On Friday 1 April 2016 Rhodes University will confer an Honorary Doctorate on human rights and media freedom lawyer, Dr Beatrice Mtetwa.
It is vital that South African citizens, communities, opposition parties and the media continue to oppose government corruption, wrongdoings and inappropriate appointments.
These are the words of renowned Southern African human rights and media freedom lawyer, Dr Beatrice Mtetwa.
Speaking from her human rights law firm in the suburb of Eastlea in Harare, she says:
“In Zimbabwe, people could not believe that a government of liberation could perpetrate the atrocities it has, and they let things go and now they are too afraid to march or speak out for fear of what might happen to them.”
Mtetwa, who graduated with an LLB degree from the University of Botswana and the University of Swaziland in 1981, worked as a prosecutor in Zimbabwe from 1983 to 1989 before going into private practice where she has been litigating on human rights issues since 1990.
She frequently travels between Zimbabwe and South Africa where she is closely engaged in South African civil society. She serves on the boards of a number of South African NGOs and is a trustee of the Joburg-based Southern Africa Litigation Centre, which promotes human rights and the rule of law in Southern Africa.
“Severe human rights violations have become so much a part of daily life in Zimbabwe and other African countries that people don’t even react anymore when another person goes ‘missing’ or is tortured or killed. People become tired of hearing about yet another case of inhumanity and this is the danger,” she explains.
Mtetwa warns that right now she is seeing too many of the same signs in South Africa that destroyed Zimbabwe. “Don’t tear your country apart; don’t go down the same destructive route that Zimbabwe and so many African countries have gone.”
She says that when this happens, it is the ordinary people, not the politicians who suffer.
Mtetwa has appeared in numerous high-profile human rights and media freedom cases in Zimbabwe where the law is too often used as a weapon of political persecution and not of justice.
‘Beatrice the Brave!’ is the title of a feature on 29 January 2016 by Kumbirai Mafunda in the African Independent newspaper on 29 January 2016. The opening line states: “Her reward in Zimbabwe, where she has dedicated her life to defending human rights, has been outright persecution and prosecution … Zimbabwean authorities have regularly persecuted her through physical violence and laying criminal charges against her.”
In January this year, for example, Mtetwa found herself back in court, facing the same charge of which she was acquitted in November 2013. Zimbabwe’s Prosecutor-General, Johannes Tomana, sought to overturn her acquittal.
The charge dates back to March 2013 when Mtetwa spent a week in prison when police arrested her for “obstructing the course of justice and hindering police in the execution of their duties”. This was simply because she came to the assistance of a client, who at that time was an aide to former Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and whose home was ransacked in a dawn police raid without a search warrant. She told the police in no uncertain terms that this was illegal.
During the same incident she was accused of insulting Mugabe by allegedly uttering the words “muri imbwa dzaMugabe” (“you are Mugabe’s dogs”) to police officers searching her client’s home.
Mtetwa, who defended herself in court, denied the accusations and argued the charges were not only malicious but fabricated by a vindictive system.
Brutal physical and verbal attacks on her together with false accusations go back many years, and include false arrests on allegations of drunk driving and public questioning of her morals by government-supporting media when she and her husband got divorced.
Practising as a human rights lawyer in Zimbabwe today is a hazardous profession. In 2011 Mtetwa and several of her colleagues in law were brutally assaulted by the police after they gathered in Harare to present a petition to the then Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Minister, Patrick Chinamasa, in protest against the detention of fellow human rights lawyers Andrew Makoni and Alec Muchadehama.
It is hard to believe, as she goes about her work in her pleasant office in this pleasant suburb, that she daily risks her life as a result of her commitment to the betterment of society.
For her courage and commitment, she has received numerous human rights awards for her work and has been named as one of the world’s great leaders by Fortune Magazine, but she believes that what she is doing is what any lawyer should be doing.
“The very fact that it is not safe for me to practise law here is a large part of why I have remained in Zimbabwe. I need to continue doing my work here to make the country a safe place for everyone. I need to continue bringing cases of human rights violations and media freedom violations to trial so that they remain in the public eye and there is a record of them.”
Asked whether her office and phone is bugged, she replies: “I assume it is. My approach is that I am not doing anything illegal and I am entitled to speak on issues publicly, so I really do not care if anyone is listening.”
Mtetwa is a champion of freedom of speech and has saved many a journalist. In 2005 she secured the freedom of foreign correspondents: Toby Harnden and Julian Simmonds, then of the British Sunday Telegraph, who were arrested and imprisoned for two weeks during the presidential elections in April 2005 on charges of illegally entering the country and “practicing journalism without accreditation”, none of which was true.
Toby Harnden describes her as a “heroine”.
“Despite the constant harassment and a brutal beating, she maintains not only her dignity but also a wicked sense of humour and a love of life that are a delight to experience,” he says.
If it wasn’t for Mtetwa they might still be in jail. Instead, they are back home living their lives in societies that often have little understanding of what it is like to live in a country with not only a breakdown in law but also a breakdown in all of its structures.
“Women and children always bear the brunt when this happens. More women than ever before are working as commercial sex works in the streets of Harare today, because, in a broken economy so many businesses, where their husbands would have worked, have closed down,” she explains.
“This directly impacts their health and it negatively affects the fabric of the greater family.”
The lack of money also means that most people cannot afford to buy a car or home.
“The reason that I own both is because I bought them in the 1980s when it was easy to get a bank loan. Today you cannot get loans because salaries are too low, and that is why a lot of the young people pack their bags and leave the country,” she explains.
“I recently employed a University of Cape Town graduate in my law firm and he told me that me that Zimbabwe is not friendly to young people and he cannot see himself progressing here. He resigned and is heading for England. This is a common story. There simply aren’t enough prospects or money and the cost of living is extremely high.”
Mtetwa says everything is available in Harare today, and many South African chain stores, including Spar, Pick n Pay and Food Lovers Market are all there. “You can buy anything if you have the dollar but so many people here do not have any money.
“We should be producing our own food but the farms in Zimbabwe, the majority of which are now in black hands, are not productive and we are having to import food from South Africa. Once again, it is the ordinary people who suffer as they have to pay higher prices and this gets even worse during droughts.”
Asked whether there is any hope for Zimbabwe, she replies:
“There is always hope. If you think back, who would have thought that South Africa’s apartheid government would fall? Change comes when you least expect it.”
Mtetwa believes that with the right political will and commitment, it would not be difficult to get Zimbabwe back on track. “It has the minerals, agricultural potential and systems that can be restored, but most of all it has educated people. Zimbabweans have always seen education as a ticket out of poverty, and this culture has continued even during this period when the government is not prioritising education.”
Many educated, skilled Zimbabweans would want to return home if the wheel turned.
“That is why I say to students in South Africa today, appreciate what you have, and yes, pursue the advocacy battle for affordable education, but concentrate on your studies. No one will give you a degree for toyi-toying, but once you get your degree you can make a difference to the lives of others who haven’t had these opportunities, and you can help lead South Africa in the right direction.”
Article by Heather Dugmore