STARVING FOR A CAUSE: Activist Kumi Naidoo is on a hunger strike to highlight the humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe.
Picture: DANIEL BORN from The Sunday Times.
On the 21st of December I got a text saying “Security situation now much worse and very tense. Leaving BYO for Gweru and Harare tomorrow. Poverty situation more desperate than we thought.” It took me a moment to realize it was from my friend Kumi Naidoo, a South African activist and head of Civicus
—a non-governmental organisation that champions human rights .
Kumi had gone into Zimbabwe with an undercover team to film Time 2 Act, “a series of personal appeals from the Zimbabwean people for the government of South Africa and the SADC to alleviate their suffering.” Just about 10 days before that Kumi had published a piece in the Huffington Post called Time for global civil disobedience?: Five things to Advance the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In it he suggested that:
Petitioning, pleading, talking to our leaders, holding mass awareness events such as music concerts and so on are clearly not having the kind of impact that the current situation of tens of millions of men, women and children in rich and poor countries today urgently calls for. Assertive but disciplined peaceful passive resistance and civil disobedience, backed by a deep sense of moral outrage by the broadest possible coalition of civil society across the world is probably what it will take to ensure that these changes stand a chance to be realised.
On returning to Johannesburg Kumi and other like-minded individuals spearheaded the Save Zimbabwe Now
campaign. On Jan 21st he embarked on a 21-day hunger strike
saying I won’t eat while Zimbabwe starves
I am fasting in solidarity with the people of Zimbabwe, who are being forced to fast involuntarily.
In Zimbabwe, we saw a people and a country ravaged by want, destitution, fear and terror. We do not wish to battle this cruel and apathetic regime with guns or weapons, but we will oppose them with our bodies and our consciences through fasting. We want the Zimbabwean people to know that we united our resolve to oppose the brutality they suffer with every bit of our beings.
On Monday, January 26th, I arranged for Kumi to be interviewed on Nationwide Radio’s This Morning programme by Emily Crooks. It was good to hear his voice on the 6th day of his fast sounding as strong as ever. He joked about looking forward to coming to Jamaica to eat Ackee and saltfish when the strike is over and the situation in Zimbabwe resolved. For Kumi the support from Jamaica was like a shot in the arm; for the Save Zimbabwe Now
movement every little nod from the outside helps.
On January 26 the Southern African Development Community (SADC) held an Extraordinary Session to discuss the deteriorating situation in Zimbabwe. Naidoo, along with 500 concerned citizens hoped to present a memorandum calling on the SADC to step up political pressure, acknowledge the humanitarian crisis, stop abductions and torture, and to release detained activists in Zimbabwe. Unfortunately they were met with a stone wall.
Buoyed by the hopes of the people on the Union Building steps, seven of us – including my colleague and friend, Nomboniso Gasa- tried to peacefully and respectfully present a Memorandum to the Extraordinary Session called by SADC, to try to address the situation in Zimbabwe. The Memorandum is a document that has been jointly written by a broad range of civil society in Southern Africa, united in its call for an end to the needless suffering of the Zimbabwean people.
The manicured gardens of the Presidential guesthouse could not have been more starkly removed from the reality of the hardships that most face daily north of the border — or the reality of most within our own borders, for that matter. We waited patiently to present our Memorandum, but no SADC representative was forthcoming. We were instead asked to remove ourselves from the grounds and when we suggested an alternative arrangement — to be accompanied by police to present our memorandum, we were forcefully denied.
. . . As I was being bundled into the back of the police van after six days without food, my most overwhelming emotion was one of profound disappointment. Disappointment with SADC – its lofty ideals of civil society empowerment are clearly only paper promises. Disappointment with the South African government – a nation built on the foundations of a grassroots movement for freedom and justice. And ultimately, disappointment with the inertia surrounding the political process to ease the crisis in Zimbabwe, which represents an implicit acquiescence to the current impasse.
It is tragic that the SADC leaders were unwilling to receive an appeal from a broad cross-section of Southern African civil society which called for the end of human rights violations humanitarian intervention, and justice for the people of Zimbabwe. By not receiving this simple letter, they are undermining their own stated commitments on the role of civil society in building a strong Southern Africa.
. . .My fast will continue for more than another fortnight, and my hunger has been replaced with a thirst for change and justice. SADC leaders may have turned us away, but they cannot ignore the hopes and demands of their citizens.
Do people in Jamaica and the Caribbean care enough about events in Zimbabwe to lend their help to this call for moral action? How can we help? What can we do to contribute? As Kumi noted:
The fast will not end after 21 days. Nomboniso Gasa, the chairperson of the South African Commission on Gender Equality will take up the fast from February 11th. She too will go for 21 days with only water, and on March 4th, another individual will take the baton in our relay fast.
But this campaign is not just about a few relatively well-known personalities fasting for lengthy periods of time. It is about calling every individual to civic action. We are asking people to go to www.savezimbabwenow.com, and to show their solidarity. Other actions will follow – and every individual will be counted.
Can a group from here undertake to fast one day a week in solidarity with this South African initiative? I’m willing to do it but I need company. Any volunteers?