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ZIMBABWE: WHAT THE SMALL ANTS CAN DO TO MOVE THE GRASSHOPPER

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JOHANNESBURG, May 10 2007 (IPS) - Africans have to stand in solidarity with the people of Zimbabwe by holding their governments to the democratic principles which they profess, writes Kumi Naidoo, secretary general of CIVICUS, an international network of civil society organisations In this analysis, Naidoo writes that the myriad of problems the country faces must be addressed on several levels and, most important, these efforts should focus on the citizens of the country. Civil society organisations are integral to this equation. However, government threats against civil society are increasing and there are legal limitations on their work, particularly in organising public meetings. And there has been a frightening rise in both open and clandestine attacks against peaceful civic activists.

As Africans, however, we hold many tools in our hands. The myriad of problems the country faces must be addressed on several levels and, most important, these efforts should focus on the citizens of the country.

Civil society organisations are integral to this equation. They are providing affordable food as inflation skyrockets; medical care to those unable to pay hospital fees; shelter for the growing number of orphans; and legal defence to those forced onto the streets after the ZANU-PF government’s Operation Murambatsvina demolished their homes.

It is essential that we, both as African governments and citizens, support the vital work and the struggles of civil society organisations in Zimbabwe.

I travelled to Zimbabwe from 13-16 April with my colleague, Clare Doube, who has been leading CIVICUS’s work in supporting civil society groups under threat in Zimbabwe and in other countries through our Civil Society Watch programme.

In Bulawayo and Harare, and in our car trip between the two cities, we were struck by the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe: the disintegration of the health and education systems, the meltdown of the economy, the fragmentation of families, the general sense of fear and trepidation, and the ”disappearances” of citizens — as many as 600 according to some observers.

We spoke with representatives of beleaguered non-governmental organisations (NGOs), trade unions, and religious groups who told us that government threats against civil society are increasing. There are legal limitations on their work, particularly in organising public meetings.

And there has been a frightening rise in both open and clandestine attacks against peaceful civic activists. And people who are dedicated to their country are being forced to leave, simply to survive.

One particularly disturbing example is a new government report entitled ”Opposition Forces in Zimbabwe: A Trail of Violence” which attempts to undermine peaceful civil society organisations, including some of CIVICUS’s partners, by criminalising their legitimate activities and falsely accusing them of promoting violence.

On a Saturday during our visit, we witnessed such intimidation firsthand when roadblocks and displays of water cannons and heavily-armed riot police were used to discourage people from attending a prayer meeting of civic activists and church leaders in Bulawayo– though the event itself passed without disruption. It was the first public gathering in Zimbabwe since the viciously repressed 11 March meeting in Harare.

It was even more worrying to read a leaked memorandum from Zimbabwe’s police commissioner, Augustine Chihuri, stating that the police should identify the ”ringleaders” of the event and ”not to hesitate to shoot to kill”.

Just as we arrived back in South Africa, our colleagues called from Zimbabwe to tell us that the information minister had made a statement revoking the registration of every NGO in the country, effectively shutting them down. We were shocked. But a colleague from the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition dismissed the remark as merely an empty threat designed to intimidate civil society because no law was passed.

Civil society activists like this colleague are used to threats. While they may wake up in fear at night or continually look over their shoulders, such threats have not stopped their work — yet.

One of the speakers at the prayer meeting that Saturday was a priest from Malawi. He told the story of a grasshopper that was being moved only by the collaborative and cumulative efforts of many small ants. So, what can we, the small ants of Africa, do when faced with a grasshopper?

Civil society organisations in Africa have an integral role to play. As well as offering solidarity, we must also lobby our governments to stand up for what they profess to believe in: human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

While the Southern African Development Community and the African Union choose to label the crisis in Zimbabwe a political one, we insist that the real struggle is not seen on political platforms, but in people’s homes.

Accordingly any lasting solution must involve not only political parties but also the people of Zimbabwe through NGOs, trade unions, and religious groups. We must look beyond politics and listen to the voices of the people of Zimbabwe.

It is imperative that all Africans must stand up and offer solidarity. This is not a time for indifference, inaction, and platitudes. Silence is not an ethical option. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

 
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