I began yesterday, hopeful that the leaders of Southern Africa would demonstrate the integrity to lend a hand to the people of Zimbabwe, but by the end of the day I was proven wrong.
We gathered - 500 concerned citizens - on the steps of the Union Buildings, to call on SADC to step up political pressure, acknowledge the humanitarian crisis, stop abductions and torture, and to release detained activists. Above all, we were there to appeal to the consciences of SADC leaders to acknowledge that Mugabe's regime has a direct role in the crisis in Zimbabwe, and that the most important voices in Zimbabwe spoke on March 29, 2008 -- those of the people.
Amidst the rallying hundreds, the placards, speakers, singing and dancing there was a genuine hope for change - a real belief that individual citizen actions could help Southern African leaders see the difference that they could make to the Zimbabwean people. The dithering and quiet talks between diplomats must stop. And we believed that the tipping point was coming.
Buoyed by the hopes of the people on the Union Building steps, seven of us - including my colleague and friend, Nomboniso Gasa- tried to peacefully and respectfully present a Memorandum to the Extraordinary Session called by SADC, to try to address the situation in Zimbabwe. The Memorandum is a document that has been jointly written by a broad range of civil society in Southern Africa, united in its call for an end to the needless suffering of the Zimbabwean people.
The manicured gardens of the Presidential guesthouse could not have been more starkly removed from the reality of the hardships that most face daily north of the border -- or the reality of most within our own borders, for that matter. We waited patiently to present our Memorandum, but no SADC representative was forthcoming. We were instead asked to remove ourselves from the grounds and when we suggested an alternative arrangement -- to be accompanied by police to present our memorandum, we were forcefully denied.
Until then, the police were very helpful, directing us to the location of the summit and trying to accommodate our demands, but the reality was that the police were carrying out orders. It is their job to ensure the security of the SADC talks -- which, according to SADC, includes denying the access of Southern African citizens to their leaders. Though there were one or two police officers who did not treat myself and fellow activists with common respect -- especially with the clear manhandling of the Nomboniso by a few male police officers -- the police were not the ones to blame.
As I was being bundled into the back of the police van after six days without food, my most overwhelming emotion was one of profound disappointment. Disappointment with SADC - its lofty ideals of civil society empowerment are clearly only paper promises. Disappointment with the South African government - a nation built on the foundations of a grassroots movement for freedom and justice. And ultimately, disappointment with the inertia surrounding the political process to ease the crisis in Zimbabwe, which represents an implicit acquiescence to the current impasse.
It is tragic that the SADC leaders were unwilling to receive an appeal from a broad cross-section of Southern African civil society which called for the end of human rights violations humanitarian intervention, and justice for the people of Zimbabwe. By not receiving this simple letter, they are undermining their own stated commitments on the role of civil society in building a strong Southern Africa.
Though we were not arrested, we were driven in the police van back to the Union Buildings where we learned that the police opened fire with rubber bullets to disperse the singing crowd. Emotions were running high -- this is not a light issue for most involved -- and there were some protesters who refused to be held back. Ultimately, the force used was disproportionate to the situation, despite the chaos. Thankfully, there were few injuries suffered.
Yesterday was a day of deep disillusionment.
My fast will continue for more than another fortnight, and my hunger has been replaced with a thirst for change and justice. SADC leaders may have turned us away, but they cannot ignore the hopes and demands of their citizens.
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