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.
My name is Jestina Mukoko. I come from Zimbabwe. I’m born of a family – in a family of seven kids, two girls and five boys. Grew up for, I think, a lot of my time without my dad. He died when I was five, and I’ve really grown up with my mother, especially. And I have a 21-year-old son. I’m a single parent, at the moment. My husband died in 1995 when my son was only four, and I think in all these years, we have really just been the two of us. My career actually started as a teacher. Immediately after college, it wasn’t easy to find a job of choice, so I found myself teaching. But obviously, I wasn’t born a teacher, and I did not last in teaching.
I then found myself working as a journalist with a public broadcaster in Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, where I worked on the national languages desk to translate, edit news from English into the local languages, Shona and Ndebele. But with time, I then found myself also presenting news on the flagship bulletin of the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, the 8 p.m. news. And I think working as a journalist is really the work that I did in my prime years. And with time, I found myself growing out of – out of journalism. I do miss broadcasting, but I think I’m in the right space at the moment, working as a human rights defender.
I’m a human rights activist in Zimbabwe, and in 2008, I had the most unfortunate experience when I was abducted by state agents and kept incommunicado for 21 days, accused of a crime that I never committed, and then kept at a maximum security prison for 68 days. And then eventually, months later, I was cleared of all the charges.
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.