Constitution: Lessons from Lancaster House

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AS Zimbabwe continues with the contentious constitution-making process which continues to drag on three years behind schedule, it should be inspired and draw some critical lessons from the Lancaster House Constitution which remains the country’s governance charter. There is much that can be learnt from both the Lancaster House Constitution, amended 19 times, and the Lancaster House Conference of 1979 on the then Rhodesian conflict and it is imperative that we take stock and chart the way forward. The on-going political bickering and grandstanding, masquerading as constitution-making, is failing to yield the desired results.

By Savious Hari

Concerned Zimbabweans are now sceptical the final product will vindicate the time and resources invested in the process. This is because many deadlines set for the finalisation of this process have come and gone with precious little to show for the resources invested given that the country is operating on a shoestring budget and its foreign and domestic debts continue to mount.

What the nation should realise is the rather glaring fact that the best that can come out of the constitution-making effort is a compromise, just like the Lancaster House Constitution. Being a compromise document, those pushing for outright constitutional victory over the “dictatorship” in the country or “regime change agenda” are not only daydreaming, but also fooling themselves. The earlier we realise our limits in this compromise scenario the better and negotiators will be in a position to set realistic goals which are within parameters that allow progress. The Advanced English Dictionary defines “compromise” as “middle way between two extremes”. At the Lancaster House Conference there was a lot of compromising, and compromising is of the essence in negotiating.

Furthermore, the moment the constitution-making process was entrusted into the hands of politicians it meant a compromise document. The current process, just like the one that produced the Lancaster House Constitution, involves politicians coming from different and opposing political ideologies or extremes. Without delving much into the intricacies of the differing and conflicting political ideologies what goes without saying is that Zanu PF came to the negotiating table trying to convince everyone it represents the revolutionary and anti-imperialist forces, while the MDC formations would like to be seen as a democratic and anti-dictatorship force. These contrasting political positions are bound to clash on just about every subject as each party tries to safeguard what it stands for, hence the earlier argument that outright victory is unrealistic. The only way is to compromise in the name of political progress

Equally striking in similarity is the fact that the Patriotic Front, comprising PF Zapu and Zanu-PF, led by Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe respectively, was accused at the Lancaster House meeting of representing external handlers in the form of communists/socialists. The Zimbabwe-Rhodesia government delegation claimed to represent the people and their interests. Three decades on we have a similar scenario; the MDC formations are being accused of being puppets of the West and Zanu PF is claiming to be the representative of the people. Just like at the Lancaster House Conference the current crop of politicians is only representing themselves — it is all about protecting their political positions and safeguarding their future.

There has also been misrepresentation or lack of sincerity regarding the constitution-making process and the subsequent referendum by politicians and academics alike, deliberate or otherwise.

There has been deafening silence on the crucial issue of harmonisation of the country’s laws with the constitution after the referendum; people have been led to assume that after the referendum the country will be ready for elections. What must be emphasised is that there is need to harmonise our laws with the constitution as most of them will be rendered unconstitutional by the acceptance of the new constitution, if it comes to fruition. Politicians and academics alike have a duty to prepare people for that essential stage in constitution-making instead of remaining silent.

Another essential lesson that can be drawn from the Lancaster House Constitution is that it did not give birth to our beloved Zimbabwe; equally it can be argued that neither did the gun, but the electoral victory of Zanu PF did.

It must be appreciated that constitutions were never meant to replace elections because they don’t have that capacity to do so, even the Roman first codified constitution of 450 BC could not achieve that; neither will the Copac constitution.
What is needed is an electoral victory, thus maintaining the status quo or changing it altogether requires more than just a constitution, although it is not misplaced to hope that a “good” constitution ensures a level playing field — if there is anything like that.

Thus let us not fool ourselves into thinking that the constitution can be used to achieve what can only be achieved through the ballot.

  • Savious Hari is a political analyst.

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