Sekai Holland: The Opening of Parliament Drama Today

Sekai Holland is a member of the MDC’s National Executive Committee. Here’s her account of how events unfolded at the opening ceremony of the second session of the sixth parliament of Zimbabwe. Via: The Zimbabwe Situation

Two weeks ago the MDC Women’s Assembly Chairperson, Mrs lucia Matibenga invited women across all the divides, that keep women apart, to meet at Africa Unity Square, at the opening of Parliament today, to launch the programme to promote the Peace and Tolerance agenda in Zimbabwe. We were told not to wear our party regalia, not to sing our songs as it was a public function, and that we were to respond politely to all forms of provocation, if it arose.

Zimbabwe’s Formidable Security Services in Full Force

MDC women were the first to arrive at the venue by 10.00 am. We were searched by the Police as we entered the Africa Unity Square, a park facing Parliament House. After being cleared, we were told by the Police who searched us, that we were not to leave the park, until the end of the opening of Parliament ceremony.

We were all shocked when we entered Harare, by the large numbers of security services surrounding the city. There were ZR Police placed everywhere, blocking off streets around the Parliament, army personnel, the riot squad, prison police, and airforce. It was an act of courage for all of the women who came to attend the opening of Parliament in this environment of the signs of repression, the instruments of violence.

It was an act of great conviction by the women to approach the ZR Police personnel surrounding the Africa Unity square, with this consentration of armed personnel to see whether we would be allowed to enter the square. It bacame a test of how far any of us would go this morning, to get into the square, stay in the park, before we were stopped by some force, one of the many in our country today! We walked in one by one. Many were terrified, but even they, simply took courage, and all of us eventually were inside Africa Unity Square.

The Park Bench

Once inside we were advised by a uniformed Police-woman officer where to go to observe the opening of Parliament. We found a bench, the first one as one walks on Nelson Mandela Avenue side, immediately after crossing Sam Nujoma street, along Africa Unity Square, and we sat on that, while the rest preferred to stand around the bench, as we waited for both the others to join us, and also for the ceremony to begin..

Ruling Party Districts March into Africa Unity Square

By 11.30 am the zanu/pf groups from the districts began to assemble inside the square, singing their songs, all of which were aimed at the MDC. We sat on our bench unabashed, and the singers in their district formations began to come into the square, along the route where we sat. They turned into the lawns to the end of the park by Third Avenue. The songs were loud and meant to provoke us, but we sat on. We awaited for the arrival of the Mugabe entourage into the Parliament.

Types of Zanu/Pf songs sung Today

Call: Musha unechinja ndewani, tibombe !
Umuzi ka guqula ngokabani, sibhombe !
The home of the one who wants change, whose is it, so that we can bomb it !

Response: Musha unechinja ndewani !
Umuzi ka guqula ngokabani !
The home of the one who wants change, whose is it !

The songs were in that mode.

Ruling Party Women Greet Women by the Bench

With this prevailing hostile environment generated by the militia, we were pleasantly surprised when some of the Zanu/Pf women, dressed in their party regalia, recognised us as they arrived, walked to us at our bench, greeted us before they moved on to join their own colleagues, and all of them who came, shook our hands, all of us on the bench, and those standing around it. They even afforded us not just the handshake, but a smile, as we exchanged that traditional greeting.

Provocation of Those by the Bench by Militia and Provincial Leader

As soon as the ruling party districts took their places, some of those plainclothes who had shown us where to sit, came to tell us ‘to join the others’. We asked them who the ‘others’ were. Another of the same group who had shown us where to sit, again came to ask us to stand up from our bench, to ‘join the others’, this time pointing to the crowd of zanu/pf districts. We asked why we needed to relocate to the other side of the path when the rope on our side had no one. We were the only ones where we were sitting down on the bench on the other side of the path.

When we asked them who gave them the instruction that we be moved they went away and came back with junior ruling party youth to give us the reply to our question.

A well known ruling party harraser of MDC members in Mbare, a woman, called Oripa, came towards us playing to the gallery of her colleagues around her, which was made up of the assembled Zanu/Pf districts. She shook her fists at us, and angrilly shouted at us:

ngavabve pano tisati tavarakasha !
kabasuke singakabamukuli !
let them get out of here before we beat them up !

When she got to where we sat, she instructed us to get out of the park or else, and she did not complete that sentence, but she went into a frenzy, throwing her fists at us, and in the air. The women asked her who gave her the instruction that we leave the square, she was even more angry this time, and replied, facing us:

ma chef
ngama chef
it is the chefs

The women asked her which particular chef gave her the instruction that we leave the park, and Oripa left. Meanwhile William Nhara, the Zanu/Pf Harare Province Publicity Secretary, came hurriedly to where we sat, and his instruction was made directly to me. He instructed me and the women on the bench, and those standing around it, to leave the park, before they did something to us. He got more and more worked up as he spoke to me. Before we could put our questions to him, he looked at me and addressed me by my name:

“Sekai Holland, this is not Tony Blair’s place, go back to America, get out of here, quickly, before we beat you up.”

The Zanu/Pf youth who had been listening to this interraction by now began to converge around us, sitting on the bench, and looking at those standing around the bench, with anger. They now also talked loudly at us, most of them, at the same time, demanding that we vacate the park, or else they would deal with us.

Hapasi penyu ka, apa, ito bvai pano, izvozvi tisati taku……..
Kasindawo yenu le phela, wohlani lisuke lapha khathesi nje, singangakali…..
this is not your place, just get out of here right now, before we…..

Hapasi pa Tony Blair apa, harisi benji ra Tony Blair iri, ibvai pano !
Kasi ndawo ka Tony Blair le, kasi bentshi lika Tony Blair leli, sukani !
This is not Tony Blair’s place, this is not Tony Blair’s bench, get out !

Decision to Avoid Violence Against Us by Militia – by Leaving Bench

There was a barrage of insults aimed at all of us sitting and standing around the bench, from all sides of where we sat and stood, from the gathering motley crowd of Zanu/Pf militia. As that crowd began to swell and converge around us, I stood up, looked at them directly, and told them to open the way for us to leave the bench. We wanted to see what to do next, to ensure that we saw the opening of the Parliament ceremony to the end. As we walked away from the baying crowd, we bumped into a uniformed Police officer, walking towards the crowd. We explained to him what had happened to us, as we sat quietly on a park bench, to witness the opening of the Parliament.

Search for Police Protection in the Park

The friendly Police officer directed us to the superitendant in charge of the occassion, at the end of Africa Unity Square, on Third Avenue side. When we got there, we were directed to another uniformed officer who called a uniformed woman Policer officer, who then went to get us the plainclothes Police officer, who told us to stand there while he organised his next step. The remaining officers wanted us to move to the area where the cannons for the gun salute were located, and actually firing. We refused their persistant advice that it was a safe area, to which they were guiding us to stand.

Plainclothes Take us to Harare Central Police Station to Lay Our Complaint

After repeated questions from other Police officers who wanted to know why we were standing there, the plainclothes officer eventually returned, to take the 9 of us to Harare Central Police Station to have our statements recorded. A docket was opened, based on our complaint.

Family Experience at Harare Central Police Station

Meanwhile we rang my husband at home to tell him that we were at Harare Central Police Station, on a borrowed cell phone, whose battery was on its last bar. Jim assumed that we were arrested, put out the call to that effect, made lots of sandwiches for the group, and with our neighbour and friend, hurried to the Police station.

The Police took Jim and Dr Val Ingham Thorpe to the cells where they assured them that they were not holding any white women. Jim was agitated by what to him were ridiculous assumptions, and to their question whether his wife was black or white, he insisted on that detail by giving them my name. Eventually it cliqued on the Police that it was our group my husband was after. Val also had called the Zimbabwe Human Rights Lawyers to attend to our demise before she drove to the Police station. The lawyer arrived and immediately interracted with the Police officers who were interviewing us, to get the sense of what our complaint was. He assured us that he would chase up the case into court.

The Peace and Tolerance Campaign

The Women’s Assembly in responding to the recent beatings of the breakaway group in Mabvuku, the assumptions made, particularly by that group, that they were beaten up by the MDC, and the Mabvuku Member of Parliament’s arrest, his physical humiliation and emotional abuse, as the perpetrator of that crime, wants to identify centres of violence in our society, work seriously and systematically against this insidious culture of violence, within an inclusive women’s forum. They hope that women who come forward, take over the process, depoliticise it, and work together to introduce this new culture of Peace and Tolerance, into our society, as a long term project.

Women’s Assembly Strategy

The strategy decided on by the Women’s Assembly, was to invite women from all walks of life, to attend this public function, the opening of the Parliament together, and to demonstrate that Zimbabwean women can, and must work together, to develop this culture of Peace and Tolerance, for the survival of our society.

Results of the Attendance in Africa Unity Square Today

– The centre of violence today was identified as emanating from organised zanu/pf youth as demonstrated by their behaviour in a public place, at a public ceremony, the opening of Parliament.
– Intolerance comes from the Zanu/Pf who use youth to vent this.
– Racism continues to be fanned by Zanu/pf militia, references used at us were sickening.
– Tribalism continues to be fanned by the ruling party, language used at the square was sad.
– Sexism is fanned by Zanu/Pf, insults hurled at us were scary.
– Some Zanu/Pf women greeted us with handshakes, and smiles, a big step forward, in relations between and among women in Zimbabwe. The fear women have to talk to each other in public places, when they are in different political parties, clearly is going out of some women. The handshakes in public today, were welcome, and reassuring to us sitting on, and standing around, that bench.
– Officers who witnessed the harrassment episode failed to help us. Four times the Police at different points, referred us from one of them, to another of their own. Because of our persistance, the Police eventually cooperated with us, and facilitated our desire to lay down our complaints as citizens, that we were denied our:

Freedom of Association
Freedom of Movement
Freedom of Speech

but above all, we were threatened with violence by the Zanu/Pf youth and militia, where we sat quietly, without our regalia on, without singing our songs, without making our slogans, and without commenting on the provocative songs, which they sang loudly at us and around us. We refused to be provoked!

The Police also finally accepted our concern that, as we were being chased out by the vocal crowd, some one of the Zanu/Pf ordered that as the Mugabe entourage arrived, all present had to lift up their right hand, and make the Zanu/Pf slogan. A young woman behind us was protesting loudly that she was making the open palm slogan, if slogans were being made.

MDC Women Left Inside the Africa Unity Square Harrassed or More

We were told by those identified after us, who were escorted out of the park, by an angry Zanu/Pf gang, that a loud crowd of militia and ruling party youths, surrounded this petit MDC female youth, and as that trio were being removed, the militia were physically throwing her around and verbally abusing her.

We requested that the Police who were taking down our statements, ask those Police still at the park, to investigate what eventually happened to this female MDC youth. We were also concerned about one of the MDC women elders, who is in her 70s, who was arguing that she would also not make the Zanu/Pf slogan. Both were in the area around where we sat.

Lesson Learned Today

The lesson we leant today is that, women in Zimbabwe are mature now. We recognised by what happened today in that square, in the current environment, that it is possible for some women to unite around common issues that touch us as women, and that we can organize ourselves, across the divides that have kept us apart for so long, to liberate ourselves, using peaceful methods, and that to do so, it is possible to create a new dimension and force for organising, in Zimbabwe.

As we all organise for our peaceful mass actions, these events today have strengthened us greatly. We will work towards this goal even more resolutely.

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