A Time Of Heroes
By Gordon WeissMay 1, 2012
The winner of the Sydney Peace Prize is a Zimbabwean grandmother and government minister almost beaten to death by Zimbabwean police in 2007.
On March 11, 2007, a resolute 64-year-old Zimbabwean woman who had spent part of her life in Australia fighting for Aboriginal rights, strode with a group into a Harare police station to demand the whereabouts of her arrested colleagues.
Sekai Holland had once been the most senior woman in Robert Mugabe's guerilla organization during the 1970s struggle against the Rhodesian government of Ian Smith. But she had been expelled from the organization, targeted for killing by her former comrades, and, with Morgan Tsvangirai, she started the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) as a real alternative to one-party rule.
Founded in 1999, the MDC was the only substantive challenge to President Mugabe, the once admired revolutionary hero-cum-strongman, who had dominated Zimbabwe since independence in 1980. With elections scheduled for the following year, a brutal campaign of terror was underway to intimidate the increasingly popular MDC from participating in the political process.
In the police station, the answer to the groups's inquiry was swift. They were beaten and spat on by more than a dozen police officers. Three of Holland's ribs were broken when a policewoman jumped on her. Holland's 80 injuries included a broken arm, a fractured knee, cuts and lacerations, and a leg snapped by blows from an iron bar. But she survived.
"It was very bad for Mugabe to beat up a grandmother," says Peter Murphy of the Sydney-based Zimbabwean Information Centre. "It was well reported all across Africa." Not for the first time, Holland thought she might die. The beaten body of a photographer, who took the photo of a bloody and swollen Morgan Tsvangirai that sparked global opprobrium, was found a few days later. Tortured for hours, Holland was jailed, and finally released after two court hearings. To the fury of Mugabe, however, she was escorted by an Australian diplomat to the airport, where she was flown to South Africa for treatment. Her Australian husband, Jim Holland, told a reporter: "The regime tried to beat her into submission and has totally failed, and she knows that she's won." Prime Minister John Howard called Mugabe a "disaster" and Zimbabwe "a total heap of misery".
Miserable indeed. Writing a few years before the assault on Holland and Tsvangirai, the British-Zimbabwean novelist Doris Lessing described decades of rule by the "rapacious bunch of thieves" of Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) government that had "ruined, dishonoured, disgraced… the jewel of Africa". Mugabe himself was "a frightened little man", embittered by the adoration heaped on South Africa's first post-apartheid president, Nelson Mandela. Mugabe's notoriously venal Ghanian wife, Sally, set the standard for a circle of cronies, self-styled "war heroes" feverishly plundering the country.
Few were better placed to do so than one of Mugabe's oldest friends and comrades-in-arms, the retired 62-year-old General Solomon Tapfumaneyi Mujuru. Genuinely daring during the guerilla struggle against white Rhodesia, and later commander-in-chief of the armed forces in a liberated Zimbabwe, Mujuru was rich, ruthless, and married to the Annie Oakley of Zimbabwe: Joice "Spillblood" Mujuru, now the Vice-President, and once a heroine of the guerilla struggle for her reported downing of a military helicopter with a Kalashnikov.
According to his daughter, the General enjoyed "a belly full of whiskey". But relations between Mugabe and the erstwhile duo of one-shot Joice and many-shots Solomon had soured. On August 15, 2011, en route to his farm outside Harare, Solomon stopped off for a few whiskies at a local bar. He waved at his security guards as he passed through the gates, and entered the farmhouse. When his body was retrieved from the smoking ruins the following morning it had been incinerated to a charred chunk of unrecognizable human carbon. No blood, almost no trace of organs, no brain.
The fire brigade had taken an hour to reach the farm from Harare, and when it did, it had no water. It's 400 litre truck had "leaked like a sieve" as it trundled to the inferno. Despite an estimated 520 degree Celsius temperature at the fire's core, parts of the house, curtains close to the body, and some furniture survived. A fireman testified that the body emitted a blue flame that numerous buckets of water could not extinguish. Whisky was not enough. Rumour had it that only an accelerant like phosphorous could burn with such intensity.
Effectively cremated before he was buried, mourners had to forgo a traditional viewing of the body because of the paltry remains. President Robert Mugabe attended the state funeral of Zimbabwe's most decorated soldier, a man who had buttressed the President's grip on power for more than three decades. Overcoming his incendiary displeasure at a comrade who had recently begun to openly defy him, Mugabe told the crowd of 50,000 that the death was "a tragedy".
SUCH TRAGEDIES have been endemic in the ruling party almost from its inception. In 1975, even as it fought the white Rhodesian government, as many as 400 apparatchiks died during an internal bloodletting, as well as several senior members. Sekai Holland was reportedly placed on a death list. In 1978, as the inevitable end of enforced white rule approached, the journalist Xan Smiley warned that aside from Mugabe's woolly doctrines and promise of a one-party state, Mugabe's violent rule of his own party augured equal violence for Zimbabwe.
Beginning in 1980, and despite soothing promises of reconciliation, the tragedy has been extended to the whole of the country. Mugabe's reign has largely destroyed the structural advantages left at the end of the white-run police state. The black police state has included campaigns of ethnic cleansing that killed tens of thousands, the closure of thousands of schools, theft of the country's land and mineral resources by a kleptocracy that surrounds Mugabe, food shortages, raging inflation, and the subjugation of the police, courts, and army to one-man rule. Life expectancy has plummeted in 20 years to one of the lowest in the world. Sheer negligence contributed to the HIV/AIDS pandemic that has shredded Zimbabwe's families.
According to Sekai Holland, Zimbabwe has perhaps a million torture survivors of a population of 12 million, and a third of Zimbabweans have left the country. In 2000, Mugabe unleashed a program of forced take-overs of farms. In the space of just two months, more than a thousand white-owned farms were occupied, with thousands more to follow. Farmers surrendered their properties after being intimidated, threatened, and sometimes murdered by marauding gangs of ZANU-PF "war veterans". Hundreds of thousands of black farm workers were beaten, raped, and lost their homes and livelihoods. While agricultural production plummeted, ZANU-PF courtiers like Solomon and Joice Mujuru took the best properties for themselves.
In 2005, in a clumsy effort to stamp out the informal economy that was now the life-source for millions of Zimbabweans, the homes and shops of 700,000 people were destroyed by bulldozer in Harare, in an operation that Mugabe dubbed 'Murambatsvina' (drive out rubbish). The MDC was strongest in urban areas, and MDC families were the principal targets, even though many ZANU-PF activists who had occupied farm land were also affected. At a time when the UN World Food Program already was feeding about three million Zimbabweans, Mugabe's infliction of hunger and want on his people seemed as vicious as the regime of North Korea.
A year after Holland's savage beating, the MDC won a resounding electoral victory. Rather than hand power to Tsvangirai, the ruling ZANU-PF party re-doubled its terror, despite the misgivings of some insiders including Joice Mujuru. Dozens of MDC activists were murdered, hundreds more disappeared, and some 25,000 fled their homes. More would follow. Months later, as MDC activists continued to be persecuted, Tsvangirai renounced his participation in the run-off presidential election insisted on by Mugabe, calling it a "violent sham". Mugabe replied: "We are not going to give up our country because of a mere X." While Nelson Mandela condemned Zimbabwe's "failure of leadership", Mugabe was re-elected President unopposed.
When Holland landed in South Africa after her own beating, her plane was ringed by police cars. She thought she would be arrested. But South African President Thabo Mbeki, hitherto one of Mugabe's most solid supporters, was concerned that an imploding Zimbabwe would drive a million refugees across his border. Holland, a woman who, in the words of the Sydney Peace Prize citation, opposed violence in all forms (she had been expelled from Mugabe's organization for trying to protect vulnerable young cadres and women) and stood for "inclusiveness and reconciliation", was a figure of genuine credibility. Perhaps she would be Zimbabwe's Mandela if Tsvangirai was assassinated. Under police escort, Holland was whisked off to hospital.
Mbeki then led the international campaign that forced Mugabe to accept a power-sharing deal, the Global Political Agreement (GPA). In February 2009 Morgan Tsvangirai - whom Mugabe called "the tea boy" - finally was sworn in as Mugabe's Prime Minister. In the Unity Government, ZANU-PF retained control over the armed forces, police, and justice ministries, while the MDC controlled finance, education, and health. Appropriately, if ironically, Sekai Holland was appointed Minister for Healing and Reconciliation, a post she has held ever since, working closely with Mugabe and others.
The power-sharing agreement included provisions that, if implemented, would profoundly change government in Zimbabwe. Mugabe was forced to consent to a new constitution. With bodies being exhumed from mass graves, a reconciliation process to address the long history of pre and post-independence political violence was proposed. Freedom of expression and assembly was to be protected. Corrupt officials were to be removed from office, and there was to be a land audit to identify those who had scooped up farms and other baubles during the farm-takeovers. Progress was guaranteed by the Southern African Development Community's (SADC) 15 member states. But there has been little progress.
The 88-year-old Mugabe is intent on a new election, currently set for 2013, but without the fussy bells and whistles of constitutional, legal, and social reform. The SADC, now led by South Africa's President Jacob Zuma, who does not disguise his dislike for Mugabe, will not support an election without reform. If Mugabe dies soon, Zimbabwe may well fall victim to an inter-ZANU-PF power struggle between Joice Mujuru and two other factions, both hardline. The first is headed by Emmerson Mnangagwa, another war hero practised in the art of mass killing, who orchestrated the 'CIBD', or Coercion, Intimidation, Beating, and Displacement campaign launched against MDC activists in 2008. The second is led by the current head of the armed forces, Constantine Chiwenga.
The killing of Solomon Mujuru was almost certainly the opening salvo in that struggle. Seeing the writing on the wall and his extensive business interests at risk in any chaotic power struggle, Mujuru had turned 'reformist' after 2008, meeting with opposition figures and foreign diplomats to discuss political change. But it was all too late. The officer in charge of the investigation into the fire that consumed Mujuru concluded that there was no foul play, as did the forensic expert. On March 14 this year, the coroner found that despite the unexplained fire "of extra-ordinary magnitude… there was nothing to show that there was foul play".
Like the Chiremba Balancing Rocks that used to feature on Zimbabwean bank notes (after rampant inflation, Zimbabwe now uses foreign currencies for transactions), Zimbabwe is precarious, if steady for now. Ironically, it is Mugabe who is finally indispensable as the source of that stability. But after decades of thuggery, and despite shrill and repeated claims to be "fit as a fiddle", he is reported to be receiving treatment on regular trips to Singapore, and he may finally be dying. "The death of Mugabe will not solve the problems of Zimbabwe," says Peter Murphy. "It may now make them worse. In some sense he is more a part of the solution than ever before." The International Crisis Group is warning of a new round of repression and conflict. One possible scenario is a military coup launched on the pretext of maintaining security.
According to Sekai Holland, Zimbabwe is suffering from 900 years of violence, impunity and abuse by those in authority. Despite initial misgivings about working closely with Mugabe, she has said that it was the right thing to do, "a very difficult exercise but necessary because it has pushed our country out of full conflict into transition". However, in just the past week Mugabe has said that if constitutional discussions are not concluded within a month, he will call an early election in violation of the GPA. Speaking in Sydney this week, her husband, Jim, said, "Sekai speaks truth to power. It is impossible to conclude a meaningful constitutional process in such a short time. The Sydney Peace Prize gives weight to reconciliation, at a moment when once again it is threatened."
Zimbabwe is at boiling point, and the forces of potential violence have never been stronger or less predictable. Peter Murphy, who has known Sekai Holland since student days in the early 1970s in Australia, believes that the Peace Prize laureate's life may well be in danger in any new bloodletting. "All their lives are in danger," he says. "I think they intended to kill her in 2007, but she's robust, she just survived."
After years of havoc and discord, a dying Mugabe may have realized that a lasting legacy will be the kind of reconciliation dialogue now being painfully advanced by Sekai Holland and her colleagues, with his apparent support.
Since arriving in Australia as a student, and marrying Jim in 1965, Sekai Holland has interested and involved herself in a variety of human rights issues, from those of the Aborigines, to that of the long campaign to end the apartheid system in South Africa. Her eyes, however, have always been turned towards Zimbabwe. The Sydney Peace Prize will provide recognition to a courageous woman, at a time when it is most sorely needed.