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Human Rights Day: Zimbabwe's mourning turned to hope

December 10th is Human Rights Day, but in Zimbabwe human rights are grossly abused, and the poor, in particular, are ridden over roughshod by the Mugabe regime. 26 years after Independence, there is no respect for human rights in this country.

The American Declaration of Independence written at the end of the eighteenth century, states "….all men are created equal, and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights…. life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness". These are the most fundamental human rights of all.

Today on Human Rights Day, we take just three basic human rights - perhaps the most important ones: food, health care, education - and look at how they fare as we mourn what has become of life in Zimbabwe. 

Food

The average life expectancy in Zimbabwe has fallen to 34 years for women, and 37 years for men - the lowest in the world. This is due to the combined impact of poverty, Aids and malnutrition.

Zimbabwe used to be the bread-basket of Southern Africa, before Mugabe and his regime embarked on an ill-thought out land redistribution exercise. The majority of the previously highly productive farms were snatched from the mainly white owners and given to landless peasants without access to finance or the necessary skills and inputs; the other beneficiaries were Zanu PF bigwigs, who practice weekend farming using methods akin to slave labour. Since 2001, the country has relied on food imports and donor aid to supplement domestic output. Predictions for the last agricultural year 2005/6 were that farmers would harvest only 62% of the country's annual cereal requirement.

Zimbabweans are dying. Bulawayo City is the only city council that regularly reports deaths due to malnutrition: in the five months up to May this year, they reported 155 deaths. Health officials there reported that most of those who had died of hunger-related illnesses were children below the age of five. Shockingly, in that same city, five deaths due to malnutrition were recently reported at Ingutsheni, the government mental hospital. Even government itself reports that stunting, a measure of chronic malnutrion, is reported to be 29,4 percent in 2005-06 compared to 26,5 percent in a 1999 survey, and the mortality rate for children under five has dwindled from 102 per 1 000 births in 1999 to 78 in 2004, and is no doubt far worse now, two years further on in 2006.

A report approved by senior government officials estimated that 1.4 million rural people (about 17% of that sector) are food insecure in the current season. This does not include a few million more hungry people in Zimbabwe's towns and cities. The situation is desperate: workers arrive at work inadequately nourished and will often save the highly subsidized lunches received in factory canteens, taking them home in the evening to be shared amongst the entire family.

In summary, we leave the food issue with the following recent quote from former Zimbabwe Defence Forces commander Vitalis Zvinavashe (a Zanu bigwig if ever there was one!): "What independence is that when people are hungry 26 years on? …It is the system. We say we are now independent, independent with no food. Go back to historical structures. Open the archives and see how they used to do it, …They are saying we are going to have a good harvest, but there is no diesel. Should there be an agricultural Bible of Ten commandments on what must be done?" 

Health Care

The Zimbabwean health system has collapsed: there is serious understaffing, lack of morale, lack of essential drugs including ARVs, critical equipment is old and not functioning, and HIV infection levels are running at 24% of the population.

Doctors and nurses battle with low wages and without critical equipment such as rubber gloves, saline drips, syringes and painkillers - not surprisingly, many of them emigrate for greener pastures, leaving a still greater load on those remaining. One province, Matabeleland South, recently reported that it had only one doctor, based at Gwanda Hospital, to service 4 million people; its full complement of doctors should be 12, with a further 9 specialists.

Even pharmacies battle to obtain critical drugs, supplying their clients in dribs and drabs as they are able to get their hands on 10 or 15 or 25 tablets at a time; a large percentage of drugs are imported and the pharmacists have to do battle with the Medicine Council's import requirements, as well as with the Reserve Bank for the sourcing of the forex to pay for them. Medical aid subscriptions increase by 25% per month, notwithstanding the increasing shortfalls that are passed on to the patient, and probably only 10% or so of the population is fortunate enough to have access to private medical aid in any case.

The country has only two radiotherapy machines, at Parirenyatwa Hospital in Harare. They broke down five months ago, having gone well over their 10 year lifespan (one was bought in 1987 and the other one in 1992!), and are yet to be repaired. The Deputy Minister of Health and Child Welfare Dr Edwin Muguti said the country was not offering any radiotherapy services now, "Patients who need radiotherapy treatment now either go to South Africa or any other place where the facility is available," he said.

It is the same story for all other critical medical equipment including dialysis machines.

Aids is the largest killer in Zimbabwe, although that is rarely the cause entered on the death certificate. In developed countries, patients diagnosed with HIV can expect to live 15 years or more without developing full-blown Aids, providing they have access to good nutrition and anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs. In Zimbabwe, about 600 000 HIV-positive people need treatment, but the regime's ARV programme only caters for a tiny 42 000 of them. The rest have to source them from pharmacies (where the cost has increased by 65% in just 3 months) or the ultimate death sentence is passed, and they must go without. 

Education

Zimbabwe's workforce was once the envy of all other African countries: they were well educated and had a good command of English, Maths, Geography, Science and History on leaving school, often armed with other subjects as well. The University of Zimbabwe was well-respected, offering degrees which could hold their own against those of any other country on the continent, and abroad too.

As with other public services, though, the man-made economic crisis has bludgeoned the education sector into a shadow of its former self, with headmasters fighting to preserve standards with virtually no financial provision from the state. Teachers are poorly paid, and regularly resort to running "tuck shops" in break or lunchtimes, to augment their income by a few miserly bank notes.

Rural schools in particular are quite literally falling apart, with no provision for repair work to buildings or infrastructure: windows are smashed, desks and chairs are broken, often irreparably, and one text book is shared between an entire class.

With the increase in school fees this year, (and do please remember that as government schools, these are supposed to be free) many children have had to drop out of school. Where families have had to choose which child would be the unlucky one, the girl child often suffers first. Children, too, are arriving at school without adequate nutrition, resulting in falling concentration levels, or even falling asleep during class.

Even the private schools are not exempt, and have been subjected to sustained attack by the Minister for Education, Aeneas Chigwedere, doing everything within his evil power to force sub-economic fee levels that would lead to their closure. This has generated ire from his fellow ministers, most of whose children attend the best private schools in the country, but his aim appears to be to level all educational institutes to the lowest common denominator.

Finally on this subject, we mourn for the school leavers who have battled the odds to get good O and A level grades, for there are no jobs for them to go to. They are forced into economic exile or back to the streets or their rural homes to scratch a living there. 

Our mourning turned to hope

So today, on Human Rights Day, we mourn. We mourn the current situation, the hopelessness, the deaths, the sores and scabs of Aids patients, the unemployment.

But we also have cause for hope, if not for rejoicing. For hope is kindled knowing that a change in just a few things would bring transformation.

Firstly, to have a government that is democratically elected by the people of the nation; secondly, the will to end corruption, and to prosecute offenders at all levels. Next, a redirection of government expenditure to critical areas, and away from the defence and intelligence forces; also in accord with this, a paring away of the bloated civil service and bringing in a culture of service, efficiency and value added. Finally, with these remedies successfully applied, a return of skilled professionals to the country, which would happen naturally if the fundamentals were put to rights.

How ironic that Zimbabwe currently holds a seat on the Council of the United Nations Commission for Human Rights. Mugabe is the chief criminal when looking at human rights abuses, and he has inculcated his value system into his cronies. They are afraid of losing power, because their crimes will become known and they will be held accountable.

We at Sokwanele want to hold them accountable, and this is part of our brief: to diligently record the gross abuses of power in this land, so that a contemporary record stands, ready for the time when they leave the corridors of power and are made to account for what they have done.