By Stephanie Nolen
THE woman who is arguably Zimbabwe’s best lawyer hasn’t won an important case in recent memory. Sure, she wins the divorces and the commercial cases — but few of the cruc
ial ones, the battles to protect freedom of expression and the democratic process in her imploding country.
Even when the rulings go her way, the judgements are ignored and the victories are empty.
Some might wonder why Beatrice Mtetwa keeps going back to court.
“People always ask me why I go to court if I don’t believe it is possible to get justice,” Mtetwa said in her law office in Harare last week. “But I am one of those who want to record every little thing. So I take most cases to court, not because I expect I will win but so we can learn — 10 or 20 years from now, we can look at these records and say: ‘You, you were the judge who made this ruling.’”
Mtetwa (46) has been back in Zimbabwe’s supreme and constitutional courts again and again in recent weeks, in the run-up to the parliamentary election on March 31. She has fought spying charges against three of the past four international correspondents in the country, who have fled out of fear for their safety; argued to get popular opposition parliamentarian Roy Bennett out of jail; appealed to reopen newspapers closed by the government; and tried to get four million exiled Zimbabweans the right to vote.
The lawyer has a brisk and steely manner, at odds with her funky 1970s-style eyeglasses and the bubble gum she likes to snap, and an unmistakable fearlessness. Although she has represented the defence in nearly every prominent human-rights case in Zimbabwe since the country’s political crisis began in the late 1990s, she has remained mostly unscathed.
(One exception: she was badly beaten by a police officer, presumably because of her human-rights work, in October of 2003, when she was attempting to get help with a carjacking.)
She won’t say as much herself, but one simple thing appears to protect her: she is one of the best lawyers in town, and even her most bitter opponents in the Zanu PF party come to her for their private legal matters. She refuses to violate their confidentiality, but it is well-known in Harare that Mtetwa handled the police commissioner’s divorce, even while suing him in more than a dozen rights cases.
Mtetwa, who was born and raised in Swaziland, moved to Zimbabwe in 1983, when she married a local math professor.
In the 1980s, after the country’s long struggle for independence, she worked as a government prosecutor, and so she is well-acquainted with the circle of ministers around President Robert Mugabe who have drafted a series of increasingly repressive laws. The country’s new Public Order and Security Act, for example, outlaws any political meeting of more than five people. The state broadcaster is not allowed to accept advertisements from opposition parties.
Despite the repression, this year’s campaign period has been comparatively peaceful, to the surprise of many international observers. Mugabe’s youth paramilitary has been deployed around the country but there have been few of the vicious attacks on opposition supporters that characterised the 2000 parliamentary election and the 2002 presidential vote. For the first time, the Movement for Democratic Change was invited to air its platform on the national broadcaster.
Mtetwa, however, finds little comfort in this. “One shouldn’t say I’m happy with this little window when the whole door should be open. We must disabuse people of this idea that half a loaf is better than nothing when you are entitled to the whole loaf,” she said.
The best voice for political pluralism in Zimbabwe was the fearless Daily News, an independent newspaper that was shut down in 2003. Mtetwa fought the paper’s legal battles; she last appeared in the Supreme Court to argue for it a year ago. But the court has refused to release a judgement “despite the fact of (its) huge importance to Zimbabwe”.This constant battle with an increasingly co-opted judiciary is taking a toll on Mtetwa.
“It is emotionally draining,” she said. “It particularly affects me when I know I cannot help my client in any way, when we have a heap of court orders and no one is going to enforce them, and so my client is deported or loses his property. You feel you are a fake or masquerading as a lawyer.”
Yet she has no intention of stopping. “It would be pointless to do this in the first place if you were going to stop at some stage,” she said.
“What I’m doing is not politics, it’s legal. I know African politics and African leaders and what they say today is not what they do when they come into power . . . The constitution I am seeking to rely on is not an opposition constitution. It’s a constitution passed by this government. And I’m not fighting for the opposition as it is, but for the rights as a whole.” — The Globe & Mail.