Let’s talk

AS the chorus of self-congratulation dies down following the tabling of bipartisan proposals to amend the Constitution, it may be time to consider the enormo

us task of what remains to be done.

Justice minister Patrick Chinamasa, as this newspaper revealed last week, has been generous in adopting many of the proposals put to him by opposition negotiators. In particular, the curtailment of President Mugabe’s powers to appoint MPs to the lower house is a significant concession. So are proposals regarding the demarcation of constituencies and the reduction of the presidential term.

But what is notably absent is any mention of the deeply-flawed voters roll and the whole rotten electoral apparatus that hands President Mugabe a gift of an outcome every five years.

To say that Zimbabwe regularly holds democratic elections is an obvious lie. The ruling party’s thugs abduct and assault — sometimes kill — opposition officials in the lead-up to the poll while the army, through the Joint Operations Command, intervenes where necessary to supervise outcomes.

The role of the registrar-general in denying thousands access to the ballot is a particularly damaging facet of Zimbabwe’s electoral system.

What also remains is a poisonous political climate in which, through its monopoly of broadcasting and the daily print media, the state is able to mislead the public about the options they face. The public are unable to make an informed choice because they have been exposed to little or no debate on issues of vital importance.

Yesterday the Herald carried a letter from the Australian ambassador pointing out that at no stage has the Australian government given A$18 million to the MDC. Yet that particular falsehood was disseminated by the state media on a daily basis.

Five months ago the same government media carried front-page stories claiming MDC youths were responsible for petrol bombings and militia training on South African farms. When a court ordered their release on bail, it was learnt that the state had no evidence — apart from what it had manufactured — to warrant their detention.

But the government, despite this shocking revelation, persisted in Lusaka in claiming it was the victim of a terrorist opposition. It has been spending billions in public funds trying to persuade foreign readers of the same empty claim.

The only militia training taking place in Zimbabwe is the training of government’s own lawless and hungry militias who know only how to set up a roadblock.

While we welcome the outcome of inter-party talks in so far as they introduce badly-needed reforms, we are in no doubt that the absence of a professional police force, the beatings administered by law-enforcement officers as a political punishment, the impunity of officers associated with criminal violence, the role of the military in elections and the subornment of the public broadcaster by the government all vitiate free and fair elections.

Of particular concern to the media has been the role of the Media and Information Commission in closing newspapers and thereby restricting the right of the public to know how their country is governed. The constant abuse of Aippa — which does nothing to secure public access to information — places that particular piece of legislation firmly in the firing line of any negotiations.

President Mbeki, it is reported, asked the MDC not to oppose the 18th amendment changes given their role in negotiating them. This is all very well at the outset. But as we approach the nitty-gritty of negotiations, particularly regarding the political climate and egregious laws like Posa and Aippa, we need to see more public debate around the issues. Above all, we need to give the public access to their media and to deal with the rogue elements who are doing their best to ensure changes are minimal or insincere.

As it is, not all the provisions of the draft amendment are satisfactory. Why should President Mugabe appoint senators for cities such as Harare and Bulawayo where he has no support at all? And we can be sure the Human Rights Commission will achieve as little as the government wants it to achieve.

Zanu PF can afford to make many of the concessions that have emerged from the inter-party talks. They will play well in Pretoria and convince the impressionable Sadc that Zimbabwe is serious about upholding the Mauritius protocol on elections.

But pressed for further concessions, the ruling elite may begin to drag its heels in the belief that it can hold out until March with a token nod in the direction of institutional democracy. Meanwhile, civil society should be laying out its wares. Now they have lost the battle for a new constitution and accepted its alternative — albeit temporarily — in the form of electoral reform, what minimum changes would they like to see? What form should a negotiated settlement take? It’s time that we got talking as a nation.

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