As South Africa prepares to take over as chair of the Southern African Development Community Organ next month, one of its most urgent challenges will be to forge regional consensus on how to reverse Zambia’s slide towards dictatorship.
Not many South Africans follow Zambian politics, but what they do know about Zambia is that it was the home of ANC leaders in exile under apartheid, it was led by the much-loved Kenneth Kaunda – a fervent supporter of the liberation movements, and the country is the second biggest producer of copper in Africa.
Not much was heard about Zambia until DA leader Mmusi Maimane tried to attend the treason trial of Zambian opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema recently, and was refused entry into the country. Then came the EFF’s condemnation of the state repression. Former president Kaunda recently tried to visit Hichilema in prison, but was prevented from doing so.
Zambia was considered one of southern Africa’s more stable democracies, but with the death of its president, Michael Sata, in 2014, and the rise of Edgar Lungu to the presidency in elections (the results of which have been hotly contested), the government has adopted draconian measures in dealing with opposition and dissent.
Lungu has suspended 48 MPs for having boycotted his State of the Nation Address. But more concerning is the level of oppression, torture and detention without trial in recent months that is sounding alarm bells.
In April, Hichilema was detained following a raid on his home, reportedly by more than 100 police officers dispensing tear gas. He was accused of endangering the president’s life by not making way for the president’s motorcade. He is being tried for treason for this traffic offence. A guilty verdict for treason in Zambia can be punishable by death.
A source close to Hichilema said he was allegedly tied up like a dog, beaten and thrown into a cell with excrement on the floor and only a bucket in which to relieve himself. He has also been moved to a maximum security prison 160km outside the capital Lusaka in order to make it difficult for his family to see him.
The case has the hallmarks of the apartheid security police stories – concocted charges, beatings, treason charges, a closing of the political space where people are afraid to criticise the government for fear of their physical security.
President Edgar Lungu suspended 48 MPs for boycotting his SONA. More concerning is the oppression, torture and detention without trial, says the writer. Picture: Frank Franklin II/AP
Since Lungu declared a State of Emergency on July 5, journalists say more than 500 members of the opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) have been detained without charge and 18 have been executed.
Mutinta Haabasune, a female online journalist, was allegedly detained on July 12 for 10 days for “insulting the president”, tortured and released only a week ago. She has written about her detention – the beatings, being denied food and clothing and being prevented from bathing. She says this has been the fate of hundreds in the clampdown on the UPND since the government declared the State of Emergency.
In a week where we have been reminded of the torture and gross abuses of human rights in John Vorster Square in the 1970s during the reopening of the Ahmed Timol inquest, we need to be cognisant that some of the same tactics are being used against the opposition in detention in Zambia.
Zambia’s ruling party has sought to paint Hichilema as an agent of foreign powers, which they have argued in an article posted on their Facebook page, suggesting that Hichilema was in cahoots with former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo and wealthy South African businessman Jonathan Oppenheimer to install him as president, given their business interests in the country. The article depicted Hichilema as being part of a secret alliance with Oppenheimer and Obasanjo which discussed involving foreign military intervention.
The narrative is laughable. The article refers to the secret meetings taking place in 2014 and last year at the Oppenheimer game reserve in the Kalahari, and were organised by the Brenthurst Foundation. The foundation hosts political think tank dialogues at the Tswalu Kalahari Reserve, and while Obasanjo and Hichilema participated in Brenthurst Foundation dialogues, so did former president Kgalema Motlanthe and numerous other South African government officials, and academics.
Zambian government officials had also been invited to attend, but according to foundation head Greg Mills, had declined the invitation.
There was nothing secretive about the meetings and there is no evidence to support such a conspiracy theory.
Despite the Zambian High Commission being asked to produce evidence, it has refused to respond.
It will be one of the first tests of South Africa’s leadership of the SADC Organ as to whether it can effectively mobilise the region to pressure Lungu to restore the rule of law and political freedom in the southern African country.
* Shannon Ebrahim is the Foreign Editor for Independent Media