guest column:Kenneth Magwada

AS Zimbabwe’s first post-independence indigenous human rights advocacy group, ZimRights takes great pride in its membership. This is a unique distinguishing feature which makes us the country’s biggest human rights movement with over 250 000 individual members across the country. But being a grassroots movement is more than mere statistics and national presence. It means more, as we have learnt over the past three decades of service to the human rights community. It means a call to respond to the groans of our members, in plenty and in want; in times of great jubilation and in times of tribulation. As Hélder Pessoa Câmara taught us, sometimes it is not enough for social justice leaders to simply give what the people lack. It is important to get to the root cause and ask essential questions.

Last week we took to the communities in our #BeTheChampion4Rights campaign that seeks to encourage communities to be involved in human rights work. We were also seeking to reconnect with our members after a long COVID-19-induced break. We wanted to hear their stories and share the lessons. As we enter the last quarter of a very difficult year, we took this opportunities to reflect with our members what our support to them should like. The year 2020 has been a terrible year for many because of the coronavirus pandemic that has wiped away livelihoods for 60% of our population. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that over 1,4 million jobs have been lost because of COVID-19. In our Their Voices Matter series of reports covering community responses to COVID-19, we document tales of family struggles. The situation of Zimbabwe is worse than many countries as the pandemic found our healthcare system on its knees and 60% of the population facing food insecurity according to Hilal Elver, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food. Reconstruction of communities ravaged by Cyclone Idai was still in progress. With COVID-19 sending millions from the urban areas to seek economic refuge in the rural areas, rural economies face a further strain.

As part of our membership engagement strategy, it is always important that we seek to listen and learn from our communities about what really matters to them. Many of the communities are already over-workshopped by NGOs that have flooded communities following the relaxation of COVID-19 regulations, trying to push their burn-rates ahead of the year-end rush. And yet, attention to human needs keeps diminishing. In the wake of the government’s attempts to push through the Constitutional Amendment Bill Number 2, attention to politics has overtaken the pressing needs of these communities that now they have to depend on handouts, which have become subject to corruption and political control.

“Politicians have no shame,” said one of our members in Mashonaland East: “As if it’s not enough to steal drugs and COVID-19 materials, now they are taking food donated for the poor.”
Within the first 30 days of the COVID-19-induced national lockdown, ZimRights documented 13 cases of manipulation of food aid. Affected ZimRights members in Masvingo petitioned the Speaker of National Assembly to investigate the case of a Member of Parliament implicated in one of the 13 cases. In June 2020, Zimbabwe’s then Health minister, Obadiah Moyo, was arrested for corruption related to a US$60 million COVID-19 procurement scandal. He was immediately released on bail, fired and is still to face trial.

Meanwhile, the health sector grounded to a halt as the government neglected the hospitals, did not pay the workers and instead opted to buy brand new Range Rover vehicles for top civil servants. Nurses who protested the double standards were arrested while government attempted to conscript doctors into the military. While the nation was still in shock, Statutory Instrument 225A of 2020 was promulgated, suspending bye-elections.

“How much can a nation take in the same year?” asked one of our members who runs a small business in Chitungwiza when we paid her a visit. She told me that Zimbabwe is at that stage where human rights is more than what human rights groups can do for the people. Food handouts are not sufficient. She said: “instead of dealing with the impending starvation, they are strategising to destroy our homes.”

On October 15 2020, Justice Amy Tsanga granted an application by Chitungwiza Residents and Ratepayers Association for Chitungwiza Town Council to stop demolitions in Chitungwiza and Manyame areas. The Constitution in section 74 prohibits demolition of homes without a court order but the government has constantly violated that provision with impunity.

“We need to begin thinking of what we can do for each other because we are certainly more than the NGOs that we look out to for support,” she said.

An administrator from one of the rural clinics where we provided sanitisers and masks during our membership engagement tour, told us that the clinic catered for 325 000 people. While she appreciated our small gift, it was clear to us it is just a drop in the ocean. Communities need more than donations. They need sustainability. They must afford whatever is donated to them. “Our clinic also provides life skills training for up to 125 vulnerable girls and women and the clinic cannot provide masks for them,” she told us.

Charles Sofa, a ZimRights member and treasurer for Manicaland, who was involved in the project that saw the birth of Donal Lamont Poly Clinic in Chipinge, says it is now upon them as community members to look after each other. His words echo the words of Sarah Njanji, vice-chairperson for Harare province who said communities like Epworth now have to depend on the Pool of Death for drinking water.

Through ZimRights in Communities, we have documented a lot of stories that tell us that human rights work goes beyond mere advocacy by involving community members to change the situation.

“However noble they may be,” ZimRights national director Dzikamai Bere warned, “These actions must never paralyse us from demanding from our leaders what they must deliver. Community resilience is no substitute for public accountability.”

Our membership engagement is indeed speaking a lot to us more than we could speak to the communities. It is telling us that human rights work in our age cannot be separated from the intimate experiences and needs of the communities. The destruction of our country we are seeing shows that above the greediness that is evident, there is a disturbing lack of love in the leadership. People are seen more as votes than human beings. In one area we saw a clinic project that was stopped for no reason. The community is whispering that the local MP has already bought the material necessary for its completion.

“But why are they not completing it?” I inquired.

“They are waiting for elections,” came the response. Meanwhile the community is walking 25km to the available clinic. Many times, women give birth on the way and some never make it. All this is work that we expect you to support. And not only workshops and handouts,” a local leader said.

“There can be no human rights without love.”

What form must our human rights interventions take today in communities that are ravaged by man-made poverty? Indeed, at a time there is a poverty of compassion, it is not human rights if it does not respond to this poverty. There are no human rights without love.

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