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Rose Benton on Question Time

For nearly 9 years the Zimbabwe Vigil has been protesting in London against human rights violations in Zimbabwe. Rose Benton, one of the coordinators, joins Question Time to tackle issues raised by listeners. Why are Zimbabweans in the Diaspora apathetic when it comes to protesting? How does the Vigil respond to allegations that they take advantage of desperate asylum seekers in the UK?

Rose Benton with members of the Zimbabwe Vigil in London
Rose Benton with members of the Zimbabwe Vigil in London

Lance Guma: For almost nine years The Zimbabwe Vigil has been protesting in London against human rights violations in Zimbabwe. Rose Benton, the coordinator, is my guest on Question Time and joins us to take questions sent in by listeners using FaceBook, Twitter, Skype, email and text messages. Rose Benton thank you for joining us.

Rose Benton: It’s a pleasure Lance. I just wanted to say that there is another co-ordinator for Vigil, that’s Dumi Tutani and a Vigil management team which is always consulted and contributes to all the decisions we make. We are a sort of very democratic sort of organisation, so I’m not solely in charge and don’t make all the decisions.

Guma: OK Rose. Now it’s nearly nine years of vigils at the Zimbabwe Embassy in London; trace for us the history of the organisation – why was it set up and what are you trying to achieve?

Benton: Well back in 2001 we met at a regular Zimbabwe Forum and had various speakers come to talk to us and one of them was Roy Bennett and one of them was Tony Reeler and both of them suggested a vigil along the lines of the anti-apartheid vigil and so we looked at this and we decided that we didn’t have the resources for a 24/7 vigil so what we would do is hold a weekly protest from two to four every Saturday.

That’s what we have achieved and now we haven’t missed a Saturday apart from when they fell on Christmas Day so that is a considerable achievement. Achievement, I think our main purpose is to be an on-street visible protest, to raise awareness about the situation in Zimbabwe and to stop people forgetting Zimbabwe, I think that is our main purpose.

And we have, there are thousands of people who pass by where we are on the Strand, it’s a very busy area, it’s very near Convent Garden so we get a lot of people from all nationalities, surprising number of who know about Zimbabwe and know that there are problems there but then there are a lot of people who don’t know and are interested to find out. So we’ve done that all through the time we’ve been protesting and also as a focal point at the Vigil we run, we’ve always run petitions which we send out. I can talk more about those later if you like.

So it’s a total question of awareness, the whole business of trying to overthrow dictatorships and human rights abusers is a long and arduous process, and it is a process, it’s not an immediate thing. When I started I thought a couple of years we will have achieved what we wanted but here we are, nearly nine years later and things are not good in Zimbabwe.

Guma: Now your relationship with the MDC is an interesting one; clearly a lot of MDC involvement in the initial set-up, just explain this for us from the beginning and how it is now.

Benton: Yes at the beginning, a lot of people, everything was focused around the MDC and there were MDC groups that actually started The Vigil but through the years it became apparent that we shouldn’t tie ourselves to any political party, it restricted us in the other people who would come and join us so we have changed to a totally non-party political organisation.

We never really were a party, we were never really an MDC vigil, we were always non-party political but we always welcomed all MDC members because a lot of our supporters are MDC and of course they are absolutely welcome because they support our aims, our mission statement which is to protest against human rights abuses in Zimbabwe until there are free and fair internationally monitored elections. 

Guma: Another group that you have a close relationship with, and in fact all your statements have something on them, the Restoration of Human Rights in Zimbabwe group, ROHR, explain the relationship for our listeners also.

Benton: Yes, the Restoration of Human Rights was actually set up by The Vigil as our face in Zimbabwe so we have a very, to my mind, we are the same organisation. The Vigil’s face in Zimbabwe is ROHR.

Guma: Marceline emails us from Scotland and says having come to The Vigil on one particular day, she thought the turn out did not represent the huge numbers of Zimbabweans living in the UK, most of whom claimed asylum on political grounds and her question is: is there a problem of motivation or fatigue with the crisis?

Benton: The numbers for The Vigil have varied through the years. When we started we used to get about 30 people to The Vigil. We got to a high point of getting around 250 a week, that was 2008 when the crisis in Zimbabwe was so crucial. Nowadays we get about a hundred but you know we’re a regular protest; we’re not a one-off demonstration where you can get everybody to come.

It’s a regular protest that people have to commit to and I think for a hundred people a week at a regular protest is a good number so I don’t get the feeling of, the key members of our organisation are very committed to the human rights cause in Zimbabwe and we’ll keep fighting.

The thing is about immigration, people come to this country from Zimbabwe, they’ve fled because of having a bad life in Zimbabwe and they’ll do everything they can to settle here and sometimes their energies for just living here, sorting out their own lives here take up everything so if they come here for us it’s a bonus.

The thing is about people who come to us because they want help with their asylum issues, many of them become committed to the human rights cause and start thinking beyond themselves and that’s a very good thing. We’ve got people who’ve been with us a long time who came probably for the reasons of wanting support for asylum and have stayed with us and committed themselves to the human rights cause.

Guma: Is there any particular reason why you selected a Saturday for your protest? Some will argue maybe Saturdays when people are off and resting from a week’s worth of work and maybe a week day would have been better when the embassy is open. What do you make of that?

Benton: Well the thing is that people, the very reason is because people don’t work on a Saturday and we do get more people in, it means that we can get people from all over the country. People come to us from Scotland; they actually travel overnight on a coach from Scotland, spend the day with us and travel overnight again to get back home in the evening.

And they come from Northern Ireland and the north of England, it’s a heavy commitment and I don’t think they would be able to do that during the week, they wouldn’t be able to get away in that way. I think that even though the embassy isn’t open, and even actually if you are there during the week there’s not very much sign of the embassy being open.

Guma: Now The Vigil, Rose over the years has received some negative press with allegations that you take advantage of asylum seekers who are desperate for letters from the organisation confirming their participation in your activities. Brian who lives in London has Twittered a similar question – is this fair criticism?

Benton: No it’s absolutely not. The thing is about The Vigil, we do write letters for people, we write letters strictly on their attendance because we know nothing else about them, we know nothing about their human rights commitments, all we know is that they are committing to being on the street and being visible as a human rights protester against the abuses in Zimbabwe and we will write letters.

We have a small admin charge which is necessary because we have no funding so basically we need to cover our own costs so that’s all we charge and it’s, and we do not abuse, we keep very strictly to our procedures and we’ve actually outlined our procedures in our diary several times and basically the reason we say that people at The Vigil, The Vigil attendance counts as an element in your asylum cases because you are visible on the street. We are photographed by people, we have fairly good evidence that CIO keeps an eye on us and also on the photographs that are spread around websites so you are a visible presence if you protest with us.

Guma: Your partner organisation, ROHR, that you say has a presence in Zimbabwe, has obviously also faced similar accusations that on occasions they demand as much as two hundred (pounds) from people who want letters. Is there any truth in these claims?

Benton: I think what ROHR, ROHR doesn’t, ROHR asks for membership because by committing to membership you are committing to human rights. If you don’t commit to that membership then you are just using ROHR and not making no commitment to them so that’s what they ask for, they ask for membership fees and they are not actually payment for letters.

Guma: OK what are these membership fees? Just to clarify for people who are listening.

Benton: I think it’s £10 a month, that what I, I don’t run the ROHR administration but I think it’s £10 a month membership fees which is probably in line with a lot of organisations.

Guma: Tonderai Munyuki writes to us and says we know your weekend vigils have been important in terms of informing people who pass by the area here in the UK but have they had any effect on the situation in Zimbabwe?

Benton: This is quite difficult to say whether they’ve actually had an effect but I know that we are known and resented by the human rights abusers in Zimbabwe. It’s a slow process, you dig away. Every time we pick up on some issue and publicise it, it gets round to the world more. I’m sure it influences people like the EU in their applying of targeted sanctions and things like that.

A constant keeping up, keeping issues in the public eye so when you look at what’s happening, nothing seems to have changed in Zimbabwe but it’s interesting that recently SADC has been much tougher on Mugabe and I think we’re part of that process because we constantly look at what is happening and bring to the attention of people the anomalies and unfairness of the situation.

Guma: I suppose you’ve answered part of the next question but Susan  Mawanza sends a text message and says apart from the weekly vigil does your organisation lobby government officials and other organisations to influence their policies on Zimbabwe?

Benton: Well yes, you know we have run petitions ever since we started. We started red off with a very big petition to the UN human rights commissioner who, and we had a very big event in connection with that. We delivered it to parliament; we hired a red double-decker, open plan double-decker and drove around the streets of London delivering it to the parliament, to the UN offices at Milbank and driving around the streets and increasing awareness.

But we’ve done a lot of petitions to the EU, to the UN, to southern African, to SADC, to the AU, to FIFA, to the British government, there’ve been, we’ve run constant petitions. Our current petitions are – one is to the UN Security Council asking for peacekeeping forces in Zimbabwe before, during and after elections and a real strong monitoring of processes if there is an election to make sure they are free and fair and the other petition is to the EU government saying they should stop government-to-government aid to all SADC countries who do not honour their human rights commitments i.e. they tacitly support Mugabe in his brutality to his own people.

Guma: Recently you sent out a statement that a group of Zimbabweans had met to consider the political stalemate and that the conference resolved to form a new global movement called Zimbabwe Yes We Can. Ephraim Tapa was elected president of the new movement. Now tell us about this.

Benton: Yah my understanding is, because I haven’t actually personally involved in this process is there’s a lot of people who feel there’s a real vacuum in the political climate in Zimbabwe and a need for something stronger. I have heard that Ephraim has been approached by a lot of people from different groups and so they did all meet in Leeds to set up a sort of on the ground protest movement which they are calling Zimbabwe Yes We Can.

And this group, movement is kind of based on the protest movements that have taken place in the Middle East to really work on how they can disrupt the dictatorship. There’s a very interesting treatise by a man called Gene Sharp called From Dictatorship to Democracy which was used as the bible for the Egyptian protest where he lists all the ways that you can overthrow a dictatorship.

He says dictatorships only exist by this, because of the tacit support of the people, either through fear or whatever but basically what he is saying is that if you can find the right way to overturn them by finding weaknesses, so this is all a process. And it is such a process isn’t it? I mean you know, you think you can overturn things because it’s unfair but there’s so many people who have a stake in what’s happening, a stake in continuing the corruption, a stake in continuing to put the country’s wealth into their pockets which causes real problems and it’s not just Zimbabwe, so many countries are like this.

Guma: Is this movement, Zimbabwe Yes We Can, is it a political party? Most of the coverage seems to have suggested that it’s a political party.

Benton: I think at the moment it’s a group of people getting together to find out what’s the way forward so as it stands at the moment it’s not a political party. Definitely not yet, not a political party. What might develop who knows? There’s certainly room for a political party in Zimbabwe and it all depends on how things go and I don’t know enough about the in and outs.

They’re having another meeting in June and maybe more will become apparent from that meeting but for the moment it’s just gathering support for a big grassroots movement and I think there’s some fairly high powered people involved, I don’t know quite who they all are and there’s been a lot of interest both in Zimbabwe and in the Diaspora in this and that’s not just the UK, I think from South Africa and from the US. I’m not really the best person to ask about this because this is all what I’ve heard from other people.

Guma: OK well you know in everything that is done there are cynics and some are already pointing to this as just a fund raising venture by disgruntled people who were expelled from different political parties. They’re pointing to people like Ephraim Tapa saying well he was expelled from the MDC, now he’s starting this group – you’d like to put in a word for him there?

Benton: Yes I have actually spoken to Ephraim personally about this and he did not start this group, he was approached by many different people to get involved in this so it wasn’t his initiative in the first place. He was just pulled into it and they see him as a leader and he gets a very bad press and I never understand why because I’ve known him for many years and he’s been consistent in his human rights activism.

So he’s one person who has consistently worked very hard and stayed a human rights activist even though he’s in this country, sorted out his life here and he could just sit back and do nothing but he doesn’t. So I absolutely support Ephraim Tapa and his efforts, I have worked with him very closely for many years and I find the negative publicity, it’s largely jealousy and stupidity.

Guma: Final question for you Rose, almost nine years of Zim Vigil protest as we pointed out at the beginning of the programme, if you were to pick your favourite moments in all that time of activism, whether it was a campaign or a petition, what would you pick as your favourite project?

Benton: Well we’ve had some very high-powered protests; the protest when Zuma arrived and was outside the South African embassy was quite a high point. We’ve had very heart-warming protests, (inaudible) during election times in Zimbabwe and that’s something I think, also we’ve had some very good, wonderful visitors – Pius Ncube visited us in the early days as did Roy Bennett, David Coltart and last week, yes, Benjamin Zephaniah came, the famous London poet and he was very, very damning about Mugabe which you can read on our last diary.

Oh yes another famous visitor was Nick Clegg before he became deputy prime minister so it’s always been very interesting outside the embassy and I think probably the biggest thing for me is the life of The Vigil and the warmth of the people there and the fact is that we just want to continue there because of the suffering of the people of Zimbabwe and we will do that.

Guma: Well Zimbabwe that was Rose Benton one of the…

Benton: Oh hang on, what about Lisbon, Lance?

Guma: Yes I was waiting for you to say that.

Benton: It’s hard to remember everything, what about Lisbon? Lance was with us in Lisbon (covering the protest), our protest in Lisbon was extraordinary. We took 25 activists over there and we protested solidly for three days. I think Dumi Tutani who was leading the singing and dancing sang four hours solid without a break.

And always at The Vigil everybody else shouts slogans but the Zimbabwe way of protesting through song and dance is so effective. Sometimes people say we are having a party but in fact it is the Zimbabwe way and it is, it draws a lot of attention and a lot of sympathy and people coming to support us.

Guma: Well Zimbabwe that’s Rose Benton, one of the coordinators of The Zimbabwe Vigil here in the United Kingdom. Rose, thank you so much for your time.

Benton: That’s a pleasure Lance.

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