By Tawanda Magaisa
ANY discussion of the challenges faced by Zimbabwe has a common theme: Zimbabwe is in a poor state because of human rights violations for the past five years.
In other words, the human rights paradigm is dominant. It is the basis for international condemnation and it is argued as the reason for the economic collapse.
Without attempting to dismiss or underplay the gross violation of human rights in the country, I wish to offer an alternative approach to looking at the Zimbabwe problem.
In my view, more than simply a human rights issue, Zimbabwe’s problems largely arise from bad economic management over a long period of time, even during the time when the international community thought that Zimbabwe had a clean image.
Critically, the dominance of the human rights paradigm has tended to divert from the underlying cause for Zimbabweans’ dissatisfaction with their government.
The core problem in Zimbabwe is poor economic management, which others prefer to simply call in broad terms bad governance.
What really matters to the people is the economy and related issues. Human rights are equally significant, but they were not the principal reason for people’s rise against the government in the late 1990s.
It is easy to see why human rights are the centre of the debate – the view that Africa is in the state it is because of lack of democracy and as a result a poor human rights record.
Why is it important to frame the Zimbabwe problem beyond the human rights paradigm? It is important, as I seek to demonstrate in this article, because it may help to shed more light on the wider issues at stake to key African leaders and other participants seeking to resolve this problem.
They ought to understand that it is not simply a campaign to demonise their fellow liberation brethren, but that the real grievance lies at the failure of internal management of economic resources. Unfortunately, this has been turned into a Mugabe vs the West issue, whereas it is in fact an issue between the people of Zimbabwe and their government. There is need to understand that the key grievances against the government go far beyond the human rights issues which dominate current discussion.
I must quickly dispel any notion that I am attempting to dismiss the human rights problems in the country.
The point however is that the human rights violations are a result but not a primary cause of the problems in the country.
They are symptoms and may have exacerbated the situation that resulted principally from bad economic management.
The failure to pursue viable economic policies, curb economic crime, reduce indiscipline, etc have been the hallmarks of poor management of resources in the country and the cause of economic decline.
Arguably, the reason the people of Zimbabwe rose against the government in the late 1990s had little to do with human rights problems but are signs of poor economic management that were beginning to manifest themselves after years of recklessness.
It is the vice of poor management that needs to be tackled if Zimbabwe is to recover even under a new government.
You could replace the current regime with one that respects human rights in the usual way but if they do not pursue the right approaches to managing the resources, problems will persist.
We have seen this already in countries like Malawi and Zambia where change from the long-serving dictatorships has not necessarily yielded economic stability, let alone prosperity.
To any casual observer around the world, the problems in Zimbabwe centre on human rights violations.
In its portrayal in the media Zimbabwe ranks among the most repressive states in the world. It astounds many across the world why African leaders stand by while the regime allegedly violates human rights at will.
Some African leaders seem to argue that there is too much unnecessary attention on Zimbabwe given the lack of similar outcry in relation to places in Africa such as the DRCongo which are experiencing worse conditions.
To some African leaders “the Zimbabwe problem” is not in fact a problem at all when compared to the challenges faced by other states in the continent.
But that is where the problem lies with the dominant human rights paradigm. The problem with this paradigm is that it is cyclical and enables each side to offer arguments, which make sense to the extent that one chooses to fit in within a specific side. We can see this perfectly in the case of the one key issue on which the human right’s paradigm has been dominant – land.
The Zimbabwean government has always justified its actions in relation to the land redistribution exercise on the basis of correcting historical imbalances. The proponents of this argument argue that it was necessary to restore the human rights of the indigenous black people. So to them it is also a human rights issue. Then there is another section that accepts in principle the need to redistribute land, but believes that the methods used by the government were wrong.
They too couch their argument on the basis of human rights – arguing that the rights of property owners, workers, etc were violated during the chaotic process.
What both groups seem to now agree on however and indeed what the facts demonstrate, is that the exercise has caused economic disaster.
The way I would characterise this whole exercise, away from the human rights paradigm, is that this was quite simply a case of bad economic management.
The government acted irrationally and on the basis of a desire to rally political support during a time of dwindling political fortunes, thereby throwing all principles of economic prudence that had hitherto governed their conduct in relation to land.
What was required was an economic policy framework, which recognised the interests of the white property landowners and the claims of the majority black population.
The state failed to do so – a clear case of poor economic planning and irrational judgement. But because we are all forced to see things from a human rights perspective, we talk only of human rights violations as the key problem, with the economic meltdown as a mere consequence, not a central part of the problem. Instead, I would put it thus: poor management of the land resource characterised by a misallocation of resources is the principal cause of decline in agricultural productivity and consequently, economic meltdown.
The need to resolve this economic problem is not to allocate land on the basis of skin colour, political office and such other stupid criteria but recognising the skill and capacity to undertake viable farming. There is no room for sentimental considerations that start and end with slogans like “This is the land of our forefathers!” – So what, if you cannot make it productive? Similarly, restricting media freedom and closing down newspapers is not merely a violation of the freedom of expression. It is a case of poor economic management – the calculated attempt to destroy an industry that employs masses of people both directly and indirectly. Similarly, Operation Murambatsvina should not be simply assessed as a human rights problem – it is in fact a clear demonstration of bad governance.
This is because it is the same leadership that led to the proliferation of illegal settlements either by actively encouraging people to settle or doing nothing to prevent them when they had the power to do so.
There are organisations and individuals that thrive on the human rights agenda.
They want everything to be seen within the context of human rights, even if that characterisation obfuscates the real shortcomings and issues at stake.
In conclusion, I reiterate that I do not seek to dismiss any blatant violations taking place in Zimbabwe.
But it seems to me that we must not lose sight of other real causes of the country’s predicament and that the people’s grievances do not necessarily have to be couched as human rights matters to be relevant.
This means that even if a new government were to come into power, it is not simply the restoration of human rights that will solve Zimbabwe’s problems. That is only part of the process.
We do not have to place everything within a human rights framework – that may in itself be one of the reasons for the cyclical nature of the Zimbabwe debate. Perhaps framing issues beyond the simple human rights paradigm might shed more light and pave the way to a solution. I think it is – sometimes we do not realise that the language and framework of discussion can be as important as the substance itself.
*Dr Magaisa is a specialist in Corporate and Financial Services Law. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org