For decades now, Zimbabwe has been grappling with the question of how to overcome a culture of violence and build a new society of peace, justice and accountability. This is a struggle that civil society has been engaged in from the pre-independence era to date.
By Dzikamai Bere
In 1997, the Legal Resources Foundation (LRF), together with the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP), published a report titled Breaking the Silence, which called for a raft of measures for dealing with the past. In 1998, the United Nations Human Rights Committee (now Human Rights Council) endorsed the proposal by the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum for the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry to investigate past violations.
In 1999, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions convened a national working people’s convention in Harare to find strategies of addressing the problems of the working people of Zimbabwe. The convention noted, among other things, the breach of the rule of law through state-sponsored violence and the abuse of human rights. It also noted widespread corruption and the lack of public accountability in political and economic institutions.
At the end, the convention resolved, among other things, that: A people’s constitution, as a reflection of a national value system, should be accompanied by a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to deal with unresolved aspects of our past that hinder national integration.
In 2003, following the successful conclusion of the Symposium on Civil Society and Justice in Zimbabwe, a number of resolutions were passed, which included the need to push for transitional justice in Zimbabwe. One of the resolutions stated:
l That the necessary institutions be set up to deal with past and present human rights abuses, and that such institutions be empowered not only to investigate and seek the truth, but also to recommend criminal prosecution, provide for redress and reparations for victims, and lead to the healing of the nation. Such institutions must encourage and sensitively deal with the special needs of victims. This is particularly important in dealing with women and children as victims.
Symposium Report, 2014
From 2008 to 2013, civil society in Zimbabwe launched a campaign for the establishment of an investigative commission to look into past violations and assist our country through an inclusive process to find redress for past violations and redesign a new future based on truth, justice and accountability.
The Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum undertook two major outreach campaigns in Zimbabwe and in the Diaspora, compiling the views of the people on transitional justice in Zimbabwe and translating them into policy proposals. On various fora, these proposals found themselves in the reports of Constitutional Select Committee of Parliament (Copac). In 2010, the Law Society of Zimbabwe in its model constitution which was presented to Copac proposed a Truth, Justice, Reconciliation and Conflict Prevention Commission to investigate past abuses, provide remedies for victims, and prevent future conflicts.
Different actors had different proposals, but the same goal — a commission to lead the restoration of our broken society and help reimagine a different future. This campaign resulted in what we now know as the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission (NPRC) which was established through section 251 of the 2013 Constitution.
Five months after the NPRC was established, over 68 Zimbabwean organisations converged at the Second International Conference on Transitional Justice in Zimbabwe to envision how the NPRC would look like. Stakeholders, worried that the NPRC might become another of the many failed commissions in Zimbabwe, emphasised the need to establish a monitoring mechanism, not only for the NPRC, but for all transitional justice mechanisms available in the Constitution of Zimbabwe Amendment (No. 20) Act 2013.
Stakeholders emphasised “the need to set up a National Working Group on Transitional Justice inclusive of all stakeholders to facilitate the push for a comprehensive transitional justice policy, including, but not limited to, the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission”. (ZHRNGOF, 2014)
The process of activating such a body commenced, leading to the establishment of the National Transitional Justice Working Group (NTJWG) in May 2014, chaired by veteran human rights lawyer Alec Muchadehama working with eight other experts on transitional justice. Since May 2014, the NTJWG, which now works with 99 stakeholder organisations around the country, has been pushing for the operationalisation of the NPRC, starting off with the campaign for the appointment of credible commissioners, and the campaign for a good NPRC law.
On January 5, 2018, the government of Zimbabwe gazetted the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission Act (NPRC Act), operationalising a commission that for decades had proven elusive.
The NPRC Act caused a lot of euphoria that the past would soon to be addressed. The discourse on transitional justice exploded on social media. Apologies and insults were exchanged. Two dialogues organised around that time to focus on Gukurahundi were disrupted as tensions rose. Civil society seemed to find new energy to engage. In this momentum, the National Transitional Justice Working Group (NTJWG) convened a stakeholders’ conference to deal with the question: What’s next for the NPRC?
With representation from over 36 organisations working with victims of violence in Zimbabwe, the conference reflected on the next steps for the struggle.
In his opening remarks, Paul Themba Nyathi stated that despite the good progress:
“We are not fooled to think that everything is going to be smooth. While it is good to begin a journey, it is more valuable to finish it, having run the race well and fairly. Many commissions have started this journey, but none of us has seen the fruits. We work with stakeholders who ask us every day, ‘What has changed? Why must we believe that the NPRC will succeed where all the other commissions have failed?”
Stakeholders reflected: what will it take to make this commission succeed where all other commissions have failed? They envisioned a commission that meets the vision of all the people who have been demanding and working to see the realisation of this commission.
But as discussions progressed, stakeholders began to open up to the nightmare that the NPRC, established by section 251 of the Constitution, may actually not be the people’s commission as expected by the people of Zimbabwe. Besides the efforts of stakeholders, is it possible that the commission itself is not ready to set itself free from the pangs of an executive that is reluctant to confront its own human rights record? As the NPRC went on to publish its notice for outreach meetings, totally ignoring calls by stakeholders for more preparatory work, doubts started to set in and faith seemed to be on the flight. As anticipated in any half-cooked process, stakeholders reported chaos, protests and disruptions of NPRC meetings in Bulawayo, Chinhoyi and Lupane.
“Shall we give up?” another participant had asked at the conference. It’s been a long struggle for many. But perhaps, this is the unfolding tragedy. That the NPRC is actually not the commission that the people have been waiting for. May be it is. Our society needs time to get this going. Like any newly born baby, it struggles to take the first step and maintain balance.
Only time will tell.
l Dzikamai Bere is the coordinator of the National Transitional Justice Working Group. He writes in his personal capacity. The views contained in this article are not necessarily the views of the entities he is associated with. Comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org