Job Sikhala has been in prison for more than 100 days.
The deputy chairman of Zimbabwe’s official opposition, the Citizens for Change Coalition, has been accused of inciting his supporters to commit acts of violence. For most of his time behind bars, Sikhala has been in solitary confinement at the infamous Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison on the outskirts of Harare.
Sikhala denies the charges, which human rights lawyers have described as politically motivated.
The 50-year-old lawyer and politician has limited contact with the outside world and communications are strictly controlled, but he was able to respond to questions in writing.
“I live in a single cell, which means I’m always alone, but even this strategy hasn’t broken me,” he said.
He is a big man, and the cell is small. He sleeps on the floor with blankets, and the small windows mean there is little fresh air.
However, he remains defiant.
“I’d rather die defending what I think is right than commit. I am a leader and I have a responsibility to stand up, act and speak for those who cannot.”
Sikhala grew up in Masvingo province and became an activist while studying history at the University of Zimbabwe. He was a founding member in 1999 of the Movement for Democratic Change, led by the late Morgan Tsvangirai, and later an opposition MP for St Mary’s constituency in Chitungwiza.
His politics have always put him at odds with the government. His current troubles began in June, after the murder of opposition activist Moreblessing Ali in Chitungwiza. Ali was allegedly killed by Pius Jamba, a known member of the ruling Zanu-PF, in an argument over money. Jamba is in jail and facing criminal charges.
Anti-government protests erupted during a memorial service for Ali. These turned violent when Zanu-PF supporters arrived. Police arrested 16 opposition supporters, including Sikhala and Godfrey Sithole, another opposition MP. No supporters of the ruling party were arrested.
Earlier this month, Sikhala was denied bail for the sixth time.
“No matter how strong the legal arguments are, they are not prepared to release him for [political interference]”, said his lawyer, Freddy Masarirevu. “Sikhala is seen as a threat to the regime and his interests and this Moreblessing Ali case was an opportunity to silence him once and for all.”
Sikhala echoes this analysis, saying: “Our judiciary has been used to fight political battles” and that there is “clear evidence of political interference” in the case.
The state disagrees.
In late September, when questioned in parliament about Sikhala and Sithole’s continued detention, Justice Minister Ziyambi Ziyambi said: “There is no discrimination or selective application of the law.”
When faced with more questions in October, Ziyambi warned stakeholders to desist from politicizing the Sikhala issue.
Masarirevu says that his client remains in good spirits and that the success of his beloved Arsenal Football Club, currently leaders of the English Premier League, brings him some joy.
Word of Arsenal’s results comes from some of the prison guards Sikhala has befriended.
But he is worried about his family — he is the father of 10 children — and especially his last son, who is just 10 years old. “Sometimes I am affected by thoughts about my youngest son. I always ask, has he been to school? Who is going to pick him up from school? What is he going to have for lunch?
He doesn’t know when he will see his family again. “If they want to keep me here for 20 years, let them do it. I’m physically and mentally prepared.”
This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly produced in collaboration with the mail and guardian. It is designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.