This post contains images of a graphic nature.
The Commission of Inquiry into the electoral violence in Zimbabwe is currently underway. On the 1st of August 2018, at least 6 people were shot dead in the capital city of Harare during a protest by opposition supporters, the MDC. What was supposed to be an election free of the violent tendrils of Zimbabwe’s past turned out to be a less violent, but still deadly promise – damaged the credibility of the election and has rattled potential investors in Zimbabwe, putting it’s socio-economic future in jeopardy once again.
The Commission, headed by former South African President Kgalema Montlanthe, is tasked with investigating the cause of the deaths, and is gathering testimonies from various parties including witnesses, politicians, police and the army. While the Commission appears to lend legitimacy to Mnangagwa’s government’s investment in bringing those responsible to justice, critics accuse the Commission of being an attempt at rubber-stamping the violence, and allowing for a witch-hunt of the opposition MDC.
Army officials have testified that soldiers did not shoot any of the protesters, and variously that rogue militia elements, MDC supporters and “third-force” elements were the cause of the killings.
This is complete bullshit. This is what happened on the day, according to my own eyes and camera.
A Clap of Fire
Woke up on the morning of the 1st of August 2018 tired as all hell. That was the the day the election results were to be announced. The night before, myself and some colleagues had spent the night waiting around parliament in town as riot police had been deployed to protect key infrastructure, so it was a late night. My colleague Mujahid Safodien and I had traveled up to Zim on a shoestring budget, and were staying in a small backpackers in Harare. Our funds had been further ruined by an airline booking us on the wrong flight and forcing us to pay for a change, so we couldn’t be more skint. We woke late, and some assholes had stolen our cheap coffee in the communal kitchen. This didn’t go down well with us, as the two things we absolutely need to function are coffee and smokes. Our colleagues come to pick us up in the morning, and without their kindness and assistance we wouldn’t have been able to work at all, as we had about 50USD left remaining between us – barely enough for cigarettes and sure as hell not enough for the remainder of our accommodation cost, the measly 10USD it was per night. This was stressing me out as we left in the morning and our hosts took us to coffee and breakfast. One of the things that I love about this job is that when it’s time to pick up your camera and get to work, none of that matters – you get locked in; into the picture, into the story. Life’s problems can wait for another time.
Afterwards, we headed into the city proper. The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) press conferences were held at the Rainbow Towers Hotel and the Zanu-PF headquarters are within a block of each other – the place where today’s pictures would be. The results announcement was supposed to be at 12:30, but Muj and I weren’t optimistic – every press conference we’d been to so far had been delayed or cancelled. We walked the streets, photographing the dozens of riot police deployed. We knew there would also be a march by the opposition MDC, and there was. We were skeptical about the vote counts as well; each polling station had to post their individual results, which were then collated for a national tally. However, accredited media including ourselves had been denied access to many stations, and there’d been reports of repetitive ballots and false stations. We figured that this contention could lead to some sort of conflict, but on a minor scale.
The mood was highly jubilant – 2000 or so MDC supporters, certain that they’d won the election, contesting the victory of Mnangagwa and the Zanu-PF. They sang and danced past the police, singing “Tshisa mpama Tshisa”*, the fire clap, slogan of the MDC. We journos were having the time of our lives. Good pictures were everywhere, and there wasn’t much tension, but an orchestra of bodies and colour. It felt like a protest in South Africa, but with friendlier people – no-one throwing rocks at the media. The lack of tension changed when the marched approached the Rainbow Towers hotel – though they weren’t violent at all, police closed off the main gates, threatened by the crowd. I fel that little shiver in my neck – the same one I get at every protest I attend. I thought to myself, things are going to be fun – I’m pretty fucking sure I joked about that.
The protesters blocked off the main road into ZEC, dancing and chanting while facing off against stoic riot police between a strong metal gate. They threw some taunts at the police, and banged on police and riot vehicles as they arrived and were let through the gates, but they didn’t attempt to breach the perimeter, and the mood was pretty jovial overall. Dignitaries and foreign observers began to arrive at ZEC and had to get through the crowd in their expensive, European made cars. You could see some of the white foreigners in the vehicles were shitting themselves at being surrounded by a crowd of black Africans, whilst the protesters pretended to wash their cars as they let them through. I loved that – there was something so dignified and yet subversive in this car washing – a feeling I can’t quite describe, but one I can relate to – all of us born on this continent are car-washers to someone. I was angry at what I imagined the dignitaries response to this experience would be – one of fear, of threat, of alien bodies swarming them – something they survived. Something they’d share a tale of during a bar night in London or something that everyone would gasp at, the bastards.
In protests, the mood always starts to shift when there is physical contact and fire. A person is touched, shoved, something destroyed. Violence is bodily, and it usually begins with some sort of contact. For me, that was when it began, and I knew there would be a police response. MDC supporters had touched the vehicles of observers, banged on cars, and had also begun burning Zanu-PF posters bearing pictures of Mnangagwa – a flaming, crocodile effigy.
I was still outside ZEC with a few other journos, feeling sorry for my colleagues who were stuck on the inside of the fence. All of the pictures were on our side, and the cops wouldn’t let them out. There’s nothing worse than the frame you can see, that you can’t or don’t take. I passed Maryke a cigarette through the fence. I remembered that she’d quit, but on days like this you never really do. I saw that a fire had started further down the road toward the centre of the city and legged it to get frames. Everyone loves a good fire picture with an active black man, don’t we? The MDC protesters had started several fires in the centre of the city, the largest of which was a pile of burning wooden pallets and posters. All the shooters, myself included, swarmed it. Half the frames I took were unusable because they had a colleague in them – I’m sure it was the same for most of us.
We kept following and working pictures of the crowd, about 10 of us journos. Then the MDC protesters began pulling down this fucking enormous billboard of Mnangagwa above the market – an incredible feat. It was a fantastic picture either way, but I wasn’t sure if we were going to get someone falling off the damn thing either. I was also stressed that I was shooting next to Siphiwe Sibeko from Reuters. I love the man and am inspired by his work, but he is such a damn good shooter that I knew that I wasn’t going to get something as good as him. And I didn’t.
They pulled the billboard vinyl down, and proceeded to drag it, marching and singing, back to the gates of the Rainbow Towers hotel, a good 300 metres carrying. We walked with them. A bakkie drove through carrying empty ZEC boxes, which the protestors stole and tore up in defiance of the vote.
A few minutes after the protestors arrived at the hotel, the first shots rang out.
I’ve probably heard over a thousand rubber bullets being fired, and a few hundred live rounds, but at this point I couldn’t tell the difference. It was just loud bangs and running people. The crowd scattered and I took cover, hunkered down behind a tree. I was shitting myself at this point – I had lost my colleagues and didn’t know what was going on – all I could do was shoot, but there wasn’t much in the way of that. I had my 24-70mm on, and got off a few frames, still trying to find out where the fire was coming from. It seemed to be coming from the Zanu-PF headquarters across the road. After a few seconds of realizing that no-one was getting killed, I looked down the street. Four or five journalists were hiding behind a parked car, lying on the ground. Right next to them, in the midst of it, was Marco Longari of AFP, walking slowly and shooting pictures like he was on holiday. I figured it was fine to get up.
I wasn’t the only one. MDC supporters had gathered their courage, and began throwing rocks toward the Zanu-PF headquarters, where inside the fence a crowd watched. I was beginning to get very pumped up. This is the sort of shooting that I absolutely love, a live wire of tension and focus. Shitty movies about photojournalism characterise people in this field as adrenaline junkies, and yes, the physiology is part of it. The greater part, for me at least, is the pure simplicity of it all. Everything else dissipates except your job; to take pictures and tell stories. I know my colleagues felt the same. The protesters began to gather together again, and march towards the Rainbow Towers hotel gates – the noise and threat had adrenalised us all. My blood was up, and so was everyone elses.
I was pissed off at the same time. I had some strong frames, and the wire I was working for wanted me to file pictures throughout the day, as soon as possible, but the situation was fluid and I was afraid of missing a shot. As a young photojournalist, building a career, it was crucial that I sent pictures that were strong and timeous, but I decided to hold off. The situation was too fluid, and I didn’t want to miss what happened next. When the protesters got to the gates, the water cannons behind them began mobilising, a whining, keening sound and the movement of the turrets. I knew a police response was imminent. Orders were being delivered, tension was riddling the faces of the riot police behind their shields and visors. Huddled behind a tree, my shemag over my nose and mouth, I caught sight of my mate Thomas and we both grinned at each other. He loves this shit as much as I do, and I love him because of it. No rent to pay, no bills or contracts or groceries or anything to worry about except the picture that tells the story of the day.
Zim uses the same Israeli-made water cannon trucks as South Africa, and they fill the water with a residue similar to tear gas. It fucks you up, and was a pain shooting through it. It’s not in any way debilitating, but it burns the skin and eyes, and makes it hard to breathe. It did create this lovely rainbow as sunlight shone through the mist left behind, which I immediately noticed and knew I needed to photograph – a dog sniffing the air – there’s a frame here. The crowd scattered and I stayed behind my tree, shooting. I got knocked down and completely drenched when the cannon fired at me, but managed to get back up and in cover when it shifted it’s pulse. One brave MDC supporter came back and sat on a rock in defiance of the police. I waited, coughing my ass off, for a picture I had visualized. He took the water cannon full on in the face with the rainbow above him and I got my frame.
Explosions and smoke billowed outside ZEC as the police deployed stun grenades, the final straw to send the protesters up the road. Everyone ran back towards the city, a large intersection a few hundred metres up the road. All I could think about at this point was that I needed to file pictures or my editor was going to have my balls. Better resourced agencies there would already have their stuff up, and it wasn’t going to do me any good to be late with my own frames.
The mood settled. The protesters had gathered up the road and were in a state of much lower energy. The day felt like it had reached it’s climax, this was the quiet time after. Two more water cannons arrived and parked nearby, with trucks of riot police. Some dancing, shouting, but no real aggression. Thomas, Mujahid and I sat behind a little electrical box outside of the Zanu-PF offices and began to file our pictures. We’d had a fun morning, gotten good pictures and were satisfied with our performance. My main complaint was that my laptop had gotten completely soaked by the water cannon and was fucking out as I tried to file. We spent maybe 5 or 10 minutes importing our pictures here.
An armoured vehicle then arrived up the road and parked, with a soldier manning the turret. We probably all shouted “Fuck!” at the same time – mid way through filing our pictures, we all put our computers away and got up to take a look. No filing for us. I thought it was a waste of time. This was just an armoured vehicle and some soldiers sitting there, and the mood of the protest was passive, the riot police and water cannons monitoring the situation. Thomas took a confident walk closer to the APC, and I bought two cold-drinks from a street vendor for Muj and I.
I had a sip of my drink and spat the phlegm out of my throat, and lit a cigarette – I couldn’t see Muj and started to stroll away and find him to give him his drink. We’d spent this trip together as an inseparable team. I genuinely thought the day was over. Then the armoured vehicle started moving, fast, and out of another street pulled a military truck right behind it, both of them barrelling towards the protesters. People began to run. I fumbled my drink and my cigarette for my camera as the vehicles passed me and started sprinting after them.
“Live Rounds, Live Rounds”
Soldiers piled out of the truck like ants, moving fast with weapons and whips in hand. Almost all had balaclavas. I saw Muj and caught up with him. A soldier whipped a man next to us, and as we raised our cameras and he turned his whip toward us, screaming. We kept running, following the main group of troops into the city center. This is when the first live rounds were fired.
Initially they were firing into the air. You could see the weapons raised high. Some were shooting up in to the sky, some seemed to be randomly firing at buildings. The soldiers were primarily chasing the shit out of protesters. Anyone who hears an AK within a few meters has their heart rate ratchet up, and it was more than enough to send the crowd of protestors streaming away, completely dispersed. One soldier famously took a knee and fired toward the crowd, but one of their commanding officers was yelling at them to control their fire and not shoot directly into the crowd. This photo was taken by my colleague Zinyange Auntony, and is probably the most definitive proof of the firing on civilians by soldiers from the day. You can see the same action take place in a series of pictures below from the position I was at. This is the one picture that defines this day for me.
Of maybe the 50 or so journalists who were there, most ran back towards ZEC and the Rainbow Towers hotel and safety. Maybe a dozen or so of us ran the other way, towards the soldiers and the firing.
Afterwards, trying to make sense of this decision to other people, I found the choice best summed up by the photographer Christopher Hondros. You’ve come all this way, spent all this money and people’s time to get to this place and tell a story, take pictures. When shit starts, you’ve got to go where the pictures are, otherwise you’ve wasted everyone’s fucking time, including your own.
We ran on. The soldiers spread out into smaller groups of around 5, chasing down and beating people in the street bloody with whips and rifles. Us journalists were split up, pairs of us on the trail of a different group of troops. We followed but kept a distance – every time we got too close, they chased and aimed their weapons at us. I got too close, and got whipped for my troubles.
REM’s “At my most beautiful” comes to mind. Not my favourite picture at all. Looking back, it would have been risky, but I wish I’d challenged this soldier, photographed him as he whipped, instead of backing off. I felt like a coward for not having confronted him with my camera, but at the time I was on autopilot.
Just before I’d left for Zim my girlfriend had asked be to take my bulletproof vest, and I’d refused, more out of ego than anything else – I didn’t want to be the only asshole journalist in protective gear and get mocked for it. I switched to a long lens, peeked around a corner as rounds peppered the walls in the street, I felt like a complete idiot for letting my ego get in the way of my safety, and more importantly, my ability to be confident enough to get close and take pictures. Wearing amour makes you safer, but it also makes you feel safer, and you move closer to what you’re trying to document.
The game had changed. I saw Marco and a few other European correspondents walking further down the street, and decided to get to them and stick close. Marco is a veteran conflict photojournalist, and I’d be safer with him. My marked press jacket wouldn’t stop bullets worth a damn – let alone that I hadn’t worn it that day – and the shooting was nothing if not indiscriminate.
An army helicopter flew overhead, whining and spraying up dust. We moved into the marketplace, shooting still going on all around us, people running. Rounds began to come close, and we ducked into the wooden pallets of the market for cover. Huddled, we saw a foot sticking out from under some tarpaulin. Out of it climbed two men, one of whom had been shot in the arm. All 3 or so of us photographers immediately stood up to take pictures. I will never forget how Marco calmly asked me to move aside as I was blocking his picture, or how he told the man tying a tourniquet on the wounded to loosen it so he wouldn’t lose his arm. A calm voice in a sea of chaos, and the most stabilising thing in the world at that moment for me – it brought me right back to the job at hand.
Then, people shouting of a man dead. We run in the direction we are pointed, two blocks down. I was in the lead, coughing up a lung. I turned the corner and saw the man. He was flat on his chest on the ground, blood beginning to creep in the dirt around him. I take pictures. Entry is in the upper back. Judging from the blood, exit seemed to be upper right chest. He was not dead, he was bleeding out. My first picture was just a dying man. I needed context. I moved to the side and shot. A man checked his pulse. I was kneeling beside his body; a crowd was gathering around him. I kept photographing. Shots rang out towards us from down the road and people began to run. I kept photographing.
Someone, a journalist or demonstrator from the crowd – I don’t remember – they shout at me to run. The bullets were close. I ran around the corner. We can’t leave him simply to die, I thought. People always discuss and debate the moral and merit of journalism, the line at which we are supposed to bear witness for the sake of others and render assistance for our own integrity. This was a situation in which I felt we needed to help. A protester was trying to phone EMS but all of the numbers are down. We are journalists, some in marked vests with first aid on us. We can stabilise. We raised our cameras and walked back around the corner towards the dying man, shouting “Press! Press! Don’t shoot. This man needs help.”
A senior soldier in a yellow beret yelled something at us. Then he turned and spoke to the two masked troops next to him. They took a knee and opened fire at us. I ran around the same corner again, shouting at those alongside me to run as well or they will be shot. I run up the main road where on a side street I see another body. I don’t stop to shoot, I had my pictures. I ran, and I kept running all the way back to ZEC and into the hotel. I needed to file, the only thing on my mind.
In the Rainbow Towers hotel lobby, soft music was playing. Automatic weapons fire provided a staccato of bass as the background to what was a surreal cacophony. At the bar, observers, businesspeople and politicians were having drinks and laughing. People were checking in, porters carrying or trolleying their luggage. I asked a well-dressed steward for the Wi-Fi password, which he provided me, and sunk into a couch in the lobby. Next to me, two young, well-to-do women were having a chat. My pictures began to import. I reeked of sweat and tear gas. Dust and spittle were caked on my face and lips, and I was beyond thirsty. I wiped my mouth on my t-shirt and took out the drink I had bought for Muj earlier and opened it. It fizzed all over me, the floor, my computer, dizzy with the running of the day. I wiped it up as best as I could, the two girls kindly assisted me. I wondered what I looked like to them, or what the hell they were doing there. I sorted through my pictures as fast as possible, and filed the deaths first. Then I filed the protest. Then I filed the march. My keys were sticky and my shirt was covered in dirt and sweat. I looked and felt like shit.
My laptop was flickering, the water and my drink having almost destroyed it. I turned it off and walk to the bar to order a drink, a double whiskey and coke. It’s a cliché, but Jesus I wanted nothing else at the time. I downed it and ordered another. Some men were laughing and talking together next to me. They saw me and asked who I am – I said I’m a photojournalist. They ask what was happening out in the city. I said that soldiers are killing people in the streets. They drink their drinks and we shared an awkward silence. I asked them what they were doing here. They were in mining, and were visiting for business.
I took my drink and went outside to smoke. The shooting was still going on, echoing through the streets just a few hundred metres away. I drank my drink and sat on the lawn. Some of my colleagues arrived to file. A well dressed white European man was climbing into one of the vehicles parked outside the hotel, his bodyguard held the door for him. I spoke with him.
The shooting was still going on. Journalists trickled in to file. Some headed back out afterwards. Muj also eventually arrived and filed his pictures. We were exhausted. We decided we had what we needed.
It was early evening and we asked our hosts to take us to the shops. Muj and I found a 750ml bottle of brandy for 10USD, which we bought. When we get back to the backpackers we sat outside and chain-smoked, looking over our pictures of the day to see what we missed, what we didn’t file in our urgency. We filed again. Another man who was staying there, Dima, a Russian, came out to drink with us. We spoke and finished the brandy. We spoke and finished the vodka Dima brought. I was fucking destroyed by exhaustion. Muj stayed up a while, but I headed to our room and took my shoes off before falling into bed. I could smell my sweat and the residue from the gas was still irritating my skin and eyes, but I don’t care.
There are conflicting opinions on the objectives and merit of the Commission of inquiry, but two critiques stand out very clearly for me; one of its methodology, and one of it’s mandate. If you are looking for any visual or eyewitness testimony of the day, there are plenty of journalists who can provide it – who took pictures, video, and saw exactly what happened. All of us were registered with the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission and The Zimbabwe Media Commission – our details are on file, and we are easily contactable. To date this has not been done as far as I am aware.
As for the mandate, it is as follows as outlined by President Mnangagwa:
The announcement was given in a statement issued by the President on 29th August. In it he said that he had appointed a seven-member commission consisting of local, regional and international members “who have been appointed in terms of the Commission [sic] of Inquiry Act [Chapter 10:07].” The commission’s terms of reference, he went on, were as follows:
- to inquire into the circumstances leading to the 1st of August 2018, post-election violence;
- to identify the actors and their leaders, their motive and strategies employed in the protests;
- to inquire into the intervention by the Zimbabwe Republic Police in the maintenance of law and order;
- to investigate the circumstances which necessitated the involvement of the military in assisting in the maintenance of law and order;
- to consider whether the degree of force used was appropriate to the ensuing threat to public safety, law and order;
- to assess extent of damage/injury caused thereof [sic];
- to investigate any other matters which the Commission of Inquiry may deem appropriate and relevant to the inquiry;
- to make suitable recommendations; and
- to report to the President in writing, the result of the inquiry within a period of three months from the date of swearing-in of the Commissioners.
The President’s statement ended by saying “A notice to the above effect, will be gazetted in accordance with the law.”
What it explicitly excludes is the identification of the chain of command of those responsible for ordering soldiers onto the streets, the soldiers immediately involved, what their orders were, and whether these orders were contravened by the killings of civilians.
I’m not an economist, nor an investigative journalist, but a stable and functioning Zimbabwe seems to be in everyone’s best interest, including that of the SADC region and foreign countries. A stable Zimbabwe means more economic wealth and purchasing power of its people, which means more goods we can sell them. It means more produce we can purchase as it’s neighbours. It means that Zimbabwe’s extensive natural resources are able to be more easily extracted.
Whether the best journey to a stable Zimbabwe is one that should be democratic or without violence is not for me to say – I have heard compelling arguments from people I respect as to why this would not generate the best outcome, and that violence such as this is part of the meat of progress to a functioning democracy.
However, when I read and watch testimony from General Philip Valerie Sibanda testify that soldiers were not firing at protesters, I can’t help but lose my fucking mind. The truth of the matter is that people died. Throughout history, the corpses stack up. The Mongols built a platform of live bodies in Kiev and feasted their victories. Caesar killed a million to feed his ambition and etch his name into the annals of history. Shatila is a word that means nothing to most people today, another name upon another name upon the stinking masses of forgotten dead. But people did die – consciousness snuffed out at the firing of a round. Perhaps it’s the price of progress, perhaps it is meat in the wheel to grease it, on the road to a better country, a better future, a better whatever the fuck.
But don’t lie about it. Own it. Own the price that someone’s father, mother, brother, sister, paid to bring that future. The price they paid was eating red dust while trying to buy shoes in a market place in Harare at the wrong time. This is my experience and testimony. May it fall upon the deafened ears of the Commission.
You can see a complete gallery of the images I took during the Zimbabwe Elections here.
*Thank you to Tendai Marima and Ziyange Auntony for corrections.