21 April 2009

Starving to save Zimbabwe

The deepening humanitarian crisis in neighbouring Zimbabwe has claimed at least 3,000 lives and concerned activists are starving themselves in solidarity with the Zimbabwean people. Rhodes university staff and students are part of the three month long Save Zimbabwe Now campaign to raise awareness for the crisis in Zimbabwe. Vice Chancellor Dr Saleem Badat, Dean of Students Prof Vivian de Klerk and Larissa Klazinga are just some supporting the campaign by fasting.

The campaign, supported by activists Kumi Naidoo and Nomboniso Gasa who have completed 3 week hunger strikes by not eating anything at all for 21 days, has also attracted the support of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The campaign, Tutu states, ‘has revitalised the concept of Ubuntu’ and ‘it is important that the people of Zimbabwe know that they are not forgotten’. The campaign demands listed on the website include forcing Zimbabwe to ‘stop abductions, torture and all forms of repressive violence’ and for the government to immediately ‘release all political prisoners’.

Launched in Johannesburg late January, the campaign is supported by an assortment of local and international social and community organisations. The first aim of the campaign has been to build pressure on SADC governments to influence the Zimbabwean state to restore dignity, human and democratic rights to its people.

The Vice Chancellors statement, issued on 21 January 2009 in support for the campaign, expressed outrage at the fact that Rhodes students were victimised and intimidated when they called on Zanu PF to end repression. A post graduate student from Zimbabwe, who is participating in the campaign but wishes to remain anonymous, has however stated that “the majority of Zimbabwean students have not taken any public or politicised action”. She believes that this apparent apathy is “possibly (due to) the fear of intimidation and victimisation to themselves and the families back in Zimbabwe.”

Professor Dan Wylie, who grew up in Zimbabwe and taught there for some years before coming to teach in the Department of English at Rhodes, is also supporting the campaign and believes that fasting “can act as a catalyst for more practical help to the afflicted”. He urges South Africans to take lesson and “even the slightest breach of or erosion of public freedoms should be squashed either by campaigning or at the polls immediately, before corruption and abuse become systematic”.

Jennifer Schmidt, a post doctoral student from the USA, is fasting to express solidarity with her Zimbabwean friends and their families. She has been fasting every Wednesday, and when her birthday recently fell on a Wednesday, she had a symbolic Zimbabwe cake that helped raise awareness in her department.

Beth Vale, Aids activist and student leader, started fasting during the holidays, before she knew about the support at Rhodes. She has no personal links to Zimbabwe, and likens the act of fasting to the statement made by Zaki Achmat when he refused to accept ARV’s because others were not being given access to them. While she can eat and does have access to food, people in Zimbabwe are suffering and starving and have no choice. She says that the Zimbabwe crisis is central to other issues like gender inequalities, poverty, access to health care and clean water, amongst others.

Karabo Mohale, a 2nd year student, hopes to get people to start thinking about Zimbabwe and then acting, so that the slow rate of change can be accelerated. He has sent a letter to the Rhodes University management, on behalf of the Save Zimbabwe Now campaign, enquiring about the receipt of any funds from sanctioned persons or associations. If funds were received, the letter asks for an explanation for how Rhodes could accept ‘tainted’ money from those that have profited from human rights violations in Zimbabwe. [Note: at time of writing this, no response had been received from the University]

Elzette Steenkamp, PhD student in the Department of English at Rhodes, feels that a “few people remaining without food for one day per week is a relatively small contribution, but then I think of Mahatma Gandhi and I know that our efforts cannot be without impact.” Fasting is often used as a tool to make a political statement, to protest or to bring awareness to a cause. Some famous example being Mahatma Ghandi and hunger strikes being born out of the non-violent resistance, and then later the famous example of Bobby Sands.

The publicity of a campaign however, rests on the ability to make as many people as possible aware of the issue, in the hope that it would motivate them to act. Larissa Klazinga decided to, as she put it, put her money where her mouth is, and undergo a 7 day fast with no food at all for a full week. She undertook to drink only water and have absolutely nothing to eat. She hopes that this will make people take note of how passive we have been towards Zimbabwe and motive them to start asking questions and get involved.

As part of the Human Rights Awareness week at Rhodes University, the Save Zimbabwe Now campaign has also launched an awareness drive on campus. Plans are also underway to get students to ‘fast’ for just a single meal early next term and then donate the saved cost of that meal. The Save Zimbabwe Now website is collecting names in support of the campaign and calling on people concerned about the situation to join the fast. It provides updates information on the situation in Zimbabwe, as well as details of the campaign and health advice for those wishing to fast.
Visit: www.savezimbabwenow.com

A version of this article first appeared in Grocott's Mail, South Africa's oldest independent newspaper.

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