“Policing the State” highlights the growth of police brutality in Zimbabwe since 2000, which has coincided with the rise of the democratic challenge to the State. During the 1990s, peaceful protest by the student movement and trades unions was tolerated to some degree, but after the forming of the Movement for Democratic Change and the loss of the February constitutional referendum in 2000, State repression escalated in all respects. The Zimbabwe government has reverted to patterns of State control established under colonialism, including mass arrests in terms of repressive legislation, combined with brutality against civilians.
The findings of this report are based on lawyers’ records from 38 legal firms in Zimbabwe, who submitted data relating to 1,981 arrests that they considered to be primarily political in motivation. These records indicate that police routinely pick up activists ahead of planned actions, knowing that they neither need, nor intend, to prove that the arrestee has committed a crime. Almost 90% of politically motivated arrests do not result in a trial, and in the few instances when cases go to trial, the State has obtained convictions in only 1,5% of cases! Laws such as POSA are not there to enforce law and order, but to undermine the rights of citizens to freedom of association, expression and movement. Police brutality is routine, with torture of arrestees occurring in 33% of cases. Cell conditions are shocking, and defending lawyers run the risk of assault, harassment or incarceration.
Political arrests peaked in 2003, when the ability of the opposition to organise was at its zenith, and arrests have declined since then, coinciding with the demise of the democratic movement’s ability to mobilise cohesively. This pattern of declining arrests is an indicator of the cumulative effects of state repression on the capacity of the opposition to confront the state, rather than an indicator of less oppression. The effectiveness of the MDC has also been severely compromised by the use of violence within its own structures in resolving internal political struggles.
Whereas in the 1990s it was possible to mass thousands of people on the streets for peaceful marches, State reaction to any such attempts is now swift and vicious. The September 2006 attempt by the ZCTU to march on the streets of Harare lasted less than two minutes, and the few activists who took part were brutally tortured. By the end of 2005, the democratic movement was in serious disarray and without an effective response to State oppression. The mass protest action threatened by the MDC never took place and the only public protests that have occurred have been small scale public demonstrations mounted by a few civic groups. The possibility of using a mass action strategy to confront the Mugabe regime will require serious reorganisation of the political opposition and coordination between the political opposition and the civic groups. One-dimensional forms of struggle will not suffice effectively to confront Zimbabwe’s ruling party and protest strategy will have to be combined with broader strategies including more effective electoral battles, and lobbying strategies that are more clearly articulated at regional and international levels.