A Discussion with Farai Maguwu, Director of Zimbabwe’s Centre for Natural Resource Governance

With: Farai Maguwu Berkley Center Profile

July 17, 2014

Background: Farai Maguwu’s determined efforts both to document abuses of human rights and to highlight the interests of local communities in especially difficult times in his native Zimbabwe have won him wide respect, in his country and internationally. At Initiatives of Change conferences on just governance in July 2013 and 2014 his work in addressing abuses in diamond mining attracted special notice as an example of personal courage and of effective use of media to highlight the many ways in which mining clashes with basic human rights. In a discussion with Katherine Marshall in Caux, Switzerland, he recounts his journey and reflects on why he has been able to pursue his work despite a grim political environment. He highlights his conviction that the essence of Christianity is about social justice; thus his Christian faith has inspired his work. But he also argues that the churches in Zimbabwe could play larger roles in upholding the principles of human rights in Zimbabwe.

How have you come to do the work you are doing? 

I was born in Mutasa district, in eastern Zimbabwe, into a family of six children (I am the sixth). My father loved history, and at home he talked often to us about the significant political events that had taken place during his lifetime. I took particular interest from an early age in understanding history and its meaning. My father was a fierce critic of the government of Robert Mugabe, and these discussions at home marked the beginning of my critical thinking about politics in my country.

When I went to the university (that was in 1997), even as a first year student I was again very critical of the university authorities, and the students naturally chose me to be their representative as the second year began. As a student leader, I was a strong advocate for democracy, working with other students in Zimbabwe as part of the umbrella body, the Zimbabwe National Students Union.

When I finished university, I became a teacher. However, I found that the conditions in the public education system did not allow me to express myself and frustrated me in other ways, so I only taught for a year and a half (from mid 2001 to the end of 2002). But during that brief time I found myself organizing teacher protests, notably against the poor salaries we were earning. I was brought before the district commissioner of the Ministry of education, charged with leading strikes and insubordination. I felt like I was in wrong field, and left teaching in frustration.

What did you do next?

I joined Plan International as a field officer. We were involved in humanitarian and food aid, supporting rural communities. Within a month I was promoted to be coordinator for thirty field monitors in my district, Mutasa. It was here that I truly came face to face with rural poverty. People were sitting at my door as early as 5 a.m. in the morning, while I was still asleep, seeking food. And they were there until late in the evening. People would travel by foot 10 or 15 kilometers to get food. I found it very degrading and very annoying that a country that once supplied food to the entire SADC region [Southern Africa Development Community] found its citizens surviving on donor aid. And yet I was not allowed to speak out on the topic. My job description made it clear that I could not communicate with the media, or express my opinions. But I found that that was against my character of questioning things. Before long I had some misunderstandings with community members, who accused me of making anti government statements. So in July 2003 I left Plan.

By that time, I had many questions in my mind about status of governance in my country. I was also trying to find my place in the country and to figure out what I could do to bring about change. So that led me to apply for a master's degree program in peace and governance. In 2004, I returned to the university (the Africa University in Mutare).

My thesis was on the politics of liberation movements, and the theme was the difference between greed and grievance. I was exploring Paul Collier’s thesis that many rebellions take place not because of true grievances but because people seek the opportunity to do well economically. Whilst they may have well articulated propositions setting out what they want to do in social terms, the underlying cause and motivation is really greed. I questioned the Zimbabwean Liberation Movement in this light. I explored why the nationalist leadership took up arms against the British. I interrogated all the grievances that were articulated: lack of access to land, the economic exclusion of black people, denying blacks opportunities in education, and so forth. Then I looked at the status quo to see if these matters had been addressed. The answer was a clear no. Then I looked at the life styles of the leaders who had replaced the white leaders of the colonial era. My research and the whole story validated the Collier thesis.

However, it happen that one of the lecturers was the former mayor of Harare, who had been appointed by Mugabe. He had strong political views. And he fought hard to fail my dissertation. He succeeded. So I had to redo it. That delayed my studies by a year, to 2006. But there is an interesting sequel. When I resubmitted the rewritten thesis, the secretary of the faculty made a mistake and printed out the old, not the new version of my text. And she presented that one to the examining board. When I went in for my live examination, I was surprised to see that they were reading the old copy. But they passed it. It made it clear that the earlier failure had nothing to do with my work but was an effort to frustrate me. That realization was an important turning point in my life.

The next turning point was in 2006 also. I applied to study in Austria and succeeded. One of my professors was from Eritrea and had studied at a center there. He had encouraged me to apply. It was my first time in Europe, and first time outside of Africa. It gave me an entirely new look at life in general. I was impressed by the way society was organized. Also I saw how the government was close to its people. I saw a health sector that worked and was responsive, as well as an agriculture sector where farmers prospered. There were many other areas where I found myself comparing what I saw with everything that I had I left at home. I wrote a short story at that time. The theme was that European animals were better cared for than African citizens. In Europe if someone killed an animal without reason he could be arrested. In Africa, in Zimbabwe, people killed political opponents deliberately but went quite free.

So I finished my second master's degree in peace and governance studies in 2007. And I went home.

How did you become involved with the diamond mining situation? 

When I heard that diamonds had been discovered in Zimbabwe (in 2006) at first I was not the least bit interested in the story. I did not have any problem with people digging, and I saw direct benefits that could come from mining. Then on the tenth of November, 2008, the government deployed the army directly into the diamond fields, without warning.

At that time, almost all the diamond mining in Marange was artisanal. De Beers had been involved for some time, probably at least 10 years, but secretly and unofficially. The people in the area did not know what a diamond looked like, nor what to dig for but they were guided to dig for diamonds, which De Beers was buying and shipping. They came every two weeks from South Africa. There is no way that the company could have operated at this level for this length of time without the government being aware of what was happening, but the official story is that the government had no knowledge of the mining or marketing. But then the government people involved started fighting among themselves, over the arrangements with De Beers. And, in 2006, De Beers left, at least officially.

In November 2008, the army moved in, generally brutalizing and exploiting the people, and then there was a horrific massacre. There was a lot of fear in the region from the time the army appeared. The army came to my city, Mutare, and began abducting people. There was one particular incident I remember. People were boarding a public bus to Harare. When the bus was fully loaded, the army commandeered it and ordered the driver to go to the diamond fields. People were puzzled and asked where they were going. “You will see,” they were told. And they came to Marange. There the people were tortured and forced to fill the pits. They spent two to three days working there, forced to sing songs as they did so.

This incident provoked me. We were at the time doing civic education, talking about the subject of peace from a human rights perspective. We had held workshops with traditional leaders, but were not directly involved in specific issues. The incidents in Marange changed the picture.

Who was supporting this work?

The U.S. Embassy and the National Endowment for Democracy, mainly. We were working primarily in rural areas as target areas. That was because there were few workshops in rural areas; most such work was concentrated in urban areas. Marange, where the outbreak took place, was one of our target areas, so we started to investigate.

The people there were largely alienated from civil society. No one wanted to work with us as we began. We did get technical support from a few groups, notably Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights were the most prominent. Our approach was to do a lot of field visits. We visited hospitals and mortuaries, and took pictures, for example of people in hospital wards and grieving families.

As a result of our dogged research, we became the leading organization speaking authoritatively about what was happening in the diamond fields. Before long, my mailbox was jammed with requests to be included on our mailing lists: embassies, human rights groups, and so on. We found ourselves very busy, and our focus narrowed as we withdrew from other areas.

What was your organization at the time? Was it officially registered? 

It was the Centre for Research and Development. And yes, it was registered as a trust. Registration is not a problem in Zimbabwe.

We continued to report actively between January and June, 2009, giving weekly updates. Diplomats were passing them on to their governments, and thus their governments coordinated among themselves as they prepared a fact-finding mission to Zimbabwe, under the Kimberly Process.

So the Kimberly mission arrived in Zimbabwe. They had a strong recommendation to come to our office and so they did. We brought 15 witnesses. There were 11 women who had been raped in the diamond fields, and four men who had been tortured and who saw friends killed. The encounter was emotional and the witnesses broke down as they spoke of their experiences.

The mission that visited our office immediately wrote a letter. This was unprecedented. Such missions normally return to their countries, then write a draft report that they circulate for comments and some time later it is submitted. The process is essentially about fact-finding. But in this case on the very day they arrived back in Harare they wrote a strong letter to the Minister of Mines. They made clear that what he was doing was against the letter and the spirit of the Kimberly process. The minister was quick to point the finger at me. He said that I was responsible for lying to the delegation, that I was a liar, that the witnesses were not credible. He denied that the government had killed anyone, indeed that there had been any killing.

That December the members of the Kimberly Process met for the first time in Zimbabwe. I was invited to speak. Not only that, I was to speak during the session where the chair made his remarks. I was invited to the podium and did not mince my words. I told the minister that I was disappointed that he was lying when he said no one was killed, because he knew full well that many people had been gunned down. “You know the truth and I know the truth,” I said. And I said I was there to validate the report of the delegation. Immediately the Zimbabwean ambassador to Namibia began screaming and swearing at me, in public, calling me names. I returned the fire and told her to go to hell and never to return to earth again. This was a very critical meeting, with many diplomats there. I was offered asylum in several countries. But I did not feel it was a good idea to leave Zimbabwe. If I sought asylum I would be letting people down. I would give the government the opportunity to twist the facts even more. So I chose to stay, so that I could defend the integrity of the information I was sending out.

The result was that Zimbabwe was banned from exporting diamonds. This was a validation for me but it came at a cost. I became a marked man. The government began spreading the word on the television news, radio, and the newspapers about me and a significant part of the population was convinced that many of the problems that the country was experiencing (because of the ban on diamond exports) were due to me. What I had done was spreading lies and the result was that Zimbabwe could not sell its supposed stockpiles of diamonds. It became increasingly difficult for me to work.

At the same Kimberly Process plenary, a South African was appointed to monitor what was happening in Zimbabwe for a period of one year. As part of his monitoring work he was supposed to meet representatives of the government, the private sector, civil society. Little did I know that this man was compromised. During his first visit at the end of may 2010 at first he refused to meet with me. Then some of the Kimberly Process participants threatened to discredit his report if did not include credible civil society voices and so ahead of his second visit to Zimbabwe he sent me an email suggesting a meeting and I agreed, but when we met I was surprised that there were various strange people around him. I was also surprised that a man on such an important visit would suggest that we meet in a hotel lobby. But I was so eager to give him the information that I spoke to him. He immediately turned over all that information to the government, and the next day state secret agents, armed to the teeth, descended on Mutare, where I lived. A colleague had accompanied them to my home, someone who was secretly working with the government. I escaped by a window and spent a week in hiding but then handed myself over to police.

That was the climax of our campaign. The arrest, regrettable as it was, served a larger purpose, by drawing global attention to Marange. There were hundreds of stories written about the incident. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty both took note. After five weeks in jail I was released from custody.

After that the government started attacking the organization, through the guy who had brought the agents to my house. The work became very difficult, with constant internal threats. In the end I left the organization I had founded and started a new one, the Centre for Natural Resource Governance, and I am with it to this day.

How did you connect with Initiatives of Change (IOC)?

Just before I went into prison in 2010, a friend, a Canadian, who had introduced me to Initiatives of Change (IOC) had arranged for me to come to Caux to an IOC meeting on human security. Obviously I could not go due to imprisonment. But I kept up my communications with them and in 2011 managed to attend my first meeting in Caux. It helped me a lot in strengthening my resolve to fight for justice. I made and have maintained strong links with Caux and IOC, networking with lots of citizens of conscience. It is a place where I come annually to recharge my batteries; then I go back renewed.

What is your next chapter?

I am working more and more for economic justice. I see the conflict in Zimbabwe as having to do with resources more than anything else. Political power offers the means to acquire and retain wealth. At first, my focus was just on human rights but now I have expanded my focus beyond diamonds to all minerals. I also am moving my focus down to communities, helping to organize them so they have a voice. We are working to engage extractive industries so there are lines of communication between them and host communities.

Which companies are involved?

Often it is hard to tell, as there is a large influx of companies. Many of them are Chinese, and many come clandestinely. There is a need to do an audit of who is doing what in the mining sector. Other companies are Anjin, Sino-Zimbabwe, and the South African company Zimplats. Some of them are reachable as we try to engage with communities, but many are not.

The Chinese companies are the most difficult to reach. They are simply not interested in dialogue with civil society, and do not agree to meetings. It is a politics of patronage. They come at the invitation of a politician and they are answerable to that politician, not even to the government.

How does your religion influence your work?

I have rarely spoken about how strongly faith motivates me but it is indeed a central focus in my life. I grew up as a Catholic, then became a charismatic. As I see it, the concept of justice is the main guiding theme in my life and I get it from the Bible. The way I read the Bible, I think Jesus was very concerned with the poor. He gave them bread when they were hungry and that is why he spent so much time with them.

How did you shift from Catholicism to a Charismatic church? What do you see as the appeal?

I shifted when I was doing my O levels, in form four. I met some people who were preaching and conveying a new understanding of God. My family was mainly Catholic but there were and are also some charismatics. Lots of people are shifting in Zimbabwe, especially the young. The teaching in the charismatic churches is a bit different, with more focus on personal salvation. Young people feel they need that. Some things are very basic: dress codes are an example. The Catholics and Methodists tend to be more elderly, while the charismatics are more stylish and elegant in their dress. They don’t wear uniforms. Then there is the issue of personal growth and development. I know that there is lots of controversy around the prosperity gospel, but it has great appeal to young people who still have dreams. Young women and men want to achieve something and the charismatic movement is home to that kind of thinking. And some women are being ordained; it appeals to both men and women.

If anything, I think the religious roles in Zimbabwe and southern Africa will increase. There is also an important new movement that may overtake the charismatics: a prophetic tradition, people like T.B. Joshua, a Nigerian guy who is very popular in Zimbabwe. [leader and founder of the ministry organization The Synagogue, Church of All Nations SCOAN]. Lots of young people are very attracted and it is mushrooming. Some are rather like fortune tellers, telling you about yourself and your future. Young people are fascinated by that.

What roles do you see churches playing in the struggle for economic justice in Zimbabwe today?

The church in Zimbabwe can do more to speak against injustice. For now there is the lone voice of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference, that has consistently written pastoral letters, asking the government to renew its commitment to fighting injustice. We need more religious leaders who use their moral authority to fight economic injustice.

Why do the churches not do more?

They have faced a lot of persecution. The government has systematically silenced religious leaders who have spoken out against government policies. One powerful tool is character assassination and use of hate language in the media. A lot of religious leaders have stayed away from politics and governance issues as a result. We have also noted that some religious leaders have been coopted. The combination of hate language and character assassination ends up with even courageous leaders giving up and being coopted. They burrow into each person’s live and expose their secrets. And Zimbabweans tend to be very gullible and believe whatever ill they hear about someone. They know that everyone has human weaknesses, and they forget their own.

What are the strongest denominations in Zimbabwe today?

The Catholic Church, at one time was by far the strongest. Then we have many Protestant denominations: Methodist, Anglican, Church of Christ, Lutheran, etc. Then there are the Pentecostal, charismatic churches, that are growing in prominence. Among them the leading Pentecostal Church is ZAOGA (The Zimabwe Assemblies of God Africa). The Apostolic Faith Mission Zimbabwe (AFM) is said to have over two million members (as does ZAOGA). The sizes are not very clear but there is a ZAOGA and AFM church now in nearly every neighborhood.

The Catholic Church has lots of mission schools hospitals and clinics. So do the Methodists. The Catholics are especially important in the area of relief.

Do the churches works together?

A fairly new development (since 2008) is that the government is infiltrating the churches quite systematically. Spies are sent to train as pastors. The churches and especially interfaith cooperation is weakened by this trend. Some try to address national issues, but they find that members of their own denominations are selling out in every discussion. Open contestation of ideas and methodologies is harder and harder.

The churches need external support to do more for social justice. The will is there but the political situation weighs heavily on them, and most pastors have retreated to their parishes, concentrating on pastoral work.

How do you relate to Transparency Zimbabwe and Transparency International?

They are doing a lot of things. But there is simply no political will on the part of government to attend to issues. There is noise made but not enough to change the picture overall.

How are you able to function at all in this difficult environment?

I have something that seems to be quite lacking in our politicians: a strong will to do things right. No matter how bad the situation is, someone can still do something in a small way. My efforts are appreciated by people in Zimbabwe, and they encourage me. I don’t do it for the government. An old man come to me, expressing appreciation for what I do; that is the support that inspires me. And I have a supportive family that totally supports the work that I do. That gives me strength. Even when the government puts out propaganda, people at home comfort me. I also get support from outside Zimbabwe. I have connections from all around the world. All that definitely helps.

Do you feel that you can say what you want to say?

Very much so, yes. I am careful but also frank. They have accepted that I am outspoken. I am writing a short article right now, where I say that the government is stuck, so Zimbabweans must not expect anything from the government. People must dream of and execute their own activities, because the government is hopeless. And I can and will publish that in Zimbabwe.

The nemesis of all dictators these days is the Internet. When something appears on an Internet site in a day or two it is all over. The government cannot control it. Also, Mugabe is different from other dictators in the way he gives people a certain degree of freedom. He does set a limit beyond which you will not go, but criticisms are allowed as long as they do not threaten his hold on power. He ignores much of what is said, but if you shake the corridors of power, then he will come out of the blocks.

What do you hope to achieve through your work on mining?

Mining is a good entry point because there are so many vital issues involved. It is feasible to work despite the obstacles (we are David versus a large Goliath). We do not have the prospect of more than limited results but it is still worthwhile. Where I see the most promise is in grassroots movements, where people are mobilized and demonstrate. There comes a point where the government has no choice but to respond. As long as there is some organization at the community level, we can work. There are problems of resources, because you need money to be a community organizer.

The central issue is that the mining industry is not benefitting people at all. The political leaders get a chunk of the money, the companies the rest.

But that is an understatement. The mining industry is actually creating poverty, leaving people in the communities and the population of Zimbabwe worse off. The mining companies are taking land from the people and refusing to compensate them. It is polluting the rivers, and poisoning the water. It is killing animals and humans, and refusing even to recognize the damage. It causes more misery. The mining companies say they pay taxes to the government so the government can do their duty and provide services. But that is their story. The industry is profoundly corrupt. It is hard to trust anything that they publish.

To be clear, mining itself is not bad. It is the manner in which it is being done that is the problem. I really think the mining companies are not the problem; the problem is the government.

So, in many ways it would be best to leave the minerals in the ground. But that is not going to happen. So we need more advocacy and more voice to the people. We have to keep trying.

The international reports suggest that HIV AIDS is declining in Zimbabwe. How can that be?

I don’t trust the numbers. People are so disillusioned with politics that they will not participate honestly in any inquiry.

What about the situation of education, once the pride of Zimbabwe?

Education in Zimbabwe is in an intensive care unit. It is not well funded, and there is a large brain drain, as professors leave. The universities are run with a huge chunk of tutors instead of lecturers, mostly master's students. Experienced staff have left the country and the quality of scholarship has gone down. Students don’t have time to really study because they have to work to survive. They engage in unorthodox ways of studying. So what you see is a mass production of graduates with university recruitment as a way of raising funds. The ratio of lecturers to students is unhealthy and the quality of instruction has declined. At the primary and secondary levels, the motivation of teachers is very low. They have to do something else to supplement their salaries. Some travel to South Africa to buy goods to resell, and spend at best three days in class or fake illness, leaving students without instructors and above all committed instructors.

But people still believe in education and go to great lengths to get an education at a high standard. And Zimbabwean graduates are still sought after across the region.

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