by Grace Kwinjeh
- South Africa -
Last week Zimbabwe’s civil society and opposition held a commemorative vigil marking the anniversary of the gruesome torture of opposition leaders (myself included) at the hands of the Mugabe government. The world watched in shock and disgust at the media’s images of our battered leaders, days after our illegal incarceration and brutal beatings on March 11, 2007 by the country's security forces. After being tortured, we were hidden and held illegally for almost 72 hours in various police stations, denied access to our lawyers and much needed medication as many of us had suffered broken limbs, internal head injuries, soft to deep tissue injuries and assorted traumas. Four women suffered on that day: me, Sekai Holland, Memory Kumupaya and Christine Mhaka.
Today, I would like to tell the story of one young woman who was brutally tortured alongside us by the state security agents. Christine Mhaka is 28 years old. She hails from the impoverished working class suburb of Mufakose, in the capital city of Harare. This lively and sturdy young woman is a founding member of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) who has worked tirelessly for the past eight years as an organizer in the party’s youth wing (the focus of much of the state’s retribution) - a position that has seen her arrested and beaten several times.
Christine is now a South African refugee faced with yet another kind of struggle – one that makes her wonder whether she should have left home after all.
For Christine, things came to a head when she was tortured on March 11, 2007. For those civic and opposition leaders that already had a media profile, their prominence gave them protection and public support. But little known Christine is a forgotten heroine – a young woman who gave up her youth to help lead the opposition against Robert Mugabe’s dictatorship. Her story exposes the dynamics of the struggle for change in Zimbabwe and how it plays out at various levels of an activist’s life.
For many activists, harsh circumstances force them out of Zimbabwe. Those who choose to cross the border into the Diaspora are on their own. Christine’s story is no different.After we were hospitalized for the torture we endured in March last year, Christine was treated for soft tissue injuries and was one of the first to be released. She came to see me while I was still hospitalized in Harare before being taken to South Africa for further treatment. I was still heavy on medication, having suffered severe internal head injuries and a split ear, the result of being bashed repeatedly with a thick iron bar. She wished me well and I didn’t hear from her again until late February. When she recounted her ordeal to me, my heart bled.
Christine now stays in a make-shift shack in a squatter camp. "I have to kneel to get into my home. We have no water so we use buckets to get water about 5km from where I stay," she says sobbing.
"I have never suffered like this in my life. At times I wonder why God has condemned me to this," says the once full of life young woman. She was once a leader, once a fearless fighter against Zimbabwe's secret police. Today, she is forgotten and struggling to survive. There has been no reward for her activism and no one to turn to. Not even sharing the agony of police brutality she suffered with Zimbabwe's top opposition has been a source of security for her as an activist. One would think the benefits and hero status accorded to her fellow comrades would have at least trickled down to her – that she would get some form of recognition, that she would be remembered. But Christine is now just a statistic – one case among the numerous reports that have been written of the tyranny that visits those who oppose Mugabe's dictatorship.
The security crackdown that followed the beatings last March resulted in even more arrests and torture of senior civic and opposition officials. It did not end there: others, including Christine's mother, were beaten as state agents sought information on the whereabouts of those on their 'list'.
As a result, Christine explains "I decided to leave the country, after the torture I could not bear it anymore, but they beat up my mother because of my activism. My mother worries about me, she does not know how I am surviving." Christine’s mother remains in Zimbabwe.
The Southern African Development Community (SADC) responded to the March 11th brutality by appointing South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki as mediator to end the crisis through a negotiated settlement between the ruling ZANU-PF party and the MDC. Months later the much talked about mediation has all but collapsed. The ZANU-PF party has reneged on every promise it made to guarantee the democratic reforms that would rescue Zimbabwe from its prevailing socio-economic crisis.Inflation is now at a record high of over 100,000 percent, life expectancy for women is 34 years and 37 for men, a consequence of the widespread poverty and drop in nutritional levels. High unemployment, collapsed health and education systems and increased repression are the litany of ills Zimbabweans endure as they brace themselves for yet another general election on March 29th.
Christine, who is one of an estimated three million Zimbabweans living far from home would like to return, but she fears going back. She now faces the rigors of refugee life, having been led to this squatter camp by a friend she met while on the streets of Johannesburg. They share this home and the little food they can scrounge up. "The police here haunt us every day. Night and day we are raided," she says.
Koni Benson, a South African researcher with the International Labour Research and Information Group based in Cape Town, says of Christine's case: "The politics of elite transition in Zimbabwe is being played out across the bodies of women who dare to speak out, such as women like Christine. Instead of supporting their struggle for humanity as they cross the border into South Africa in search of survival, they continue to struggle [because] the South African government does nothing to help."
Benson believes the South African government should develop a more honest and realistic approach to the political crisis in Zimbabwe – not one that props up Mugabe’s regime.
Earlier this year, the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg was raided and its occupants, who are refugees from Zimbabwe and other African countries receiving humanitarian support, were harassed by members of the South Africa Police Service (SAPS). "Some of the refugees here ran away from political persecution, but in South Africa they are being subjected to torture, harassment, police brutality and all forms of abuse at the hands of the people who should protect them. Women and children are yet to come to terms with the recent raid," says Bishop Paul Verryn, who runs the refugee program.
"South Africa treats Zimbabwean refugees like criminals, which makes it complicit in state and gender violence being unleashed on women in Zimbabwe," explains Benson.
Christine finally found help after almost a year of destitution and no therapy for the trauma she suffered. She made her way to the Southern Africa Centre for Survivors of Torture (SACST), where she has finally started to receive treatment. Project officer Sox Chikowero, also a Zimbabwean and victim of torture, says that just by looking at Christine "you can see she is very traumatized, depressed. You can see she is not herself."
Many genuine asylum seekers manage to get to South Africa but according to Chikowero, are too afraid to seek help or come out in the open because of the xenophobia against foreign nationals and their continued victimization.When asked how Christine will deal with the continued social and emotional stress she has sustained while in South Africa, Chikowero says, "help comes in stages: it includes psycho-social and medical intervention and humanitarian assistance. How one responds is not easy to tell after one visit.”
"We offer humanitarian assistance especially in the case where drugs are prescribed and if the person needs to eat, we try to provide food," says Chikowero. The SACST receives new cases of those who have escaped from political persecution in Zimbabwe on a weekly basis. Chikowero estimates that at least a third of the Zimbabwean refugee population in South Africa are victims of torture or political persecution.
And there is yet another problem that refugees living with HIV/AIDS have to deal with. Accessing health care and drugs can be difficult as they face discrimination – but by default. HIV treatment and care in South Africa remains a contentious issue between the government and those advocating robust policy change.
South Africa does not provide ARVs to all its people. Of some seven million infected (one sixth of the population), only 325,000 receive ARVs, according to 2006 World Health Organization estimates. HIV-positive refugees who cannot afford to pay for their own drugs face a dire situation in an already heated political context.
While the South African Refugees Act of 1988 makes it mandatory for asylum seekers (with or without papers) to access health facilities and be provided with drugs, this does not always happen. "My drugs have run out and I have been camping at the home affairs center," said one such refugee in an interview recently. Forty-four year old asylum seeker, Gift Moyo, was on ARVs in Zimbabwe but has been denied the drugs in South Africa. His life is now at risk.
March 11th torture victim, Nhamo Musekiwa finally succumbed to the HIV virus, his illness exacerbated by the beatings he endured during torture and a lapse in ARV treatment. Though he escaped, he died destitute in South Africa, late in 2007.
Perhaps one day when Zimbabwe is free Christine Mhaka will look back and smile, knowing that her sacrifices were worth it. For now she deserves a fresh start. What remains to be seen is whether South Africa will give it to her.
Christine Mhaka is a pseudonym for a Zimbabwean activist. The story above is true and based on her life experience. – Ed.
About the Author
Zimbabwean Grace Kwinjeh is a feminist, journalist by profession and a political activist. She currently chairs the Global Zimbabwe Forum and is a founding member of Zimbabwe's main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Grace spent time in Belgium where she served as the MDC representative to the EU. She sat on the National Constitutional Assembly Task Force during the historic no-vote in a referendum challenging a Mugabe-sponsored constitution. Arrested several times and badly tortured for her political activism, Grace now lives in exile in South Africa where she is a consultant and freelance journalist concerned with women's rights, democracy and globalization.