The “New Dispensation” is a Deadly Mirage

Reading the End of Mission Statement by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association on his visit to Zimbabwe (17-27 September 2017) inspires strong deja vu.

As the Special Rapporteur points out, President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s self-proclaimed “new dispensation” hasn’t changed anything.

Zimbabweans still live in a “toxic environment” (words used twice in the 11-page preliminary report) full of “fear” (the word appears eight times). Use of lethal and excessive force, a hallmark of the Mugabe years, continues in the so-called “new” Zimbabwe. What is new is that the “new dispensation” brought security forces into civilian spaces, taking over the police’s role of maintaining law and order, and with even deadlier results than in the Mugabe era. The presence of the security forces feeds people’s fear, as these forces are well known for their brutality. The Special Rapporteur mentions lethal “use of force” by the Zimbabwean government against its own citizens five times, on almost every other page – and this is just the statement. “Torture” gets similar prominence.

Where are the freedoms promised in the new dispensation? The open and democratic space? The access to accountability and rule of law? The end to impunity?
People live in fear of the security forces that are supposed to protect them. Impunity persists as it did before, enabled by a toxic environment that has not abated at all. Women are still being raped in their homes if they are suspected of participating in opposition politics; this happened widely during the 2008 election and related protests. In the “new dispensation”, they are still raped by the security forces, those meant to protect them – and they are still not believed, their criminal complaints are still not taken on by a government that promised judicial reform and accountability.

Historically, any form of protest by perceived opposition opponents has been met by excessive force and for women caught up in the fray, this includes sexual assault and rape. In 2019, after the government announced yet another increase in fuel prices – which would mean a rise in all basic goods, citizens organized a national stay away to protest the deteriorating standard of living. The military was deployed to crush protesters, and this included moving into residential areas at night terrorizing citizens hiding away from the chaos in their homes. The Special Rapporteur describing the horror of January 2019 wrote: “I was shocked by the testimonies of victims who alleged they had been raped and sexually assaulted by military and police elements in the context of the protests. The victims of these crimes explained they were assaulted in their homes, in many cases at night, and felt this was being used as a tactic to cause pain and fear among those linked to leaders of protests or to cause general fear among the population.”

His preliminary recommendations paint a very gloomy picture – and do not even mention the crime of rape against women. While it is commendable that he met with sexual assault victims and raised up detailed accounts of what they suffered, he doesn’t even mention or acknowledge the widespread use of rape during the 2000 and 2008 election. Nor does he make a specific recommendation that rape victims should be protected as a special group, or that their cases should immediately be investigated by the government and the assailants brought to book. As under Mugabe, impunity prevails, perpetrators are allowed to go free, and women who find the courage to report having been raped are left vulnerable, even subjected to humiliation, ridicule, and abuse in their own communities. The government’s message to them is clear: Your rape is your problem, not ours. And, sadly, that becomes their lived experience.

We look to the Special Rapporteur’s final report to the Human Rights Council, expected in June 2020, with deep hope to see more specific recommendations about the women who suffered rape, in keeping with his responsibility to seek out and advocate for the most vulnerable people and groups in the countries. We continue to hold out hope that the final report will convince the UN and the whole international community that they must keep Zimbabwe high on their radar. But our hope is unfortunately tempered by pessimism, given the international community’s deafening silence to date, predicated on their erroneous belief that a new Zimbabwe has been born.

The awful truth is that Mugabe the man may be gone, but the system he created lives on and continues to kill its citizens. The glimmer of hope that appeared briefly after the coup has long since faded. The Special Rapporteur’s statement confirms what civil society has been shouting all along: There is no new Zimbabwe. Nothing has changed.

Source: Sarah Bosha and Kuda Chitsike