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The debate around how to deal with Zimbabwe’s violent past is currently dominated by the transitional justice model and the human rights discourse which accompanies it. But an analysis of the country’s history as well as its present moment presents different ways of considering ideas of justice and healing – ways that may be better suited to Zimbabwe’s particular circumstances.

Whether or not the Southern African state of Zimbabwe can be said to be in a process of ‘transition’ is debatable. Although the three main political parties in the country signed a Global Political Agreement in 2008 as a means of bringing about political transition, few of the provisions of the GPA have been adhered to, and when the country held its first post-GPA elections in 2013, the incumbent president, Robert Mugabe, was re-elected, and his political party, ZANU(PF), won a two thirds majority amidst the usual Zimbabwean controversies and accusations of electoral fraud. In many ways, the 2013 election returned the country to pre-GPA arrangements of power, albeit with a new constitution, and at present, most of the talk around politics in Zimbabwe concerns the succession battle within ZANU(PF), rather than a broader transition. In some ways, then, the Zimbabwean transition can be said to be stalled. Even given this set of circumstances, however, the language of transitional justice can still be heard, and some of its mechanisms can still be seen in contemporary Zimbabwe. Is such a framework a useful one, and what can be learned from the ways in which Zimbabweans have been imagining transitional (and other forms) of justice throughout our recent turbulent history? As a Zimbabwean anthropologist interested in forms of justice, this is a question I began to examine in 2010.

The field of transitional justice is relatively new, historically speaking, in that it is a little over twenty years old – but it has quickly gained international prominence such that it has come to be normalised as the form of intervention that occurs following political oppression or violence. Transitional justice relies upon a redemptive model based upon an assumed relationship between the truth, narrative, and (national as well as individual) healing. Transitional justice also uses a linear model of time, in which it is seen as necessary to repair the harms of the past in order to move into a non-violent and democratic future. It thus has political, legal and symbolic dimensions. The aims of transitional justice are usually implemented through a set of legal and restorative mechanisms, such as free and fair elections, truth commissions, prosecutions of war crimes, public memorials, and acts of reparation. The best known case within Southern Africa is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), used in South Africa from 1996, which provided individual amnesty for political crimes on the basis of ‘full disclosure’ whilst also assuming that national healing would follow from the process of truth-telling.

Why might Zimbabwe need a process of national justice? Viewed from a distance, the Zimbabwean legal system appears to protect citizens’ rights and uphold the rule of law. In reality, however, the country’s legal architecture has progressively been altered and disregarded over the last decade. In Zimbabwe, partial application of the law, particularly as regards political violence, has occurred in a context where widespread political violence has marked the (colonial and postcolonial) state. Throughout my time as an anthropologist working in Zimbabwe, this has been described to me as the rise of ‘a culture of impunity’ in Zimbabwe, terminology which is drawn from the globally circulating languages of rights and transitional justice. Lack of justice for widespread violence is not new in Zimbabwe: conversations I have had about unresolved political crimes bring up incidents stretching beyond living memory through to the present – from the hanging of Mbuya Nehanda in 1898, through the liberation war in the 1970s and Gukurahundi in the 1980s, to the very violent 2008 elections. In such a context, where transition is stalled and legal impunity still present, what might transitional justice look like? In this article I reflect on the ways in which the state and non-governmental organisations have drawn on international ideas of transitional justice in imagining national healing in contemporary Zimbabwe, and some of the problems associated with this.

Let us begin with the state: when the Global Political Agreement was signed in 2008, Article VII provided for a mechanism ‘to advise on what measures might be necessary and practicable to achieving national healing, cohesion and unity'. The Organ on National Healing, Reconciliation and Integration (ONHRI) resulted from this provision. The ONHRI is modelled on ideas of transitional justice: although not a legal mechanism, it aims to find ways to foster peace through national healing. The global symbolic capital of transitional justice is such that it tends to be presented as the ‘obvious’ response to political conflict. This was also the case in Zimbabwe during the GPA period, when the great majority of people to whom I spoke about the country’s future (ranging from political actors, civil servants and members of civil society, who carried some political power, to street vendors, teachers, and the unemployed, who carried little) were clear that there was a need for a response modelled upon transitional justice mechanisms, although they didn’t see the ONHRI as providing it. ‘We need a TRC here’, ‘we need to hear the truth like in South Africa but we must also prosecute’; ‘we cannot let amnesty occur without some sort of reparation’; ‘there is no justice without accountability of politicians’ and, ‘we will need special commissions for women because they have experienced violence differently’, are just some of the comments made to me. But is a legal process of transitional justice, or even a non-legal process such as that being implemented by the ONHRI, really a good option for Zimbabwe, particularly at present?

To answer that question, it is necessary to explore the past. In the Zimbabwean context, reconciliation as it is imagined through the discourses and processes of rights-based transitional justice is only one quite recent arm of a longer history of ideas of justice and reconciliation. Reconciliation on a national scale previously surfaced following the end of the liberation war, or Second Chimurenga. An alternative genealogy of ideas of national reconciliation in Zimbabwe could thus take as its starting point President Robert Mugabe’s address to the nation on the eve of Independence in 1980. Unlike transitional justice discourse, which lays an emphasis upon bringing the violations of the past into the public eye, in this speech on the 17th of April 1980, Mugabe advocated starting anew, without carrying over memories from the past:

‘Independence will bestow on us a new personality, a new sovereignty, a new future and perspective, and indeed a new history and a new past. Tomorrow we are being born again; born again not as individuals but collectively as a people, nay, as a viable nation of Zimbabweans. Tomorrow is thus our birthday, the birth of a great Zimbabwe, and the birth of its nation.’

‘Tomorrow we shall cease to be men and women of the past and become men and women of the future. It’s tomorrow then, not yesterday, which bears our destiny.’

‘As we become a new people we are called to be constructive, progressive and forever forward looking, for we cannot afford to be men of yesterday, backward-looking, retrogressive and destructive. Our new nation requires of every one of us to be a new man, with a new mind, a new heart and a new spirit.’

In this philosophy, the happenings of the past do not belong in the present or in the future; unlike in ideas of transitional justice, the past should not be brought to light but should be forgotten or left behind. There is a different imagining of time, truth and healing at work here than in transitional justice models. The insistence of Zimbabweans that a process of national justice, based upon international models, should take place should be viewed in light of this earlier branch in Zimbabwe’s post-conflict reconciliation lineage. This is primarily because, in the ensuing years, Mugabe’s insistence upon forgetting the past did not unfold as neatly as it was presented in his independence speech. Rather, the politics of remembrance and forgetting have been deeply politicised and strategic in Zimbabwe. By 2000, for example, Zanu(PF) revived and publicised the atrocities of the Rhodesian past for political ends, in order to justify the illegal occupation of commercial farmland; whilst simultaneously refusing to acknowledge the atrocities committed by the (state sponsored) Fifth Brigade in Matabeleland and the Midlands in the 1980s. Forgetting was not as clean cut as it was presented to be.

Unlike Mugabe’s earlier model, then, the ONHRI takes as its starting point the viewpoints of transitional justice discourses as outlined above. To date, however, the ONHRI has had limited success. This may be because there was no clear legal mandate within the GPA as to how the ONHRI was to be constituted, or what its precise functions were. It may also be because of the political infighting that paralyses much of Zimbabwean politics. The political will (and attendant economic impetus) behind the ONHRI was limited: from 2008 onward, the Inclusive Government was faced with enormous socioeconomic and political challenges, and as such the more immediately pragmatic issues (such as rebuilding industry and the healthcare sector) were given priority, whilst processes of ‘national healing’ fell by the wayside. Although Zimbabwe was perceived as ‘in transition’ once the GPA was signed in 2008, it was unclear even then what the country was transitioning to; a process made even less clear with the changes that came about in the country following the last elections.

The particular set of historical circumstances at play in Zimbabwe, then, which has maintained at the very least a façade of democracy since independence, ensures that the country fits uneasily within the conventional transitional justice paradigm which imagines transition to a democratic state. Technically, after all, (in law if not fact) Zimbabwe has been a democratic state from 1980. Nonetheless, state-based interventions have done little so far to challenge the erosion of the rule of law and the rise of impunity for political crimes, and to put into practice any actions towards the goals of ‘national healing, cohesion and unity’.

In the absence of state-based processes of justice and reparation, it is unsurprising that local NGOs have made attempts to fill the gap. As with state-based responses, this has also occurred in the context of the effects of Mugabe’s assertion in 1980 that remembering can be ‘retrogressive and destructive’. In Zimbabwean politics since 1980 the tendency has been for violence to be disregarded. Yet, ‘There is a line between forgetting, and silencing’, the director of a local NGO told me – ‘and what has occurred in Zimbabwe is silencing’. In contrast to Mugabe’s 1980 avocation of forgetting, then, NGOs and civil society have emphasized the necessity for truth-telling and (legal) accountability. NGOs have only been able to implement recommendations and do research into the ways in which people would like to see transitional justice occur, however, as they have neither the political power nor the reach to implement such mechanisms. Research conducted by the Harare–based Research and Advocacy Unit shows, for example, that Zimbabwean women would like to see a process of legal accountability be put in place for the violences of the 2008 election, including, where necessary, compensation for the multiple physical and monetary harms inflicted. Such research has also shown, however, some of the complexities of trying to implement transitional justice based ideas of truth-telling.

What are some of these complexities, and why might transitional justice as propagated in the global North not be as successful in Southern Africa as people might wish? One answer might be to do with weaknesses within the transitional justice model itself, regardless of where it is implemented. When I sat in on some focus groups in Harare aimed at exploring kinds of justice, for example, the notion of truth (in Shona, chokwadi) emerged as central. For transitional justice, truth initially refers to establishing facts and chronologies of events. In answer to the first question asked of truth-telling in focus groups (do we need to tell the truth in Zimbabwe?), respondents invariably answered ‘yes’. What does it mean ‘to tell the truth’, however? In Shona, chokwadi translates as both truth and as certainty; therefore a question which asks, in Shona, if there is a need for truth about violence in Zimbabwe is also asking if there is a need for certainty around the events of the past. On the one hand, this maps well onto transitional justice discourses which, being rooted in the law, are concerned with establishing a certain, authoritative version of events. On the other hand, though, it raises a weakness within transitional justice. Michael Ignatieff has criticized transitional justice for the way in which it tends to confuse factual truth – what happened when – with moral truth – why a thing happened and who is responsible for it. Chokwadi as used in focus groups could be seen to be in keeping with this. But, as the TRC in South Africa showed, processes of truth-making are imbued with power. Whose truth is it, anyway? In (non)transitioning Zimbabwe, the state has a history of using discourses of democracy and rights to protect its own interests rather than the interests of its citizens, such as through the endless stream of controversial elections to establish democratic legitimacy, or in the recent performance of Constitution-writing which saw a very flawed Constitution emerge at the end of a long and costly process. In such a context, questions about who establishes the truth of transition really matter, particularly where strategies of maintaining power have simplified and rewritten history. Whilst Zimbabweans want a moral chokwadi to be established, it is unlikely whether any national mechanism could in reality do such a thing. Furthermore, transitional justice links a moral truth-telling to ideas of forgiveness and, through this, to healing and reconciliation on a national scale. Does this actually occur? The lack of meaningful transformation and reconciliation in neighbouring post-apartheid South Africa suggests that such a model is flawed.

This then is one answer to the question of why transitional justice as propagated in the global North might not be as successful in Southern Africa as people might wish. A second answer, however, might lie not within the discourse itself, but in the way in which it is assumed to be equally applicable across multiple settings. For example, transitional justice draws upon a linear model of time where the violence of the past is seen to inform the present, causing trauma that can be ‘fixed’ by a process of national healing, through truth-telling, and/or justice. One aim of reconciliation, then, is to prevent the interference of the past in the present – to leave the past behind and move on, healed. But Southern African anthropologists (and, of course, most Southern Africans ourselves) have long known that a linear model of time, while of course used in some contexts, is not the only way in which time works. Consider, for a moment, the role of the ancestors. In a Western model of time, the ancestors are people out of place: the dead should remain dead in such a model, and not interfere in the present. In much of Africa, this is simply not the case. The ancestors are very much alive in the present, for all that they once lived as people in the past. The social theorist, Achille Mbembe, thus argues that time in postcolonial Africa is not experienced as linear, but is better conceived of as entangled, with multiple durees overlapping in any one moment. In such a model, it is not anomalous for the past to intrude into the present, and where it does, it should not necessarily be ‘healed’. It is just part of life. In Shona and Ndebele cosmologies, discontinuities and reversals are given more emphasis than in transitional justice discourse. In this reading of time, the past, the future and the present often operate simultaneously, and it is not seen as ‘out of place’ for the ‘past’ to exist in the ‘present’. Time is not necessarily or inevitably differentiated in everyday life. In such a context, the linear model of time that transitional justice draws upon might not be useful, or even appropriate, as a means of healing trauma.

In answer then to the question above as to whether large-scale transitional justice is a good option for Zimbabwe at present, the answer would seem to be that any attempts at state-based transitional justice need to better imagined than they have been thus far, in order to take into account the ways in which Zimbabweans inhabit the social world. Silencing or forgetting the violences of the past will not be useful: but nor will utilising models of remembering that are not appropriate to the Zimbabwean context. Neither Mugabe’s model of strategic forgetting, nor the transitional justice model of establishing a moral truth, are wholly apposite. Some local organisations are taking into account local cosmologies and power imbalances in the work they do toward processes of smaller-scale healing and justice. The local NGO The Tree of Life, for example, works closely with communities who have experienced violence. Their model draws widely upon a variety of local repertoires of social and individual healing, with an aim to rebuild social relationships rather than to rebuild ‘the nation’. It may well be that such smaller-scale, more locally relevant processes, are a much more effective model than that provided by more conventional transitional justice mechanisms.

* Dr Shannon Morreira is a Zimbabwean anthropologist based at the University of Cape Town.



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