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Archive for July, 2011

Working with ‘ACTION Support Centre’ in Johannesburg, South Africa, has given me a multitude of opportunities to experience the ‘practical side of development’. ACTION is an NPO comprised of a small team of close-knit individuals who tackle a range of solidarity and capacity building projects within the Peace and Conflict arena. Although my role has been largely tied to their anti-xenophobia initiatives, I have been actively encouraged to attend as many of their other events as I have time for. This is how I ended up suited and booted at a high-level Southern African Liaison Office (SALO) conference in a prestigious Pretoria hotel on 9th May 2011, six days into my internship. Little did I know that this fleeting decision to attend the SALO conference, the subject of which I had little prior knowledge, merely ‘for the experience’ would result in myself and CAS colleague Charlotte Steffansson being jostled in a volatile crowd of red-shirts, no-shirts, blue uniforms, placards, batons and lachrymator (or as it is more commonly know, tear gas).

While slowly crunching my way through a bowl of ‘Endearmints’ in a plush conference room, surrounded by civil society organisations, High Commissioners and national ambassadors, I heard Lindiwe Zulu (International Relations Advisor to Jacob Zuma) and her panel (Deprose Muchena; Isabella Matambanadzo; Dewa Mavhinga; Professor Chris Landsberg, Vasu Gouden; Richard Smith) present on the ‘Roadmap for free and fair elections in Zimbabwe’. Having relatively little knowledge of the intricacies of this issue I was enthralled by the complex problems challenging this compelling plight. ‘Post-conflict’ reconciliatory measures, black female rights, security sector reform, media reform and even the fundamental issue of whether there were the financial resources to fund the elections, were all raised and discussed. The most prevalent issue, however, was the need to create an environment in which a repeat of the 2008 electoral violence could be avoided.

Although I was ‘in the field’, ‘doing as practitioners do’, this refined environment still exhibited the comforts and detachment of armchair academia and the majority of my university career. Even my subsequent attendance at a screening of ‘The Axe and the Tree’- a documentary focusing on the ‘healing’ of communities in the aftermath of the 2008 Zimbabwean electoral violence through the ‘Tree of Life’ programme- did not translate the reality of conditions on the ground. While evocative and emotive, the visual images and narrative accounts of the abuses individuals suffered jarred with the luxury of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the refreshing Rooibos and koeksisters before, and the tasty butternut stew after the screening. Although the panel members and the audience participation made some ground into conveying the conditions in Zimbabwe, the cynicist, used to the sensationalist and selective reporting of the British media, could easily dispel the messages associated with the film.

It was only at the Zimbabwe Solidarity March in Sandton on 13th June 2011 that I gained any real sense of the volatility and emotion underpinning these issues. Joining the march en route, the crowd was joyful, singing and toi-toing. They were very welcoming to the two random white girls standing by the side of the road awkwardly trying to spot ACTION colleagues. Unable to recognise any familiar faces, and embarrassed at being unadorned and conspicuously ‘different’, Charlotte and I enthusiastically took the red t-shirts, placards and headbands we were given, oblivious of the MDC logo and the messages we sent by wearing them. Stopping outside the Standard Bank, just minutes from the SADC summit, we (naively) assumed we were waiting for police permission to cross the busy junction. This was not the case. As leaders of various cultural groups disagreed over the content and delivery of the platform programme, ethnic differences and conflict surfaced. Protests arose due to the paucity of Ndebele speakers on the platform, only one out of eleven, and crowd members refused to let a Shona individual speak. Unaware of the commotion, as nothing was in English, Charlotte and I were surprised to find ourselves amongst a scuffle. And then amongst the police with their batons raised. And then amongst a running, coughing crowd. I blame inexperience for not recognising the pain in my eyes and throat as tear gas more swiftly; luckily Charlotte is a bit quicker on the uptake and had already started dragging us away.

Recalling the SALO conference and their discussion of ‘creating an environment’ in which violence would not occur, the magnitude of their task is overwhelming. The march was promoting a ‘clear Roadmap to free and fair elections’, it had the financial backing of OSISA, the approval of the police and municipality authorities and had been meticulously planned by ACTION’s ‘Zimbabwe Solidarity Forum’ and partners ‘Crisis Zimbabwe’. It intended to be peaceful, it intended to show solidarity with Zimbabwe and it intended to demonstrate to the SADC summit the need and capacity for free and fair elections. It did not intend to end in violence, the burning of symbols of MDC, tear gas and police dispersal. It did not intend to halt halfway up Sandton drive, as confused shoppers cruised past in their pursuit of expensive shopping malls, and never actually reach the summit.

Samantha Evans, MSc student in Africa and International Development

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