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Scepticism greets rights commission

Comment & Analysis
PRESIDENT Robert Mugabe last week jointly swore in commissioners of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC) and the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission in line with constitutional provisions. 

PRESIDENT Robert Mugabe last week jointly swore in commissioners of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC) and the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission in line with constitutional provisions. 

His partners in the inclusive govern-ment, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and his deputy Arthur Mutambara described the move as progressive. But sceptics say it takes more than a ceremonious event for the commissioners to carry out their duties.

Firstly, critics argue that the calibre of some of the commissioners is questionable. They also say other commissioners have no “demonstrable record” of upholding human rights. The appointments of the commissioners have also been seen as comeback time for some political activists who hitherto had been relegated to obscurity.

A local human rights pressure group, ZimRights, this week said ZHRC could fail to deliver.“While the move is a stepping stone in the fulfilment of the provisions of the Global Political Agreement, ZimRights doubts that it will make meaningful contribution to the human rights situation in the country,” read a statement issued by the rights group.

“A peek at past commissions shows that they have been nothing but toothless bulldogs, and have done nothing yet to change the status quo.”

Secondly, with no enabling Acts of Parliament to operationalise the commissions and parliament currently adjourned until June, no meaningful work can be carried out unless the new laws are fast-tracked. Again this could come with its flaws.

However, MDC-T Senator Obert Gutu, who last year chaired the interviewing panel of lawmakers that selected the commissioners, said the ZHRC is “composed of men and women of integrity who should be able to rise above partisan politics and ensure that the democratisation process in Zimbabwe continues to gather irreversible momentum.”

Only time will tell.

The Zimbabwe Independent this week looked into the profiles of ZHRC commissioners. The commission comprises chairperson Reg Austin, Ellen Sithole, Kwanele Jirira, Nomathemba Neseni, Elasto Mugwadi, Joseph Kurebwa, Japhet Ndabeni Ncube, Jacob Mudenda, and Carol Khombe.

Reg Austin, a renowned law professor and experienced election administrator, the University of Zimbabwe Dean of the Law faculty is an ex-Zapu activist who joined the former liberation movement as a teen. He subsequently worked in various countries where he was among other things instrumental in formulating legal policies for transitional governments.

He served as Chief Electoral Officer of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia; as Director of the Electoral Component, United Nations Observer Mission in South Africa; as Director of Legal and Constitutional Affairs at the Commonwealth Secretariat, London; as a Director of the Electoral Unit at International IDEA in Stockholm; and served as Chief Electoral Adviser for Afghanistan’s 2004 presidential election.

Austin was last week quoted by a state-controlled daily saying the commission would attempt to authenticate “rumours” of human rights violations.

“There are a number of rumours that we have heard and we will have to find out the facts,” he said.

Jacob Mudenda (64) is the former Zanu PF governor for Matabeleland North who according to reports  fell from grace after his name was implicated in the messy Willowgate Scandal. Mudenda then went into private practice at his Bulawayo-based law firm after the 1980s car scheme scandal that involved senior government officials. For him this could be a major comeback. Former Standard editor Davison Maruziva, who was then Chronicle deputy editor, reported in 1988 Mudenda’s alleged purchase of a 30-tonne Scania P112 mechanical horse, ostensibly for his father’s refuse removal business in the small town of Dete.

Jonathan Maphenduka, then business editor of the Chronicle, reportedly contributed to the Willowgate investigation when he travelled to Dete to probe the Mudenda family garbage removal enterprise. Maphenduka’s report revealed that the Scania was, in fact, due to replace a donkey-drawn cart. It also emerged that Mudenda profitably sold the truck in question to a Bulawayo-based company.

Ellen Sithole (47) — the name could probably ring bells for “learned” members of the legal fraternity who read law at the University of Zimbabwe. She is also sister of Irene Sithole, former law officer in the Attorney General’s office who unfortunately failed to make it during last year’s interviews. A Google search of the UZ law lecturer shows that apart from imparting knowledge to law students, Sithole has written various papers advocating women’s rights. She is “fighting” for women’s rights, we are told.

Ellasto Mugwadi (60) — The appointment of Mugwadi, a former chief immigration officer, received wide criticism from pressure groups. A lawyer by training, Mugwadi’s unceremonious deportation of American journalist Andrew Meldrum made him infamous. Reports show that Mugwadi in 2003 refused to comply with a High Court order that blocked the deportation of Meldrum.


The journalist was abducted despite promises to his lawyer that he would not be, and forced out of the country despite having a valid residence permit. It is also during Mugwadi’s tenure that former Southern Rhodesian prime minister Garfield Todd was stripped of his citizenship under controversial provisions that outlawed dual citizenship.

Apart from Todd thousands of farm workers of foreign origin and some white commercial farmers also lost their right to vote due to this piece of legislation that came on the eve of the 2002 presidential elections.Kwanele Jirira is a social worker with a doctorate in Gender and Labour which could make her influential in advocating gender mainstreaming. She also has an MA in Political Science and BSc in Social Work. Jirira has 23 years of lecturing experience.

Carol Themba Khombe is a professor at the National University of Science and Technology department of Animal Science. Despite being a renowned researcher in this field, Khombe’s name is little known. Her studies include, The inheritance of weaning weight in Mashona cattle grazing on free range in Zimbabwe. But she has no notable record on human rights.

Joseph Kurebwa (44) University of Zimbabwe political scientist and pro-Zanu PF scholar with an interesting past. His appointment as group editor-in-chief of a CIO-owned outfit, the Zimbabwe Mirror Newspapers Group, was controversial. During the 2008 general elections he ran a controversial poll ostensibly on behalf of the UZ political science department which placed Mugabe ahead of his rivals, Morgan Tsvangirai and Simba Makoni. This survey was disowned by the department and the opposition MDC-T described it as an intelligence ploy to campaign for the octogenarian leader.

At the interview he promised to make the commission “visible” after revealing that Zimbabweans were now losing confidence in the justice system.

Japhet Ndabeni-Ncube (71) — for the former MDC executive mayor of Bulawayo this could be time for him to bounce back to prominence after losing in the 2008 House of Assembly elections on an MDC-Mutambara ticket. Ndabeni-Ncube holds a doctorate in economics among other qualifications in commerce.

Nomathemba Neseni — a social worker who through the Institute of Water and Sanitation Development is renowned for advocating for the provision of safe and clean water. Urban residents have been living for years without the precious liquid due to the breakdown of infrastructure.

By Bernard Mpofu