Politics and Society
Zimbabwean activists arrested in Africa Unity Square protest
In what has been billed a ‘protest against a failed state’, people exercising their constitutional right to make their voices heard have been harassed and arrested in Harare.
Zimbabwean activists were arrested on various charges after staging a rolling protest at Africa Unity Square, a park opposite Parliament. Although the total number of arrests is disputed, sources put it at 17. The protest kicked off on 31 May and was meant to run for 16 days and 16 nights. Its aim was to force the Zimbabwean government to address 16 urgent issues. It is an initiative by Zimbabwe Allied Activists (ZAA), in collaboration with Zimbabwe Women in Politics Campaign (ZWPA) and Occupy Africa Unity Square Movement (OAUSM).
A few days into the protest, activists were assaulted by unknown men, who also took their valuables. Most activists viewed this as a government tactic to quash their movement.
After this attack, another five activists were arrested on robbery allegations, which temporarily brought the protest to a halt. The five stand accused of robbing two women who were walking through the park at 1am. People seldom use the park at night, because it is usually pitch dark and deserted, so it is rather improbable that two women would have been walking through it at that time. Even though the goods that are alleged to have been stolen are valued at less than $100, bail was set at $1000 per person. “The constitution is clear that everyone has a right to demonstrate and petition”
In a statement issued by the ZWPA, its spokesperson, Linda Masarira, said that setting bail at $1000 was another attempt by the state to silence them.
The majority of the protesters were arrested the following day on charges of obstruction of justice and their bail was set at $500 each. All the activists were released on bail last Friday after their lawyer appealed to the courts for a lenient bail charge.
Zimbabwe courts reduced the bail amounts for those on $1000 to $400 and the $500 charge to $200. The total of the amount was reached through fundraising and crowdsourcing that saw local and foreign based Zimbabweans sending in their contributions.
The heavy police presence at Africa Unity Square has made it difficult for the few activists who escaped arrest to continue with the protest and consequently it ended on the 11th day. However, as part of ZAA’s efforts to go nationwide, we have also seen the beginning of an ‘Occupy City Hall’ protest in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-biggest city.
Masarira said they will soldier on despite the challenges. “We want to make it clear that from the onset of the occupation, state security agents have openly been making moves to stop the occupants from continuing.
“The occupants will never be stopped or be deterred by these intimidators”
“The occupiers will never be stopped or deterred by this intimidation until the demands are met – even after the 16 days have lapsed. Zimbabweans are tired of being treated as stooges in their own country while only a few members of the political elite plunder the country`s resources at the expenses of the suffering masses.”
There has been some speculation that activists have been at loggerheads over funding that donors contributed to their initiative, but the ZAA leadership dismissed these rumours. A ZAA coordinator, Tendai Lynette Mudehwe, said the only disagreements they have had has been about the need to change their call to that of demanding Mugabe’s resignation. However, she insists that they will stick to their original agenda. “As the ZAA, we are an apolitical alliance, so we address the government, not individuals,” Mudehwe said.
Award-winning human rights lawyer Kennedy Masiye said, “The constitution is clear that everyone has a right to demonstrate and petition. It does not specify what kind of demonstration is allowed but a peaceful demonstration is what qualifies any demonstration as legal. It is safe to say the activists demonstrating through occupying Africa Unity Square are peacefully exercising their constitutional right.”
The history of Africa Unity Square
The park is located between Second and Third Street and Nelson Mandela and Jason Moyo Avenue. In the colonial era, the square was known as Cecil Square, after Cecil John Rhodes, and Africans were not allowed in its grounds. It was renamed Africa Unity Square when Zimbabwe gained its independence in 1980. Because of the Union Jack template from which the park got its design, the landmark’s British imprint lingers on in the post-colonial era.
When celebrated writer Dambudzo Marechera returned from Britain in the early 1980s, he made the park his work station when he fell on hard times. He could be seen seated in the park, typing away. In fact, books like Mindblast were written in Africa Unity Square.
Africa Unity Square in the 21st century
In 2014, journalist-cum-activist Itai Dzamara and a few other activists adopted the park as the site of their struggle. Their protest, dubbed Occupy Africa Unity Square, demanded that the ‘failed’ President Robert Mugabe step down. Itai Dzamara was nabbed by unknown men over a year ago and hasn’t been seen since.
The symbolism of Dzamara’s choice of Africa Unity Square isn’t difficult to decipher. According to Occupy Africa Unity Square Movement chairperson Dirk Frey, who started off with Itai Dzamara, “Dzamara specifically chose to occupy Africa Unity Square because it is central and also because it is close to Parliament.”
Frey further explained what their movement is about: “We are fighting against the failed state. When Zimbabwe gained its independence, the Rhodesian system only changed colour. Nothing really changed and we are saying enough is enough.”
The abduction of Dzamara has affected and disrupted the movement. “It was difficult to carry on after they took Itai, but we have managed to carry on and keep the movement alive. Itai’s younger brother, Patson Dzamara, has also come out in a big way to keep the Occupy Africa Unity Square movement going and we will keep pushing for reform, using our constitutional means.