugabe government’s surveillance activities are alive and well.

3 comments to “Surveillance and scepticism”

  1. Comment by Women's Space/The Margins:

    WOZA Nonviolent Women Activists Stripped, Jailed, Beaten…

    Up to 83 members of Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) , a militant, nonviolent social justice activist organization were arrested last Thursday, and 18 were stripped of their clothing and jailed nude over at least a day’s time. Some of the W…

  2. Comment by Tinashe:

    This report is chillingly detailed, it does reveal the extent to which the government has been mounting surveillance of citizens in their everyday life. At another level however the report advertises teh level of social protest in Zimbabwe and the demands that the ordinary people have been putting to the government.

    The police recorded poster messages like “We demand Jobs”, “We will die for a New Constitution”, “We want a robust education System” and that “We want POSA/AIPPA repealed”. In that way I think the report officially communicates what Zimbabweans have been demanding. This report can be used excellently to argue that we Zimbabweans have only been making logical demands that are legitimate and only natural.

  3. Comment by Pamwechete:

    What will a new constitution solve. Nothing!
    The NCA and the MDC lied to us when we got the chance to have our own home grown constitution.
    Instead the MDC should give us a credible alternative, anyone can shout Mugabe must go but we need real leaders.