A long record of torture

Human Rights Watch's Gerry Simpson explains the plight of Zimbabweans in South Africa many of whom w

Grace lives in Johannesburg and, like hundreds of Zimbabweans tortured by Robert Mugabe’s “war veterans” and youth militia since the March 2008 elections she is struggling to survive. But Grace is not one of the recently tortured. Instead, her story reflects the reality for millions of Zimbabweans and speaks to eight years of political repression and economic destruction next door.

Three years ago, Mugabe’s government ordered Grace’s cottage in Harare to be bulldozed, together with the homes of 700,000 other people, and banned all informal street and market trading. Grace, her daughter and her mother lost everything: home, work, income, education and healthcare.

Grace has barely survived. “After they destroyed my cottage we slept in the open. I tried to feed us by trading in the street but the police always stole my goods and then arrested, fined and beat me with a rubber whip and then with an iron bar,” she told me in February. “It was impossible to get a trading license because I did not have a ZANU-PF card. After they beat me with the iron bar I knew could not continue and had to leave to survive. So I came to South Africa.”

Grace and 700,000 others were victims of “Operation Murambatsvina” or “Operation Clear the Filth,” a name that reflects the ruling ZANU-PF party’s low regard for the humanity of these Zimbabwean citizens. Carried out shortly after the March 2005 elections in which the opposition party made significant gains in Zimbabwe’s cities, ZANU-PF viewed Grace and others living in high-density suburbs as a political threat that had to be removed. Like those abused by Mugabe’s thugs in 2008, Grace, and hundreds of thousands like her, were all targeted for the same political reason: they apparently threatened ZANU-PF’s hold on power.

Many Zimbabweans fleeing to South Africa since 2005 – possibly numbering tens of thousands – have escaped the same persecution, and the same destructive economic effects, described by Grace. They are refugees, although South Africa’s dysfunctional asylum system has yet to recognize them as such.

They join an estimated 1.5 million Zimbabweans who have fled the appalling conditions caused by Mugabe’s destructive economic policies. Zimbabwe has the world’s highest rate of inflation (100,000 per cent); 83 per cent of its people live in poverty, 80 per cent are unemployed, and 4.1 million depend on food assistance, which government operatives withhold or manipulate for political gain. Life expectancy for women, 56 years in 1978, has fallen to 34 today; over 70 per cent of the 350,000 Zimbabweans in need of life-saving HIV/AIDS drugs cannot access them.

These Zimbabweans – refugees and people fleeing generalised economic ruin – have turned to their South African neighbors in search of safety and work to help send home food and money. But almost all enter and remain in South Africa without documents, have no right to work and only limited access to help such as health care. Even if registered as asylum seekers – which should guarantee them protection from forcible return to Zimbabwe – they are liable to be arrested and summarily deported. Exploited by employers and at risk of xenophobic violence, they live in permanent insecurity. Destitute and vulnerable when they arrive, they remain so in South Africa.

Zimbabweans’ presence underlines a failure of foreign policy: the failure to use South Africa’s leverage to effectively address the brutal human rights violations and failed economic policies causing their flight. Their undocumented status and vulnerability in South Africa also represents a failure of domestic policy: the failure to develop a comprehensive policy to address the reality of their presence.

To begin the long-term process of securing a future for Zimbabweans in Zimbabwe, South African must end its failed and discredited “quiet diplomacy” approach towards Mugabe. But trying to address the cause of forced displacement in Zimbabwe is not a substitute for attending to the needs of Zimbabweans in South Africa. Pretoria needs to tackle both failures now.

South Africa should provide temporary residence status and work authorization for all Zimbabweans in South Africa. By doing this, South Africa would stop violating international refugee law by deporting asylum seekers, help protect Zimbabweans against exploitation and violence inside South Africa, facilitate their self sufficiency, and enable them to help their desperate families at home.

Granting temporary status to Zimbabweans would also unburden South Africa’s asylum system, currently clogged with thousands of Zimbabwean claims, and ensure that Zimbabweans earn the minimum wage, which would help South Africans to compete fairly with them for jobs. By doing the right thing to help its desperate neighbors, South Africa could also lessen the resentment behind the recent rise in xenophobic violence that has caused so much damage – not least to South Africa’s reputation.

Gerry Simpson is a Human Rights Watch researcher and author of the report, “Neighbors in Need: Zimbabweans seeking refuge in South Africa.”

Getty
Show Hide image

The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times