Are repressive governments more threatening to their citizens than COVID-19? Simbabrashe Gukurume, in this incisive article shows how Zimbabweans are more likely to be killed and have their sources of livelihood destroyed by the government than by COVID-19.
Authoritarian regimes are taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to entrench their power and control. In Africa, leaders and their political henchman are pushing through interventions that further their own personal political interests, often at the expense of their political nemesis and the majority of the citizens. In South Africa, a family is suing the state for the death of Collins Khosa who passed on at the hands of the South African National Defence Forces (SANDF) and the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department (JMPD). The use of brute force and violence has also been reported in Uganda, Nigeria, Rwanda and Kenya, where state security agents enforcing COVID-19 lockdown curfews have killed civilians.
Despite having no single confirmed corona virus case then, Zimbabwe declared COVID-19 a national disaster in March 2020. After five confirmed cases, the president quickly imposed a national lockdown on the 30th of March – initially for a 21-day period. Afterward, it was extended twice for two weeks, and then from 16 May 2020 for an indefinite period, albeit with two weekly reviews of the situation. At the time of writing, the country had 46 confirmed cases and 4 deaths.
While fear and anxiety about COVID-19 has gripped people in the country, many seem to be more afraid of something different. Since the lockdown and subsequent deployment of the police and army, it is common to hear people say, ‘In this country we are more afraid of hunger and the state security than the corona virus.’ For many people, the state and its repressive apparatus represent an immediate and serious threat to their lives and livelihoods.
Lockdowns and deployment of state apparatus
To enforce the lockdown regulations, most the Zimbabwean government deployed soldiers and the police. This deployment of state apparatus is largely concentrated in low-income spaces where adherence of lockdown measures such as socio-physical distancing are next to impossible. Some scholars have argued that social distancing is not only impossible among the urban poor, but is a privilege that many poor people cannot afford. ‘How can I practice social distancing when I am sharing a small room with two different families?’ a resident of Mbare’s Matapi flats who shares a room with six other people asked. Mbare is the oldest high density suburbs on the southern part of Harare. Matapi flats are low-income single room council owned in Harare’s oldest high-density suburb. Initially constructed to house single migrant workers, they now house multiple families in each room. For people in such conditions, being outside is better than being indoors – hence, their defiance to social distancing and other lockdown measures is rife.
In fact, the living and working realities in low-income places makes social distancing a myth and privilege. In addition, buying soap and sanitizers is now considered a luxury amid a critical food crisis. ‘If given a choice would you buy a soap or sanitizers with your last penny when there is no food to eat? – Some would argue.
To enforce the lockdown, the deployed police and army have often adopted a heavy-handed approach – arresting and beating up thousands of people in low-income neighbourhoods. In Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city, two women were brutally assaulted by police officers for breaching social distancing rules on a supermarket queue for scarce basic commodities. Considering a long and protracted history of state sanctioned violence in Zimbabwe, the militarisation of streets and public spaces constitutes ‘symbolic violence’ that invokes traumatising experiences of past experiences of brutality.
Abductions and Brutality
In Zimbabwe, the lockdown has led to a sharp increase in human rights violations by state apparatus. The recent alleged abduction and sexual abuse of the MDC Alliance female activists is a case in point. While government aligned newspapers, ZANU-PF politicians and their supporters have dismissed these abductions as stage managed, the government has ordered a full-scale investigation into the abductions. Initially, the police confirmed they had arrested the three for protesting against the government in violation of lockdown rules, but later denied when party colleagues and the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights demanded access to them. The government had promised to provide financial and social support to vulnerable people, but nothing has been provided to date and many families are already facing starvation. Later, they were found traumatised and seriously injured with reports that they had been stripped naked, beaten and sexually molested, and asked to drink each other’s urine.
These abduction, torture and disappearance of ZANU-PF critics is neither surprising nor new. In 2015, suspected state security agents abducted pro-democracy activist and journalist Itai Dzamara. To date he has not been found. In fact, civil society and opposition activists believe that abductions, brutality, torture and disappearance is one of ZANU-PF’s key modus operandi of dealing with critics and political nemesis.
Although citizens have a constitutional right to engage in peaceful protests, in Zimbabwe, protests are always met with brutality, abductions and torture of activists. Thandekile Moyo’s article noted that the notorious Central Intelligence Office (CIO) and military intelligence commit many of Zimbabwe’s abductions, extrajudicial murders and enforced disappearances. I have also argued elsewhere that the government deploys a huge network of its state apparatus for spying purposes as well as intimidating political critics and opponents in various spaces.
Demolitions, Livelihoods and Homelessness
The deepening poverty and unemployment forced the majority of Zimbabwe’s urban population into operating informal markets at undesignated spaces in many cities in Zimbabwe. During the lockdown, the Ministry of Local Government ordered city councils to demolish illegal structures in an operation akin to the (in) famous 2005 Operation Murambatsvina. The government consider the informal sector a potential hotspot for the spread of the corona virus. Like the Murambatsvina demolitions, the latest demolitions were not only motivated by epidemiological and public health concerns, but also political reasons. Crowded market places like Siya So (Magaba), Mupedzanhamo and other markets in Harare were particularly targeted and ordered to close. In Masvingo, the popular Chitima market was also demolished by the city council. This led to massive loses for some vendors whose produce was left to rot after the demolitions.
While the courts had declared the demolitions illegal and ordered them to be stopped, the demolitions continued. ZimRights regard the demolitions as a violation of people’s social and economic rights. Many vendors I interviewed in Harare felt that the government was supposed to build on the effort of poor vending and create better infrastructure for them to operate, but instead the government chose to destroy their only source of livelihood. In addition, corruption by the law enforcement agents has peaked during the lockdown. Some police and military officers are extorting citizens already buckling under the economic weight of the lockdown. With the government promising to tighten the lockdown by deploying more security forces into the streets, such conditions will create an environment ripe for state security excesses like police corruption and brutality.
Without addressing the structural forces that (re)produce social inequality and provision of social safety nets as well as social protection measures, pandemics like COVID-19 will have long lasting impacts on the lives and livelihoods of many people. In fact, without adequate, social and financial support most of the WHO recommended public health measures like social/physical distancing, lockdowns and hygiene will be a myth in many poor African neighbourhoods. In fact, some governments such as in Zimbabwe have taken the opportunity to consolidate their power and control. During this protracted COVID-19 pandemic and its attendant lockdown measures, Zimbabweans have to grapple with both food and economic insecurity as well as state security repression.
Simbarashe Gukurume is a lecturer in the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology at Great Zimbabwe University.