Mugabe regime feels pressure

March 28, 2011

Scott McLemee, an organizer of the solidarity campaign for the socialists and activists arrested by the Zimbabwean regime, reports on an international day of action.

IN LATE February, when Zimbabwean security forces arrested dozens of socialists and labor militants who had gathered to discuss recent events in Egypt and Tunisia, it seemed like another case of Robert Mugabe's dictatorship doing what it does best: attacking its own citizens.

But it was more than that. By throwing 45 people in prison, the state expressed the desperate ambition of political thugs and aging dictators everywhere. They want to halt the spread of solidarity with the North African uprisings before the new revolutionary spirit spreads to the rest of the world.

In this, they've failed. On March 21, people around the world mobilized to demand that all charges against the Zimbabwean activists be dropped. Most of those arrested on February 19 were released after two weeks in custody, but the state is prosecuting six "ringleaders" (including much of the leadership of the International Socialist Organization of Zimbabwe) for treason, for which they could be given the death penalty.

A number of demonstrations occurred in various countries following the arrests. But when March 21 was set as a court date for the six defendants, their supporters around the world decided to make it an international day of action. Protests were hurriedly organized in South Africa, Britain, Australia, Sweden and the U.S. An appeal for solidarity circulated in French and Spanish. And Egyptian revolutionaries joined the effort with a statement published in Arabic and translated into English just before the March 21 events.

Munyaradzi Gwisai and fellow activists celebrate as they are released from prison
Munyaradzi Gwisai and fellow activists celebrate as they are released from prison

Demonstrations took place at embassies and other official buildings in major cities such as London and New York on March 21. But the cause also drew support in far-flung locations.

Two dozen pamphlets containing articles on Zimbabwe from Socialist Worker articles were distributed in the college town of Denton, Texas, where students also gathered 30 signatures on a petition denouncing the arrests. In Portland, Ore., activists held up signs reading "Organizing for Democracy is Not a Crime" and "Shame on Mugabe" at a busy intersection. And a handful of people at a literature table in San Francisco found it easy to raise interest in the case. Forty people signed a petition in support of the Zimbabweans.

UNDOUBTEDLY, THE most impressive of the March 21 demonstrations took place in Johannesburg, where 350 people marched through the neighborhood of Hillbrow. Among them were students and faculty from the University of Johannesburg, including members of the socialist organization Keep Left. The protest also drew support from the metal workers' and municipal workers' unions--as well as workers involved in a factory occupation.

What you can do

To learn more about the six prisoners and the struggle for their release, see the Free Them Now! website, the Solidarity with Zimbabwean Political Prisoners website, and the Facebook group (open to non-Facebook users) Calling for the Release of Zimbabwean Activists.

Sign and circulate a petition calling for the release of all the activists. Donate to the "Free the Zimbabwe 45" fund to contribute to the legal defense of the activists, as well as support for their families.

Send an urgent e-mail to Zimbabwean officials calling for the treason charges to be dropped against Antonater Choto, Welcome Zimuto, Eddson Chakuma, Tatenda Mombeyarara, Munyaradzi Gwisai and Hopewell Gumbo.

Include these e-mail addresses in the "To" line: [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected] and [email protected].

Forward your message separately to these supporters of democracy, so they have a record of who has appealed to the regime: [email protected], [email protected], [email protected].

At the end of their march, the South African demonstrators reached a meeting hall where they were greeted by a drum band. "This was great for the mood of the event," reports a participant. "The same group put on a play on xenophobia which was well received by the audience."

An estimated 3 million people have fled political repression and the collapsing economy in Zimbabwe for South Africa over the past decade. The influx of refugees has created tension--at least 60 immigrants were killed in a wave of violence in May 2008.

In London, a protest at the Zimbawean embassy in London was organized by Action for Southern Africa, the successor organization of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, and the Socialist Workers Party. Starting out with 20 people, its ranks swelled by another 30 or 40 when it was joined by supporters of the Movement for Democratic Change, which is the largest opposition party in Zimbabwe.

Following a national election in 2008, MDC formed a so-called "Government of National Unity" with Mugabe's ZANU-PF, but its harassment by the police has intensified in recent weeks.

London supporters also gathered close to $2,000 in donations for the defendants' defense fund. In Melbourne, Australia, where 15 people demonstrated outside Zimbabwe Airlines, members of Socialist Alternative contributed $2,150 to the Zimbabwean cause. There was also a small protest in Stockholm.

In the U.S., demonstrators at Zimbabwe's Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York City and the country's embassy in Washington, D.C., both received surprising evidence that the March 21 actions had made an impression on the diplomatic staff. In each case, someone came out to confront the protesters and argue with them.

"An annoyed official at the mission told us that our protests would have no impact on the case because Zimbabwe's judiciaries are independent," reports an organizer of the New York demonstration, which drew 20 people on a cold, rainy day. "That seems doubtful since there isn't a justice system in the world that's immune to pressure, be it from the public or the state.

"But that's not the main issue anyway...It's the executive, not the judiciary, that imprisoned the six activists for almost a month, tortured them and denied them medical care."

By a most remarkable coincidence, the impeccably dressed Zimbabwean bureaucrat who came to the embassy gate in Washington made the very same argument about the sanctity of Zimbabwe's judicial system. A Secret Service agent and a security guard stood by as the dozen protesters engaged him in a spirited debate.

"Having been to many a similar protest," one D.C. activist later noted, "I didn't expect anyone from the embassy to acknowledge us, let alone feel compelled to speak with us. The fact that someone did shows that Mugabe's government is feeling the pressure of the movement globally."

"THE INTERNATIONAL solidarity and support has been amazing," wrote Shantha Bloemen in an e-mail note to coordinators of the March 21 activities. Her husband, Munyaradzi Gwisai, is one of the six defendants facing treason charges. With the help of comrades abroad, they have been released on bail and are now receiving the medical treatment they were denied while in custody.

Perhaps the most egregiously abused was Tafadzwa Choto, who was brutalized by police despite having recently undergone a surgical operation and suffering from severe asthma. "Though we were beaten and tortured," she said upon release, "our revolutionary spirits are still high. The experience showed us why we should continue fighting for socialism."

The struggle is far from over. The legal battle is still underway--and so is Robert Mugabe's unrelenting campaign of intimidation against political opponents. "Even though they are out," Bloemen continued, "we have to keep the pressure on, not only to drop charges but also to [force Robert Mugabe's government to] stop using the legal system against ordinary people."

The fight to get the charges dropped can be won. Forcing the regime to change its ways is another matter. On that point, the most realistic assessment comes from an astute comment in a message of support from the Revolutionary Socialists of Egypt:

The struggle against oppression and tyranny is one and it cannot be divided. The masses in Tunisia and Egypt have proven that no matter how long autocratic regimes last, the revolution's earthquake can break the walls and dams. Be sure that the earthquake is coming and that Mugabe will fall--if not today, tomorrow.

Further Reading

From the archives