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The Zimbabwe Vigil’s 10th anniversary is no cause for celebration

zimbabwe getty 300x225 The Zimbabwe Vigils 10th anniversary is no cause for celebration

(GETTY IMAGES)

The Zimbabwe Vigil recently marked – not celebrated – our tenth anniversary protesting outside the Zimbabwe Embassy in London against human rights abuses and in support of free and fair elections. Since the 12th October 2002 Zimbabwean exiles and supporters have gathered every Saturday, come what may, overlooked by Jacob Epstein’s sculptures slowly crumbling away on the Embassy’s neo-classical façade.

When the Vigil started we were hopeful that the then newly-formed Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) would soon sweep away President Mugabe’s sclerotic Zanu PF party which had ruled since independence in 1980. Robert Mugabe had taken over what had been described by President Nyerere of Tanzania as ‘the jewel of Africa’, yet despite achievements in expanding education, had steered the economy onto the rocks and increasingly resorted  to violence to deal with opposition.

The invasion of white-owned farms, aimed at undermining support for the MDC, had destroyed commercial agriculture and prompted the exodus of millions of people. More and more Zimbabweans began turning up in the UK – not primarily the dispossessed white farmers, who could use their skills elsewhere, but impoverished black Zimbabweans, many of them professionals from towns which collapsed as large swathes of formerly productive land were looted.

As Mugabe increasingly subverted the judicial system and police force, the rule of law in Zimbabwe became the rule of force, backed by an increasingly politicized army and a subservient media parroting the Zanu PF mantra that the mounting economic woes were caused by ‘illegal’ Western sanctions imposed on a number of Mugabe’s cronies. The fact that trade with the West continued to increase – along with Western aid – was conveniently ignored.

Developments at home were watched with growing dismay by Zimbabweans in London who formed a branch of the MDC. Encouraged by visiting speakers from Zimbabwe, including the MDC MP Roy Bennett, it was agreed to launch a regular Vigil outside Zimbabwe House, independent of the MDC, along the lines of the anti-apartheid protest which had been held outside the South African Embassy.

At our first Vigils we had a few posters and a petition to the UN Human Rights Commission and not much else. A report appeared in the UK newsletter of the MDC on 8th November 2002. The first two Vigils, it said, had been well-attended but on the third it rained steadily. ‘But that Vigil was the best ever. If it rains, you have to sing and dance to keep your spirits up . . .’ The report went on to say of the Vigil ‘It’s only going on for a limited period . . . all signs are that Mugabe is finished . . .’ Such optimism! But we prepared for the future and bought a tarpaulin which we strung from the four maple trees outside Zimbabwe House and gradually became, in the words of the Observer newspaper, the largest regular demonstration in London.

In the early years a good proportion of Vigil supporters were white Zimbabweans – perhaps 40%. But, as hope died, this dwindled until the Vigil became a 90%+ black protest, now averaging about 60 people a week. In the intervening years we have carried out many demonstrations apart from the weekly Vigil.

One of the first was to hire an open-top double decker bus, adorn it with our banners “No to Mugabe No to Starvation’ and ‘End murder, rape and torture in Zimbabwe’, and tour London delivering petitions to Parliament, the Commonwealth and the UN. On another occasion, a group of about 25 of us went to Lisbon to protest at the presence of Mugabe at a meeting there.

As the Vigil enters its second decade, we remember friends who have supported us: Remus Makuwasa, the gaunt, dying MDC shadow minister who sat huddled silently in blankets for the whole of a bitterly cold Vigil, Archbishop Pius Ncube who came and comforted people at the Vigil kneeling at his feet, the silent benefactor who would from time to time stuff a wad of £20 notes into our startled hands, the Oxford music professor who joined us in a local pub to tutor us on singing, the film stars such as Tim Robbins and Emma Thompson who signed our petitions, not to mention Simon Callow who stopped his taxi to get out and give us some money.

Zimbabwe is now a gangster state. Its democracy a travesty, with impunity for the rich and powerful, and poverty and disease for the majority. On one level there is a vibrant economy fed by money made serving Mugabe’s corrupt mafia, on another there is mass unemployment, power cuts and water shortages. The Vigil has no doubt that there will be violence as Zanu PF seeks to steal the upcoming elections. We expect the same outcome as in 2008 with another ‘government of national unity’ denying true democracy.

But as Epstein’s statues continue to crumble like Zimbabwe’s towns, environment and wild life, we are determined to continue alerting the world to what is going on in the former jewel of Africa – reduced to one of the poorest countries in the world. A recent South African report says that from being one of the most advanced economies in Africa, Zimbabwe’s GDP per person is now the second lowest of 185 listed. It is ironic that the country listed last, the DRC, is even richer in natural resources than Zimbabwe.

For more information about the Vigil visit www.zimvigil.co.uk

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