The real horror of Jestina Mukoko’s harrowing and detailed recollection of her time as a victim of abduction, torture and denial of all basic human rights comes with the realisation that this book is not about a banana republic in 1950s South America or a war-torn 1960s Southeast Asian country caught up in Cold War proxy struggles.
It hits you hard in the stomach, just as if you had been punched by a thug yourself; this realisation that it’s set right here in Zimbabwe, right now in contemporary times. Apart from reeling at the appalling treatment she received, what also strikes hard is the knowledge that the people who carried out the abduction and torture live among us still, shadowy in their misdeeds and protected by a system that is rotten to the core. She ends her story with a call to know the truth about the entire episode … and, indeed, about the miscellany of other similar crimes committed through what could well be described as Zimbabwe’s own ongoing ‘reign of terror.’
Her story is known to most of us: abduction by unknown people, accusations of crimes against ‘the state’ and a ragged series of experiences in prisons and before the courts, ending with release after months of heartache, despair and horror. One wishes hers was the only such story to tell, but, as she points out, hers is only one of many, not all of them historic and some very much current; think only of Itai Dzamara.
I like to think the writing of the story has been a cathartic experience for her, releasing from her mind, body and soul some – obviously not all – of the anguish, misery and pain, both physical and mental. I also like to think that its telling could result in a turning away from this kind of behaviour in a 21st century country, though here I must admit this thinking is, at best, naïve.
What a mass of literature has come out of Zimbabwe in the past 20 years of economic, social and political turmoil; books that reveal a vast array of crimes and misdeeds. Jestina’s book stands among them as a further testimony to what can only be described as evil action. She gives a background to her own life story, positioning herself as being well within the establishment at one point, as a staffer in the state-owned Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, and then moving on to human rights activity, much like a reformed drinker or cigarette smoker becomes a vocal and vociferous campaigner for abstention. In this respect, she is like so many other of today’s opposition figures: people once on the inside and now outside.
She was abducted in her night clothes early one morning and taken to unknown locations to be interrogated and accused of being subversive and treasonous. Spending days and weeks hidden away, with family and friends not knowing if she were dead or alive, she is eventually brought into ‘the system’ – although the system she was brought into was itself fraught with a great many abuses of human rights and exposure to tragic circumstances.
All this took place at a time of great confusion, chaos and misery, just after the 2008 elections and at the time of negotiations for and then installation of a coalition government in 2009. At the end of a long period of shock, horror and agonising isolation and confinement, she is granted her freedom, but unsatisfyingly her tormentors remain unpunished. She later travels extensively to talk about her experience and to receive awards and recognition for having stood her ground, relieved that she had survived the experience.
Can we enjoy this book? What can we learn from it? What should we do in reaction to reading it?
No – it’s not for enjoyment and it has, at the time of this review, no happy ending in reality. We learn from it that when things are wrong and rotten they must be addressed and changed. In reaction, we should re-dedicate ourselves to the fight for justice and freedom for all, taking heart from this woman’s refusal to bow down to unimaginable pressure to desert her principles.
Within the book there are some errors of fact (for example, ZANU PF has been called that since the 1980 elections, and not just since the unity accord of 1987) and it could have done with a better editing job than it has been given. However, it is a fine read and a book that should be read by anyone who cares about our country. I like to think that one day the culprits behind Jestina’s misery will be brought to justice and that they will not be alone, but will be judged along with those who directed them and allowed them to do what they did. When that time comes, as it most certainly will, I hope Jestina can produce a second instalment that provides further perspective. Perhaps she can even position her ideas about how to stop this kind of horrific madness, which might seem natural were it to have occurred a couple of thousand years ago but is so out of step with the 21st century that it brings shame on all of us Zimbabweans.
The Abduction and Trial Of Jestina Mukoko: The Fight for Human Rights in Zimbabwe is published by KMM Review Publishing, South Africa, 2016.