By Ray Matikinye
AS the countdown to election date at the end of March ticks on, a civic organisation has been turning knobkerries and sticks which have been the trademark of violent party y
ouths into olive branches without crowing about it.
A grassroots peace building initiative has gradually evolved from the debris of violence that characterised the farm invasions and the general election in 2000 as well as the presidential election two years later, managing to engender peaceful co-existence among supporters of diverse political parties.
But its achievements in reducing incidents of cadres from different political organisations raising their hackles against each other could come unstuck with the impending legislation that seeks to proscribe foreign funding for rights activists.
Yet the director of the Zimbabwe Civic Education Trust (Zimcet), David Chimhini, is confident his organisation’s peace building initiative could weather the NGO Bill storm.
“Our chances of survival lie in that we are a facilitator and acceptance by the communities shows that we are providing an indispensable service to those communities. Government will have to explain to the communities why we cannot continue with our peace-building work among them,” he says.
The idea of grassroots peace committees, although new in Zimbabwe, has been used extensively in parts of Africa, particularly the Central African Republic. It has allowed Zimcet to carry out an otherwise political activity with little risk of being a front for any political party.
Major players in the forthcoming March election have of late been openly discouraged their supporters from engaging in acts of violence which has tended to blemish the country’s image in the eyes of the international community. Tear-jerking pictures of victims of politically motivated violence took up prime spots in the international and the domestic media during and after the last election.
And Vice-president Joyce Mujuru has added her voice to the campaign for peace by calling on people to shun violence and instead turn to God for guidance.
Since 2001, Zimcet has trained 240 volunteers to monitor post-election violence through peace committees whose members represent different political, religious and traditional interests.
Chimhini says using community-based peace committees in which political leaders from all political parties are represented at the same level has ensured political will to promote peace, denounce violence and foster tolerance.
Over the past four years the organisation has been promoting peaceful co-existence through 69 peace committees throughout the country that have significantly reduced the incidents of violence in volatile areas such as Buhera, Chiendambuya, Mutasa and Chipinge and in urban centres.
Alaika Basikoro, chairperson of the peace committee in the Highfield working-class suburb of Harare says: “Our work has resulted in a situation where it is no longer surprising to see MDC cadres at Zanu PF offices and vice versa.”
She says building bridges was not easy as some uninitiated party members thought the peace group was trading party secrets. Other party cadres labelled the integrated committee members outright sellouts.
War veteran, Clema Zhou, who is part of the Highfield peace-building group, says people should be encouraged to acknowledge their differences but still strive to live together for the good of the community.
Intense political rivalry between the ruling Zanu PF party and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) supporters has bred a cancerous culture of violence and intolerance among unemployed youths and biddable villagers who have often been exploited by politicians seeking office and those whose political survival hinges on manipulation and violence against their opponents.
Realising the traditional chiefs’ potential to broker and foster peace and a culture of tolerance among their subjects, Zimcet roped in traditional leaders as part of the initiative.
“The biggest threat to the continued success of the peace-building initiative are some aspiring candidates and not the ordinary man in the street,” notes MDC member of parliament for Gweru Urban, Timothy Mukahlera.
Mukahlera attributes the reduced level of violence in his constituency just a month before the polls, compared to the same period in 2000, to the work of peace committees established by Zimcet.
Even with such significant success in building peace isolated incidents of violence erupted during Zanu PF primaries, notably in Makonde constituency between supporters of aspiring candidates Leo Mugabe and Kindness Paradza.
Chimhini says his organisation has not managed to cover all areas. “Although we are still thin on the ground our alderman, Moffat Marashwa, had a hand in calming the violence and assisting the police in identifying and apprehending the culprits,” he says.
Marashwa, an independence war veteran, says youths should not allow themselves to be used as cannon fodder by the politicians.
“My committee has approached the Youth ministry for it to instill in their trainees the benefits of peace and non-violence. That way they will be able to resist being used by politicians for personal benefit and not necessarily for the benefit of the nation,” he says.
Opposition parties have laid the blame for an upsurge in violence since 2000 on the party militia known in derogatory terms as Green Bombers from the fatigues they wear and the violence they are capable of unleashing while the ruling Zanu PF party has countered the accusations by accusing the opposition for fanning violence.
Police have declared a policy of “zero tolerance” to violence ahead of the March election and Zimcet says it is encouraged by the cooperation it has received from law enforcement agents.
Aspiring Zanu PF candidate and political leader in Bulawayo, Godfrey Malaba, who accepted the leadership from the MDC and other Zanu PF cadres in the peace committee, says the Zimcet programmes have managed to mould peace.
“We should accept being opposed without resorting to violence. It is possible to co-exist peacefully,” he says.
Zimcet is optimistic that the peace committees will help communities realise that the reason why the past five general elections were characterised by violence and intimidation was because they were unaware of the link between peace and tolerance and development.