An apology is the beginning of a healing process: Chiefs

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Melwa Ngwenya walks around mass graves of people killed during Gukurahundi massacres in the mid-1980s near Tsholotsho. Pic: Reuters.

FROM this week, the Zimbabwe Independent starts serialising a document on submissions made by chiefs from Matabeleland and Midlands provinces to President Emmerson Mnangagwa (pictured) on the occasion of his meeting with them at the State House in Bulawayo on June 28, 2019.

Your Excellency, the issues basically cover:

  • Gukurahundi atrocities;
  • Inclusive economic development and poverty predication;
  • Devolution;
  • Food security, land and resettlement;
  • Education;
  • Languages and culture;
  • Water;
  • Road infrastructure and telecoms, television and radio connectivity;
  • Health care;
  • Electricity;
  • Border posts in Binga;
  • Problem animals; and
  • Protection of sacred sites.

    In making these submissions we are guided by the letter and spirit of the Constitution of Zimbabwe, especially and in particular Sections 2, 3, 5, 6, 8, 13, 14, 16, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 51, 53, 56, 63, 80, 81, 83 and 282.
    In addition, we have taken note of applicable international standards. For each contributing chief, this is a result of some consultations with his or her community and with various community-based, faith and cultural organisations. Further consultations may be needed as we get to the implementation micro details. It is envisaged and totally in order that as we go forward chiefs should compose themselves some structures as is necessary for implementation.

For example, chiefs from areas that were predominantly affected by Gukurahundi should provide leadership on the issue as they are best informed on how best it should be addressed. They know the level of hurt and pain in the community and they have the necessary knowledge of how to apply culture and tradition in the circumstances to bring about lasting and sustainable healing, closure and reconciliation.

We must emphasise at the outset that this submission is not meant to represent all the issues and is in no way exhaustive. Even the proposed solutions are not the all that is out there, but we have captured those that have featured prominently in our discussion with our communities over time. NB: For purposes of this submission, Your Excellency, wherever we use the term Gukurahundi we are not necessarily limiting it to the activities of the 5th Brigade of the Zimbabwe National Army, but we use it in its broadest and contextual sense as used by victims and survivors to include the atrocities committed by the 5th Brigade itself and/or by all other security institutions and agencies of the state and of all non-state actors that were in any way connected with the state or government in the period of 1982 to 1988.

Gukurahundi atrocities

Your Excellency, the issue of Gukurahundi atrocities is an extremely pressing one. We must urgently find a comprehensive, victim-centred and just solution to the Gukurahundi issue and its lingering political, economic and social effects. For too long this matter has been neglected and as a consequence victims and survivors are hurting.
For many victims and survivors the physical and emotional injuries are still fresh. They are looking for answers, justice and closure. There is therefore a need to lift the burden of the pain on affected families and persons in a way that will achieve fullest redress. Community, personal and social healing and equalisation are urgent so that we don’t pass on bitterness, alienation, poverty and underdevelopment to future generations.

Achieving healing and reconciliation on Gukurahundi requires all stakeholders to go beyond empty slogans and gesturers and start seriously engaging in meaningful and good faith dialogue and practical amends on the ground. We have to all demonstrate commitment to close this sad chapter in the history of humankind.

Your Excellency, as chiefs from the Matabeleland and some of our colleagues from your home province, Midlands, are cognisant of the discussions around the issue of Gukurahundi that has begun to happen with the chiefs and with some NGOs. The time has indeed come for the citizens of this country to deal with their past in a way that brings closure and healing to the nation. For unless we are brave enough to take the bull by the horn and begin to have an honest and open conversation, we risk passing the traumas of our generation to our children and our children’s children. But for this to be done we need to establish a credible process in place.

To complement what has already been done so far, we do make the following submissions, so that we might attain a better healing process:

1.1 An official govt apology

Your Excellency, for the avoidance of doubt, this part requires a lengthy submission.
We believe that the entire Gukurahundi tragedy would achieve a greater degree of closure or healing if accompanied by the government’s official, full, unequivocal and public apology on this sad chapter of our history. The government of the day reneged on its duty to protect its citizens and instead turned upon a section of its own people. We are therefore calling on this government to acknowledge and take responsibility of the actions of the previous government.

Your Excellency, in the eyes of victims and survivors, it is indisputable that the primary responsibility for Gukurahundi atrocities rests with the state. While there were some non-state actors here and there such as political party activists and dissidents of various descriptions who committed gross violations of human rights and various types of crimes such as acts of banditry, armed robbery, arson and rape, the Gukurahundi atrocities were primarily committed by the state and its security institutions and agencies and those acting in its behalf, or under its orders, or at its instigation and incitement, or otherwise subcontracted by it. It is these security institutions who, instead of protecting innocent civilians, killed, raped, disappeared, starved and tortured unarmed citizens, pillaged property, and committed gross violations of human rights. The roles played by non-state actors and the extent of their culpability should be determined by a fact finding body.

The Gukurahundi atrocities may have taken place in the 1980s, but the pain continues and effects linger on and so does the responsibility of the state. It is a fundamental principle of both domestic and international law that the obligations of an entity at law do not terminate or cease to exist in consequence of change of leadership. Just as much as Zimbabwe must benefit from the assets that accrued under the previous government, it should in the same manner take responsibility for the liabilities. Debts must be paid and obligations fulfilled because they were assumed in the name of the state. The same applies to Gukurahundi atrocities.

The state committed the atrocities and therefore the state should assume responsibility for the atrocities and issue an official apology and, in our constitutional architecture, the state is represented in the office of the head of state.

Your Excellency, it is important to distinguish between an official apology and a personal apology. Personal responsibility is irrelevant when considering an official apology. It is not you apologising for your personal acts or omissions, but the state apologising for the actions of its agencies. It is irrelevant whether the head of state is in any way personally responsible for the atrocities. It is irrelevant whether or not he was even there at the time of the commission of the atrocities.

An apology is a moral obligation of the occupant of the office of the head of state where atrocities or wrongs of one form or another are committed in the name of government or state and not necessarily an admission of personal responsibility on the part of the head of state as a person. This obligation is assumed by the mere fact that he or she is the head of state and/or government. It doesn’t matter who the occupant of the office is. He or she may even personally be a survivor or victim of Gukurahundi or any atrocities for that matter.

Regardless of his or her personal circumstances at the time of the commission of the atrocities, it is morally apt that once that victim or survivor assumes the office of the head of state and government, that victim or survivor has to apologise as the head of state and government for the crimes of the state he or she is now heading. He or she would have inherited the legal and moral burdens of the state. The office is ultimately responsible for the conduct of the state regardless of when the conduct in question took place.

Gukurahundi atrocities represent the actions and omissions of government and a continuing state of which you are now head, Your Excellency. The president as the head of state and government should therefore publicly apologise on behalf of the state, as the culpable entity. He should also proceed to apologise on behalf of citizens for the atrocities and for the misuse of state resources used to inflict the atrocities.

At this stage we are not concerning ourselves with the details of the culpability of individuals and the nature and extent of their involvement. Whether or not any persons are individually responsible for their actions during Gukurahundi and whether or not the conduct of certain individuals by their positive actions or their failure to act at the time rises to the level that necessitates separate attention is a question of fact that can only be determined and/or recommended by an independent fact-finding body following a deliberate and structured process of truth-telling. We are at the beginning of the long road to reconciliation.

Your Excellency, lest we be accused of making a bald and wild allegation on the responsibility of the state, it is important to say we have assumed that the state is culpable for Gukurahundi atrocities because the perpetrators were employees of the state, were paid and housed by the state, were funded by the state, were transported by the state, carried state-issued weapons and ammunition, flew the Zimbabwean flag in their bases and offices, were promoted after the atrocities, are earning retirement benefits from the state, and were not arrested or in any way punished by the state for the crimes they committed, and, most importantly, the state did not at the time and since that time distance itself from the crimes.

The state, as a unit, is therefore liable and should be held responsible for the actions of its employees unless it demonstrates on evidence that the crimes committed were solely the actions of specifically named individuals or unless a truly independent body has determined otherwise. As far as we know, at all material times, the government of the day had the right, ability and duty to control the actions of those who committed Gukurahundi atrocities on the ground because they were acting in its name and were accountable to it. It chose not to exercise this power.
Your Excellency, an official governmental apology is by no means a strange or unreasonable request as precedence has been set by other governments around the world. In 1998, in an effort to heal the wounds caused by church and government in Australia by separating aboriginal children from their families between 1905 and 1967, the country instituted a national sorry day, as a token sign of the Australian people’s regret of the hurts caused to its citizens.

In February 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, offered an apology for the states having “inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians”. In a similar manner, the Canadian government of Stephen Harper undertook a similar exercise in 2008, to atone for the pains caused by earlier governments against the first nations of Canada. The current Prime Minister of Canada has also apologised for things that were committed way before he was born. He apologised even if he had not in any way participated in the conduct complained of.

German Chancellor Helmut Kohl apologised for his country’s crimes against Jews during the Nazi era. Most recently, the Belgium government apologised to the people of Burundi, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo for the mixed race children who were kidnapped from their African mothers in these countries and taken to Belgium during the colonial period.

In 1988, signing the Civil Liberties Act that authorised apologies and compensation to Japanese-Americans who were unjustly detained during the Second World War, President Ronald Reagan said: “Here we admit a wrong; here we reaffirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law”. His successors, presidents George W Bush and Bill Clinton, subsequently sent individual letters to those who had been interned.

The Popes have made many apologies for injustices and human rights violations committed against women, Jews, individuals like Galelio, and Muslims, among others, that were committed by the church and those which when they occurred the church was either silent or otherwise in complicity. The examples are numerous and all of them have contributed to laying the foundation for the healing of the nations.

Your Excellency, we as chiefs believe that such an action from our government would go a long way in contributing to the healing our people are yearning for.

In his essay When Nations Apologise, Edwin Battistella observes that “… national apology serves the same function as a personal apology, but on a different scale. A national apology asserts changed values, condemns past behaviour, and commits to different, better actions in the future. And it can bring about reconciliation between those harmed and the nation that caused the harm … (a) national apology … involves a sincere condemnation of a serious, sometimes historic, national wrong. As with a personal apology, the first step is to recognise that a great harm has been done. The recognition can then lead to a broader exploration of the history of the harm, a retelling of what happened — the decisions, actions, values, scope, and individuals involved”.

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