Synopsis: Journalist Violet Gonda spoke to pro-democracy campaigner Linda Masarira shortly after she was release on bail this week from Chikurubi Maximum male prison. The vocal activists talks about her arrests, the critical situation for inmates who are ‘forced to water the prison garden barefooted using raw sewerage’, and reveals she is being victimised for being one of the brains behind the anti-government pressure group – Tajamuka.
Violet: My guest on the Hot Seat programme is Linda Masarira, the youth and women’s activist who has spent more than 80 days in jail over her participation in the #ZimShutdown demonstration organised by the pressure group Tajamuka. She also faces separate charge of insulting or undermining the authority of President Robert Mugabe. The mother of 5 was held in solitary confinement in the male section of Zimbabwe’s notorious Chikurubi Maximum Prison.
I spoke to Linda shortly after her release this week. Welcome on the programme Linda.
Linda: Thank you very much how are you doing?
Violet: I’m good. How does it feel to be a free person?
Linda: It feels good, it feels good though I’m not a free person at all because they are still trailing me and they still want me and I don’t know what else they want to do to me
Violet: What do you mean by that, what has happened since your release a few days ago?
Linda: What has really happened is I was being followed for a while and I’m now staying in a safe house and some of my colleagues who were arrested on the day when they arrested 16 people, I saw 2 of them yesterday in hospital. They were abducted from home, beaten up badly and they were injected with some substance. So it means this regime has actually taken their level of brutality to another level. It’s like they want to scare off all activists and all. So I don’t feel safe, because I don’t know what they will do to me yet but they haven’t gotten to me yet but they have gotten to my colleagues. Which means they are still planning on abusing torturing and maiming activists.
Violet: You say you are in a safe house right now since you were released a couple of days ago?
Violet: Can you tell us what happened the day you were arrested in June?
Linda: On the day that I was arrested I was severely assaulted by police officers. They were saying you want to remove Mugabe from power, who do you think you are, you don’t have that right, and all. They hurled all sorts of insults and they actually carried me like a sack and threw me into their pick up and left me at Marimba Police Station. Later on I was taken; I wasn’t even informed of my charge. They tried to break me, they tried to use all forms of emotional abuse and all and they took me to Harare Central Police Station where I was told 30 hours later that I had been arrested for placing stones in the road and burning tyres and they said the charge was obstruction of vehicles and pedestrians. I was taken to court with 11 other guys who I had been arrested with and they were all given bail except me. And the prosecutor said Linda Masarira is a state security threat and she cannot be allowed to roam the streets of Harare. That is how I got arrested
Violet: And when you were arrested you were actually participating in a demonstration, a peaceful demonstration in Harare?
Linda: on that day there was a Shutdown and no one was supposed to do anything. People were just supposed to stay in their houses. I was actually on my way to the US Independence celebrations and I was picked up in the streets.
Violet: And so what did you make of those charges, they are accusing you of defeating or obstructing the course of justice. What do you make of those charges?
Linda: What I can say is that this regime and maybe ZANU PF agents and state security and all have run out of ideas. They don’t want activists to come out in the open and to demonstrate and to show their displeasure whenever they are doing things. So the best plan for them is to incarcerate these activists, harass activists, instil fear in them as they have always done over the years.
Violet: You say you were actually arrested when you were on your way to an event at the US Embassy. Were you in a car, were you at the Embassy, at what point did the police come and arrest you? What had happened during that time?
Linda: OK so what exactly happened was that I was arrested in June when there was an Occupy Africa Unity Square for 16 days and nights. I was arrested when I was on leave and I went into a safe house as well. Exactly 2 days when I left the safe house, they followed me. They tried to abduct me at the Jameson Hotel but I saw the plan and went to a friend’s house in Mufakose. So early in the morning on the 6th, they threw tear gas at the house that morning and so I knew that they’d followed me. So later on when we thought that the police officers had gone and all that, we decided to go and look for transport so that I could go into town. That’s when 3 police vehicles came along the way that I was walking with a colleague and then one of the crowd, whom we still think was a state security agent, stopped and pointed at me and the next thing the 3 police cars turned back. That’s when they jumped out of their car and started beating me up and hurling all sorts of insults.
Violet: And previously, before this attack, you were also arrested, I believe this was in Mutare, and the charge was that you insulted or undermined the authority of the President?
Linda: That issue happened last year in May. I was a trade unionist at NRZ where I was employed and I was addressing people because we had gone for 10 months without salaries. And, we were saying we have to fight for our salaries, we are not slaves NRZ is a parastatal, wholly government owned. So after that address I was given to NRZ workers, one of our pro ZANU workers came to me and said ‘how can you talk like that’ etc etc and I said no, indeed they have failed, they have failed and the next thing I was arrested, they told me I was undermining the authority of the President and all that. I was in and out of prison for about 6 months, every time they would just decided that they want me they would just arrest me with that very same charge, and they used that particular case to deny me bail. By the time that I was supposed to go to court, I was in prison in Chikurubi.
Violet: So just tell us about that? Before you were transferred to Chikurubi Maximum prison you were in remand prison. So what happened after that?
Linda: In Chikurubi (Female Prison) it was bad, honestly it was bad. They tried to take away my privacy. They tried to take away my self esteem. They tried to do all sorts of things. But I also thought it was an opportunity to fight for prisoners’ rights while I was in Chikurubi (Female Prison). That is why I ended up being taken to Chikurubi Maximum Prison because they were citing that I was influencing prisoners to demonstrate.
Violet: Most of the people that you were arrested with were actually released. Why do you think you remained in jail?
Linda: I remained in jail because I am one of the brains behind the idea Tajamuka and they feel threatened by the actions that we have been doing in Zimbabwe and all and they decided that maybe if I am in incarceration, people will stop demonstrating.
Violet: And so is this why they removed you from remand prison and transferred you to Chikurubi Maximum Prison, where hard-core criminals are kept?
Linda: The reason they moved me to the Maximum Prison is because we protested against the living conditions and the food because at Chikurubi Maximum Prison they just boil vegetables with no cooking oil, with no salt, and that is the food you are supposed to eat. I’m on a special diet because I’m hypertensive and eat light; I’m on a light diet. So I used to get my food coming in and on 9th September I had gone to court, and when I came back they threw my food away and they threw food for the other prisoners, who were in the cell that I was sleeping in. So when I got there I said to my fellow prisoners that ‘enough is enough – they cannot keep on doing this to us, we have to tell them that they cannot throw our food away because prisons are failing to feed us. So when the Officer in Charge came, she had agreed that we would talk about this issue on Saturday morning. But, on Saturday morning she came and started adding insults and then we said ‘OK, no problem, we are not going to come out of this cell, we are going to stay here until you give us the food you threw away’. That’s when they said I was influencing prisoners to demonstrate and they decided to move me from the female prison to the Maximum Security Prison where I was in solitary confinement.
The incident, when they moved me to Maximum Security prison, I just thought that maybe they were under instruction and they wanted to frustrate me.
Violet: Right, and so they moved you from the female section of Chikurubi Prison and they sent you to the male section. You said you were in solitary confinement but were you, at any point, exposed to the male prisoners in this section?
Linda: The female prison is actually a different prison at another location and the Maximum prison is a male prison. But I was put upstairs and I wasn’t allowed to move at all, I was always in solitary confinement and sometimes they even stopped visitors, barred visitors from visiting me at all. So the only time I got to see the male prisoners was when I went to hospital because sometimes I wasn’t eating because I was afraid they were trying to poison me… because there was a rumour that they wanted to poison me and that was basically what was happening at Chikurubi Maximum Prison. But it is a male prison at a different location. I was the only female prisoner there.
Violet: Can you describe the size of your cell when you were in solitary confinement and also what conditions did you experience there, did you have toilet facilities in this cell? What was it like?
Linda: It was small cell. It had no privacy, there was just a toilet and a small bed there and I spent most of the time locked up. They used to open up for me maybe 3 to 4 hours for me to exercise my legs and all. So I spent most of the time locked up and I used to read because there was nothing else I could do.
Violet: Did you have water in the cell?
Linda: No, there was no water, there was no water. They used to give me a bucket of water a day and they said I had to utilise that water.
Violet: So you used that to wash, to drink and also to use for the toilet?
Linda: Yes, that was all that they gave me and then there was an entire week where there was no food and no water to drink because they were like barring my visitors from bringing food and I couldn’t eat the food that they were preparing because I was afraid that they would do something to me. They only started acting when they were afraid because my blood pressure had gone down, it actually went down as low as 90 over 60 and that’s when they started acting and bringing a doctor to see me and then from there on that’s when they started allowing visitors to see me and bring me the food from outside
Violet: I know you said that you were allowed to go out for a couple of hours just to have access to light, but for how long were you in solitary confinement?
Linda: For 18 days I was in solitary confinement. Until the day I got released from prison I was in solitary confinement
Violet: So how did you feel while you were this situation? How did you feel in solitary confinement, what was going through your mind?
Linda: I spent my time re-strategising, setting up new narratives for the struggle and it was actually a time for self reflection and I spent most of my time reading and writing my thoughts down. I actually came out of prison stronger and more sharper. They have sharpened me. And, I have more wisdom to fight for freedom to fight for economic and social justice and the restoration of the rule of law in Zimbabwe.
Violet: You know, it’s amazing that you came out stronger given your experiences there and also given the stories we’ve heard over the few weeks in terms of the way political detainees are treated while in police custody. What about you? When you were in jail, how were you treated by the prison guards, and indeed even the time when you were in remand, how were you treated by the police?
Linda: Honestly, I really have to be honest about this, the prison guards were afraid of me. I am one of those people who doesn’t tolerate nonsense and I used to speak my mind out to the extent that they ended up not speaking to me and they would just leave me do what I was doing. When I got into prison, remand prisoners were being forced to go to the garden and water the garden and they were actually using raw sewerage going there with no shoes and all. I went to the Officer- in-Charge and made noise about it and I told him that there was no way that remand prisoners were going to the garden to work because it is unconstitutional, only those who are serving are supposed to go and work. And I also managed to tell them that there was nothing correctional in their operation. And I still intend to apply for a commission of enquiry on the operations of prisons in Zimbabwe. So, they really tried to break me but my strength was I used to use reverser-psychology on them. At one time I had to tell them the truth that I am not working as one who is working and not being paid, I am actually fighting for you. Why would you want to harass me yet I am trying to make your life better, you know? The kind of attitude that I had, I had a positive attitude because when I decided to go into full time activism I knew that some of these things are going to come my way, like getting arrested or there was a probability of being abducted and all, so my brain has been conditioned that these are some of the thing I am going to say. So the way I take me time in prison is that it’s just an occupational hazard. It is quite normal in Africa to be arrested fighting for your rights, and if you see yourself being arrested fighting for your rights it means that you are doing something positive, and they are feeling the impact!
Violet: You mentioned earlier on that you were given a couple of hours to go outside just so you can have access to light. Did you at that point have a chance to observe the situation around you regarding the other inmates? What can you say about the plight of inmates given the little time that you were allowed outside your prison cell?
Linda: Actually, I didn’t go far. There was a court yard out there were there were high walls and everything. I really didn’t get to see what was really happening at Chikurubi Maximum Prison. But the only time I used to go to this place called the Centre Court when I went to get my BP checked, I realised that all male prisoners are not even allowed outside. They stay indoors; they don’t have access to sunlight. They have got their cells and their cell space for them to stretch their legs so you would hardly see any prisoners because it’s like maximum security and most of the people who go to the maximum security are murderers, rapists etc. etc., so they like live in high security.
Violet: And you also mention that you were afraid to eat the little food that you were given at that time because you were afraid you might get poisoned. But it’s reported that the Red Cross has been providing food for the inmates at Chikurubi Maximum Prison. Is this what they were trying to give you, the food that you were refusing?
Linda: There was a difference from the food that was at Chikurubi Maximum Prison and the food that was at Chikurubi Female Prison. I actually put that to the fact that at the Female Prison, the female prison guards used to loot everything that was donated for the prisoners, to the extent that people were eating food that is not healthy at all, like those vegetables. Though at the Maximum prison I knew that they had a variety of a diet, one day it was samp, the other day, vegetables, another day beans and cooking oil with them so I think that is the Food from Red Cross. I never ate any food from the prison for the 82 days that I was in prison because I didn’t know what their ideas were and what they could do to me.
Violet: So did you receive any visitors? Were you allowed to see your family? I understand you’ve got 5 kids, were you allowed to see your family at all during this time while you were incarcerated.
Linda: When I was at Female Prison I was allowed all the visitors and I used to see my family but when I was at Chikurubi there was a time when they barred visitors until I informed my lawyers and then they allowed one visitor a day at Maximum Prison
Violet: In terms of support and solidarity outside the visits that you received from your family, what support did you received from other organisations especially women’s groups since you are very much involved in women and youth activities. What support did you receive from any of these groups?
Linda: From the groups that I’m part of, they supported me, but from the other civic organisations and the ones that I expected to support me, especially the women’s groups, I hardly saw them, which is very discouraging because we say ‘empower women’, but when one of you gets incarcerated you don’t even visit them and offer support, which is quite bad, especially for women’s pressure groups and CSO’s
Violet: Why do you think that’s the case because this is not the first time we hear women’s groups not really helping or supporting individuals who will be in situations such as yours? I remember I used to interview the WOZA women and a lot of times you would hear the same complaints that there was not that solidarity; there’s not that much support that comes from the traditional women’s group in Zimbabwe. Why do you think that’s the case and what can be done about this?
Linda: I think those women are afraid of the regime, that’s what I think. They are not courageous enough. They will think that if they are associated with me they will also become primary targets, that’s what I think. And I urge all women in Zimbabwe to just rise up and fight for their rights, this is our country. We cannot watch this country going down the drain and we are mothers; our children deserve a bright future but we won’t have that bright future if we are not courageous enough to change the situation in our country.
Violet: And, you mentioned earlier you believe you were targeted, because you were one of the founders of the pressure group Tajamuka. Now, this group has been described as militant and that it preaches confrontation. Do you agree with this description of your organisation, or this movement?
Linda: (Laughs) I don’t agree with that because like, the founding principles of Tajamuka were to try and push for regime change. You’ll notice that most of the members of ‘Tajamuka are the youth and the youth are the ones who are facing most of the challenges in Zimbabwe because there are no jobs, there’s really nothing to do. You’ll realise that most of the youth in Zimbabwe have either if you are a vendor, that’s fair enough, but some of them have turned to prostitution, most have turned into thieves. We are saying we cannot continue like that. We need to restore order in Zimbabwe. We need to restore that glory as the breadbasket of Africa. Zimbabwe has got lots of resources, it’s got very fertile land but there’s no production because there’s a leadership failure in our country. So Tajamuka just shows this government that we are tired. We are tired of the way that they are doing things. We need to change things. If they cannot deliver what we want as the youth of Zimbabwe then they have to step down and pave the way for new youthful leadership that can correct the mess that they have brought to this country because they have failed to correct their mess.
Violet: How strong is this group because some of your critics say this is just a small group or these are youths from the MDC led by Morgan Tsvangirai and that the activities are largely held in the capital city, in Harare, and it’s not country-wide. What can you say about this?
Linda: Tajamuka is a consortium of all political parties and civic organisations that deal with youth issue. And Tajamuka is a campaign, it’s not an organisation or whatever, but it’s a campaign, it’s a campaign to show our disgruntlement to the Government of Zimbabwe. But, you know what ZANU PF is good at, counter-parting what you are doing. They are the ones who come in with the violent people and they say these people want to come in with a violent approach. Tajamuka is not using a violent approach but we’re saying we want to show the government that we are tired of what they are doing.
Violet: What about ThisFlag movement. What do you make of this?
Linda: It is actually a powerful movement because it also captures the other constituencies that Tajamuka cannot capture, and the good part about it is that we are now working together as all movements because we’ve got one common goal. So we now coming up together to fight together until we achieve the result that we need and that we desire.
Violet: I saw your conversation with Pastor Evan Mawarire on your Tweet feed on Twitter where he said: ‘you are an amazing woman of the revolution, I’ll be back home soon to fight on the ground with you and the other comrades’. What did you make of that statement?
Linda: That statement shows that we have now come to a level where we are now working together as Zimbabweans for the good of our country. I was really humbled by that statement and I’m happy that he’s coming back home because we need to fight together. We are the face of the struggle, we started this struggle and we have to fight on until we remove this government. It is either they are going out on their own or we are going to do something about it because the level of brutality that they are perpetuating on innocent Zimbabweans and activists is just too much
Violet: Did Pastor Mawarire say when he is returning?
Linda: Not yet, not yet but I know he’ll be coming back soon
Violet: And finally Linda, many of the Tajamuka and the This Flag critics say that you can’t really change things by just demonstrating or staying away from work. So what is your final word about this and what message do you have for Zimbabweans?
Linda: We are setting new narratives for this struggle that we cannot talk about right now. But we want to take the struggle to another level and it will be quite evident soon because we are still strategising on other ways of trying to usher in a new dispensation of leadership in Zimbabwe. And my message to the majority of Zimbabweans is we need your support, we need your participation in the struggle because we need to correct things and we need to restore order in Zimbabwe and reclaim our country. Power has to go back to the people, not to a particular family, because Zimbabwe belongs to all of us. We cannot keep quiet forever because everyone has to play their role for the change they want to see. Change starts with you and me, change doesn’t just happen overnight but it needs everybody to do their bit for the revolution.
Violet: That was Linda Masarira one of the co-founders of the pressure group Tajamuka, speaking on the programme ‘Hot Seat’
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