By Dr Samukele Hadebe
The story that CITE covered, of the assault and abuse of two women Nokuthula Mpofu and Ntombizodwa Mpofu allegedly by police officers in Cowdray Park, if indeed what we read, heard and saw on video is a true representation of what actually transpired, then we have a serious problem that we can hardly ignore any longer. The alleged abusers are the very custodians of law and order and as citizens we look up to the police force and indeed all state security apparatus as guarantors of our safety.
Granted, the two affected women allegedly violated the lockdown law, still they are entitled to their full human rights and human dignity as well as full protection by all public institutions, including the police. As members of the public we may not be privy to instructions given to police on their various important duties, including during this period of the threatening pandemic, however, the police behaviour as reported in this particular incident begs many questions that we may not have an answer until the relevant authorities help us. But if it may be that the said police officers did that abuse at their discretion then we have even a bigger problem facing us. Actually, if indeed the officers acted on their own and have such discretionary powers, then a whole people are facing an existential threat.
The COVID 19 pandemic has changed a lot of things in our lives and how business has to be conducted. One would assume that the police in their important duties, primarily in maintaining law and order, would equally prioritise health safety, and not execute their mandate in a manner that may spread the infectious killer disease. If we follow the story of the two victimised women, Nokuthula and Ntombizodwa, it is without doubt that no preventive measures were taken to against possible infection, risking the affected women contracting the deadly disease. By supposedly punishing two alleged offenders and risking them with contracting this highly contagious COVID-19, the possibility of contaminating hundreds if not thousands community members is very high. One would hope the said police officers considered that as they enthusiastically implemented the law. It would be a tragedy if law officials spread rather than curb death of innocent citizens.
Equally worrying are the gender dimensions to this outrageous abuse. Of course, some of the notable effects of the pandemic have been a rise in domestic violence, simply being a euphemism for beating up and abusing women. Little does our society ever reflect on the meaning of this abuse which has been allowed to normalize. The alleged police behaviour fuels the already high incidences of women abuse. For Nokuthula and Ntombizodwa this represents treble oppression, first as women, then as blacks and significantly as Ndebele. Undoubtedly, these three categories have not only been abused but marginalised as well. I wonder whether a court fine or redeployment of the offending officers or worse still an unlikely demotion could in anyway atone for the physical and psychological injuries.
The third and perhaps poignant aspect to this matter are its ethnic implications and the degradation and humiliation of the whole Ndebele speaking people, especially Ndebele women who have often been the soft targets of tribalistic slurs. However, to see Ndebele women as the intended targets would be very narrow and missing the underlying cause of the slanderous epithets and caricature. Of course, those who cannot stand up for their sisters, cousins, mothers, wives and grandmothers will dishonourably bury their heads in sand and mumble inconsequentially. That is actually the real tragedy faced by the Mpofu women, and of course thousands if not millions of equally insulted Ndebele women.
Progressive Zimbabweans are outraged and genuinely so. They are outraged across the ethnic divide. They are calling for investigations and stern measures to offending police officers. That is the expected way to go about it, and we have been through that journey before. As I have written before on ethnic prejudices, there has been public denial of the depth of this cancer and hence how it has soiled the present with a very high risk of a tragic future. The Cowdray Park incident merely demonstrates how easily ethnic prejudices can erupt. While official policy conveniently dismisses this serious ethnic problem as either peripheral or just anecdotal, privately, most citizens are anxious as they know how corrosive it is.
I do recall in 2016 how this deep-seated concern about a possible ethnic rupture that could disintegrate the country kept on coming during a presentation to the parliamentary portfolio committee on local government after I had presented a devolution petition on behalf of civil society organisations. It was incredible to hear such concerns that mere devolving some responsibilities to local authorities could eventually lead to a disintegration of a country. Surely, some people perhaps know much more about the fragility of this country which some of us are unaware of.
Earlier on, in a devolution survey commissioned by a Bulawayo residents association I had observed that labour issues were high priority on the reasons why some preferred a devolved system of local government. They argued then, and perhaps they were right, that employment patterns were skewed against local communities. What I also noted then was that the sentiments from Bulawayo communities resonated with those of Manicaland too. Regional dimensions may be at play as well beyond the surface ethnic issues, if those sentiments by participants are anything to go by. Perhaps, it is high time we revisit some of those recommendations that came from communities, especially in Bulawayo, where a labour survey was proposed to ascertain employment patterns. Many in Bulawayo would argue that the problem of perceived import of labour and subsequent displacement of local labour could be prevalent across the public sector and not just in the police force. The sentiment that if police spoke local languages, appreciated local cultures and showed more respect seems to be prevalent.
While the mistreatment of Nokuthula and Ntombizodwa by police at Cowdray Park rekindled this ethnic issue, together with its gender dimensions and health safety aspects, discontent over perceived ethnic oppression and economic dispossession has been simmering for a very long time. Only grossly irresponsible community leaders, business leaders and national leaders would continue to ignore clear signs of an unfolding calamity. A country that has some people in powerful institutions like the police who still harbour feudal tendencies and would want to perpetuate ethnic and gender hierarchies in society are a danger not only to themselves but to the society they purport to serve. Lastly, we should commend Mr Zenzele Ndebele and CITE for a sterling job well done. Many would rather not report such injustices for fear of possible retribution while the country sinks deeper into catastrophe probably much worse than the socio-economic decline we are already enduring.