The Zimbabwean student activist Prince Gora was recently jailed for 10 days. Gora, a fourth-year chemical engineering student at the Harare Institute of Technology, is also a University World News journalist. He is one of several student activists who have been detained this year.
Activists have been involved in protests about, among other things, the deteriorating economic environment in Zimbabwe that has adversely affected educational institutions and has contributed to unemployment and an “atmosphere of hopelessness”. Gora shared his story with University World News.
Rotten Row magistrate court
It all started when I heard my name. “Prince!” The sound was coming from a car travelling on a road I had just crossed. Naturally, I turned to inquire who was calling my name. “Is Prince there?”
Speaking in my native Shona, a man wearing a blue shirt called from the back seat of a white Toyota twin-cab vehicle, which had just slowed down. I was walking towards Harare’s CBD with three friends after attending a court case at Harare’s Rotten Row magistrate’s court.
I quickly denied that anyone in our group was called Prince. It may seem an odd thing to do, but only to someone who is not familiar with the Zimbabwean situation. I have to deny my name because a number of activists have been abducted in recent memory in similar circumstances. I also did not recognise any of the seven men in the vehicle.
Nonetheless, the members of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) Law and Order Harare Central Police Station (I later learnt) were not fooled. They had their man and were not going to let him go so easily. The car rounded the corner and waited for us at the other end. We were confused. The four of us scattered. Amid the commotion, both of my hands were suddenly held very tightly behind my back by another man we hadn’t seen before. I was very afraid. I thought it was my turn to be abducted.
The vehicle had slowed down but no one had got out because it was in the midst of a traffic jam. The only explanation was that this man, holding my hands, had been following us all the while. Another man made his way from the vehicle, demanded to see our national IDs and confirmed that I was indeed the person they were looking for.
As the two men hauled me by the belt towards the waiting Toyota double-cab vehicle, I began analysing small details of events that had happened earlier that day. The mood at the court had been uncharacteristically tense and while Namatai Kwekweza, a close friend of mine, was being interviewed by the BBC, we had noticed a guy trying to eavesdrop on us and we had to move away from him. Evidently, this man had continued to tail us and was providing updates to the guys in the Toyota vehicle.
When we had initially noticed this man, we had unanimously agreed to hire a taxi to town, but by the time we finished the interview, returned to court and talked to our lawyers, all that had been forgotten. We decided to take the short trip to town in the way we had always done it, by foot.
A smart move
Though my mind was trying to make sense of everything, I was quite convinced that an abduction was taking place and I believe that would indeed have been the case had Namatai not reacted swiftly by retreating a few steps and starting a Facebook live recording. I don’t know what would have happened had she not made that swift and smart move. I had my reasons for believing that an abduction was taking place.
Firstly, the alleged offence had been committed almost two weeks prior and I had not received any communication that the police were looking for me.
Ironically, during that period I had in fact visited a local police station at least twice to report for bail and had never been questioned about the issue. Secondly, I had spent almost the whole morning at the court in the company of our lawyer, Mrs Nontokozo Dube-Tachiona, and again the police had given no indication that they were looking for me. Instead, they had waited until I had separated from my lawyer and was isolated to pounce on me. It seemed very strategic and deliberate.
As I got settled in the car, Youngerson Matete, a friend and activist I was walking with, was also hauled in. I do not wish friends any ill but having Matete in the car was a huge relief because whatever lay ahead, I was now going to face it in the company of a comrade. In hindsight, I think that’s how I survived the 10 days behind bars that were to follow.
I will however categorically state that though Matete was incarcerated with me, he was nowhere near the scene of the alleged offence on the day in question. While I was part of the peaceful demonstratoions, apparently the reason why the police had been looking for me, Matete was attending a Zoom meeting – a long way from the corner of First Street and Speke Avenue where the Impala Car Rental’s motor spares shop is situated.
Impala Car Rental
University World News reported how Zimbabwe National Students Union (ZINASU) President Takudzwa Ngadziore was first arrested in February this year for organising a protest to free fellow activist and former ZINASU secretary general Makomborero Haruzivishe.
On 10 September, as he left court at the start of his trial (for the February arrest), he was suddenly rearrested by armed police and charged with participating in a public gathering on 8 September outside the head office of Impala Car Rental in Harare.
The gathering outside Impala Car Rental followed the release of details of the alleged use of one of their vehicles in the abduction of Tawanda Muchehiwa, a second-year journalism student at Midlands State University.
Muchehiwa was abducted on 30 July in the lead up to nationwide protests which were scheduled for 31 July and he was kept incommunicado for three days, during which time he was tortured. His abduction was however caught on CCTV at the premises and the CCTV footage was used to track down cars which were traced to Impala Car Rental.
ZINASU President Ngadziore argued that Impala Car Rental knew where Muchehiwa was taken because all their cars had trackers, so they had a map of where the alleged state abductors took Muchehiwa to be tortured. Impala also had a copy of the driver’s licence of the person who had hired the car.
Ngadziore was repeatedly denied bail for the Impala Car Rental gathering and the hashtags #FreeTakuNow and #FreeTakudzwaNgadziore started to trend on social media on 15 October, the day before the bail hearing, and after a group of students joined a protest at Impala Car Rental at their Speke Avenue branch in Harare.
Harare Central Police Station
Matete and I were quiet. The fact that we were only told that we were under arrest and headed to Harare Central Police Station after about 10 minutes in the van did not help matters. Again, I suspect that they only did so after noticing that the video of us being taken away had begun to trend on social media. The details of the car were noted and were circulating.
It also explains why the permanent secretary in the ministry of information, one Nick Mangwana, was quick to tweet that we were in police custody. State media would soon follow up to try and shape the narrative by writing a piece in which they described us hooligans.
Upon arrival at Harare Central Police Station, we were charged with kidnapping. It boggles the mind how the state arrived at this charge because the group of students I was with on the day in question only held placards in a peaceful protest outside Impala Car Rental and my crime is that I addressed the press during that demonstration.
Since July 2020, the state has been persecuting student leaders for demanding answers from Impala Car Rental. Besides Matete and myself, about 15 other student leaders have been arrested for the cause.
Our treatment at Harare Central Police Station was not rosy.
The police confiscated our phones as soon as they had us in custody and our lawyers only managed to locate us because Talent Jinga and Namatai Kwekweza, who had escaped the ordeal, alerted them.
We had two very scary scenarios that first day in police custody. Shortly after our lawyers had retired for the day, a group of five detectives split us and attempted to interview us. This action was evidently deliberate; all along they had resorted to isolating us and extracting information. I was terrified and tried to refuse to answer any questions unless my lawyer had been notified, but in the end I had to budge.
After a standoff and a few threats, I was forced to agree to ‘unofficial profiling’ and tried as much as possible to give out as little information as possible without angering these men. Again at this point, I truly feared for my welfare. Later that night, possibly around midnight, another detective who claimed to be on night duty tried to interview us. This time around, having been united with Matete, we flatly said no and instructed him to contact our lawyers.
Life at Harare central was predictably harsh. During our first night, I barely slept because we were put in the same cell as a person who appeared to be mentally disabled and who made noises and murder threats for the greater part of the night. Another notable challenge was the lack of water at the station. It was nightmarish to sleep in a cell smelling of human waste for such a long period.
With the exception of our lawyers, the police made sure to frustrate people who dared to visit us and demanded bribes at every turn. I have always known that our police force is a corrupt one but during those two days at police headquarters, the power of money became ever so clearer.
We were arrested around the same time that a cartel, believed to have smuggled gold worth about US$5 billion, had just been busted. I expected them at least to be treated like the rest of us but alas, I couldn’t have been further from the truth.
For various amounts, which ranged from US$5 to US$10, these elites received various favours that many free men could only dream of. While many bribed to avoid sleeping in lice-infested smelly cells, there was a standout case of one middle-aged man who had the privilege of sipping beers all day alongside his wife in a private room.
Despite all paperwork having been completed on that Tuesday afternoon, we would only be allowed to stand in court on Thursday. It looked as if they wanted to keep us in the cells for as long as possible and only allowed us to go to court because the law requires an accused to stand in court within 48 hours.
Harare remand prison
We had long known that our bail was not going to be applied at the lower court but our time there was nonetheless eventful. I saw a great testament of the disparities in our society when I met a young man who had been granted bail of ZWL$300 (equivalent to around US$3.5) four months earlier but was still in custody, having failed to pay the money. I couldn’t help but think of the bribes I had seen being given back at Harare central.
The authorities classified me and my co-accused as Class-D prisoners. This would be the beginning of our unpleasant association with prison as Class-D prisoners, including prisoners who have been arrested on charges of murder, armed robbery and rape.
These prisoners are to be leg-ironed in pairs and, that afternoon, I had my first such experience. It was a forgettable experience. Many of us, almost half of whom were leg-ironed, were packed in a small prison. It was horrendous especially considering we are in the middle of a pandemic which has as one of its best preventive measures social distancing.
The trip to Harare remand prison, though short, was very uncomfortable. The driver was speeding and, as I was chained to someone, I had to constantly struggle for balance while traversing our pot-holed roads.
Prison conditions were not rosy either. Besides living with hardcore criminals who bullied us at will, we also had to cope up with substandard food, flea-infested blankets and malfunctioning toilets. We had to take our meals at a place where sewage was always flowing.
We were only given one pair of prison clothes which meant that after washing it, we had to wear it while it was still wet. Most worrisome of all, however, was sharing a cell with patients who are mentally disabled and were in prison because of murder charges.
Prison was tough but we adjusted, made friends and survived. The last two of my 10 days in prison were particularly difficult. I had exited survival mode on Tuesday when our bail was granted by the state. But we were kept behind bars for an additional two days. It appears to have become a tactic to keep activists incarcerated even after the courts have freed them. This didn’t break my resolve though. If anything, it strengthened it.
I am now more determined to stand up for what I believe in. My incarceration has given me another reason to do so. I realised that most of the people in prison are young people, graduates arrested on economic crimes.
We can’t stand idly by as young people perish in prison because our country has been destroyed by corruption and bad governance.
Culled from: University World News