Barred from justice
John Rawls, a philosopher from Harvard, in his classic work ‘A Theory of Justice’ states that"Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought.” I believe justice shouldn’t be the benevolent act of a despot to a nation of suffering citizens but the ultimate expression and recognition of the humanity in human beings. Justice should be about fairness and the availability of appropriate remedies to anyone wronged and seeking that remedy to help them feel whole again. Justice must respond to the needs of victims. The state of justice in Zimbabwe is far from this ideal and I have good reason to reach this conclusion.
It was in June 2008, when Zimbabwe witnessed the highest levels of political violence before the Presidential election runoff. I was working for the Research and Advocacy Unit, documenting and advocating an end to, organised violence and torture, when state security agents from the PISI Unit visited our offices. Fortunately warning bells had been triggered by state security visits to out partner organisation, the Zimbabwe Human Rights Forum’s offices. Having collaborated with them in documenting electoral violence and monitoring the March 2008 elections, we were expecting trouble. The Director of our organisation was summoned for interrogation about the nature of our work and the legality of our existence as an organisation. Although he was released the same day, we were filled with trepidation. I was terrified, because a visit from these guys would likely result in arrest and detention and I did not want to be in Zimbabwe’s filthy prisons in June, in the dead of the winter. We quickly relocated to a discreet location. Of course we could not report the incident to the police; what would they have done for us when it was one of their units that had visited us? The perpetrators did this with the full knowledge that nothing would happen to them. Who would dare question their authority?
Attacks on my mother
Previously, in 2004, in the run up to the 2005 Parliamentary election I nearly lost my mother. Having lived through the period of the liberation struggle, my mother is a strong supporter of ZANU-PF, the political party that has been in power in Zimbabwe since the country’s independence in 1980. She also says she supports it because it represents the ideal that her first cousin (by marriage) and one of Zimbabwe’s liberation war heroes Josiah Tongogara pioneered; that of black empowerment. I completely agree with this ideal, but as I always tell her I do not support her party because of the methods and means through which it seeks to implement this ideal.
So, where there is more than one candidate representing the same party in one constituency, a primary election must be held to choose a candidate. In her party, my mother supported a candidate different from other members’ choice. In a display of intolerance, she was expected to agree with the other people. When she stood her ground, supporting the candidate of her choice, bad blood developed between her and other party members and at one of the party meetings she was attacked with stones by one of the youths. The stones hit her in the ribs. The doctor’s report explained that the injuries my mother sustained resulted in a kidney infection. The kidney infection nearly killed her. I was paralysed with fear when I received the call from my teary big sister while I was in college, telling me that Mummy was seriously ill and I had to go see her. We would all stare at her pale face, contorted in pain and wonder if she would make it.
Her attack occurred in the presence of the political leadership in the area, the police and other community members but to date the youth responsible for this injustice has not been held responsible for his actions. Supposedly, all is fair in the game of politics?
So, yes, my mother was a primary victim while I became a secondary victim of intra-party political violence. I have also been a direct victim of state intimidation. For the injuries my mother suffered and the trauma I endured when I thought I would lose my parent, I want justice. But this justice is not forthcoming.
I am not the only Zimbabwean seeking justice who feels barred from such justice. In addition to intra-party political violence, Zimbabwe also experienced inter-party political violence, especially between ZANU-PF and MDC parties. In addition, human rights defenders were targets of state sponsored intimidation and violence. There are many victims. The criminal justice system is inaccessible because victims cannot report their cases to the police out of fear or because the police refuse to investigate the violations. NGOs conducting public interest litigation such as Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights and the Zimbabwe NGO Forum have filed civil suits on behalf of victims but the recipients of such assistance are few. Other organisations such as the Counselling Services Unit and Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights have given medical assistance and counselling, while the Tree of Life process is facilitating healing for victims but these are all ad hoc and pretty disjointed initiatives. The ultimate responsibility to device a strategy to deliver justice lies with the state.
There is no political will to deliver justice. Consequently, crimes are committed with impunity. The desire for justice remains a mere aspiration that lives in the minds and thoughts of the nation but cannot be realised. It may wag on the tongues of a few politicians, giving false hope but this idel talk never concretises into action. The mere expression of a desire for justice is often misconstrued as unpatriotic and perceived as a direct challenge to those in authority, fully aware of their roles in the commission of violence and fearing exposure. In Shona we have a saying that goes “Avhunduka chati kwatara ndeane katurikwa” meaning “Those with no skeletons in their cupboards are not afraid.”
It is clear that Zimbabwe needs justice. As Mai Chido, from rural Gutu in the Masvingo Province said to me, “Zviripachena kuti zvinhu zvakanga zvisina kumira mushe muna 2008 pamaharmonised elections. Nokudaro panofanirwa kugadziriswa kuti nyika yedu igarike zvakanaka,” - “It is clear to all and sundry that in 2008, the year of the harmonised Municipal, Parliamentary and Presidential elections, things were not well. There is need to address these issues so that our country can be habitable again.”
My fight for justice in my activism for the total emancipation and empowerment of women in my community is unending. I ponder over what needs to be done to address Zimbabwe past and present; A nation full of scars, unresolved questions and mysteries. Some of the wounds run so deep that people suffer from post traumatic stress disorders. Women were raped during the liberation struggle, were raped during elections, in politically motivated circumstances and continue to be raped. Women, like my mother have been assaulted. None but a few of them have accessed justice; justice that I need to see happening as much as I have seen their physical and psychological wounds.
People need to understand that without justice the woman next door who now acts ‘cuckoo’ but used to be perfectly normal until a group of soldiers raped her, inserted chilly peppers into her private parts and left her for dead will never heal? They must understand that a blanket act of coming together to force a reconciliation where there isn’t forgiveness will never make this woman sane. How does she heal when she still sees her perpetrators walking around free? How does she find peace when they threaten to repeat what they did to her before? How do we as Zimbabweans confront decades of violence and repression when they are still ongoing?
My idea of justice
I do not want to embroil myself in debunking the myth or reality of the concept of transitional justice. That terminology has been passed around too many times giving it different definitions and meanings. It has raised questions of what mechanism is most effective, what mechanism can realistically be meted to victims and whether it is possible to give ALL victims a remedy. In the case of Zimbabwe technical questions arise. In one discussion forum Tendai, a colleague asked; “Are we even in a state of transition to talk of transitional justice?” This creates unnecessary complications in delivering justice.
What is clear to me is that I, just like any other Zimbabwean who has suffered the effects of repression and impunity, want justice. I want the person who hurt my mother or the government to pay for the medication that she buys to take care of her kidneys. I also want reforms executed to the security sector so that I can live without fear of unwarranted and unlawful arrest, detention or forced disappearance. Those officials who came intimidating my colleagues and I should face disciplinary measures. The police who beat up human rights activists should tell the truth of who sent them, why they did it and issue a public apology. I want medical care to be awarded to all victims of violence. I need the removal of barriers to access to justice. If I get raped, God forbid, I want to be able to report my case to the police without getting harassed. I need the person I report to be arrested notwithstanding his/her political affiliation.
Existing Policy Framework
When Zimbabwe came under the governance of the Inclusive Government in terms of the Global Political Agreement in 2008, Article 7.1 of that agreement provided for the creation of a body to properly advise on the necessary and practicable mechanisms to achieve national healing, cohesion and unity in respect of victims of pre and post independence political conflicts. The Organ on National Healing, Reconciliation and Integration was formed for this purpose.
Although this Organ has been in existence for three years now, there is still no clarity on the strategy through which it is engaging the nation. The dominant and visible method has been the traditional process of kuputidzana fodya (sharing the pipe), where victims and perpetrators sit together, sharing a tobacco pipe in a symbolic act of reconciliation. This strategy appears to be shaped by decree rather than by design since its implementation was not preceded by any meaningful consultation amongst the victims themselves about what sort of remedy they want.
Many people do not see this process succeeding in giving victims an appropriate remedy. “How can it (the Organ) be effective when no one has come to us asking us what we think,” says Nokhuthula a Gwanda resident in the Matebeleland South Province of Zimbabwe.
Justice becomes more elusive as women continue to suffer, with crimes such as political violence continuously perpetrated with impunity. The need to address this gap is fundamental to both the physical and psychological well being of women. Women’s views on the remedy they want and need must be clearly articulated in a free and democratic space. These articulated views must be acted upon in order to prove a willingness to curb the recurrence of violations against women.
The notions of ‘freedom, justice and equality’ must cease to be viewed as stratospheric expectations. They are attainable elements fundamental to the progressive development of Zimbabwean society; if only the political will to see to it that they do was present.
Women as the majority of victims, across political divides, need justice. Such justice would include identifying perpetrators and prosecuting them but realistically that will not happen soon, given the existing political landscape. Surely; fully acknowledging that a wrong was done, providing healing to victims, giving them effective medical care and providing psycho-social support would be an instrumental starting point at the moment. The damage that violence has caused to men as well, which may perpetuate the cycles of violence as they act out of their rage on those who are weaker must be addressed through counselling.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous new media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.