By Barry D. Wood
BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe: Veteran human rights activist Judith Todd is deeply distressed by the deaths, macabre beatings, and arrests of hundreds of Zimbabweans following demonstrations earlier this month against a doubling of fuel prices.
But Todd says the situation since January 14th “is confused and complicated with few angels on either side.” To the dismay of some, she declines to place sole blame on the government for the violence. That stance infuriates her erstwhile ally David Coltart, the Bulawayo-based former senator, and opposition human rights lawyer.
Todd says Jenni Williams, convener of WOZA, Women of Zimbabwe Arise, has made several visits to townships in Bulawayo finding no evidence supporting the allegation that women there were raped by government soldiers. And she points to reliable evidence that a 32-year-old police constable was stoned to death by anti-government protesters and looters on January 15th. In Harare there are credible reports of rape and arrests of children by police and soldiers.
Todd, a soft-spoken woman of 75, is no stranger to controversy. She has been on the front line of Zimbabwean politics for five decades, first as an opponent of minority rule and more recently against ousted president Robert Mugabe. She and her missionary father—a former colonial prime minister– were imprisoned by the Ian Smith regime. Following independence in 1980 she initially supported Robert Mugabe but dramatically broke with him over the mass murders—genocide– in Matabeleland. She was exiled and stripped of Zimbabwean citizenship by Mugabe but returned to the country ten years ago.
In an interview Todd professes optimism about Zimbabwe. She speaks of the “wonderful coup” of November 2017 in which Robert Mugabe was overthrown by current president Emmerson Mnangagwa and other military commanders who for decades were staunch Mugabe loyalists. “The day after the coup,” she says, “I awoke with joy, a great burden lifted from my heart.”
Todd believes Mnangagwa is the person best suited to sort out the mess that exists in Zimbabwe. “He and South African president Cyril Ramaphosa are parallel people,” she says, and “both are surrounded by enemies” determined to bring them down.
Among the reasons for optimism, Todd mentions competent people having been appointed to ministerial posts. She points to the positive work done in tackling widespread threatened strikes by writer and international development consultant, Sekai Nzenza, now Zimbabwe’s minister of public service. She praises minister of sports and culture Kirsty Coventry for promoting unity at last week’s funeral of popular musician Oliver “Tuku” Mtukudzi. She credits Mnangagwa for declaring Tuku a national hero, an honor previously confined to members of the ruling Zanu-PF party.
Despite flaws and controversy, she calls last July’s national elections, “the best we’ve had so far.”
The ouster of the now 94-year-old Mugabe was celebrated by Zimbabweans hopeful for a better life after two decades of privation and economic decline. Desperation prompted millions–perhaps a fifth of the population–to flee to South Africa. Unemployment exceeds 60% and pay for the army and civil servants absorbs 90% government revenue.
For months following the coup, there was near euphoria as police were no longer taking bribes, a compliant domestic media was emboldened, and dissent was openly tolerated. But now those expectations have been dashed, vanquished by state repression that included even a four-day suspension of internet access.
Some western governments and lenders would like to support the post-Mugabe government but are constrained from doing so by US sanctions imposed to punish Mugabe’s violations of human rights. There is no mood in congress to repeal the sanctions. A US veto prevents the International Monetary Fund and World Bank from extending financial aid to Zimbabwe and European lenders—unlike China and Russia—typically insist on IMF approval before granting loans. Similarly, multi-national companies are reluctant to invest without an IMF seal of approval.
Respected economist and former business professor Tony Hawkins shares none of Judith Todd’s optimism. He argues that political change and a unity government are probably required before the country can move ahead. It would be a mistake, says Hawkins, for the west to support a corrupt, unreliable Zimbabwean government.
Judith Todd readily concedes the shortcomings of Mnangagwa. But for her the reality that Mugabe’s tyrannical rule is over is paramount. “Every morning,” she declares with a smile, “I’m so happy and grateful to wake up in Zimbabwe.” #
Barry D. Wood has been writing about southern Africa for four decades, first for the Financial Mail, then NBC News, and Voice of America.