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Law practice: Zim deserves better

PEOPLE who live in the more developed states go through their entire lives never thinking about the professions that do so much to maintain their societies in some sort of equilibrium and ensuring that the essential services actually work.

Eddie Cross

We seldom acknowledge the work of architects and design engineers until bridges and buildings collapse.

We take for granted the mechanical equipment that provides so much of what we use everyday — transport, water, electricity and waste disposal.

If we are lucky, we live in a society of law and order — we trust contracts because they can be enforced, we live confident that our basic rights will be protected by the law if they are threatened.

We have confidence that if we live lives that are upright and law abiding, that the forces of law will stand alongside us when our rights and liberties are threatened.

Then in business and government we rely on the integrity of the accounting and audit professions to ensure that we are told the truth about our finances and about the state of the organisations we work for.

Although the colonial Rhodesian economy was tiny in global terms, it had an amazing administration — never more than about 70 000 individuals (today we employ 250 000 civil servants), it contained many outstanding and deeply committed individuals.

The quality of their work and the high standards of their output set the standards for administrations in Africa and are still used very widely as terms of reference here and elsewhere.

Apart from the civil service, which in itself was an amazing institution, the professions played a critical role in building up what became a diversified, self-sufficient economy that gave a reasonable standard of living to the people of this country. In particular the service was almost totally honest — corruption was seldom reported or tolerated.

Their engineering feats were astonishing — roads, railways and bridges including the engineering masterpieces at the Victoria Falls and over the Save River.

The Vic Falls Bridge was designed in Glasgow, Scotland, and prefabricated, brought out by sea and rail and erected using local labour and skills. When the two sides were joined, they were one centimeter apart.

The Kariba Dam, designed and built then under the supervision of the local Ministry of Water Development was at the time the largest civil engineering project in the world.

It was completed on schedule and within budget, and has generated electricity for Central Africa for over 50 years without interruption.

I do not think we have ever had a building or a bridge failure and this is a testimony to the quality of their work.

In the field of audit and accounting, the record of our local professional bodies is equally impressive. Our accountants are recognised across the world for both their expertise and their ethics. Our audit certificates are seldom challenged or even questioned and are demanded by shareholders and investors alike.

This does not come easy; it’s the result of many years of hard work and a firm commitment to standards and ethics in the profession. The bodies that maintain these standards are doing a fantastic job — just look at the way the profession has been transformed since Independence without any decline in standards.

However, these impressive achievements are not being maintained in another key profession — that of law. The fundamentals get recognition in our legal system and written laws; equality before the law, the supremacy of the law in society, the role of the judiciary as one of the pillars of the state are all clearly stated in our constitution and also given recognition in public.

However in practice, the record is dismal.

Our courts are corrupt and inefficient. Senior members of the judiciary are totally compromised and even their competence as lawyers is questionable.

Our lawyers are expensive and in many cases ineffective. They tire of having to constantly put pressure on prosecutors, magistrates and judges to be reasonable and principled. Cases are held over for years pending conclusion or judgments; when decisions are taken and judgments granted, they are not enforced by the officers of the court or the police and many think that they can ignore court decisions and rulings without recourse.

The situation is now so serious that in general our people have lost faith in the judicial systems and many do not even bother to report thefts and abuse to the police for action.

In my own case, three years ago I made a statement in the House of Assembly (now National Assembly) on the illegal marketing of diamonds being produced at Marange.

I gave evidence that pointed to the fact that many millions of carats were being produced and smuggled out of the country and sold without any benefit to the country. As I left the House, I was threatened by a senior member of ruling party Zanu PF.

The following day I left Harare at 5am to drive to Bulawayo. On the way out of the city, I noticed a blue Toyota sedan following us. It pursued us for 180km and eventually caught up with us on the side of the road having breakfast. I was approached by four young people — the leader of whom had a beer bottle in his hands and was clearly under the influence. He proceeded to threaten me in the presence of my wife. He actually stated that they could shoot me from the side of the road at any time and nothing would happen to him. He said I was being monitored and should be careful; he clearly stated that he was from “Charlie 10” (the CIO or Central Intelligence Organisation).
After this incident, I reported the matter to the police and laid charges against the four. Subsequently, I found out who they were, I gave these details to the police as well and found out that the vehicle belonged to the Ministry of Home Affairs. To date that matter has not been followed up or even investigated.
This experience is common in Zimbabwe and the argument that “the matter is political” is used so frequently to justify no action by the police or the judicial services as to make the rule of law a mockery. This is compounded by the claim often made that “I can buy any decision I want at any time”.
We have prisoners on remand for years — living in terrible conditions and simply waiting for their cases to be heard. If you cannot afford good legal representation, you do not want to be heard in the courts. When you are, the process is so inefficient and time-consuming that most simply abandon the process. Zimbabwe is not unique in this — the much fabled International Court at The Hague has been in existence for over a decade and has finalised two cases at a cost of many millions of dollars; that is not justice.
In Rwanda the state abandoned the modern system of justice when trying to deal with the mass genocide and its aftermath in favour of their traditional courts with much better results.
Africa deserves better and in the long-term all of us have to recognise that we depend and rely on the professions for much of what makes up for a decent and reasonable state which can deliver a better life for us all.
Cross is the legislator for Bulawayo South.

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