Some of the cruellest politicians who wish to clean up their images resort to child-hugging so that onlookers may see their soft side, if they have any. The famous photograph of former US President George W Bush holding a hollering child shows this doesn’t always work.
In Zimbabwe — among the Shona at least — it is generally believed that a child will scream when held by a bad person such as a witch or a murderer. But that has not stopped politicians holding babies at campaign rallies! But generally, they avoid doing this and wait for June 16 each year to pontificate about the African child. The day was declared the Day of the African Child by the Organisation of African Unity — the predecessor of the African Union — and has been commemorated on the continent yearly since 1991.
It is the day when Africans purport to honour those who participated in the Soweto Uprising in 1976 and raise awareness of the need to continue to improve the education provided to African children. Zimbabwe also commemorates the day with high-sounding speeches by political leaders. In the year between each June 16th, events on the political front suggest a complete disregard of the needs of the child, especially regarding education, let alone its improvement.
In Africa, it would seem the only projects presidents and wives of presidents ever involve themselves in have to do with orphans; this is meant to show that the so-called first families care about the lot of children. Whereas this is very noble, the projects normally disguise something sinister in the way their governments have treated children.
In Zimbabwe, the story of Nigel Mutemagau has become instructive in demonstrating the depth to which politicians are prepared to sink in order to achieve or maintain political power, mostly at the expense of innocent children.
Nigel was the three-year-old boy in 2009 who was incarcerated together with parents for more than three months. His parents had been abducted together with a dozen others by state agents on charges of terrorism. Both his parents were senior members of the MDC. Nigel himself became famous internationally as “Zimbabwe’s youngest terrorist”. He and his parents were held at an undisclosed location for two months from October to December 2009 and when they were produced in court Nigel’s name also appeared on the list of the “terrorists”.
During his abduction, no politicians in the former ruling party Zanu PF appealed for the release of the child, at least, even after Nigel and his parents were sent to Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison. This was the time when all those politicians and their wives — of whatever political persuasion — who give speeches on June 16 should have given impassioned pleas for the boy to be released.
Prison conditions were at their worst during the time. There were no separate sleeping arrangements for babies so mothers and their children slept under the same crowded conditions under the lice-infested blankets offered by the system.
Now Nigel, who was later released into the custody of relatives while his parents continued their stay in prison, is struggling to adapt to normal life. Those who visited him five months after gaining his freedom found him still haunted by his experiences. His mother said he cried whenever he heard voices of people singing and was terrified by crowds. Sometimes he would just begin shouting. He had to be withdrawn from nursery school because he could not integrate with other children.
“Nigel was beaten on many occasions during his incarceration — when he cried, or asked for food, or wanted to go to the toilet. He was also threatened and watched his mother being tortured, including having boiling water poured over her followed by iced water and being forced to remain in her wet clothes,” Frances Lovemore, a spokesperson for the Counselling Services Unit, an organisation that works with the victims of political violence, told dpa after visiting him.
Research has established the adverse effects of keeping children in prison with their parents even when done to the best interests of the children. “A child who is with her mother in prison is necessarily separated from her father and other members of her family. Furthermore, her life inside the prison leaves her vulnerable to disease, malnutrition and possible abuse by other prisoners or the guards. While the decision ought to be made on the basis of the best interests of the child, often it is forced upon the mother and child because of circumstances outside their control.” (Marlene Alejos, in her excellent report Babies and Small Children Residing in Prison.
There are hundreds of children in Zimbabwean prisons as we speak.
The Nigel story is very important in that Zimbabwe is still in the grip of political violence whose main victims are the children. Each time a man or woman is killed in political violence the people who will suffer the most are the children. Recently, Zimbabwe was shocked by the death of Cephas Magura in Mudzi at the hands of Zanu PF apparatchiks at a time we all thought political violence was on the decline. The story we have heard so far is that of the direct victim, the father. What about the children?
In all political conflicts the children are the grass that gets hurt when the proverbial two elephants fight. Zimbabwe has been in a state of perpetual conflict since independence in 1980. What happened to the Gukurahundi orphans? Were any orphanages ever built for them? They were, and some are still struggling to get an identity because there are no parents to register them!
When homes were bulldozed in 2005 during the cynical Murambatsvina, what happened to the children of the 700 000 families that were displaced? What happened to the children of the 200 or so people who were murdered during the June 2008 presidential election run-off?
Politicians should for once be sincere in what they say and do about children and not use facile projects to sanitise their images.
by Nevanji Madanhire