The National Transitional Justice Working Group (NTJWG) held a symposium from November 21–23 in Bulawayo. The meeting was a huge success, judging by the comments, interactions and other engagements at the meeting as well as on social media. The coverage in newspapers and radios in Zimbabwe and abroad is also testimony to the success. Besides, bringing 118 stakeholders working on transitional justice matters in Zimbabwe, the region and internationally together, there was an affirmation and recognition that the transitional justice debate in Zimbabwe needs to be moved to a higher level. That status will be achieved by coming up with a policy framework to direct how transitional justice should be implemented in Zimbabwe. There are several positive and negative issues that could be highlighted, but I will focus on a few that stuck out for me.
guest column: Tendai Chabvuta
The question of the disputed tenure and false start of the National Peace and Reconciliation Commissiion (NPRC)
One of the NPRC commissioners attending the symposium raised an issue that civil society had to stand in the corner of the NPRC and question the government on the exact tenure of the NPRC. There are misunderstandings on whether the NPRC’s tenure should be calculated from 2013 when the Constitution was promulgated, as the NPRC is a creation of the new Constitution. This would effectively mean that the tenure of the NPRC ends in 2023. Another argument is that since the commissioners were only appointed by former President Robert Mugabe on February 24, 2016, it means that their tenure should be calculated from that time and the life of the NPRC should, therefore, end in 2026. I find this argument rather preposterous and akin to the same arguments that caused problems for Pierre Nkurunziza’s tenure in Burundi.
The law is clear on the lifespan of the NPRC. That one person could have been sworn in at a later stage is none of the commissioner’s business. The commissioners must serve their terms until the legally prescribed timeline and if ever there will be need to extend their terms, the government of the day at that time will ensure that happens.
Yet again, there is another argument that since the NPRC Act was gazetted on January 5, 2018, it leaves room for another interpretation on the tenure of the NPRC. Again, I find this argument unnecessary. The call for civil society to be involved in such arguments would be a complete waste of time, undeserving of precious time and if the commissioners were really worried about such they would need to question the government through their normal interactions or take the matter to the courts of the land.
The question of the unrepresentative composition of the NPRC
At the symposium, Siphosami Malunga, the executive director of Osisa made a passionate plea that the NPRC should be reconfigured so that its composition reflects the needs of Gukurahundi victims and survivors. This call seems and sounded very controversial on one end and on another very reasonable, considering the circumstances in which the country finds itself in with regards the Matabeleland massacres.
There have been arguments that on a practical level, to call for an inclusion of more commissioners would need the Constitution to be amended. Sceptics think that such a call would be used by the current government to divert its attention from working on Gukurahundi and thus would lead to serious and further delays in resolving the matter.
However, I am of the view that the call to include one or two more commissioners, specifically from Matabeleland would serve as a conciliatory gesture by the government as well as ensure that the people of Matabeleland have someone in the NPRC who they trust and know would be able to articulate their issues well. Sipho acknowledged that the presence of Justice Selo Nare, who hails from the region, was clearly recognised, but maintained that the selection and appointment of the NPRC commissioners by Mugabe had been shrouded in so much controversy at the beginning that it would only be right to reconsider adding some commissioners from the region or asking some current commissioners who have questionable credentials to step down.
We will wait to see how this one plays out, but certainly, the die was cast on that day and a responsive commission will pay attention to such an issue and civil society on its own end will evaluate the pros and cons, and possibly push for it with the government.
The call for a separate Gukurahundi Bill
Another call was made by Sipho Malunga to consider having a separate Bill to deal specifically with Gukurahundi or consider having a special unit to focus on Gukurahundi in the NPRC.
Sceptics again argue that this could be self-defeating and places unnecessary importance on one conflict in Zimbabwe at the expense of other conflicts such as the resources conflicts in Manicaland, rights violations from the 2008 elections, the farm invasions as well as other economic rights violations that have bedevilled Zimbabwe over the years. I for one, still do not understand how a separate Bill would deal effectively with the Gukurahundi question without being used to divert attention by the ruling government which has so far succeeded to do that since the atrocities occurred.
What is clear though is that the NPRC needs to come up with a more robust and responsive action plan to handle Gukurahundi. One way of acknowledging such calls would be coming out to do public inquiries through social media, radio presentations and even requests for ideas from the public in the diaspora and at home on the issue.
The flawed perception that the NPRC cannot comment on controversial issues in the country
There seems to be a position in the NPRC that the commissioners cannot “comment, affirm or condemn” when issues that demand their attention occur in the country. The preferred position seems to be that the NPRC will conduct closed-door interactions and meetings with stakeholders to solve whatever matters might arise. I find this rather problematic and unfortunate on a number of levels.
The NPRC is a statutory body mandated by the Constitution to deal with issues of healing and reconciliation among others. The people of Zimbabwe place their trust in the nine men and women sitting on the NPRC to deliberate and intervene in important matters related to their mandate. It would be important in my opinion for individual commissioners to comment, condemn or affirm certain issues whenever they occur so that their voice is heard and just as a sign that their independence is not compromised in any way.
To want to play the diplomatic role and argue that their role is not to ruffle feathers with politicians in the ruling party, opposition ranks or the general population is rather unfortunate and in essence shows a commission that is more interested in its incumbency rather than dealing with issues openly.
There are several examples where commissions have stood up against their governments, taken strong positions, taken governments to court, been sued and defended themselves as well as voiced their concerns on critical issues such as the compromised chairperson in the Kenya TJRC, who was eventually removed from office.
The office of the Ombudsman in South Africa is another clear example of how a healthy interaction with the government can be conducted without necessarily doing it because the commission just felt the need to do so for malicious reasons.
In Zimbabwe and in a country whose economy is at its tethers, there is always going to be that last person who will think that the commissioners will not “condemn, affirm or comment” publicly because they are afraid of being removed from their “salaried jobs and perks” … and really that is the truth.
Economic rights violations, the theft and plunder of national coffers by Zanu PF politicians and many other issues.
There was a call at the symposium that the government needs, through the NPRC, its different ministries such as the Ministry of Health, Social Welfare and even Home Affairs, to come up with a comprehensive and immediate process/policy to deal with the needs of survivors and victims of past human rights violations right across the country.
The point that was raised also related to the notion that the NPRC, even though mandated to deal among others issues with healing, investigations and reconciliation, does not necessarily have the machinery or wherewithal to instruct the rest of the government machinery to respond in the desired manner to deal with its findings or recommendations. In that case, the NPRC could just be another white elephant. It will be important to see how the NPRC responds to such a call.
Transitional justice for Zimbabwe – whereto?
Other issues that were of topical concern included the need to deal with past economic justice issues, including the long-standing pensions matter that the Pensions Conversions Commision failed to resolve.
Another discussion focused on the need to reform the security sector in Zimbabwe. As one participant noted, this was the elephant in the room that everyone wants to avoid, but it is not known until when this will be able to hold. Zimbabwe requires a change in attitudes at all levels; socially, politically and economically, especially from the large corporates, who have largely benefited from the chaotic state of affairs for a long time without anyone questioning their involvement when government has implemented policies that have indirectly benefitted them at the expense of citizens.
Zimbabwe needs to find itself within this mess. No austerity measures, no amount of rhetoric or lip service will heal Zimbabwe on its own. Every other Zimbabwean who wants peace has to start or continue to engage issues around past human rights violations, including Gukurahundi, the liberation wars, human rights violations by Mugabe and his party, State -ponsored violence in the past, among others.
Tendai Chabvuta is a Zimbabwean researcher working on transitional justice in Zimbabwe and other African countries. He can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org