'Transition and Democracy in Zimbabwe - a Civil Society Perspective'

Mike Auret (snr)

The deepening crisis in Zimbabwe is having a profound impact on the entire SADC region, and on South Africa in particular. It is estimated that 3,5 million Zimbabweans have moved to neighbouring countries, over 2 million of these now living in South Africa.

Much attention has been paid to analysing the causes of this crisis and in seeking scapegoats for the myriad economic and social woes facing the country. It is clear that the systematic use of organised violence and torture is part of a desperate bid by the ruling party to retain power and to silence all dissenting voices, whilst only paying lip-service to the need for dialogue with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.

Within this embattled context, organisations and members of civil society have been treated with similar vehemence to that meted out to members of the opposition. Despite this, they continue to work for peaceful change, a return to the rule of law and democracy. They have also been grappling with the issue of transitional arrangements for their country and have developed a set of recommendations on issues of human rights and justice that should form part of any political settlement reached by the political parties.

These include that human rights abuses of the past – both during the colonial and post-colonial eras – must be redressed; that mechanisms be put in place to guarantee that human rights abuses never again occur in Zimbabwe; that blanket amnesties for human rights abusers should not be allowed; that the necessary institutions be established 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 healing of the nation.

In addition the recommendations require that the Constitution guarantees future respect for human rights and sets up a justice system and other institutions to give effect to such guarantee; that the government must enable Zimbabweans to take advantage of international human rights instruments.

A final recommendation proposes that there be an investigation into corruption and asset stripping, and that all assets misappropriated be repossessed.

These recommendations were endorsed by the 'Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition’, a network of 350 civil society organisations from a broad cross-section of society represting labour, students, women, church groups, human rights activists, media practitioners, genuine war veterans, farmers, lawyers, doctors and pro-democracy actors.

Civil society in Zimbabwe has a key role to play in helping to resolve the current impasse, and in monitoring the political players during the transitional period. In addition to this role, civil society is also attempting to ensure that the people of Zimbabwe are fed, in the face of government’s feeding only its own supporters. Food has been used as a political tool for decades but never has the effect been as serious as now. With the increasing AIDS crisis, many more people are dying unnecessarily because of poor nutrition levels.

In addition, several HIV-Aids support organisations are facing great difficulties because of the chaotic state of fuel supplies and the devastating rise in inflation. They continue with commendable determination to do what is possible for the suffering people. But even these efforts are often thwarted by interference from the youth militia, the so-called war veterans and ZANU(PF) stalwarts who try to control the distribution of aid to their own benefit.

Despite the increasing repression and political violence, neither SADC nor the African Union (AU) are intervening to assist Zimbabweans bring stability to the country, although both have the constitutional right to do so. Their lack of political will is only thinly disguised by the argument of respecting national sovereignty. While great pressure has been placed on South Africa and on President Thabo Mbeki, it is actually the duty of the SADC states and, indeed the AU to take the initiative in restoring normalcy in Zimbabwe.

The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights sent a mission to Zimbabwe in June 2002, the report of which has still not been made public. The annual report submitted to the Commission notes only that "Due to a lack of time, the Zimbabwe report was not discussed with the Commission." This is unacceptable in a situation as serious as the one in Zimbabwe.

Most significantly the charter recognises the indivisibility of rights and includes the importance of socio-economic rights, as well as the political and social rights usually referred to.

While the ideals of the African Charter, and its foundational ideas of promoting and protecting human rights on our continent are not honoured and while the mechanisms fail to actively address the human rights violations taking place, these treaties, charters and mechanisms will remain irrelevant.

Brian Raftopolous, chairperson of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, and Mike Aurent formerly of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace and a former MP for the MDC – will be addressing a co-hosted Harold Wolpe Memorial Trust and Zimbabwe Advocacy Campaign, Forum discussion on the situation in Zimbabwe at IDASA, 6 Spin Street, Tuesday 9 December 2003 @ 6 for 6.30 p.m. Telephone 021686-9312 for information.