Paul Kruger, architect of Johannesburg’s 1896 Old Fort Prison would have been delighted at how Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe’s Zanu PF treats political activists. Ironically, in 2005, Zimbabwe’s prisons were condemned even by Chief Justice Godfrey Chidyausiku as “degrading, inhumane and unfit” for habitation. Our prison population is over 40 000, with a substantial number being incarcerated only because they are Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) activists. Reports are that “extreme hunger, inhumane squalid conditions, exposure to a variety of diseases and stripping people of their dignity are standard practices in Zimbabwe’s jails, resulting in shameful misery hidden away from the public gaze behind high walls and razor wire.”
Such was the feeling of ire and shock that overwhelmed me on my recent visit to South Africa’s Old Fort Prison now Constitution Hill. Tucked on a rugged piece of land bound by Kotze, Joubert, Sam Hancock and Hospital streets West of Johannesburg CBD, now the Apartheid Museum Constitutional Court is a crude reminder of the extent to which autocratic lunacy inflicts pain on its citizens. Luckily for South Africans, Prison Number Four that once “housed” anti-apartheid activists Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Joe Slovo, Bram Fischer, Albert Luthuli, Robert Sobukwe, Winnie Mandela, Albertina Sisulu, Fatima Meer and the 1976 “Soweto Students” — is now only a tourist attraction. As I listened to the harrowing tales of “Tausa” naked dances, freezing water sprayed in solitary confinement cells, gangster skirmishes and inmates fed with “rice water”, memories of fetid Zanu PF prisons inundated my mind. The price we pay for challenging Zanu PF hegemony can only equal the abuse that revolutionaries suffered in Kruger’s apartheid-era cells.
Nonetheless, I took comfort in how South Africans have succeeded in “packaging”their violent history for the benefit of current and future generations. No doubt there may be vestiges of racism hounding that country, but it’s the high level of political tolerance that Zanu PF needs to “copy and paste” urgently. The tour guide says of this place: “Nowhere can the story of South Africa’s turbulent past and its extraordinary transition to democracy be told as it is at Constitution Hill.”
When Zanu PF narrates the history of our liberation, anti-racism stalwarts Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole and Joshua Nkomo are deliberately relegated to backwaters. President Mugabe and his cronies perceive emancipation only through the distorted Zanu PF prism. Those like us who mourn the dearth of real freedom in Zimbabwe’s democracy calculus are dismissed as “agents of imperialism”. Our highly compromised justice system extends this fallacy by subjecting political prisoners to horrific brutality comparable only to what Number Four inmates suffered in Kruger’s detention cells.
The arrogance flaunted by our prison system in resisting penitentiary reform can only point to one thing –black- on-black apartheid.
Supreme Court Judge Rita Makarau once “decried overcrowding, poor diet and the high prevalence of disease, and pestilence in the country’s jails”.
Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights and Woman of Zimbabwe Arise have routinely implored government to desist from incarcerating freedom activists. I would feel irritated and insulted, barred from enjoying what Joshua Nkomo fought for — freedom — by a motley crew of self-righteous, egocentric zealots!
Zimbabwe Association for Crime Rehabilitation Organisation has justifiably pointed accusatory fingers at Justice minister Patrick Chinamasa, Police Commissioner-General Augustine Chihuri and Attorney-General Johannes Tomana for prisoner abuse.
Our mission, as agents of democratic change, is to rid Zimbabwe of this totalitarian Zanu PF scourge.
Zimbabwe will be free of arbitrary arrests, and then MDC shall convert Matapi, Whawha, Chikurubi, Khami, Harare, Mutare and Bulawayo prisons into Constitutional Hill-type monuments of freedom.