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Interview with Zvakwana

Human Rights

THE words are everywhere. Zvakwana! Enough is enough! Scrawled on walls and street signs; printed on matchboxes and clothes pegs. From the cities to the towns and through to the villages all across Zimbabwe, this message-of hope and of defiance-is slowly spreading. It's making the authorities nervous. 'These [Zvakwana] people, whoever they are, have been hiding and spreading material and literature aimed at inciting members of the public to lawlessness,' said a police spokesperson. 'We would be interested in talking to them,' he said -Government doublespeak for interrogation, beatings or worse.

Zvakwana means 'enough is enough' in the Shona language; the Ndebele alternative word is 'Sokwanele'. According to one activist, it is also 'a network of ordinary people who are encouraging Zimbabweans across the country to get up, stand up and speak out about the basic issues that are currently before us: poverty, hunger, unemployment, lack of healthcare, failing education and the root cause of all of these problems, bad governance.' Within these messages lie the network's crime: to criticize the Government of the ageing and increasingly autocratic ruler of Zimbabwe - Robert Mugabe.

It is difficult for outsiders to comprehend the magnitude of the leap backwards that Zimbabwe has taken in just a few years. Imagine a Government that claims that unemployment stands at 9 per cent when more than 70 per cent of the employable population is out of work. Or a country where annual inflation stands at 150 per cent (the highest in the world), where international relief agencies are ordered to stop distributing food while the number of people in need of food continues to rise. A land where opposition politicians are routinely targeted for assassination and clandestine torture training camps teach young men to kill and intimidate those who speak out against Mugabe's regime.

But 'our target is not the small dictator,' says one of Zvakwana's representatives. 'It is the people of Zimbabwe. Our message to them is to find courage, to refuse to be intimidated, trampled on, abused and taken for granted. Our message of individual and collective activism is essential to changing the way things are here.'

The network's street-level activism takes many forms. In one action, Zvakwana distributed thousands of 'revolutionary condoms' throughout Harare and beyond, with the slogan 'Get up, Stand up!' emblazoned on the packaging. Another campaign on Robert Mugabe's birthday urged people to send him 'Happy Retirement' cards to let him know that he's passed his 'best before' date.

'We rely a lot on humour in our activism to curb the fear and suspicion with which many people might receive our message. It's also done in the hope that it will get Zimbabweans talking, to have a laugh together and to show one another that anyone can write a message of inspiration and put it on a banknote or slip it into a matchbox. Activism can really be that basic.'

That's why Zvakwana's newsletters and leaflets mix humour and satire with robust criticisms of government policy. These texts are also part-history lesson, informing their readers of the non-violent techniques that have been successfully used around the world. So, in one recent issue, activists could read about how to protect themselves from the effects of teargas and how to react if arrested.

The country goes to the polls this month in what is likely to be the most important general election since its independence. Zvakwana, the Movement for Democratic Change and other opposition groups, as well as a great number of Western observers, are predicting a rerun of the political violence, vote-rigging and voter intimidation that plagued the 2002 election and which led to a victory for Robert Mugabe and his party, Zanu PF. Those caught distributing Zvakwana's newsletters and leaflets can expect torture and imprisonment.

Archbishop Pius Ncube, one of the regime's most vocal critics, recently lamented the lack of a powerful figurehead for the opposition movement: 'We don't have a Mandela, we don't have a Gandhi.' And yet the extraordinarily brave and courageous individuals of Zvakwana -who are so determined to bring about change without resorting to violence- seem to offer precisely the calibre of leadership that Zimbabwe needs right now. May their members-and their message-prosper.

Zvakwana talked to Dylan Matthews

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