Zimbabwe: 15 held during novel five-minute protests

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

HARARE, 22 November (IRIN) - Fifteen students were arrested as a group of Zimbabwean nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) held the first of a planned series of five-minute lunchtime protests across Zimbabwe on Wednesday.

"The protest is against the ever-increasing cost of living, collapsing health sector, the demise of education, food shortages, falling life expectancy, suffocation of democratic space and violation of women's rights by the Zimbabwean government," said the organiser, Save Zimbabwe Convention, an alliance of NGOs and churches.

Hooting car horns, shouting, whistling, clapping hands and beating any object to make a noise, members of political organisations, trade unionists, women's rights activists, students and ordinary citizens brought the capital, Harare, and the second city, Bulawayo, to a temporary halt during the lunch break.

In Bulawayo, police arrested 15 university students as they marched peacefully around the institution's campus beating drums and pots, and singing revolutionary songs.

A small crowd of women, dressed in black and beating pots, also marched in Bulawayo's city centre but no one was arrested. As the clock struck 13:20, the scheduled beginning of the march, cacophony engulfed the city, with motorists hooting and some members of the public joining the protest by whistling.

Others, like clergyman Enoch Vilakazi of the Bulawayo Roman catholic diocese, observed the five-minute protest in prayer. "A significant group congregated at out church and we prayed for the nation. We feel Zimbabwe needs divine intervention for it to stand back on its feet and reclaim its normalcy."

In Harare, the organisers decided to march to the market in a deliberate attempt to mislead the police into believing that they would congregate outside parliament. The plan to play hide-and-seek with law enforcement authorities appeared to have worked because heavily armed police only arrived more than 15 minutes after the activists had melted into the crowd.

"The government has given clear signals that it will not tolerate any peaceful demonstrations and that is why we have had to resort to guerrilla tactics," said a student as he distributed pamphlets to Harare residents about the growing hardships.

A protest by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions in September against poor salaries, high taxation and a slow rollout of anti-AIDS drugs was stumped by security forces, with a dozen unionists allegedly assaulted, arrested and tortured. President Robert Mugabe defended the police action.

"Combined, we can make a difference. This is why we are saying all and sundry should come together and take the ZANU-PF [ruling party] regime by its horns. We should make it explicitly clear to the Harare administration that we are not happy with what is happening in the country, and that we need a normalisation of everything, ranging from our ailing economy to the political field," commented Max Mkandla, spokesman for the Zimbabwe Liberators Platform, another NGO network involved in organising the demonstrations.

"Our noise is a symbol of our distress at the way Zimbabwe has been governed, and a cry of hope for transformation," said Jonah Gokovah, spokesman for the Convention. He added that although the initial plan was to hold lunchtime protests every Wednesday, they were now considering a daily demonstration.

Zimbabwe's economy has gone into freefall since Mugabe launched fast-track land reforms in 2000. Unemployment levels have risen above 70 percent, with chronic shortages of foreign currency, fuel and other basic commodities. The government blames sanctions imposed by the West for its economic problems.