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Monday, 26 January 2009

Another good kicking

How South African police follow the example of Zimbabwe's uniformed thugs

Johannesburg, Monday, January 26

It's as well that we Zimbabweans are accustomed to being beaten and shot at by the forces of law and order in our country. Because exactly the same treatment is being meted out to us here in the heart of supposedly lawful South Africa.

I came to South Africa at the weekend to cover the extraordinary summit of South African Development Community (SADC) leaders, who are meeting in Pretoria today to once again consider the vexed question of Robert Mugabe's stranglehold over Zimbabwe.

What I witnessed was police brutality on a scale I had previously only seen on the streets of Harare. Clashes between demonstrators and police ended with various highly respectable individuals being taken away in police vehicles, and ten protestors rushed to hospital with injuries caused by rubber bullets.

The trouble began when a protest march, organised by a coalition of South African and Zimbabwean civil society groupings and intended to bring pressure on the SADC leaders to end the stalemate in Zimbabwe, reached the Union Buildings, which house the office of President Kgalema Motlanthe.

The marchers numbered about 1,500, and some of the more adventurous stormed into the building, singing, waving flags and shouting slogans. The police replied with volleys of rubber bullets which sent hundreds of demonstrators running for cover.

Among those injured was a boy of about 17, who was hit in the head with a rubber bullet and lay on the ground bleeding profusely. He was able to give me his name, Trsut Nyathi, before he was taken away to hospital, where I later learned his condition was stable.

Meanwhile a delegation from the Save Zimbabwe Now! campaign, a new initiative under the auspices of CIVICUS, the civil society based here in Johannesburg, attempted to present a memorandum to the extraordinary session of SADC, asking for an end to tacit support of the Mugabe regime.

Eight of the delegation, including Kumi Naidoo, president of CIVICUS, were arrested, bundled into police vehicles, and driven away.

I have to point out that the high-handed and violent official reaction only lasted for a short while, compared to similar events in Zimbabwe. But no doubt the South African police will learn quickly from their more experienced colleagues north of the border.


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Terrible news from South Africa, it's hard to explain why the police were so heavy handed. It makes you wonder if it is an underlying xenophobia that we saw last year. I suspect the orders to disperse the protestors came from high up, which is not surprising given the members of SADC that are attending the meeting. Wouldn't want to upset good ol' Bob.

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