Activists fleeing Zimbabwe find little welcome from its neighbors

Support for Mugabe in countries like South Africa speaks to a major tension for democracies in the region – between protecting the human rights they fought for decades to have and protecting those who fought that battle alongside them.

Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/Associated Press/File
South African President Jacob Zuma, left, shakes hands with Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, in Harare, Zimbabwe, Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016. In prepared remarks there, Zuma focused on economic and other challenges as well as the importance of strengthening ties with Zimbabwe.

The knock came just after 8 a.m. on Christmas Eve.

Through the door of his apartment in downtown Johannesburg, Gabriel Shumba could just make out the voice of the man on the other side, asking in a crisp, placeless accent to come inside.  

That’s odd, thought Mr. Shumba, a decorated Zimbabwean human rights lawyer and activist who has lived in exile here for more than a decade. His building’s visiting hours didn’t start until 10, and anyway, he wasn’t expecting anyone. But he shook off the concern quickly – in his personal life as much as his professional one, the lawyer was rarely one to turn away someone who might be in need.

He unlatched the door.

Five minutes later, Shumba was slumped against a wall, blood pouring from two open gashes in his head as he flickered in and out of consciousness. The man was gone, but strangely, nothing else was. It seemed, Shumba would later recall, like the intruder wanted nothing but the lawyer himself.

“It’s hard to disassociate this kind of attack from the political work I do,” he says.

Although police have not made any arrests in the case, or confirmed the motivations for the attack, that story is an eerily familiar one for many Zimbabwean activists. Those who have built their lives around challenging the autocratic rule of 92-year-old President Robert Mugabe have long accepted harassment and intimidation as a condition of their work. Shumba, for instance, left Zimbabwe in 2003 after being abducted and tortured by Zimbabwean police for his work defending members of the country’s political opposition. 

But activists say an attack like this could also point to another disturbing regional trend. Over the past several months, protests against Mr. Mugabe's 37-year rule have spilled into Zimbabwe's streets in the form of mass marches, stay-aways, and strikes, catalyzed by an unknown preacher named Evan Mawarire and a grainy YouTube cri de coeur he recorded wrapped in a Zimbabwean flag. But Zimbabweans have found little safety in their country’s neighbors, or support from their governments, which instead have closed ranks around Mugabe, a man they see as one of their own.

That support for Mugabe speaks to a major tension for democracies in the region – between protecting the human rights they fought for decades to have and protecting the people who fought that battle alongside them.

Last July, for instance, South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress, dismissed those participating in the largest wave of demonstrations in Zimbabwe in a decade as “sponsored elements seeking regime change,” and called for Zimbabweans to “appreciate the difficulty” for Mugabe’s regime of governing in a slumping economy.

“There’s a close and very personal relationship among former liberation movements [turned governments] in southern Africa,” says Dewa Mavhinga, senior researcher for Zimbabwe and southern Africa at Human Rights Watch, which this week released a report on the global state of human rights that blasted the country’s lack of tolerance for peaceful protest. And protests in Zimbabwe, they believe, could have a domino effect, toppling other former anticolonial protest movements across the region.

“There’s been very little strong vocal support for Zimbabwean protestors in southern Africa,” he says. (One exception is Botswana, whose president, Ian Khama, called in September for Mugabe to step aside.)

For Zimbabwean activists, like many others fleeing the country, neighboring South Africa has long been an obvious destination. But the country’s track record of protecting migrants from human rights abuses at home has been, at best, wobbly. In 2011, an exposé in the local Sunday Times newspaper revealed that South African security forces were collaborating with their Zimbabwean counterparts to deport suspected criminals back to Zimbabwe, where they were illegally tortured, and in at least one case, murdered by security forces. 

And as easily and frequently as human rights activists cross the border, so do Zimbabwean security forces, says Philani Ndebele, campaigns manager for the Zimbabwe Solidarity Forum in Johannesburg. “I have seen repeated evidence of people being followed and phones being tapped” in South Africa, he says. “At a certain level, Zimbabwean human rights defenders face a threat not just in Zimbabwe but around the region, and I think this is on the rise.” 

For Shumba, the human rights lawyer, the Christmas Eve attack against him could in some ways be cause for optimism. It’s clear, he says, that Mugabe’s regime is flailing – doing whatever it can to hold power as its support base splinters all around it.

“I feel very hopeful that in the next few months or years I will be going back to Zimbabwe, a liberated Zimbabwe,” he says, rubbing the stitches on the top of his head, which sit nearly on top of another scar from an old beating by the Zimbabwean police. “Our rallying cry must be that Zimbabwe is bigger than any individuals or political party.”

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