Mugabe's attack on judges and journalists fails to stifle dissent

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The Independent Online
"TEN YEARS ago, one politician said Zimbabwean democracy was in the intensive care unit," said Isaac Maposa, a lawyer campaigning for constitutional reform. "Now it is in the mortuary. It may even be lying in state."

Yet after the worst month for freedom in the southern African country since independence from Britain in 1980, there is optimism in the capital, Harare. Despite unprecedented attacks on the media and the judiciary, a new generation, including Mr Maposa, who is in his thirties, is emerging to challenge President Robert Mugabe.

Kevin Laue, who chairs Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, said: "It would be wrong to be naively optimistic. A lot of people are at the end of their tether.

"I have no doubt there will be violence and strikes. But the press is more vibrant and the opposition is speaking out."

It has cause to. Six months of support for President Laurent Kabila's war in the Democratic Republic of Congo have cost the country millions of dollars. Inflation continues to soar and excessive rains are a portent of more price rises; meat and bread are expected to increase by up to 30 per cent next week. Hardly a day goes by without a student demonstration in Harare, Bulawayo or Mutare. Their grants have not been paid.

Harare city council is said to be so broke it cannot print parking tickets for its traffic wardens. But the council is building a mansion for its mayor.

Amnesty International says human rights in Zimbabwe are in a state of "crisis". Next Monday, two journalists from the Sunday Standard newspaper will be remanded on charges of publishing a false report. Their article claimed officers had plotted a coup to protest against intervention in Congo.

The editor, Mark Chavunduka, and a reporter, Ray Choto, were arrested not by police but by soldiers, and allegedly tortured. When supreme court judges protested that the journalists were being held illegally in military custody, President Mugabe staged a televised address. He accused the judges, whose collective petition was the first since 1965, of over-reacting and said they should resign.

In the same address, Mr Mugabe, 75, cited "insidious attempts by British agents planted or recruited in Zimbabwe to bring disaffection amongst us". The President named three Zimbabwean human rights campaigners. One, Mike Auret, of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, fought the pre-1980 Ian Smith regime.

On 1 March, a reporter from the weekly Mirror will appear in court over a story four months ago claiming the grieving family of a soldier killed in Congo received only his head for burial. In under a month, seven journalists have been arrested for stories which, according to Zimbabwe's information minister, Chen Chim-utengwende, caused "alarm and despondency". Last week, the minister said foreign investment in the media would be curbed because "they are doing it for political reasons".

Such xenophobic remarks still strike a chord with some of the country's 12 million people, especially in rural areas, among the poor, and within President Mugabe's own generation. The redistribution of 12.3 million acres of farm land - another favourite subject in Mugabean demagogy - has been slow and inefficient. Twenty years after independence, a few thousand whites still farm the best 30 per cent of Zimbabwe's land.

In a court ruling last week that may have fuelled Mr Mugabe's ire, the government was instructed that 520 farms it had earmarked for redistribution would remain in white hands because the authorities' paperwork had been filed late.

With parliamentary and presidential elections due next year and in 2002, President Mugabe shows no signs of wishing to bring to a close his 19- year tenure of power.

This week, the government approved Zim$450 million (pounds 7.5m) for "community development projects" - dams, roads, bridges, boreholes and classrooms for the rural areas from which President Mugabe draws much of his support.

If it was not for three out of parliament's 150 seats, Zimbabwe would be a one-party state. It is, really. Mr Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) holds 147 seats.

Since independence and Zimbabwe's unhappy experience of structural adjustment, observers have been united in their chorus: it is a promising country with relatively high levels of literacy and strong political awareness, but there is no opposition.

That, finally, seems to be changing. The veteran irritant, Margaret Dongo, who defected from Zanu-PF in disgust at its cronyism, last month launched her new party, the Zimbabwe Union of Democrats.

Mrs Dongo, 39, said: "ZUD will take Zimbabwe back to the people for accountability, transparency and good governance. It is not a party for whites or any other group. It is a party for the citizens of the country."

Mr Maposa is the co- ordinator of the National Constitutional Assembly, an umbrella body of 60 non- governmental organisations and civil liberties groups, based in a villa in the leafy suburbs of Harare.

It is one of two new political groupings, the other being Zimbabwe Integrated Project (Zip), just launched by a mathematician, Henery Dzinotyiweyi.

Mr Maposa said: "Our mission is to make people participate meaningfully and as informed stakeholders in a debate which must lead to the updating of our constitution."

He denies the NCA - which he says gets funds from the EU and includes the influential Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions - is a nascent political grouping.

"There is unity in numbers and we are growing," he said. "We have a neutral position but of course, by the nature of what we do, there is no escaping that we are dealing in politics."

Letters, Review, page 2