HARARE – Brigadier General Sanyatwe has been mocked on social media for claiming that a soldier captured on video shooting straight at protesters on August 1 was in fact holding his gun at a 45-degree angle.
Sanyatwe commanded a National Reaction Force unit that was deployed on the streets of Harare to quell opposition protests, resulting in the shooting deaths of at least six people and injury to dozens others.
He gave evidence to a commission of inquiry led by former South African President Kgalema Motlanthe on Monday, during which he claimed that the six members of public killed on that day were already dead by the time troops arrived.
Sanyatwe, the commander of the Presidential Guard, also insisted that soldiers had not shot at protesters.
His testimony, which was backed by the Zimbabwe Defence Forces commander General Phillip Valerio Sibanda, left Zimbabweans seething with incredulous bemusement.
At the centre of the public anger is a video captured by a crew from Britain’s ITV News which shows a soldier kneeling and opening fire on protesters.
“If you watch that video closely, that soldier who took a kneeling position was firing, if you check properly with military experts, that rifle was being fired at an angle of 45 degrees in the air and not direct to the rioters,” Sanyatwe said.
Asked if he had reviewed the video, Sanyatwe said: “I did.”
Probed further if that was his assessment, he replied: “It’s not my assessment but exactly what happened.”
The soldier had taken the kneeling position to avoid stones being thrown by protesters, Sanyatwe said – although no stones can be seen in the video.
In his testimony, General Sibanda also took a similar line, insisting that all none of the deaths could be attributed to the military.
On the ITV video, which shows the soldier shooting before another soldier – thought to be his senior – hits him at the back, Sibanda said: “The kneeling soldier, whatever happened to him, he was not supposed to be taking that position, he was supposed to be moving forward. When you kneel, you are also slowing down the process. They had been told they should continue to advance.
“Yes, that happened, and there will always be these things that happen from time to time but I don’t believe there was any soldier who opened fire on those rioters because if that had happened then we would have had more deaths than the numbers we are talking about.”
Jason Burke, a correspondent for The Guardian newspaper in the UK who was in Harare that day said on Twitter: “Zimbabwean generals deny troops shot and killed six protesters. Which is just extraordinary. I was there, and took cover as soldiers, yes, military servicemen with automatic weapons, opened fire, then cleared streets at gunpoint.”
Straight shooter … The infamous soldier shooting at protesters on August 1
Getting angles right … How a gun tilted at 45 degrees would look
Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, a local non-governmental organisation said it is “perturbed by the misleading evidence presented by top army and police officers”, adding: “We note an apparent attempt to blame the opposition, business and ordinary citizens for the shootings and this will likely lead to a witch-hunt that will see continued persecution of hundreds of activists that were arrested in the aftermath of the killings.”
Freeman Chari, a pro-democracy activist, said: “The testimony by both Sibanda and Sanyatwe messed up my day. I am angry. It is this kind of contempt and nonchalance that makes me believe that a democratic transition in Zimbabwe is highly unlikely without the force of the gun again!”
Other Zimbabweans elected humour to mock Sanyatwe’s understanding of angles.
“A very special good morning to all the people who slept at a 45-degree angle,” said @TichRay on Twitter.
The Motlanthe Commission began its work in September and is expected to report back at the end of three months before Christmas.
The August 1 killings in a post-election flare-up drew international condemnation. To buy himself time, and some say to lull the international community’s rage, President Emmerson Mnangagwa – who won a disputed election – set up the commission.
The opposition MDC says the commission is Mnangagwa’s attempt at a whitewash.
MDC party spokesman Jacob Mafume said the scarcely-believable testimony by the military chiefs was a sign that the whole inquiry was a farce.
“This just confirms our previously stated position that this commission of inquiry is a farce, a process meant to cleanse the army and put blame on the opposition,” said Mafume. “We are not taking it seriously.”