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31 August 2009

To be or not to be: Talking transitional justice in Zimbabwe

This is a guest article by Tawanda Sachikonye. Tawanda is a graduate student at Rhodes University, South Africa.

"We have just started a new life after years of fighting each other and insulting each other. We have said let's give peace and harmony a chance and work together."- President Robert Mugabe (Telegraph March 2009)

I have decided to start this short piece with President Mugabe’s profound and humble words spoken at Susan Tsvangirai’s (Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s wife) funeral. Susan had just recently died in a tragic road accident. Mugabe used the occasion to give hope and assurance to the people of Zimbabwe during a time of sorrow and uncertainty. Symbolically, the funeral was for all those who had lost family, friends, and colleagues during the unprecedented harrowing violence that had taken place during and immediately after the 2008 Presidential elections. The events that escalated in 2008 epitomized what many labelled the classical failed state- with the former bread basket of Southern Africa brought to its knees. The objective of this piece is to briefly discuss the urgent and sensitive issue of transitional justice in Zimbabwe. More bluntly I will be asking, after several years of political turmoil is transitional justice possible? And if it is, the form it will most likely take.

With regards to the first concern: whether transitional justice is possible - the short answer is yes. This is because all the leaders of the unity government admit that the country is in need of healing and progress after the trauma and upheaval of the 2008 Presidential elections. This is shown by how the unity government has established the “Organ for National Healing, Reconciliation and Integration” (ONHRI) , a structure meant to guide the nation through the reconciliation process (BBC News July 2009). The creation of such an organ and input from both parties; ZANU-PF and MDC show an effort to initiate national unity and reconciliation. Whether the effort will be consistent and genuine so as to succeed on some level is yet to be seen. At Susan’s funeral Mugabe also stated, “To our supporters we want to say violence should stop. That’s what (Mrs) Tsvangirai would have wanted, for us to co-exist peacefully" (Telegraph March 2009). This statement by the president is important in two respects. Firstly it is an admission that violence had taken place during the Presidential elections but one can also possibly assume even prior to that, and in relation to past elections as well. An admission of wrongdoing, the first step in any reconciliation, by Mugabe is vital in that it is an act of humility and surpasses the crushing blow of denial. Other governments in various parts of the world have denied or silenced their use of political violence and in doing so have denied their people a sense of emotional and mental closure. Secondly, Mugabe’s words are important in that he is asking for the violence and animosity to stop so as to allow for peaceful co-existence, this hopefully an indication of tolerance and a willingness to work with previous enemies. Mugabe quite recently stated, “There are still reported cases of political violence and these must stop… We will commit members of our party in observation of the principles of non-violence. You should not succeed through violence but the efficacy of your political theory and your campaign” (Reuters July 2009), these words seem to reinforce the notions of non-violence and peaceful co-existence. In light of this it appears that reconciliation is possible. But of course all of that depends on the transition from rhetoric to action, which for all Zimbabweans is the bottom line.

The form the reconciliation and transitional justice might take is difficult to ascertain so early in the process especially when tensions between more hard-line ZANU-PF members and reform-minded MDC members are still salient. However there have been some clues. Prime Minister Tsvangirai stated "justice needs forgiveness… and if we do retributive justice, the danger is that we may slide back” [towards violence] (BBC News July 2009). In the same BBC News article, John Nkomo a senior member of ZANU-PF and chairman of the ONHRI stated, "Yes, people were killed; yes, people fight; yes, they may still be fighting, but… this nation is going through a process and these tensions, unless properly managed, could create more tensions for us and we don't want that." It becomes clear from these two statements that the ‘justice’ that is to be practiced in Zimbabwe will have to be reconciliatory in nature as opposed to seeking retributive justice. The most famous model of this approach is that of Zimbabwe’s neighbour South Africa with its Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) approach where what was emphasised was national healing, forgiveness and closure as opposed to punitive measures. In February Tsvangirai said, "This nation needs national healing. It has endured so much violence. Let's forgive those who have transgressed against us” (Mail & Guardian February 2009). These words once again reiterate transition based on healing and forgiveness.

For Zimbabwe, reconciliation is possible and will probably take place, especially since wrongdoing has been admitted and humility shown, at least at the leadership level. It is just as important not to paint the MDC as ‘innocent and pure’ in relation to ZANU-PF so as to avoid polarization, as it is to avoid “othering” and vilification. The “justice” that will accompany the transition in Zimbabwe is likely to be reconciliatory given the statements by leading political leaders. The most important question however will be if this is in sync with the needs and desires of the Zimbabwean people. Will they be satisfied and “healed” by words of forgiveness and confessions uttered to facilitate closure? For those who lost their love ones or suffered grievous bodily harm this is a difficult question to fathom. This is why it is important that the concerns of transition and justice in Zimbabwe should include the input of the Zimbabwean people to a greater extent as they are the ones who have suffered and been affected by the violence and fear that has plagued their country for so long.


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