Zim’s ‘new dispensation’ a reflection of the past

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In Africa, the kidnapping of the 113 Chibok girls by Boko Haram jihadists, casts a shadow on the safety of schools all over the world. There are cases of school shootings in the United States. During the liberation struggle in Zimbabwe, for instance, schools were fishing grounds for new fighters. Today, schools have remained melting pots of violent politics, exposing learners to political vitriol, slandering, scandalising of opponents and outright political violence, including potential exposure to ordinances such as grenades.

In the aftermath of the November 2017 coup, the re-constituted Zanu PF government promised a “new dispensation”. The government also promised that the elections would be “free, fair and credible”. However, there are good grounds for remaining cynical about these promises, mainly because the key to both promises should be rigid adherence to constitutionalism and the rule of law. Neither seems to be at the heart of the new dispensation’s mode of governing, and two examples reveal this. Both also have a material bearing on the possibility of free, fair and credible elections.

Take the issue of schools (and teachers and pupils) being dragged into the elections. Three teachers’ unions took the government to the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC) earlier this year, and the commission ruled that this was unconstitutional, making comprehensive recommendations to the government.

ZHRC also noted that their investigations revealed that Zanu PF was the culprit, finding no evidence that the MDC-T was a culprit. Instead of immediately issuing instructions to stop this practice, Zanu PF continued with the practice, and so the Amalgamated Teachers’ Union of Zimbabwe (ARTUZ) went to court. They won the case. Yet, Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga the very same day addressed a rally at Chireya High School in Gokwe North. Incidentally, the report also suggests that Chief Chireya was present at the rally, and there will be more to say about chiefs shortly.

Now the involvement of schools, teachers and pupils during elections is nothing new, and the adverse effects on learning, pupils and teachers was what forced ARTUZ to launch the Safe Schools Campaign in 2017. This was presumably based on the awful experiences of 2008 during the presidential run-off, and possibility of such a situation occurring again in 2018.

Research by the Research and Advocacy Unit (RAU) and the Progressive Teachers’ Union of Zimbabwe (PTUZ) on the 2008 elections made very plain the scale of violence. Of the 1 159 teachers that were interviewed around the country, the findings were startling:

79% reported having been forced to attend political meetings;

77% reported threats;

41% reported some form of extortion;

33% reported being assaulted;

31% reported being tortured;

30% reported having been disqualified from voting; and

24% reported having been forcibly displaced from their work station and community.

This was merely what had happened to teachers and the effects on the children were equally severe, but not as well documented.

So, when teachers and pupils are still dragged to rallies at schools, we must seriously consider whether the new dispensation has any respect for the rule of law. The government ignores both a decision and recommendations of ZHRC, and now stands in contempt of a court order. And does this suggest that the government is seriously committed to free, fair and credible elections?

Then there is the issue of the traditional leaders. RAU pointed out nearly a decade ago that traditional leaders were in breach of the Traditional Leaders Act by being politically partisan, as was also the case for all the security services.

The Traditional Leaders Act, now firmly buttressed by the 2013 constitution in Section 281(2), clearly requires traditional leaders to be non-political. Thus, the decision by the High Court in May of this year to give Chief Fortune Charumbira seven days to withdraw his statement pledging support by the Council of Chiefs for Zanu PF.

This was an ideal opportunity for the government to display its commitment to constitutionalism and insist that Chief Charumbira not only comply with the court order, but also to insist that all traditional leaders comply with the constitution, and to ensure that this is made widely public. Rather than this, the government has allowed Charumbira to contest the decision.

These two decidedly non-trivial issues underline the problems inherent in the coming elections, and show no break with the past as endlessly claimed by the “new dispensation”. If the government was serious about change, and ensuring that these elections will be genuinely free, fair and credible, then it would act wholly differently.

Firstly, it would insist on absolute compliance with the constitution and the rule of law, publicly support the court, and demand public statements from traditional leaders, nationally, regionally and locally, that they will be non-partisan,

Secondly, the government would publicly support the Safe Schools Campaign being mounted by ARTUZ, ensure compliance by all political parties with the court decision, and even go so far as to endorse the Safe Schools Declaration on the Global Campaign to Protect Education from Attack. The declaration has been signed by 75 countries, and is an initiative of a large group of United Nations agencies and international NGOs: CARA (Council for At-Risk Academics), Human Rights Watch (HRW), Institute of International Education/ IIE Scholar Rescue Fund, Protect Education in Insecurity and Conflict (PEIC), Save the Children, Unicef, Unesco, and UN Human Rights Commission.

This would not only state the government’s commitment to guaranteeing the safety and well-being of teachers and pupils, but also provide an opportunity to demonstrate to the international community the reality behind the rhetoric of Zimbabwe becoming a good global citizen. — Research and Advocacy Unit (RAU).

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