Interview with Zimbabwean human rights defender, Nkosilathi

By Noah Wanebo 

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

On 21 November, 2017, former Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe stepped down after 37 years of rule. Learn about the situation for human rights and civil society in Zimbabwe and the current and future challenges from the perspective of Zimbabwean human rights defender, Nkosilathi Moyo. 

“It’s a new-old political situation. New in the sense that we no longer have Mugabe… Old in the sense that the system he created, which he established, is still intact.”

Can you please introduce yourself?

My name is Nkosilathi Moyo, and I’m a human rights defender from the small mining town of Kwekwe, which is in the central part of Zimbabwe. I work with a community-based organisation called Zimbabwe Organisation for Youth in Politics, which tries to advocate for youth participation in political processes and to capacitate young people who have political aspirations. I’m an author and I am also an artist, I use music and poetry to campaign against political corruption. I participated in the Shelter City programme in 2015 with Justice and Peace in the city of Utrecht.

You started an organisation called the Community Human Rights Defenders Academy. Can you explain what that does?

It’s an initiative which I started when I returned from The Netherlands. It’s a programme whereby I impart what I brought back from the Netherlands and what I learned when I visited Ireland with Frontline Defenders by training my fellow human rights defenders from grassroots and remote communities who might not have the chance to get exposed to the same programmes I have been exposed to.

“I’m a person who cannot just come across a human rights violation or oppression and fold my hands. I must contribute toward challenging oppression and human rights violations.”

What originally drew you to human rights activism? And how would you describe your human rights work?

It’s passion. I grew up with that passion. I’m a person who cannot just come across a human rights violation or oppression and fold my hands. I must contribute toward challenging oppression and human rights violations. When I see in our country that a government oppresses the rights of its own people, I thought I need to say something that challenges that, to do something that challenges that. So, I started by writing articles and composing protest songs, doing all those things I was doing. It’s all coming out of passion.

Particularly my focus is on advocating for good governance, respect of the rule of law, and respect of our freedoms, like freedom of association, and those in the constitution, that each and every human being must be allowed to support the political part of his choice, or subscribe to the religion of his choice. Those are the freedoms I advocate for.

Considering Zimbabwe’s current political changes, what are you trying to do at the moment?

So, for now, with this new political situation in the country, what is happening is we have not yet done any training at the academy, but we are planning to do so and fundraise to get the resources for 2018. Apart from that, our focus will then be on peace building, conflict prevention, and more about the constitution – to try to make sure our people understand the constitution very well so they can be able to stand for their rights from an informed position. And peacebuilding in the sense that we are in a situation where there is a lot of polarisation, with some people still aligned to the president and some in the opposition, so with that level polarisation we will need to then to equip the people with skills. This is particularly what we will focus on in this session of the training.

Photo: Protesters outside Zimbabwe Parliament (November 21, 2017). By Ben Curtis

You mention that there’s a lot of polarisation in society. Can you explain that?

We have a situation where those who are aligned or who believed in the ousted president, Mr. Mugabe, feel disgruntled that their leader was ousted through a coup. And we have an opposition, which also feels that the political space is becoming too militarised, and they fear that it will be difficult to have a free and fair election. Some believe this coup is fine, with this army being the main player. So, we have all these different groups in one society.

Do you think that polarisation can be bridged?

I don’t want to sound pessimistic, but I also do not have the [feeling] this has changed. It’s a new-old political situation. New in the sense that we no longer have Mugabe. Ever since I was born, this is the first time we have a president who is not Mugabe. Old in the sense that the system he created, which he established, is still intact. The ministers who make policy are still in charge. So, I cannot say we have totally achieved the freedom we are fighting for. We still need total democratisation of Zimbabwe, particularly this system which Mugabe created.

As you mentioned, you’ve grown up with Mugabe your entire life. Going back to a few weeks ago when all of this upheaval started, what was your reaction?

I can say everyone was very happy, the euphoria was very, very high, because the people were very desperate to see Mugabe go. I was one of the people who was very happy, crying tears of joys and everything, but now that he’s gone, we are now going back to the drawing table, and we can see that yes, he’s gone, but the system is still there, and the euphoria is slowly dying out. We still have that system in place. So, it’s not total freedom, but we are some way there.

“…the army must now go back to their barracks, and people go back to the constitution…”

With that in mind, what work do you think lies ahead for you in the coming years to change the system or betting promoting human rights in Zimbabwe?

 My prayer is that this new government tries to uphold the constitution. That’s number one. They need to demilitarise the political space, the army must now go back to their barracks, and people go back to the constitution and try to create an environment which is conducive for free and fair elections. Because as it is, if you go to an election in these circumstances, it definitely won’t be free. So, my wish is that the new president tries to rule by the constitution and respect the constitution and allows the people of Zimbabwe to freely participate in the new election without fear of victimisation.

 And you felt compelled to leave Zimbabwe in 2015 when you were receiving death threats, is that correct?

 Yes, things were very nasty, very difficult for me in that particular year. I had to go into temporary exile in South Africa and later on in Belgium. That’s when I sent that prison garb to the president [Nkosilathi sent Mugabe a prison uniform to protest violations of human rights in the country] and I was hounded by state security forces for that, and I had to leave. I think in Zimbabwe when things get difficult to that extent, someone has to seek refuge somewhere else. But after that, I then had to return to Zimbabwe because of my activism [which] I’m doing passionately. When I see the smoke is there, I have to return to the country to continue with my work.

 After your open letter in 2014 which condemned human rights violations, you began to receive threats. Can you explain those threats?

They actually were death threats. Sometimes through anonymous calls and sometimes I would get those calls with a specified action, frequent visits by state agents demanding to know my whereabouts and stuff. I could feel that I was being targeted, particularly by agents linked to the state. To make sure that I remained safe, sometimes I would keep a low profile, or I would get a temporary location somewhere else away from my home, and I would see that I continue to tell my story to the world [about] why I am being victimised and why I continue to do my work. I wasn’t going to stop because of being victimised because whatever I was doing was my conviction and I felt that it must be done.

 Why do you think you were seen as such a threat?

My activism was misinterpreted as being a political activity against the government because I was enlightening a lot of people that their rights were being violated and I was providing a lot of checks on the government to say what you are doing is against the constitution, saying to Mugabe that when you took the oath of office you promised to abide by and uphold the constitution, but now you are doing things your own way. So, they felt the way I was trying to enlighten the people was a threat to their interests, and hence the threats against my life.

“They thought I would feel the pain in prison and stop what I was doing, while also trying to use me as an example—“If you do this, look at what you are doing to this cause.” But to me it made me even stronger in activism.”

You also have the dubious honour of joining only Mugabe himself on charges of defaming the state, for which you spent six months in prison. Can you tell me about that and how it affected your work?

They chose to do that to try to instil fear in me, but at the time it actually helped me to remain determined and focused and to get even stronger. I felt I was being a politically baptised in activism. They thought I would feel the pain in prison and stop what I was doing, while also trying to use me as an example—“If you do this, look at what you are doing to this cause.” But to me it made me even stronger in activism.

“…it [Shelter City] was very, very important because those three months gave me enough time to breathe in fresh air, and to get connected to the human rights world at the international level.

And when you were abroad, can you tell me a bit about what your experience was with Shelter City?

At that time, I left the country following a book I had written which criticised government oppression in the country. I got an opportunity to come to Shelter City in Utrecht, and it was very, very important because those three months gave me enough time to breathe in fresh air, and to get connected to the human rights world at the international level. During my stay, I even got a chance to make a presentation before European human rights ambassadors, who had a conference at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in The Hague, and I met Queen Maxima of the Netherlands—I met quite a lot of international players during my stay there. So, it helped create a profile of me. In my country when there are many eyes on you, they might have some fear in harming you, so this helped create a brand around my human rights activism, which was also a security measure to my advantage.

“Some don’t like music but they like to read. I use various ways to try to get my message to as many people as I can.”

Your work includes organizing, letter-writing, book-writing, poetry, and song. You use many different media to get your message across. Why do you use such variety? 

I try different modes of communication because some aren’t drawn to reading but they can listen to music. Some don’t like music but they like to read. I use various ways to try to get my message to as many people as I can.

Do you think that approach is having an effect?

It’s really helped, because my writings, my books, my poems and songs went viral on social media, particularly WhatsApp groups. I was getting feedback from places like Germany, from the Zimbabwean community in Papua New Guinea, so it shows me that stuff went viral and social media became an important tool on my activism. People can easily get my music now. Within a day or two, my song can be all over the Zimbabwe community.

Sometimes I think social media seems to be a double-edged sword in that regard. It can be good for human rights activism but can also undermine it by documenting what people are doing, government propaganda, and other issues. Do you get that sense as well?

I particularly look on its positive side, it’s a very important tool in human rights activism. It can reach out to millions of people in a short period of time. When you want to speak on radio or TV or whatever you can hardly do that, but on social media you can spread whatever message you want as soon as possible.

Social media has a generational component as well. Do you see a generational difference between the younger and older generations in Zimbabwe regarding what they will tolerate from the government?

Yeah, especially for young people, social media is their main way of accessing information. And that is the fear [of the government], it is a space where they can easily interact. When thousands of people marched against Mugabe, the message was spread through social media. It was spread all over and almost a million people got it in order to finally put an end to Mugabe’s rule. That’s using social media, particularly WhatsApp, Facebook Twitter, to easily mobilise young people.

“…yes, Mugabe is gone, but there is still a lot of work to do toward peacefully and non-violently dismantling this system that he created.”

What media project are you working on right now?

Now I’m writing a book, which I think I will release at some time in 2018. In it I’m trying to say that yes, Mugabe is gone, but there is still a lot of work to do toward peacefully and non-violently dismantling this system that he created. Because a lot of criminals who committed serious crimes against humanity are still in government today—it’s only him who is missing. So, what are we going to do to make sure that this system which he created is totally dismantled to allow total democratization in Zimbabwe?

And now that you have lived abroad and gone back to Zimbabwe, is there anything you think the foreign media and the international community don’t fully understand about your country?

The international community, and particularly the donor community in Zimbabwe, does not really have a lot of information of what is transpiring on the ground. They believe a lot in those big non-governmental organisations who sometimes tell them things that are not true, simply because maybe they want to get their funding or something. The international community is quick to think Zimbabwe is in a position whereby it can just as quickly reengage the new regime and forget about whatever was happening, but a lot of things are happening right now, like soldiers who are beating up people who are [against] the new president, et cetera. So, in this euphoria, human rights violations are still continuing. The international community needs to really, really put an eye and get to know what is really transpiring in Zimbabwe before rushing into conclusions, like thinking it is time to just reengage and think that the new government is good, or just listening to big organisations who don’t go into remote communities or talk to grassroots organisations to really get to know what is transpiring on the ground.

Are there other groups fighting similar causes around Zimbabwe?

There are quite a number of human rights defenders across the country, but most of them are found in Harare and Bulawayo, which are the main cities in Zimbabwe, but for people like me working in the grassroots community, we are very few, so it’s difficult to collaborate our efforts. In [the big cities] they can meet and organise their efforts but here we are too dispersed, few and far from each other.

It seems that for really effective change to happen, a strong civil society is the key to putting pressure on the government. Do you see that at all in Zimbabwe?

Civil society in Zimbabwe is trying its best, but it has also been infiltrated because we also have civil society organisations which are linked to the government, which are government formations, trying to water down what the genuine civil society is trying to do. Now it can be hard to tell if it is genuine or if it is fake formed by the government, which has created a lot of polarisation in civil society. But those few that are genuine are doing their best.

Are there any specific instances of a gross human rights violation in your country in the last year or so that comes to mind to give an example of the situation?

In the last few months, villagers were displaced in Manzou by Grace Mugabe, the former first lady of the country, because she wanted to build something for herself on that particular land. She chased them away without even giving them accommodation. So, people were sleeping outdoors in the cold simply because one person wanted to build a personal empire at the expense of the suffering majority. I didn’t like that and I consider that a gross human rights violation.

It sounds like accountability is one of the biggest issues at the moment.

There are a lot of issues that need to be addressed. Economic issues. There are quite a number of issues, government issues, economic issues, public accountability. Those are all the issues that are on the table now.

“In as much as the focus of Shelter City is rest and respite, I would say don’t feel at home, feel at work… if you feel at work, you will really explore and get connected to quite a number of useful contacts that will help you when you go back to your country.”

Returning to Shelter City, you met some human rights defenders from around the world when you were here. Is there anything you felt you learned from other human rights defenders?

I got a chance to interact with other human rights defenders from other countries, including someone from Burundi. I got a chance to talk to him and he told me the stories about what was happening to Burundi and how they were trying to circumvent those challenges. So I learned a lot in terms of resilience, and also how to implement that in terms of personal and organisational security. I learned a lot from their stories, and their situation was even more difficult than mine.

Can you tell me a bit about your Shelter City Experience?

I was in the city of Utrecht. There I was in touch with the city council and working with the organisation Peace Brigades International, which has an office in Utrecht. I also got the chance to do some informal classes at the University of Utrecht, so I got exposed to a lot of programmes, and I got invited to speak at the Human Rights Café there. I could frequently meet with the mayor of Utrecht—we became friends—and other human rights players in that city. I really liked it because I got exposed to the international human rights community, and I could go to other places, like The Hague and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs there. I also met Dutch ministers and ambassadors on a personal level, so my experience was very interesting, and it helped to create an even bigger profile for my activism.

“You go back to your country as a new person because you are exposed to a lot of things that help you grow in terms of human rights activism.”

Why do you think a programme like Shelter City is important?

It’s a chance for the human rights defenders to re-strategise, to learn from other HRDs and to build more so that they can go back and do in their respective countries. You go back to your country as a new person because you are exposed to a lot of things that help you grow in terms of human rights activism. So it’s very important, you never come back the same.

What advice would you give future Shelter City candidates? 

In as much as the focus of Shelter City is rest and respite, I would say don’t feel at home, feel at work. In the sense that if you feel at home you will just relax and not take advantage of the environment that you’re in to explore new opportunities, but if you feel at work, you will really explore and get connected to quite a number of useful contacts that will help you when you go back to your country. So people should work very hard those three months to broaden their networks.


Learn more about Nkosilathi, his work and his time at Shelter City Utrecht here.