Over the years, the human rights movement in Zimbabwe has called for a commission to bring to surface the truth of past human rights violations.
One of the questions that keep resurfacing in such deliberations is; how far should such a commission go in recovering the past? The constitution does not answer that question.
We can trace Zimbabwe’s legacy of violence as far back as our memory can go. In 2010, the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum took this question to the citizens in the National Transitional Justice Survey (NTJS). The outcome of this survey showed that Zimbabweans are not agreed on how far back a truth recovery process must go.
A further analysis on these finding was done in the follow up 2011 report, How Far Back Must We Go? and more information can be read on the same findings. While there is no common periodical preference, there are no sharp disagreements.
In fact, there is no disagreement; only that different generations and regions prefer to zoom in on different historical episodes. Unlike some of the politicians who want to put a cap on some historical episodes, ordinary Zimbabweans believe a comprehensive truth recovery process can help us move forward.
It is understandable why more people in the Midlands and Matabeleland provinces believe there is need to focus on the period just after independence before the signing of the Unity Accord. It is also understandable why young people in Mashonaland East think the focus must be electoral violence from 2000.
I personally do not think there should be a debate on periodisation because there is no need for choice. We must recover as much truth as possible. How far back must we go? As far as our livable memory can go.
This hunger for truth has led to a number of failed initiatives. Latest in our generation is the constitutional provision which establishes the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission (NPRC). The NPRC is charged with ensuring post-conflict justice, healing and reconciliation.
This mandate, if interpreted broadly, may include truth recovery. Because this is a matter that needs to be handled with care, in this discussion I wish to reflect on whether as a society we are ready for truth. What is our state of preparedness to grapple with truth dynamics of justice and healing?
Grahame Hayes, in reflecting on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said some words which I think serve as a warning to societies that may be easily seduced by the romantic ideal of “truth suddenly setting everyone free”. He said; “Just revealing, is not just healing. It depends on how we reveal, the context of the revealing, and what it is that we are revealing.”
Make no mistake, I am a fierce believer in truth recovery. My interaction with many victims and survivors has made me realise that while spoken truth can be interruptive and dangerous, unspoken truth is more deadly. It is a perpetual victimisation of the victims.
Stories of torture, rape, murder and all those horrors can never be muzzled. Affected families pass these narratives from one generation to the other. The horrors in the stories do not decrease with time.
Rather, they increase as young generations inherit the hate. The desire for revenge (getting even) is overtaken by the desire for revanche (turning the tables the other way).
We all know that violence creates visible and invisible wounds. The invisible wounds — just like visible wounds — must be treated equally and truth recovery can serve as one mechanism towards justice, healing and restoration.
I get surprised sometimes when politicians debate the healing process of human beings as if it was animal vaccination. Issues of truth recovery in the context of healing are not a game which politicians can use to score points in a political contest. Truth in the context of healing is a struggle to survive. It’s not truth for the sake of truth. It’s a struggle for the restoration of human dignity, the well being of humanity.
If we become blind to the struggles of the most concerned, a truth recovery process becomes a political game. In the process, we re-victimise the victims and create more victims and more hate and hurt in the process.
In this context, the statement by Grahame Hayes may help us on how to proceed cautiously. Just revealing is not just healing. I have attended a workshop where slogans like “revealing is healing” were thrown around.
In the process, pressure is brought to bear on survivors who are not ready to confront their situations or are not secure in the existing set up.
Sometime in 2011, there was an outcry after one perpetrator disowned a letter which had originally been purported to be a genuine confession and plea for forgiveness. The perpetrator claimed that a named NGO had forced him to write the letter.
South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been criticised for focusing on the grand picture; the national and collective level at the expense of individual level. Obsession with creating a “successful national process” can make us blind to the “small person” in isolated circumstances.
We can choose to adopt a grand approach and craft national slogans like “Peace begins with me” or “Healing is revealing”, but unless we pay attention to that little lizard on the rock, or put our cheek to the earth, we will not have started the healing process.
The political game may continue. For true healing, we have to understand the temperature on the ground. We have to speak to the most concerned; the victims in the comfort and discomfort of their homes on what kind of process they want.
We have to reach deeper into the worst of their fears and hopelessness. There is need for a creative mechanism of revealing a pre-commission truth, otherwise we risk undertaking a mechanical process for political gain.
Just revealing is not just healing. It also depends on how we reveal. How is the process going to be done? What is the infrastructure put in place for survivors to share their experiences?
What is the context in which this truth-telling process is taking? What are the mechanisms for ensuring that there is no social pressure to forgive on someone who is not yet ready to forgive? How do we guard against stigmatisation? Do the victims feel safe? Does the outlook inspire confidence and trust in the process? Linked to these questions is the issue of what truth do we want to recover?
There is need for a thorough inventory if healing is our objective. What kind of process do we want? Which laws must we put in place? How do we create the best environment for truth telling? Who are best suited to be commissioners? These are issues that call for more than just a policy dialogue but a social conversation beyond Harare and Bulawayo.
It’s a discussion that must reach deep down to the last of all; the Tonga people who were displaced by the Kariba Dam project; the Zimbabweans in the diaspora who were displaced by direct and structural violence, among many other victims currently left out in the conversation.
If we do that, then we know we are no longer playing a political game of slogans, but we are initiating a major cultural revolution to counter years of violence and intolerance.
Dzikamai Bere contributes to this column in his personal capacity. The views contained here are not the views of the organisations he is associated with. For feedback write to firstname.lastname@example.org