Akwe Amosu: Hello and welcome to Strength&Solidarity… I’m Akwe Amosu here with episode 36 of our podcast about the tools, tactics and strategies being used to advance human rights around the world… And this time –
Building an organization that can withstand tyranny in Zimbabwe
and in the Coda, a multi-talented human rights leader in New York releases some pretty funky music
AA: To be a defender of rights, you have to have the stomach for a fight, but you also need the occasional victory to keep your spirits up. Looked at from this point of view, few deserve our respect and solidarity more than those defending rights in Zimbabwe. From almost the day they won their liberation, they have faced challenge after challenge, reversal after reversal. The national liberation struggle overthrew racial oppression under Rhodesian rule and celebrated the triumphant swearing-in of Robert Mugabe in 1980. But within a couple of years, a bitter and shameful killing campaign began, in which the forces of ZANU, Mugabe’s guerilla army, rooted in the majority Shona ethnic group, were deployed in a genocide against so-called dissidents in the south of the country, the base of the other main anti-colonial movement, ZAPU. It is estimated that 20,000 people were killed, many suffering cruel detention and torture before they died, mostly members of the Ndebele ethnic group. The history since – of autocratic one-party rule, sustained economic injustice and persecution of those standing up for rule of law, democratic elections and political freedoms – has been a dismal and a ruthless one. Take for example, operation Murambatsvina, or “clear the filth” in 2005, in which a violent sweep by security forces, left an estimated seven hundred thousand street sellers and informal housing dwellers, without their livelihoods and homes. The cronyism and corruption of the ruling party and the impunity of security forces continue to this day. And yet, a solid core of courageous human rights defenders has persisted throughout, bearing witness, surviving detention, defending rights in court and on the streets. So this episode of the podcast is asking, what kind of structures to do you need, what kind of organisation has the resilience to survive such harsh conditions? And the person I’m asking is Dzikamai Bere, national director of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Association, more commonly known as “ZimRights,” a remarkable organization, with tens of thousands of members, still standing after 30 years of repression.
AA: Welcome Dzikamai
Dzikamai Bere: Thank you for having me.
AA: So ZimRights is really a storied organization. I think I’ve known about it for as long as I’ve known anything about human rights in Zimbabwe. I’d love to know how you came to ZimRights.
DB: My story with ZimRights goes way before I joined the Association in 2020 as the national director. In 2009, I applied to be a projects officer at ZimRights and they turned me down! But in 2019, leadership then approached me. It’s a job that I was both reluctant and excited about but my excitement managed to overcome my reluctance and January 2020, I started my role as the national director at ZimRights.
AA: And I’d love to hear about how you took up that leadership. But before we go there, could you say something about the organization, how it’s structured and how it comes to be this huge membership organization?
DB: So over the past 30 years, ZimRights has, we can say, pioneered the human rights movement in Zimbabwe in terms of the local indigenous grassroots movement-building. And it has done a lot of work. We can trace the constitutional movement that give us the 2013 constitution to groundwork that was done by ZimRights and other organizations, efforts to operationalize the constitution, the campaign for the chapter 12 institutions, which are the independent commissions supporting democracy and human rights, the establishment of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission, the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission, and building a solid foundation – a stepping stone for many organizations that do work in community engagement.
AA: And it’s not really just an NGO, it’s a membership organization. And one with – if I’m correct -250,000 members. I think for a lot of people that will come as quite a shocking number. Could you just talk a bit about this dimension of ZimRights, how it came to be a membership organization, why it was put together that way and how it comes to have such a huge base?
DB: Yes. So back in 1992, if you trace the history of Zimbabwe, this was the time when the then ruling party – and the current ruling party – was consolidating its power and motivating for Zimbabwe to become an official one-party state. This was after the decimation of ZAPU and already there were signs that shows we’re going towards the route of authoritarianism.
AA: ZAPU being the other liberation movement, that had existed alongside Robert Mugabe’s ZANU for many years.
DB: That is correct. So after the decimation of the only viable opposition, it became very clear that the people will be at the mercy of government and that the checks and balances that exist in a multi-party democracy were not to exist anymore. So a number of individuals came together in 1992 and decided that we are going to form an association of ordinary people that is going to be a mass movement. and they went on to successfully do that and mobilized communities. And over the years, the membership has grown to 250,000 members across the country. That sounds like a huge number, but actually it’s much lower than it has been at a certain point in time. It was almost 800,000, at the time when ZimRights was mobilizing as part of the constitution movement. But as we speak currently, we have got those 250,000 members that are very active at grassroots level.
AA: And what does joining mean? Did they take out a card? Did they pay dues? What does it mean to join ZimRights?
DB: That is correct. It’s paying a membership fee. So there’s a process in which a person begins to express their intention to be part of their association. Uh, we go through the confirmation of intent to ensure that the person understands what exactly ZimRights does. And once they’re clear what they want, they fill in an application form. It is approved, then they pay their membership fee and they become a member. They have to wait for three years before they can stand for leadership office in ZimRights, but they can participate like everyone else.
AA: And this is an active membership. This isn’t something where people take out the card and it doesn’t mean that much. You expect that once people have joined, they become active grassroots members.
DB: It is active membership. When we say ZimRights is the bedrock, the foundation for civic engagement in Zimbabwe, you can imagine when it was formed, it was the only indigenous Zimbabwe human rights organization. But you can imagine because of the work that ZimRights has done in communities, many other organizations have now emerged and most of the human rights organizations that you meet in Zimbabwe, ZimRights is a founding member of those organizations, and many organizations that are doing work with the communities, their stepping stone in those communities is the base of ZimRights membership. For example, if there are organizations that do human rights monitoring and they work with citizen monitors – the monitors themselves are ZimRights members. If an organization does election observation and they use citizen observers, then ZimRights membership is the pool where they take citizen members. Many development partners, including UN agencies, humanitarian organizations, they depend on the human rights consciousness that has been built on the foundation of ZimRights, which is why when we speak about 250,000 members, we are speaking about people who are actually active in their communities and we don’t monopolize them. We actually train and capacitate them to be able to play an effective role in all those aspects that improve their communities.
AA: So maybe say something about why you think that such a huge number of people have decided to be active as defenders of human rights at grassroots level.
DB: Yeah. So the first thing is, is awareness. The awareness campaigns that ZimRights did when it was formed. The term ZimRights in Zimbabwe is a household name. When people are demanding their rights in those communities, they don’t say, “I want my rights,” they say, “I want my ZimRights.” So ZimRights used many methods. They used the theater, they used music. They used the drama in the communities that they were working in. Um,
AA: And what was making them mobilize so passionately, what was going on in the background that made this such a necessary choice?
DB: First, it was, like I say, the gravitation towards authoritarianism, the witnessing of their country descending into chaos, like in some of the areas where ZimRights was quick to make a huge impact, in areas like Urungwe – these were communities that were on the verge of mass displacement, and they were desperate for help and ZimRights was there to step forward and mobilize those communities as a mass movement to stop those evictions. And once that happens, people owe it to each other to say, this is how I benefited from this Association, and those people then become the ambassadors of the Association.
AA: And the evictions were land seizures by party officials and elites that wanted to set up farms.
DB: Yes, they were. I mean, in the history of Zimbabwe, there have been, different forms of evictions. At those times, some of these were development-induced, where big businesses wanted to come and establish operations and want to be able to move people away. And because, you can imagine this is the time when almost there is one party state, there are no other accountability measures. So people have no redress unless they come together. And they found a platform to organize in ZimRights.
AA: And just a few years earlier than the formation of ZimRights, there had been this mass atrocity in the south of the country known as Gukurahundi in which 20,000 Ndebele people, aligned with – allegedly, ZAPU – the defeated opposition movement – had been massacred. And so in recent memory, for people who were joining ZimRights, was this national shame, disgrace, source of pain and distress, did that play a part in people’s decision to join ZimRights?
DB: Definitely, definitely. The Matabeleland massacres, the Gukurahundi, was one of the things that really let people know that if they don’t organize, they’re on their own. The people who commit human rights violations, are people who are powerful, they’ve got access to money, they’ve got access to guns. And people begin to realize that – what do we have but each other? So forming a mass movement, building people power to be able to stand up against human rights violations became an urgent need. And many people when they talk about Gukurahundi, they speak about the Legal Resources Foundation report, the CCJP [Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace] report, but there’s also a ZimRights report that was produced before those. So the work around Gukurahundi is also part of the work that ZimRights has done with the communities in the Matabeleland area.
AA: And it’s well known that this was an atrocity, a series of atrocities, against people in the south, people in Matabeleland, and there was a perception, that this was driven by Shona – the majority ethnic group, it was driven by ethnic hatred. First of all, is it right that that is the historical narrative? And second of all, how did that affect the way that the ZimRights membership grew? Did it have a genuinely cross-national Shona and Ndebele membership, or did it distort the recruitment of members?
DB: Yeah, historically speaking, the Gukurahundi conflict did play out as an ethnic conflict due to the way it was executed. The very fact that these were people were deployed from the maShonaland region by a Shona president and were targeting particularly the Ndebele ethnic group… instead of it being a conflict blamed on an ethnic group, I think it’s a conflict that was clearly executed by a particular political leader who was eager to exploit the ethnic fault lines in the communities and decimate an ethnic group which he saw as a threat to his power. While building on that, ZimRights – we can actually say its formation was also influenced by that experience. You may want to know that one of the founders of ZimRights was Paul Temba Nyati, who is a former liberation war fighter, a stalwart from Matabeleland, who worked with Judith Todd, in conceiving this idea, and a lot of other citizens. So the founding group was really across the ethnic divide, people who genuinely cared about human rights and having such people like Paul Temba Nyathi, and Reginald Matchaba-Hove at the front row of establishing a new movement gave it the legitimacy, the dignity, and the respect across the divide. In fact, one of our strongest regional offices is in Bulawayo that has done, continues to do a lot of work around documenting human rights violations, assisting victims of Gukurahundi. Recently we are running a campaign around access to documentation wherein we are bringing in families that were affected by Gukurahundi that have no access to documentation and supporting them to get access to that documentation.
AA: So you didn’t see maShona people refusing to join because it was perceived as an Ndebele-sympathizing organization. It was a genuinely, diverse membership.
DB: Yes, yes. And generally, you know, when you look at Zimbabwe’s tribal profile, many Shona people, do understand that the issue was with Robert Mugabe and they do not harbour those emotions, although there’s a group that lacks knowledge; like you address meetings and people actually ask you, “did Gukurahundi really happen?” Um, but these are people who do not at their level in terms, harbour any negative feelings towards the Ndebele ethnic group, and most of the members of the Ndebele community, because of the understanding of the leadership role that was played by people like Paul Temba Nyati, really do understand that this is an authentic approach to try and promote the human rights situation.
AA You mentioned Judith Todd, a key person in the Catholic Commission for Justice and peace in Zimbabwe. Was there a connection with the Catholic church?
DB: it was more of inspiration. During that time there was no local Zimbabwean organization doing human rights work. The organizations that were doing human rights work were mainly international, and that included the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, Amnesty International. So there was an inspiration to say this kind of organizing, which we’re learning from these international groups, we need to have a locally-driven, local organization do the same work. So that’s why then there was that inspiration and the fact that there were individuals who were involved in both areas did help in terms of conceptualization and institutional building.
AA: I mean, I’m, I’m glad we’ve spent this time just kind of looking back at the history, because I think it gives a sense of how solid the foundations are of the organization. The, the sense that it’s rooted in an extremely strong domestic set of questions that have motivated the formation and, uh, survival of ZimRights. I just mention that because I think in many other countries, it’s hard to find an organization that has such a strong legacy, strong membership and remains a prominent part of the architecture. That’s a long time to have survived. And, particularly given, the decades of repression that the country has experienced. So maybe we could come back to the present and just try and understand a little bit more about what you found when you joined, and what ZimRights’ role needs to be going forward.
DB: Yeah. So as I have reflected, ZimRights has gone through a long journey. Thirty years is not a joke. An organization can survive by luck for 10 years, 15 years, but if it survives for 30 years, it means there’s something that is keeping it going, there’s something right that is happening there But that is not to say it does not meet challenges along the way. So ZimRights met several challenges that were a threat to its existence. And at every turn of events, the community would come together, reorganize, find solutions and work towards the rebirth of the organization. Um, when I came in in 2020, the organization was also going through some difficult challenges, particularly issues around funding. Um, remember this is an organization that is a mass appeal, and a lot of funding partners love its organizing power. Now that’s both a strength and a weakness, because at a certain point in time, the organization became more election-focused. And civic engagement shouldn’t be election-focused because there are many other processes that are happening. What happens when people lose faith in elections?
AA: So donors liked being able to rely on ZimRights for doing election-related work. But I’ve also heard that a moment came when donors pulled back from supporting civil society in recent years?
DB: In 2017, there was a military coup and a lot of foreign governments were warming up to the so-called new dispensation. And as a result, there was a strategic disinvestment in people movements. But there were also other challenges around issues of accountability, use of resources and all these things caused ZimRights a lot of problems. And one of our main funding partners then pulled out at that time, So this was a time when funding was difficult. Donors were losing faith in the organization, or were thinking that its relevance is finished. And members were feeling disconnected from the organization, which is another fault line – what do you do when the secretariat becomes more powerful than its membership? It was almost, I think, a crisis of confidence in 2020 when I then came in, and I was charged to implement a turnaround, returning the organization back to the roots, back to its members, empowering the communities so that they are fully in charge of that organization, and that it becomes a really people-movement grounded in the people, and people having confidence, ownership and control of their organization.
AA: So you had to develop a strategy for this task. How did you go about that?
DB: Yeah, so we started in 2020 and looking at the situation, the first thing that we did was to go on a listening tour. How do we implement a strategy that speaks to the needs of the organization, at that point in time. Three months into the job, that’s when COVID-19 hit us. So you can imagine – we were supposed to do outreach, have conversations with communities on how we can craft the way forward and a turnaround process, and now we are hit by COVID 19. So we then had to find ways to still do this task. So a task that was supposed to have been completed in six, eight months ended up taking us 18 months to complete because of the emerging challenges.
AA: And, and just as a matter of interest, I mean, I presume that not all of those members were accessible via zoom and, and, video conferencing or you didn’t necessarily have other ways to communicate with the base, is that right?
DB: That is correct, virtual meetings are still a new concept to many of the rural communities, but we were able to innovate within, you know, the limited resources that we had and we had to continue to reach out to the membership. In our conversations, we were able to reach out to about 600 people, including some of the critical stakeholders who may not necessarily be members. Some of them are donors. We incorporated in it a membership audit to understand who are our members and what do they care about? And after what became 18 months of these processes, consulting, piloting, reflecting, engaging, back and forth, we were able, to launch a new strategy for ZimRights, um, appropriately named the “Shifting power to the people: ZimRights – a reset” which, we believe is going to set the tone for the transformation of the organization.
AA: So, you know, obviously that’s going to be a very deep, broad document, and I’m not asking you to summarize it, but if you had to pull out the things you are most determined to do, and that you think are most important to advance both ZimRights and its cause, the protection of human rights in Zimbabwe, what would those be?
DB: The first thing for us is how we were to frame a new strategy in a way that actually shifts the power back to the people and to the communities. And this is not just an institutional reflection, but it’s a societal reflection, meaning to say, we are thinking beyond our Association, we are thinking about our country and how, over the years, ordinary people have been disempowered and decisions made by the few, are affecting everyone else. The challenges that we face internally in the Association are simply a reflection of the challenges that we face in the nation. We were quite influenced by the thinking of Martin Luther King, who says power without love is reckless and abusive and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Traditionally power has been deployed for the decimation of human dignity. To correct that, we need to go back and shift that power. So in reflecting on how our new strategy was going to cause a transformation beyond just the institution, the theme of shifting power became the underlying theme.
AA I mean the elephant in the room is the donor because so much of the world’s human rights organization infrastructure is funded by private foundations or some government agencies. And, you know, we all know that that raises a big question about at least whether the priorities have to be a compromise between what the organization wants and what the donor wants. Uh, obviously best – case scenario, the donor gives you the money and leaves you alone. But I think we, we are not naive enough to believe that that’s a frequent occurrence. And especially if you have a membership that you are determined to be faithful to, how do you become sustainable if you don’t want donors to distort the mission that you are setting yourselves?
DB: Yes. You have spoken right into our history, um, where the donor problem is both mythical and a reality, because it is part of the power that we are talking about when we are speaking about shifting power to the people. As we were speaking to members, we continually heard the words that, “we don’t see programs here because the secretariat tells us that the donor is not investing in this province.” Those are the kind of things that we kept on hearing. And that’s true – the donors will say, “we don’t want to do programming in Harare. We want to do programming in Masvingo, we want to do programming in the rural areas,” and things like that. So that becomes, you know, a source of power contest, and also what then stops the secretariat from telling you that the donor said, when membership have no access to the donors, even if the donors have not said so. What you have at the center are the core operations of the organization, and many donors are not interested in giving institutional support, but your capacity to deliver on the project areas is compromised if the center cannot hold. So our main priority under achieving sustainability is to make sure that we take control of our center, are able to mobilize resources to make sure that we build a center. And we, we invite donors as partners and they are free to invest in any of our eight action zones. But the idea that we now have that framework very clearly out there, it means there’s no guess work as what does ZimRights need. It means anyone can look into that action zone framework and say, I would like to partner you in this area. But influenced by the situation that I found in the organization, I don’t want to go to the donors asking for a salary. What we talk about when speaking about strengthening the center, it means the core team should be funded by the Association itself, and the Association is able to exist even without donor investment in the center.
AA: Okay. Dzikamai, we’re going to come back and find you in a year’s time and see how this strategy is going and I really hope it works well because you are leading an enormously important investment in Zimbabwe’s future.
DB: Thank you very much for your support.
AA: Dzikamai Bere is the national director of ZimRights, that is the Zimbabwe Human Rights Association. You can find a transcript of our conversation and suggestions for further reading on our website, Strength&Solidarity.org.
AA: We like to end the program with The Coda – an opportunity to hear a human rights defender reflect on what gives them strength and inspiration. This time it’s coming from New York city, and a leader in the field of racial justice and policing. Vince Warren is an accomplished human rights lawyer, the executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, or CCR, and a highly valued professor at the City University of New York. In short, you might not be expecting to learn that he’s also an excellent drummer and jazz funk musician.
Vince Warren: Both of my parents were classical musicians, which is a very strange thing, you know, here in the US, because they were both born poor and black in the south. And in the black migration, they moved to Philadelphia, separately, where they met. And I don’t know how they found each other, but they did, and they traveled around in black theater for years. By the time I came along, all of that fun was done and they were sort of boring music teachers but I picked up the bug because there was so much music in our house. Interestingly enough, I’m adopted, so we can’t claim genetics. But the environment that I was in was just filled with music and it was filled with justice. And I’ve never really seen a reason to separate those two.
VW: The pandemic was filled with – in the early days, in particular – mourning and isolation. And all of the things that pull us apart. And in fact, the way to deal with all of those things, the way that we normally do it, is by being together and you couldn’t do that. And for me, it gave me an opportunity to be inside of my own head for a little bit, to think about what I thought, to feel what I was feeling. And the way that that came out was – I just started writing music and I wrote it as a personal project just for me.
VW: There’s a song called New Day, which is, uh, also called Moody AF. And that was actually a personal, story about how the killing of George Floyd, coupled with the isolation of Covid really affected me. And what I realized in the course of writing that tune is that it wasn’t just George Floyd. I’ve been doing this work dealing with the killing and extermination of black folks in America since before I was in college. And it is so traumatizing, yet my job is to lead people through the trauma which further traumatized me. So it was very, very good for me to be able to take a, a moment and to say in song the things that, um, you don’t always expect. leaders of organizations or human rights folks saying, and that really resonated with people.
VW: One of the songs that I’m most proud of and was actually one of the most difficult to write, is a song called Where Were You? I’m leading an organization full of people who are feeling all the feelings and a younger generation of folks that think differently about institution than I did. Um, I began to get very frustrated. I was frustrated because, on the left in particular, we are very challenged with the expectation of, uh, younger and newer people that are coming into the fight. A lot of the attitude is, you should have fixed it already – since you didn’t fix it, we are just gonna take it over. And so I wrote the song, it was inspired in some ways by a wonderful article written by Maurice Mitchell, in which he sets out what he calls the “glass houses” aspect of this intergenerational dialogue – that we still have to prioritize what we’re doing internally, how we’re treating our people. And there’s a tension in that because the world is burning, people are dying. The only reason why we’re in a formation in a human rights organization is to deploy our skills to stop it and to end it. And it felt challenging to me to see that we were spending more time internally discussing how we’re organized than externally making a difference in the world. I am a hundred percent convinced that intergenerationally that we will be able to plot a course that is both/and, and not an either/ or. We have so much to learn from the newer generation, and they have a fair amount to learn from the battles that we won, and most importantly the failures that we’ve had.
VW: I’ve always been a musician and even though it doesn’t say it on my resume – it says human rights lawyer and executive director – if I could reverse it and be an executive director as a side gig and be a musician as my full-time gig, it would bring me great joy. I would probably starve to death cause I’m actually much better at the latter than the former!
AA: Thank you Vince. You can listen to Vince Warren’s fantastic EP on Soundcloud, find the link on the podcast page of our website, Strength&Solidarity.org
AA: And that’s a wrap on season 4! If you’ve hung out with us over the months – thank you, we appreciate your attention and hope we’ve given you food for thought. If you’re a recent arrival – we’re so glad to have you- please don’t disappear! During our break, we’ll be re-upping some of our favourite episodes from the first three seasons of Strength&Solidarity, and we’ll be back in the fall with new material for season five. As always, if you have feedback or suggestions, we really want to hear from you, you can write to email@example.com now or any time you like. I want to take this moment to say thank you to my colleagues, Sarah Mostafa-Kamel, Mohamed Thiam and Daniella Lock for all their help and especially to our wonderful producer, Peter Coccoma. All of us at the Symposium wish your organisations and movements strength, and solidarity in your struggles for rights. See you in October.