On the fifth anniversary of Tonderai Ndira's death, how much has changed in Zimbabwe?

Amid all the bloodshed of Zimbabwe’s 2008 election, it was the murder of the 30-year-old Tonderai Ndira that caught the international media’s attention. He became a symbol for the country's political struggles. Five years on, Zimbabwe is transformed, but

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.

Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and his wife Elizabeth Tsvangirai in 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage