When silence is not golden by Briggs Bomba

Briggs Bomba | July 1st, 2007 | essays | No Comments

For a long time now, ordinary Zimbabweans have had an expectation that South Africa will use its leverage as the biggest political and economic power in Sub-Saharan Afrika to support the realisation of the democratic ideals of the people of Zimbabwe by helping to resolve the crippling poverty and socio-economic breakdown gripping the nation.

While Pretoria has played a direct role in places like Lesotho and others as far as DRC, Ivory Cost, Sudan and so on, the attitude towards the crisis gripping its northern neighbour has been characterised by an unintelligible stance. Officially defined as “quite diplomacy” this practice camouflages the reality of Pretoria’s subtle support for the Mugabe regime.

The role played by the South African government, its public institutions as well as the South African private sector cannot be described as anything less than a complicity relationship with the regime of Robert Mugabe. The people of Zimbabwe,thus, feel understandably let down by their one key neighbour who could have the greatest influence on the present crisis.

“…this is a very peaceful country, contrary to many reports out there…”

Details revealed in the recent Sisulu Commission of enquiry into the SABC only add on to this feeling of great betrayal. It has emerged that certain voices were blacklisted for having particular views on the Zimbabwe crisis. Dr Snuki Zikalalathe Managing Director of SABC News and Current Affairs (and a former ANC political commissar) is said to be responsible for instructing the blacklisting.

Among those banned from the station are Archbishop Pius Ncube of the Roman Catholic Church; Mail and Guardian publisher Trevor Ncube; Elinor Sisulu, the Media manager for the Crisis Coalition South Africa office and political analyst Moeletsi Mbeki(young brother to President Thabo Mbeki) a strong critic of Mugabe’s policies.

This is a serious scandal if one considers the fact that the SABC as a public broadcaster has an obligation to provide the public with a balanced view on the crisis in Zimbabwe. Zikalala justifies banning Ncube by saying, “Trevor Ncube has his newspapers which he uses to attack Mugabe everyday and why should I give him space on my broadcaster”.

He thinks Elinor Sisulu and Moeletsi Mbeki are removed and misinformed. He hasn’t had the courage to tell anyone why Pius Ncube should not be allowed to comment on Zimbabwe. Whatever Zikalala says, it doesn’t take a nuclear physicist to see that his agenda is to systematically marginalize voices critical of Mugabe’s policies from the SABC. This is the latest in a series of evidence confirming how the SABC is violating Journalism’s cardinal principle of giving professional and unbiased coverage and instead is acting as a “solidarity broadcaster” for Mugabe’s regime.The SABC’s coverage of Zimbabwe’s 2005 parliamentary elections springs to mind.

The broadcaster had a team of 59 journalists in the country whose coverage of the elections was nothing less than a public relations mission for Mugabe and his regime.When Zimbabweans were dismissing the elections as predetermined, citing serious distortions of the playing field in favour of the ruling party, the SABC’s main anchor Hope Zinde shocked Zimbabweans by declaring, within a matter of a few hours of checking into Harare’s Sheraton Hotel, that the conditions were conducive for free and fair elections.

“The first thing that I have to say”, she said in her report, “is that this is a very peaceful country, contrary to many reports out there…” Zinde was saying all this contrary to reports of serious intimidation and violations recorded by local and international monitors.

Also remembered is Zikalala’s interview with Mugabe just after the elections, where he proved to be a fan of the despised dictator. It was an embarrassing show.Zikalala behaved like a shy schoolboy helpfully avoiding confronting Mugabe with any difficult questions. No questions were asked about the serious violations of the SADC Protocol on elections as recorded by various local and international observers. No questions about the issues of equal opportunities for all parties to access state media, the independence of the Judiciary or the impartiality of the electoral institutions. Nothing about the draconian acts that have seriously restrictive political space, the violence and intimidation, the politicisation of food distribution or the banning and disruption of opposition meetings. No questions about the attack and forced closure of independent press and so on. None of this was important to Zikalala. At the end of the interview, he even complimented Mugabe saying, “it’s a very peaceful country and we have seen the economic turn around ourselves”. What peace! Which economic turnaround?

For the SABC to take such a partisan stance, it is the most disgraceful thing a public broadcaster that holds itself in high regard can ever do. To have on this very late hour, the likes of the SABC being part of the band wagon playing smoke and mirrors and deceiving the world on the reality of the situation in Zimbabwe today is not just extremely unfortunate but also most dishonourable. If the matter at stake were a sporting match, this would have been just silly. However, in this case, this shameful conduct cannot be anything less than tragic because the crisis in Zimbabwe is now a humanitarian emergency in which millions of innocent lives are at stake.

Under Mugabe’s dictatorship,people have been reduced to a nation of foraging paupers stripped of any dignity. Mothers have to endure the pain of seeing their children wail of hunger and not knowing what to do. Workers can barely go through a week on a minimum wage. Communities have to cope without basics like water and electricity.The sick cannot get medication. The vast majority of the population is now destitute and just waiting for God. And what is revolting is that people are told not to complain at gunpoint!

Recently, the world saw shocking images of Mugabe’s police brutalising workers who dared to raise their voices. For simply exercising their democratic right to peacefully march in protest against unbearable levels of poverty, demanding an end to harassment of informal traders and calling for access to ARVs, ZCTU workers were brutalised by Mugabe’s dogs. Footage from the march shows Zimbabwe Republic Police  mercilessly pounding arrested workers with baton sticks. The images are so barbaric that they invoke memories of colonial era state barbarism. Testimonies from the arrested workers tell of unrelenting beatings and torture within cells.The ZCTU secretary general, Wellington Chibhebhe, was beaten until he lost consciousness. The Vice President, Lucia Matibenga,suffered a burst eardrum from repeated clapping and photos show her whole body bruised and blackened.Many others including the ZCTU President, Lovemore Matombo, have broken limbs.If the thuggish behaviour of the police was shocking,even more outrageous was to hear Mugabe audaciously condoning these callous acts.

This is the point history must record: the impunity and well-documented cruelty of the Zimbabwe Republic Police has blessings from Mugabe himself. This shows that Mugabe’s exhausted regime owes its survival to force and coercion. Violence has become the regime’s first instinct and in its exhausted mentality, the regime stupidly believes that torturing the messengers will somehow destroy the message.

This is the reality that Zikalala and his kind do not want the world to see. It has become the habit of the regime to brutally thwart any protest. Mothers have been beaten and locked up for handing out roses on the streets and peacefully demanding justice. Student activists have been detained and tortured at maximum prisons for defending the right to education. Civil society activists are harassed and frustrated left right and centre. Whatever people like Zikalala do, the truth of the matter is that the voices of protest, as recently expressed by the ZCTU and other brave activists, resonates deep within the hearts of millions of Zimbabweans.The peace that Zikalala and the likes of Hope Zinde preach to the world is in reality a tense silence maintained through guns, baton sticks and the threat of things worse.

The SABC’s shameful stance on Zimbabwe must be understood as consistent to Pretoria’s own deplorable foreign policy on Zimbabwe. The South African government observer missions to Zimbabwe’s disputed elections since 2000 have been the quickest to declare a free and fair verdict and dismiss irregularities raised by other local and international observers. To this day, the South African government has failed to live up to its international responsibility to Zimbabweans, refusing to acknowledge the full extent of the crisis in Zimbabwe. At the same time, South Africa has been the first to frustrate efforts to bring Zimbabwe on the agenda of multi-lateral fora.

What one does not understand is why Mbeki fails to act positively on Zimbabwe when it is clear that the degeneration of Zimbabwe has an adverse social impact on South Africa and will ultimately have severe consequences for regional stability. Already South Africa is seriously inundated with thousands of Zimbabwean political and economic refugees escaping the crisis. These poor victims of the Zimbabwe crisis are not even regarded as refugees who deserve protection under international law but just as illegal immigrants who are hunted down like criminals, detained in the most deplorable conditions and deported back to Zimbabwe.

In the face of such shameful conduct from Pretoria, an urgent task therefore lies on the shoulders of progressive minded South Africans to extend a hand of solidarity to the people of Zimbabwe. Unequivocal positions taken so far by COSATU, South African Social Movements and recently the Progressive Youth Alliance in support of the democratic struggle in Zimbabwe need the support of the wider South African population. With the ruling elite extending unprincipled solidarity to each other,the only hope and effective counter is principled people to people solidarity.The South African public must call on their government and public institutions like the SABC to account for their disgraceful collusion with the oppression in Zimbabwe.At this hour of greatest need, there is nothing more unhelpful to the cause of democracy and social justice in Zimbabwe than this silence from South Africa.Despite all these odds, Zimbabweans retain the deepest conviction that justice will ultimately prevail over brutal repression because history itself is always on the side of justice. Always.

And at the end, Zimbabweans will remember not just the deeds of their oppressors but also the complicity of their neighbours.

Uhuru! Freedom! Rusununguko! Nkululeko!

Onward with the struggle comrades! We shall overcome!

Briggs Bomba is a Zimbabwean activist;

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