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Can the NPRC overcome a legacy of failure?

Our country has witnessed great deal of violence. The liberation war claimed around 50 000 deaths. During the Gukurahundi atrocities, an estimated 20 000 people were killed. In 2005, Operation Murambatsvina displaced over 700 000 people. Political violence has displaced over 1,2 million people between the years 2000 and 2005. About 4 million Zimbabweans have since fled the country. We are a nation at war with itself. And the question we have to ask ourselves is: can we heal from these deep wounds? It is a question that requires that we further ask: how did we get here?

by Paul Themba Nyathi

This is a dialogue which many brave men and women started as early as 1983 when the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops Conference (ZCBC) published the paper, Reconciliation is still possible at the height of Gukurahundi. In 1997, the Legal Resources Foundation (LRF) and the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP) published the Breaking the Silence Report and made several recommendations for building true peace, most them which are still valid and would transform our country if implemented in sincerity. In 1998, some organisations came together to find ways of assisting the victims and formed the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum. Twenty years later, we are still grappling with that same legacy of how to break free from political violence. It is within this conversation that the push for a truth commission gathered momentum in 2008 leading to a constitutional reform process. Finally in 2013 through the new Constitution, the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission (NPRC) was established with a ten year mandate to ensure post-conflict justice healing and reconciliation.

The euphoria following the operationalisation of the NPRC has been very cautious. We Zimbabweans are famed as a “land of commissions without commitment.” We have had commissions before, that worked and collected testimonies and collected evidence and yet nothing has been achieved. The Chihambakwe Committee of Inquiry was established to look into the Gukurahundi Atrocities. The Dumbutshena Commission looked into 1982 clashes in Bulawayo. Neither Committee’s report has ever been seen despite many attempts to recover these reports. Following the looting of the War Victims Compensations Fund, the Chidyausiku Commission was established. It heard evidence of massive looting by high ranking politicians. Despite the publicity that goes with it, not a soul was tried for the crimes. In fact many of the persons implicated remain in powerful positions in Zimbabwe.

Many victims of past atrocities are aware that we are a nation that continually slides towards non-accountability.

It is because of this legacy that many look at the NPRC and wonder: what’s new? What’s different? This creates a major stumbling block for the NPRC. How do they win confidence of a nation that has known nothing but violence and impunity? The land in which the courts are invaded and judges are chased out of their courtrooms like vagrants. The land where 15 billion dollars worth of diamonds disappear like a piece of chicken and the most likely culprits are rewarded with ministerial posts.

How can the NPRC, in such a context, convince the nation to believe that they herald a new era when everything else remains unchanged? How can iron promise not to rust in the land where gold is rusting?

Many stakeholders have been grappling with these questions.

To overcome this doubt, the NPRC needs much more than a good law. It needs a clear signal from the government that there is now commitment to justice, truth and accountability. Statements made in Davos in seduction of capital do not qualify as that commitment. And statements by Vice-President Kembo Mohadi that traditional leaders will lead healing rather defeat that purpose. The true test of commitment to truth, justice and accountability begins with government publishing and acting on the reports of past commissions. The Chihambakwe Committee of Inquiry, the Dumbutshena Commission and the Chidyausiku Commission are unfinished business. As long as these reports remain hidden and their recommendations without effect, the nation can be forgiven in their belief that the current process is fraud.

But perhaps the most crucial test of commitment must be seen from the commission itself. And there is no greater test of commitment to justice and reconciliation by the commission than opening up more space for the participation of victims. What hinders the participation of victims in transitional justice processes is lack of acknowledgement and lack of mechanisms for ensuring the safety of victims. It has been acknowledged even by the NPRC that the current NPRC Act does not offer anything for the victims. But as if that is not enough, the NPRC seems determined to perpetuate that offence. In its recent press statement on its public consultations, the NPRC listed the number of groups of people invited to its meetings. True to the fears of many stakeholders, victims are totally ignored in that list. It matters not if the NPRC at a later stage announces that they are meeting victims. That initial statement is a bold expose of bias and indifference to a matter that should be at the heart of the commission: healing. What manner of healing takes place without the victims?

It is perhaps fair to say that healing never starts until we begin to see victims at the front role of the work of the NPRC. It is fair to say that there is no commitment to truth until the government publishes reports of past commissions. Only then will the legacy that works against the NPRC be broken. Until then, it looks like the same fate of past commissions is upon the NPRC.

l Paul Themba Nyathi deputy chairperson of the National Transitional Justice Working Group (NTJWG) and executive director of Masakhaneni Projects. The NTJWG is a platform established by 46 Zimbabwean organisations representing various transitional justice stakeholders to provide the interface between transitional justice stakeholders and the official transitional justice processes in Zimbabwe.

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