When a 71-year-old villager from somewhere in rural Zimbabwe was asked if he knew about the Organ for National Healing, Reconciliation and Integration (ONHRI), he stood up and told the people fielding the question — and fellow villagers gathered in the old classroom block where the meeting was taking place: “I may lie to you about the organ. I was not yet born when it was formed.”
A widow attending the same meeting was asked what she would need to be healed and she replied: “My husband.”
Her husband was brutally murdered in cold blood at the height of political violence in the run-up to the June 2008 presidential election rerun.
The ONHRI has been in existence for almost as long as the inclusive government has been around — almost three years.
It is clearly evident, however, from answers given by the 71-year old villager and the widow from the same village that the organ remains largely anonymous.
It is in this light that I find last week efforts by the organ, through Media, Information and Publicity minister Webster Shamu, to incorporate the media in its endeavours to propagate the message of peace to the masses of Zimbabwe, very commendable.
Vice-President John Nkomo, chairperson of ONHRI, and co-leaders of the organ Ministers of State, Sekai Holland and Moses Mzila-Ndlovu, did their best to appeal to the conscience of journalists to see reason and support their peace efforts.
Theirs is a daunting task, and the senior citizens are clearly aware of the work before them — hence they summoned their wisdom and it took them to Minister Shamu’s door.
Despite the ignorance of the existence of the organ, most of those that have heard about it, especially those that suffered from political violence, are not convinced the organ can deal with the many tensions still prevalent countrywide.
The media is useful in this instance, not only to build public confidence in the ONHRI, but to inculcate the much-needed spirit of peace among Zimbabweans.
ONHRI’s mandate is to advise government on the best possible ways to achieve national healing and reconciliation in the country.
A lot of people are still struggling to shrug off their violent past experiences. Many of them want to be compensated before they can put the matter to rest.
A lot more do not believe there is a likelihood perpetrators of violence will ever repent and even more, still want to see offenders prosecuted. Others are seeking personal vengeance.
The formation of the national healing organ was viewed by many as a watershed opportunity for stemming the nation’s historically entrenched culture of violence and impunity.
Zimbabwe had never before comprehensively attempted to compel perpetrators of politically-motivated violence to acknowledge their transgressions.
Political expedience has always outweighed the imperatives of victim-sensitive national healing.
While the purpose for its existence is clearly crucial, the healing organ’s major deficiency in the contemporary conciliatory political milieu is the lack of clear and binding instruments for achieving national healing and reconciliation.
Minister Holland said the ONHRI was not out to punish offenders, but to promote reconciliation and peace because “African culture does not have punitive measures” as a means for conflict resolution or peace finding.
Conflict resolution, she said, is in the African culture, based on voluntarism and a pledge to address wrongs.
But, as VP Nkomo asked, how can this voluntarism, trust and confidence be achieved when new violence is seen sprouting?
How can the parties preach peace and hope to be believed when violence is the order of the day, even within their own parties?
Because violence is a common means used by people and governments to achieve political goals, our political leaders, while singing from the peace hymn book, still believe violence is not only justified, but also necessary in order to achieve their political objectives — to intimidate the people into acquiescence.
This is a matter that the ONHRI should deal with in such a manner that the people can be convinced of their relevance.
They cannot expend their efforts on dealing with healing yesterday’s wounds without ensuring new wounds are not wrought upon the same communities. Their efforts would be rendered futile.
That is perhaps why a transitional justice system has been considered an option by other schools of thought in dealing with the Zimbabwe situation.
The apparent failure by politicians to stop violence — to dismantle such anti-social groups like the infamous Mbare-based Chipangano — makes it imperative to critically examine the relevance of instituting transitional justice systems with a view to making informed choices about achieving a balance between comprehensive processes of restorative justice and retributive justice systems.
Like the three ministers in the organ of national healing observed last week, Zimbabwe needs to realise that this crucial national healing effort will not succeed if the people remain deeply divided along political lines and human relations are plagued with fear, mistrust and suspicion.