What exactly has Zanu PF won?

“ZANU yahwina, baba (Zanu has won),” sang Shuvai Mahofa and fellow ruling-party MPs last week as constitutional amendment No 17 passed its third reading. It was indeed an “historic victory” — fo

r those who wish to hasten the country’s descent into poverty and isolation.

We commented last week on the implications of this ill-conceived legislation and make no apology for doing so again here. This was one of the most severe blows to democracy this country has experienced. Did any of those MPs celebrating have any idea of the size of the blow they were delivering to the nation’s battered frame? The country is already regarded as an international pariah whose government was exposed in a recent UN report as perfectly prepared to target the poor and defenceless in its career of calculated misrule.

It was a supreme irony that those pretending that the country’s misfortunes can be laid at its detractors’ doors should provide such a revealing exhibition of exactly who is to blame for the tarnished image they so often lament.

Zanu PF MPs unashamedly celebrated an amendment that was emblematic of their party’s barren dictatorship. It was not the product of political consensus — a fundamental requirement in democratic societies for constitutional changes — but was bulldozed through by a questionable two-thirds majority. It blatantly abridged the rights of Zimbabweans laid down in the constitution’s Bill of Rights by depriving them of the right to judicial appeal in the event of seizure of their property by the state. And it further abridged constitutional rights by enabling the government to prevent freedom of movement by withdrawing the passports of the regime’s opponents.

This is clearly designed to have a chilling effect upon civil society in much the same way Posa was designed to silence critics and Aippa to muzzle the press. The effect of the amendment will be to embolden Zimbabwe’s “detractors” abroad into tightening measures against a totalitarian regime gone berserk. At the same time it will scare off those few investors that were contemplating sinking their funds in such a risky environment.

No investor will risk his capital in a society where, in the event of a dispute with government or powerful rivals, there is no provision for appeal to the courts. Already Bilateral Investment Promotion and Protection Agreements have been violated by the ruling party’s supporters with impunity, sending a clearly negative signal to other investors. Where the courts have made rulings, they have often been ignored.

Now, we are told, the courts will be removed altogether from ruling in cases involving land seizures on the grounds that appeals are slowing down the process of unlawful expropriation by the state.

That is of course exactly what they should be doing. The whole point of a judiciary is to prevent arbitrary governance. The so-called land reforms have been characterised by hasty, ill-considered and arbitrary action that has damaged not only the country’s reputation but its agricultural output as well. The methods used in land acquisition were manifestly contrary to the national interest as several audits have revealed. By seeking recourse to the courts, the legal owners of the affected properties have simply been exercising their rights at law. Because that is inconvenient to the ruling party’s populist agenda, the government has now moved to take away those rights.

The world will arrive at the inevitable conclusion that misrule in Zimbabwe has assumed a new dimension: that where the government can’t get its way by bringing pressure to bear on the courts, it will simply abolish their role as checks on the state’s powers. This is a constitutional sea-change and strikes at the heart of civil liberties. President Mugabe and his party will brook no challenge, it tells us.

That is hardly the posture of a regime comfortably ensconced in the affections of its people!

Then there is the resurrection of the Senate, in principle a useful balance in the constitutional order of things. But despite Mugabe’s assurance that he would not appoint to cabinet individuals who could not win seats in a an electoral contest, it is now clear that the upper house will be home to ministers who proved unable to win the nation’s confidence. It will in fact be an expensive rubber-stamp for the government providing an edifice of democracy in an otherwise absolutist state structure radiating from the presidency.

At the time of its passage in January 2002, Eddison Zvobgo described Aippa as the most serious assault upon the nation’s liberties since 1980. To that dubious honour we must now add the seventeenth amendment, another ad hoc assault upon our liberties reflecting the political bankruptcy and desperation of the party that moved it.

Those celebrating last Tuesday afternoon should be asked what exactly it is they have “won” apart from further decline and national humiliation?

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