Filmmaker says Beatrice Mtetwa’s use of the rule of law is ‘her means of resistance against the regime’
Beatrice Mtetwa grew up on a Swaziland farm with nearly 50 siblings. An average day involved waking at 4am, working in the maize fields, preparing breakfast for her family, walking barefoot to school over an hour away, preparing dinner, doing chores and, finally, going to bed. Now 54, she believes it was her childhood struggles that helped make her who she is today: a fearless human rights lawyer in Zimbabwe, dedicating her life to representing those persecuted under the Mugabe regime, and whose story has been captured in a new documentary.
For over two decades, she’s proven indefatigable in her fight against injustice. In 2009 Mtetwa became the only African other than Nelson Mandela to win the prestigious Ludovic-Trarieux International Human Rights Prize. Now, her courage in the face of almost insurmountable obstacles has been captured in a film – Beatrice Mtetwa and the Rule of Law – due to have its UK premiere in London on Tuesday 18 June.
It was feared that Mtetwa would not be able to attend as she is currently fighting her own court battle in Harare, having been arrested in March on charges of obstructing the course of justice. Over the weekend, however, the trial was postponed until the end of June, enabling her to fly to London. Mtetwa, as one might expect, strenuously denies the charges.
Speaking exclusively to IBA Global Insight, Mtetwa recalls her youth, where her “antagonistic” relationship with her father prepared her for a lifetime of speaking truth to power. Her earliest memory is from when she was six years old, she says, when she questioned why she and her younger sister had to walk to school when her brother and cousin could cycle.
“The only weapon I developed as a form of protest was to surreptitiously take out the air from the bicycle tyres every morning, which almost always delayed the cyclists. From then on, I questioned virtually everything I did not agree with.”
“For me, the rule of law is the most important thing because virtually every aspect of a country is anchored on the existence of, and respect for, this principle”.
As the eldest child of 50, Mtetwa took over the role of mother to her siblings – “one or two” more of whom arrived every year – and swiftly learnt how to stand up for herself and her family. “I always had no fear challenging authority if I was convinced I was right,” she says. “Conviction has therefore been my biggest strength in whatever I do.”
The feisty youngster became the first in her extended family to attend high school, and went on to the University of Botswana and Swaziland. Here, due to “lousy science grades” and a desire to please her father, she chose to study law. After gaining her degree in 1981, she married a Zimbabwean mathematician and moved to Harare to pursue a career as a government prosecutor.
Following five years on the job, however, Mtetwa became disillusioned by the selective justice she saw being meted out. She moved into private practice, where for around a decade she was able to pursue human rights work without political interference. From 2000, however, the climate changed. Lawyers were enticed into the government fold with lucrative appointments, and those who refused were intimidated, beaten and threatened with deportation.
“Given the economic situation in Zimbabwe, most corporations have been intimidated into not using certain lawyers and lawyers are now labelled in accordance with their perceived political allegiances,” Mtetwa says. “The result has been a heavy exodus of corporate clients to law firms deemed “politically correct”.”
Mtetwa’s clients over the past decade have included scores of high profile politicians, civil activists, journalists and business executives. Those appearing in the documentary include Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) Treasurer Roy Bennett, arrested and imprisoned many times; former MDC Mayor of Harare Elia Mudzuri, arrested and beaten by the police; and Gift Phiri, chief writer for the Harare-based Daily News, abducted and arrested by state police for “publishing false news”.
While many of Mtetwa’s cases have involved MDC opposition members, she is careful to remain apolitical. “It would be difficult for me to say that the MDC is better than Zanu-PF as they have not had the opportunity to wholly exercise power,” she says. “For me, the rule of law is the most important thing because virtually every aspect of a country is anchored on the existence of, and respect for, this principle.”
Boston filmmaker Lorie Conway chose to tell Mtetwa’s story in her documentary as a vehicle to expose the iniquities of the Mugabe regime. She smuggled three small cameras into the country to get the footage she needed. “I realised her use of the rule of law is her means of resistance against the regime, and her way to make it accountable for the crimes it has committed,” Conway tells IBA Global Insight. “When you litigate, they have to respond. And she forced the regime to respond.”
Conway stresses that, while Mtetwa is the focus of the film, there are ‘many, many’ others equally willing to risk their lives for the sake of justice. “She is by no means working alone. She is surrounded by dedicated, fearless upholders of the law and human rights.”
For Mtetwa, the message of the film is to show that, with enough human courage and will, change is possible. “If all Zimbabweans worked together towards this common goal, this would be achievable within a short space of time,’ she says. ‘If anyone wants change, they have the obligation to do something to attain that change.”