25 years on, still no basic freedoms

TWENTY-FIVE years ago Zimbabwe was born, ushering out the years of bitter and bloody fighting to end Rhodesian minority rule. Robert Mugabe, the country’s still relatively unknown new leader, impressed the population and, indeed, th

e world, with his speech on the eve of Independence.


“If yesterday you hated me, today you cannot avoid the love that binds you to me and me to you. Is it not folly, therefore, that in these circumstances anybody should seek to revive the wounds and grievances of the past?” said Mugabe on national television.


Mugabe’s statesmanlike words were followed with the announcement of a cabinet which brought together leaders from all segments of the nation: black and white, Shona and Ndebele, old and young, men and women.

Peace and stability had been restored across the country and it seemed that a bright future lay ahead.


The new Zimbabwe re-established the rule of law in the cities and rural areas. The police force was quickly transformed from one that had enforced Rhodesia’s racist rule to one that protected the rights of all citizens.


The new parliament, elected by majority rule, began a series of reforms that appeared benign. The judiciary, after years of upholding minority rule, made great strides to become more independent from the government.


It appeared that the new Zimbabwe’s success in establishing a multi-racial, multi-party democracy would be a model for South Africa, an example to help end apartheid and establish its own majority-ruled democracy.


That was 25 years ago. South Africa has triumphed in ending apartheid. But the bright hopes for Zimbabwe have been tragically dimmed, especially regarding the law.


There were some expressions of worry in legal circles that the Mugabe government continued to use the Rhodesians’ state of emergency and the notorious Law and Order (Maintenance) Act. The two legislative instruments gave the government and the police authority to arrest and detain people for lengthy periods and the ability to ban large public demonstrations. They were designed and used by the Rhodesians to repress public demonstrations of support for the African nationalist movement.


But the new Mugabe government used the laws to detain its critics and those suspected of spying and carrying out violent acts of sabotage for apartheid South Africa. The new government found the repressive laws very useful in hobbling its critics.


Eventually the Mugabe government dropped the state of emergency. But 20 years after Independence it was still using the Rhodesian-era Law and Order (Maintenance) Act to prevent public demonstrations, to hamper nascent opposition parties and to restrict the press.


Civic organisations pressed for the Mugabe government to repeal the oppressive security law. By the year 2000 the government agreed that the old law had to go. But it surprised even its most bitter critics when it put forward a new security law that was even harsher than the Rhodesian law. The Public Order and Security Act allowed police sweeping powers of arrest and to ban public meetings of more than three people.


A special Bill was passed to restrict the press. The Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa) has an innocuous title which does not disguise the fact that the law empowers the government to ban newspapers and prevent journalists from working, on pain of jail terms.


Mugabe signed the press law in March 2002, shortly after he was re-elected to yet another six-year presidential term. Aippa quickly gained notoriety as it was used to close down four newspapers and to arrest and charge journalists with criminal acts.


Further repressive legislation permits the government to hold people in jail for up to 28 days without seeing a judge or hearing charges against them.

Legislation has been passed which gives the government powers to close down any private, voluntary or charitable organisation. It specifically prevents any non-governmental organisation dealing with human rights or governance issues from receiving foreign funds from donors. It is designed to restrict the activities of civic organisations the way Aippa squeezed the press.


The Non-Governmental Organisations Bill has not yet been signed into law by Mugabe. The president recently stated he would reform the law so that his critics would not object to it so strongly. But legal experts expect Mugabe to make a few cosmetic changes and leave the main thrust of the Bill intact.

Zimbabwe’s judiciary has not been left to interpret legislation independently. The Supreme Court has been fully packed with those who are Mugabe’s unquestioning adherents. The High Court has also been “transformed” into one that largely upholds the government’s wishes.


Twenty-five years ago it was hoped that Zimbabwe would learn from the bad example of Rhodesia and would chart a new path of just laws and fair enforcement.


It is as ironic as it is dismaying that the Mugabe government has instead decided to follow the example set by Rhodesia in creating repressive laws which grossly restrict individual freedoms. Those offensive laws are upheld by the compliant courts and brutally enforced by the police.


*This column is provided by the International Bar Association.

Top