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Interviews : Jestina Mukoko

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Interviewed May 2012

Jestina M. Mukoko is the National Director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, a nonprofit organization that monitors and documents political violence in Zimbabwe. As Zimbabwe’s premier monitoring body, the organization maintains a strong network throughout the country that is able to bring widespread attention to occurrences of political violence.

A long-time leader in the human rights and activist communities in Zimbabwe, Ms. Mukoko was abducted from her home on December 3, 2008, by state security agents for her work monitoring the brutality of the Robert Mugabe government. During her 21-day abduction, she was tortured, beaten, and forced to confess to a crime she did not commit. She remained detained until a court granted her bail on March 2, 2009.

For her steadfastness on issues related to human rights, Jestina Mukoko was named the 2009 Laureate of the City of Weimar (Germany) Human Rights Prize and a 2010 recipient of the U.S. Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Award. In 2009, Ms. Mukoko was awarded the NANGO (National Association of Nongovernmental Organizations) Peace Award. For her commitment and perseverance, she received the French National Order of the Legion of Honor award in 2011.

She serves on several boards, including those of the Zimbabwe Election Support Network, the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, and the Institute for a Democratic Alternative for Zimbabwe. A former news anchor for the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, she is also mentoring with the Female Students Network, a youth organization.

A peace and human rights campaigner, Jestina Mukoko is also a mother. She holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Politics and Administration from the University of Zimbabwe. Ms. Mukoko was the 2010 Fellow at the Oak Institute for International Human Rights at Colby College in Maine. In 2012, she joined other mid-career professionals as a Draper Hills Summer Fellow on Democracy and Development Program at Stanford University. 

When we are talking about political violence, the actors are really the political parties. So I think over the years, we have recognized that the main political parties have been at each other’s throat, even prior to the year 2000. And I think from the year 2000 to date, we note that there are a lot of – there is a lot of conflict between ZANU-PF supporters and also supporters of the Movement for Democratic Change, led by Morgan Tsvangirai. But I think in all the work that we have done as an organization, we note that obviously, when you have a conflict, there are always two players who are involved.

But I think we have also recognized that in a lot of the situations, we recognize that ZANU-PF is the major perpetrator, although we note of the perpetration of violence caused by supporters of the Movement for Democratic Change. But in that situation, obviously, they are the minor perpetrators. And we also discover that in terms of being victims, the Movement for Democratic Change supporters are the majority victims in this instance, and those of ZANU-PF would be the minor victims of political violence. And I think over the years, we have recognized that there are cases of murder that have taken place, cases of rape that have taken place, malicious damage to property, and we have thousands and thousands of cases of harassment and intimidation.

And we have also had a significant number of cases of citizens who have been abducted, tortured, and in some instances, those people die because of what they have had to endure. And so those are some of the cases that we have noted. And I think I have already spoken about how some people are denied food, and I think that’s another act that we have recognized that happens as a result of political violence that takes place between the main actors in Zimbabwe, being ZANU-PF and the Movement for Democratic Change, led by Morgan Tsvangirai.

But I think there’s also a significant number of cases where we find state agents being involved in violence on the side of ZANU-PF, because we have also recognized that there is a thin line between that party and also the activities of the state. And what we have also recognized is the selective application of the law. If probably the victims of the violence weren’t too sick to get redress, probably through the police, usually the response from the police has really been – I would say probably lukewarm, and in most cases, nothing at all happens. And I think we have also had situations where the victims of political violence have actually been turned into perpetrators of the violence when they go and report these cases to the police so that the perpetrators would be brought to book. 

Zimbabwe is a landlocked country in southern Africa, with a population of approximately 12.5 million people. A former British colony, a white minority unilaterally declared independence as Rhodesia in 1965. The Rhodesian government excluded the black majority from political power and failed to win diplomatic recognition. In 1980, an agreement brokered by the British government established Zimbabwe’s independence as a multiracial democracy. That same year, the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) party, led by Robert Mugabe, swept the first free elections in the country. Mugabe served as prime minister until 1987, when he became president, an office he holds to this day. During more than two decades of Mugabe’s rule, Zimbabwe’s democracy has steadily eroded.

Mugabe’s social and economic policies have been disastrous. An estimated one-fifth of the population is infected with HIV. Life expectancy has declined dramatically since 1990. Land redistribution in the 1990s cut food production and led to hunger and disease. The government’s mismanagement of the economy led to hyperinflation in the 2000s, reaching an estimated peak of 13 billion percent in November 2008.

Mugabe has stifled democracy and human rights since coming to power. The government cracks down on opposition political parties and civil society groups. Basic rights such as freedom of expression and assembly are not respected. Violence surrounding the 2008 elections led to a power-sharing agreement between ZANU and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. Freedom House rates Zimbabwe as not free in political rights and civil liberties, noting Mugabe’s frequent abuses of power, corruption, regime-sponsored political violence, the lack of independent media, and flawed electoral processes. 

More from Jestina Mukoko

Jestina Mukoko: Political Violence “When we are talking about political violence, the actors are really the political parties.” Jestina Mukoko: The After Effects of Torture “At times I feel that I am still at risk.” Jestina Mukoko: The Zimbabwe Peace Project “A group of faith-based and human rights organizations established the Zimbabwe Peace Project.” More + Jestina Mukoko: Background “In 2008, I was abducted by state agents, kept incommunicado for 21 days, accused of a crime that I never committed, and then kept at a maximum security prison for 68 days.” Jestina Mukoko: Detention and Trial “After 21 days I was handed to the police, now being prosecuted for recruiting people to engage in acts of sabotage, terrorism and overthrow a constitutionally elected government.” Jestina Mukoko: Technology in Zimbabwe “New technologies are certainly having an impact on people’s lives. I’m not sure they’re having an impact on the politics in the country.” Jestina Mukoko: Vindication by the Court “The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that my rights had been violated by the state.” Jestina Mukoko: International Support “International pressure made them move back from physically torturing me.” Jestina Mukoko: Kneeling on Gravel “It was like I had left my body and I was watching this suffering woman from somewhere.” Jestina Mukoko: Released on Bail “I was released on bail. But even on the outside, I felt that the torture continued.” Jestina Mukoko: Torture “I decided that I was going to hold on to the pain as they went on to thrash me.” Jestina Mukoko: Robert Mugabe “It took a while for me to really see the man that Robert Mugabe was.” Jestina Mukoko: Abducted by the State “I was abducted on the 3rd of December 2008.” Jestina Mukoko: Messages to Dissidents “There will be an opportunity for you to come out of every harrowing experience.” Jestina Mukoko: Role of Women “Zimbabwean women take the lead because we are the mothers of the nation.”