Under Siege: Zimbabwe's Human Rights Activists

Paul Themba Nyathi

Map of Zimbabwe. (Source: C.I.A. World Factbook)

In December 2005, Movement for Democratic Change (M.D.C.) spokesman Paul Themba Nyathi was returning from a two-day visit in South Africa when security agents seized his passport. They gave him no reason for the seizure. A day earlier they had confiscated the passport of Trevor Ncube who publishes South Africa's Mail & Guardian, Zimbabwe's Independent and the Zimbabwe Standard.

Nyathi — like Ncube, trade unionist Raymond Majongwe and 64 others — had been placed on a list of people who were to be barred from entering into or traveling out of Zimbabwe. In August, the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) government had used its parliamentary majority to push through a set of constitutional amendments, among them a provision allowing the government to impose travel bans on "traitors" and those deemed to be harming the national interest.

The new legislation, like many others after it and many more before it, is part of an ongoing effort to entrench President Robert G. Mugabe's hold on power.

Although Nyathi got his passport back, he is convinced the Mugabe regime is set in its ways and will use everything at its disposal to silence all forms of dissent and close down the democratic space in Zimbabwe.

"I am sure there was a legal loophole and that is why our passports were returned," he says. "But knowing this government as I do, I am sure they will find a way to close the loophole and take our passports away again."

Nyathi is a veteran in Zimbabwe's struggle for freedom.

Before the country's independence from Britain in 1980, he was a teacher. Disaffection with how the white minority Rhodesia Front government was ruling the country led him to join the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU), which was led by Joshua Nkomo.

As a ZAPU provincial executive member, one of Nyathi's main duties was to recruit people to train as freedom fighters, an offence which, under Rhodesian law, was punishable with death by hanging.

When Rhodesian security agents got wind of his activities, he was arrested, interrogated and placed under indefinite detention at Wha Wha, a prison for political prisoners in Gweru. Nyathi was released in 1979 after it had become clear to the Rhodesian government that they had lost the struggle to keep Zimbabwe under white rule.

In "Three Years at Wha Wha," a personal narrative that appears in "Conscience Be My Guide: An Anthology of Prison Writing" published by Zed Books and Weaver Press (2005), Nyathi gives an account of his experiences as a detainee in Rhodesia and, later on, in Zimbabwe under Mugabe.

"On my first arrest, in 1974, I was interrogated in relation to recruitment of guerrillas for the ZAPU army, ZIPRA [the Zimbabwe People's Revolutionary Army]. The white officer was well informed about our activities, but when he couldn't get anything from me, he handed me to two black officers who assaulted me … and eventually simply let me go," he says.

The prisoners he remembers received two meals a day, the cells were relatively clean and the toilets flushed every hour.

In 1976, Nyathi was arrested for the second time and interrogated for two weeks before being transferred to Wha Wha.

When he came out of prison in 1979, Nyathi was appointed to ZAPU's central committee, a position that he held until 1987 when ZAPU merged with ZANU to form ZANU-PF. The merger was part of an effort to stop the mass killings of civilians by Mugabe's Fifth Brigade in the Ndebele provinces of Matabeleland and the Midlands during the early to late 80's. As a result of the actions of the Fifth Brigade, an estimated 20,000 civilians, mostly Ndebele were killed or disappeared and are still unaccounted for to this date.

In 1999, Nyathi became one of the founding members of the national executive of the M.D.C., the main opposition party to the Mugabe-led ZANU-PF party.

On his experiences as a prisoner in Rhodesia, Nyathi says, "One thing that was noteworthy was that the state recognized that we were political opponents. There was no attempt to criminalize us. Furthermore, they conceded that detainees were entitled to certain basic rights and were respected as human beings."

He contrasts this with what he found when he was arrested in 2003 under the draconian provisions of Zimbabwe's Public Order and Security Act and charged with trying to overthrow a constitutionally elected government.

"I was arrested and detained for four days at Bulawayo Central Police Station, where I had been in 1974. I saw an amazing disregard for basic human dignity. The cells were unbelievably filthy, a rag which was once a blanket was caked with human vomit and excrement, the stench from the overflowing toilet was overwhelming, and there seemed to be a sadistic appreciation of the role played by hoards of mosquitoes … In four days I was never given food by the police — I had to be fed by colleagues from outside," he says.

He finds it disturbing that under an independent African government there should be brutality, callousness and deliberate degradation of other human beings.

"There is no acceptance of legitimate political opposition," he says, "but rather a determination to criminalize it. Beyond this, there is a total indifference to a malfunctioning system. No one bothers to repair what does not work, or correct any wrongs. There has developed a culture of neglect."

Previous articles in this series: "Raymond Majongwe," "Netsai Mushonga" and "Trevor Ncube."

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