The shadows were lengthening when Tonderai Ndira and his two friends huddled around a table in a suburban Harare garden, and started singing in their native Shona. The words were lost on me, but their intensity wasn’t. When they’d finished, Tonderai translated: “That one is all about I'm dedicated to liberate Zimbabwe, so you should not cry when I get killed.” That was March 2007.
At dawn on 14 May, 2008 - not long after Robert Mugabe had lost a first-round Presidential election to his bitter foe Morgan Tsvangirai - Tonderai slept while his wife Plaxedes made porridge for their two children at their home in the impoverished township of Mabvuku, east of Harare. Around eight armed men wearing masks and dressed in plain-clothes barged in and pulled him from his bed. “They’re going to kill me,” Tonderai shouted to his wife, as they dragged him outside, still in his underwear. His children watched from the doorstep as he was shoved into a truck and driven off.
A week later, in a Harare mortuary with bodies on the floor and failing electricity, Cosmas Ndira recognised his brother’s decomposing remains only by his height and his distinctive wrist bangle. According to the post-mortem, he’d been asphyxiated.
Amid all the bloodshed of Zimbabwe’s 2008 election, it was the murder of the 30-year-old Ndira that caught the international media’s attention. In death, the tall, charismatic youth leader for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party, who had been arrested 35 times - more often it’s said, than anyone in the country’s political history - became known as ‘Zimbabwe’s Steve Biko’. Like South Africa’s anti-apartheid icon, he had made the ultimate sacrifice for his country’s freedom.
I first met Tonderai in 2004 and on my regular trips to Zimbabwe he would take me to places which were otherwise off-limits, and introduce me to people on the front-line of the country’s political struggle.
His laid-back manner and languid, reggae man, dread-locked style masked an unshakeable resolve, and an antenna highly tuned to danger. To Zimbabwean activists his deeds became legendary: once when the police were hunting for him he joined the search party without them realising who he was, and twice he escaped custody by jumping out of a truck. But during the febrile days in 2008 when Mugabe’s long reign appeared to be drawing to an end, the regime’s desire to eliminate its enemies took on a new urgency.
Today [14 May], on the fifth anniversary of Tonderai’s abduction and murder and with another election looming, much has changed in Zimbabwe: Tsvangirai and Mugabe are in an uneasy power-sharing agreement, the devastated economy has been revived, a new - albeit flawed - constitution has been agreed, some Western sanctions have been lifted, and Zimbabwe and the UK recently held their first bilateral talks in more than a decade.
Deep political fault-lines remain, but for all its messy, difficult compromises, the accommodation between Tsvangirai’s MDC and Mugabe’s Zanu-PF has improved the lives of many ordinary Zimbabweans. This year’s election could as easily see this relative stability continue, or herald more violence and repression. Yet at some point, past crimes must be reckoned with, and the country’s culture of impunity stretching back more than 30 years finally broken.
When Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980 after a seven-year civil war between Ian Smith’s white minority regime and the guerrilla forces of Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo, an amnesty was granted and no-one was held accountable for the many atrocities committed. Some Rhodesian intelligence and army officers even moved seamlessly to work under the new government - led by the very people they had recently tortured or tried to kill. In 1988 another amnesty was granted, this time for those guilty of the Gukurahundi massacres, in which around 20,000 civilians were murdered by government forces in Matabeleland, western Zimbabwe.
The course of this history isn’t about to change. Last October the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC) was set up to investigate human rights abuses. But its remit was limited to crimes committed after 2009, and in January its chairperson resigned because of its lack of credibility and independence.
Speaking at Tonderai’s funeral, Morgan Tsvangirai demanded justice for the victims of state-sponsored violence: “We can forgive all other things, but I think we would have stretched our humility too far if we forgave this. Mugabe and his cronies are always preaching about sovereignty. They should know that no sovereignty is greater than giving people the right to live,” he said.
Five years on, as Tonderai’s friends and family gather in Mabvuku to remember him, his status among many Zimbabweans as a national hero is secure. But as long as his killers – and the many other perpetrators of political violence in Zimbabwe – evade justice, the “sovereignty” Tsvangirai spoke of remains an illusion.