What does it mean to be an activist?

Credit: Pixabay

Nairne Clark Hopkinson
Deputy Culture Editor – Arts

Content Warning: Contains discussion of state violence and several human rights violations including sexual violence, torture, and abuse.

Welcome to the age of the activist.

Last year saw the swelling of discontent amongst the population of several states, with many rising up against injustice, from the marches in America and France, to the sweeping crackdowns that have taken place in Sudan, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, and Hong Kong. These protests have in large been met with batons, tear gas, imprisonment, disappearances, and even live bullets. As the death toll mounts, so does a brewing sense of activist outrage. The price of freedom has always been high, but 2019 showed the world that there are always people willing to pay the price. They pay for it with their safety, freedom, bundled in the back of police vans in the middle of the night, and ultimately with their lives. Olivia Chamboko knows that price all too well.

Ms Chamboko, a representative from Restoration Of Human Rights (ROHR), is fighting for change in her home country of Zimbabwe, a country Amnesty International reports is in the middle of “a systematic and brutal crackdown on human rights” under President Mnangagwa “including the violent suppression of protests and a witch-hunt against anyone who dared challenge his government.” This presidency has already been responsible for the disappearances of several outspoken activists. Ms Chamboko tells us that “security forces have intensified a crackdown on supporters of the opposition parties and human rights activists. The government is on a witch-hunt to torture political activists.” I spoke to Ms Chamboko, to find out more about what it means to be an activist, and ask what activism meant to her:

“Activism consists of efforts to promote, impede, direct, or intervene in social, political, economic, or environmental reform with the desire to make changes in society. In the literal sense of the word, I’m driven by all the injustices faced by Zimbabweans on a daily basis, through my efforts, as well as those of the different organisations I’m affiliated with who will be heard one day and bring about the much-needed change in Zimbabwe.

When increased oil prices inspired protests across Zimbabwe in January 2019, protestors were met with tear gas and little to no mercy. In that month alone Amnesty International recorded at least 15 civilian deaths at the hands of the police. By the end of April, close to 400 people had been convicted of unlawful demonstrations. In August, a further 128 activists were arrested for criticising the government. The United Nations has described these arrests and attacks as “extremely disturbing”.

Every day, the list of detained activists in Zimbabwe grows. Stabile Dewah, George Makoni, Tatenda Mombeyarara, Gamuchirai Mukura amongst others, were detained upon arriving back in the country and are yet to face trial for “plotting to overthrow President Mnangagwa’s government”. And while most of us returned home for the holidays, Ms Chamboko can no longer see her family in Zimbabwe:

“I no longer have familial ties in Zimbabwe. I would face destitution upon return for one. But more on the political front, I’m in immediate danger of being murdered, abducted, tortured or raped upon landing at Harare airport as my name is in the public domain and the government secret agents, the Criminal Intelligent Organisation would be alerted of any dissenting voices on the flight list, because I have been very vocal about the atrocities happening in Zimbabwe.”

The streets of Zimbabwe are no longer a safe place, with neighbourhoods turned war-ground for a military with no restraint, under a president with no mercy. Dewa Mavhinga, southern Africa director for Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports that: “We have received very disturbing reports of a number of cases of women allegedly raped by members of security forces.” This joins many reports of soldiers breaking legs, beating children, and raping female activists in their homes to discourage protests. An anonymous soldier told The Telegraph last January that he had no regrets about raping known activists: “It was night. We were looking for someone in the MDC. We had an address, this lady was sleeping with a light on. I asked if her husband was there, and she said she doesn’t have one. I was done in a minute.” While the Zimbabwe government has denied authorising soldiers to commit door-to-door systematic rapes and attacks, they’re certainly not doing anything to halt the practice.

Ms Chamboko spoke to me on behalf of ROHR, who can be found protesting and spreading information across the UK. When asked how the public could get involved, she stressed that: “We have different campaigns running all the time, the public can have their say on different social media platforms. We have on our ROHR, for example, trending hashtags like #StopAbductingCitizens, etc. and they can get involved that way.”

And as for the future of ROHR? Ms Chamboko remains strong that they will not be threatened or discouraged from standing up for what is right: “As long as the political climate remains as it is at the rock we will continue to stand and fight for the rights of people. Collectively as ROHR we are unrelenting in our efforts to ensure that such a Zimbabwe is realised. We will continue with our demonstrations, campaigns, marches, and petitions that will go in some way to make our voices and those of the voiceless be heard.”

It is definitely a dangerous time to be making your voice heard in Zimbabwe however. HRW reported that after being abducted by six masked gunmen, comedian and government critic Samantha Korea (otherwise known as “Gonyeti”) was stripped and forced to drink sewage before she was dumped in a bush in the suburbs of Harare. Another activist, Tatenda Mombeyara, was also abducted by masked gunmen after being accused of organising anti-government protests, before abandoning him on the street after breaking a finger and his left leg. HRW has been able to confirm that more than 50 known activists have been abducted so far this year, not counting those arrested at airports or protests. So far, no one has been arrested for the savage beatings and torturing.

With this threat facing Ms Chamboko and her colleagues, I wondered if she had any regrets:

“I don’t have any regrets whatsoever – if anything, that I should have started activism earlier in life. I’m continuously learning a lot from being actively involved and I’m hopeful that change will come through all our sterling efforts for our voices to be heard. I am actually proud to be an activist because I am promoting and intervening in social, political, economic, and environmental reforms with the desire to make changes in Zimbabwe, which is what l believe in.”

And what would she say to other people reading this, who are thinking of getting involved in political activism?

“The Zimbabwean people are suffering at the hands of a corrupt president and his defunct political party: ZanuPF. We’re fighting for political reform, but suppose another president comes in – even from a different political party and his policies are not in the interests of our people – I will still be campaigning against policies that only save the interests of the ruling elite. So really my heart is with the people, regardless of political affiliation even though it’s fair to say that at the moment ZanuPF and all its crones must just go! Zimbabwe needs new reform, new leadership, and a new regime. No one should look at themselves like they’re too small or too irrelevant to make a difference, collectively if pressure is applied from all angles, change might just come. In this case, ‘every little helps’.”

I asked Ms Chamboko if she could give one message to President Mnangagwa, what would it be?

“President Mnangagwa, the violation of human rights under your government is on the increase. There is a need for you to restore our dignity as a country, through the restoration and upholding of our fundamental human rights and the respect of the constitution as a nation. The right to life must be restored, the same as the right not to be tortured and subjected to inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment. The right to dignity as a people and a right to be protected against abject poverty must be upheld. It is my wish to see the rule of law restored. Mr. President, Zimbabwe is broken, angry and divided and it is within your power to unite and heal the nation with not just words but also by your actions, starting with accountability, apologies, and compensation.”

And if she could give one message to the people of Zimbabwe? Ms Chamboko ended our interview on a note of hope for the future:

“I urge all people of Zimbabwe not to despair, better must come, and it will come if we are united in delivering Zimbabwe for not only ourselves but for future generations to come. To all Zimbabwe citizens, you are the game changers and defenders of our country.”