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‘Why we decided to rise up’

Young democracy and human rights activists Namatai Kwekweza and Vongai Zimudzi say they were forced to take matters into their own hands by staging protests against government’s attempts to railroad a string of amendments to the constitution because the move has potentially far-reaching impacts on the future of the country.

Kwekweza (NM) and (VZ) told Alpha Media Holdings chairman Trevor Ncube (TN) on the programme In Conversation With Trevor that their protest at the Justice ministry was a last-minute ditch to get their voices heard after they were ignored by the government.

The two were subsequently arrested, but they do not regret taking a stand. Below are excerpts from the interview.

TN: You ladies have been making headlines for the protest you carried out against the Constitutional Amendment Number 2. Can you explain to me what made you embark on this protest, Vongai?

VZ: We were just having a conversation in a WhatsApp group that we are in. When we were talking to other young people asking them if they were consulted in their particular province, only a couple said they were consulted.

The way the Harare meeting (public hearing) was conducted violated even parts of the constitution, which speaks on the procedure of having a bill in terms of public consultations.

We agreed with Namatai to go to the meeting. We went to the (Justice) minister’s office and we were denied audience.

We went downstairs and Namatai came up with this crazy idea, which I also supported and was eager to join. That’s how I can say it happened for my part.

TN: Namatai, anything to add in terms of this crazy idea that Vongai is talking about?

NK: I think that it was necessary in the context of circumstances that we found ourselves in because naturally the minister was not going to give us audience.

In any case, we had a written request to meet him urgently because that Friday the 19th of June was the last day of the public hearings or the consultations and we were very unimpressed as to how the consultations were happening.

Look at how these public hearings were held; I think the first thing that we want to criticise is the aspect of how the different provinces only had one venue, which in most instances was not even central.

It’s a lockdown and more people don’t have access to transport, they can’t move freely.

The second issue is how these venues were changed.

We were supposed to do this physically and now it’s online and they announced it two days before we were supposed to meet in person.

So when we realised they had changed the venue and were now putting it on Zoom, a lot of young people don’t know what Zoom is [and] data is expensive.

So we felt that a number of participants were affected. We decided to talk to the minister.

When we realised that we were not going to get audience from the minister of Justice, we then just decided to go out and actually wait for him so that when we saw him get out, we would make our concerns known to him, which would have been an easy way of doing things.

We had not anticipated a situation where we would be arrested, but that day ended up in an unfortunate way for us because we ended up at Harare Central Police Station.

TN: Did you have to spend the night in detention, Vongai?

VZ: Yes, unfortunately we did and it’s not something that even now I’m proud of because how can we have a judicial system where we are punished because we want audience with the minister?

Mind you, President Emmerson Mnangagwa is always talking about him having an open-door policy and even his administration.

So for me it’s not something that I’m proud of, that our country sees it fit to arrest us just because we wanted a dialogue with the minister.

TN: So now are you both out on bail, Namatai?

NK: Yes, we are both out on bail, and we are just grateful that the state did not oppose bail.

I will, however, express that the bail conditions that we had were a bit stiff.

TN: What crime are you being charged for?

NK: They are saying that bits of section 37 of the criminal code, which speaks to a public gathering with intent to promote public violence and breach of peace.

This in essence shocks us because how can two people be in a gathering and also we didn’t have anything that hinted to us trying to promote any kind of violence?

We were not armed, we did not in any way disrespect anybody, we were just sitting outside.

TN: In terms of this Constitution Amendment Number 2, are there things in there because I realise that it’s an important amendment that the public is being asked to consider?

Some of the things that it touches on are the nomination of vice-presidents as running mates, the increase of ministers and deputy ministers appointed outside parliament from five to seven, the appointment of judges, the appointment and the role of the public protector and the appointment of a prosecutor general.

These are just a few of the issues that the amendment seeks to attend to. Are there issues in there that were very important for you that caused you to carry out this protest?

VZ: For me, I first had an encounter with the bill at the beginning of the year. Everything about that bill is disappointing.

Some of the things already in the constitution are not yet aligned, why then rush to introduce more things to be implemented when we haven’t implemented prior issues?

The amendment bill on its own is a rushed thing.

There are other things that need to be prioritised. It just shows there is a total disconnect between the leader and the people.

TN: As far as you are concerned, Vongai, you are saying the amendment, given where we are currently, is not a priority?

VZ: It is never a priority because we cannot start speaking of an amendment when we have not implemented the 2013 constitution
We cannot rush by amending something, which has a fault.

TN: Are you saying let’s go back to vetting the people that raised their hands, saying they want to be members of Parliament of the two main political parties?

VZ: True. Unfortunately also one thing is the voting patterns of people.

At times people vote for a party, not an individual, without thinking much on the type of person they are selecting to be a member of parliament or councillor.

They are just voting for a political party, little do they know that that person is going to be responsible for their day-to-day lives.

Things like water coming out of our taps and upgrading Harare to be a world-class city.

But then there are headlines of councillors who engage in corrupt activities, forging transcripts, what exactly are we expecting? Is it really transacting to the lives that we are living?

We need to have conversations around the Electoral Act.

If it means we have to whip politicians or political parties into line for them to give us proper candidates, then let it be so. I feel that elections in Zimbabwe have just been reduced to child’s play. We need to create a culture of having truthful politicians.

TN: Isn’t it the voters at the end of the day, are they not responsible for putting those in parliament, those members of Parliament and councillors who are not qualified? How do we change the voters way of looking at things so that they are much critical in terms of assessing candidates? How do we change them?

VZ: I am thinking of voter education, rather starting at maybe possibly a year before.

You can be complaining right now about your MP or councillor, but come elections you somehow find yourself going back and putting that X because there is this rush that comes, but we cannot continue, it doesn’t mean that we have to take the blame, we are victims of politicians who come and lie to us.

TN: Namatai, we are talking about the contents of this constitutional amendment and as you were listening, Vongai is outlining the things, that to her, she thought that this thing is going to be thrown back or suspended. What were the things that offended you the most in terms of this amendment number 2?

NK: The first issue that is alarming is before the proposal of the amendment, before the crafting of Constitutional Amendment Number 2, there was no public consultation.

So this bill could have been forwarded by who knows who, who knows where.

It could have been a bunch of politicians sitting over a braai, drinking alcohol when they decided, no we want the constitutional amendment bill. We were just given a bill, there was no prior consultation.

Who initiated this process and for what interests?

If you look at the amendments, they are meant to benefit one particular individual, the president, and a few others in higher offices.

I would not be surprised if the process is to be continued regardless of the fact that Parliament is closed. I have it on certainty that there are several individuals interested in this bill.

TN: Aren’t you disappointed that there isn’t a reaction from the public that shows it is important, that people have not come to support your cause, that you have not seen protests saying this constitutional amendment should not proceed?

Are you not surprised, are you not disappointed, Vongai?

VZ: Zimbabwe is quite a complex environment where if you come out and want to support, you face resistance and even if people would want to come out, they are afraid, because of the environment that we are currently in.

People have been signing our online petitions; in terms of support, bearing in mind the kind of environment that we find ourselves in, it’s just a matter of time before people say it out.

We are grateful for the support.

TN: Namatai, were you disappointed?

NK: I think in my own case I have mixed feelings in the context of how government conducts itself.

I am disappointed. In the context of the public, I concur with Vongai that people didn’t know that was happening.

Zimbabwe is a very complex country, sometimes people don’t understand what it takes out from you when you are arrested and stuff like that.

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