HomeAnalysisGovt must set up independent commission on Gukurahundi

Govt must set up independent commission on Gukurahundi

This is the second installment of a document on submissions made by chiefs from Matabeleland and Midlands provinces to President Emmerson Mnangagwa on the occasion of his meeting with them at the State House in Bulawayo on June 28, 2019.

The location and timing of an apology in the reconciliation process is critical. In our culture an apology is a deeply spiritual undertaking and therefore must be culturally and spiritually acceptable for it to serve the purpose for which it is meant.

An apology begins and opens the process of mending a broken relationship and therefore must precede everything else. It begins the reconciliation process. In isiNdebele, we say ukukhumelana umlotha. It must come first ahead of all else. It unties spiritual knots that are preventing an acceptable relationship to flourish and prosper. At the apology stage appropriate cultural and spiritual ceremonies of various descriptions must be held to appease angry spirits. It is only after we have completed the apology stage that we can proceed with other stages. You don’t start by doing other stages and then apologise later.

Before exhumations and reburials, before you tamper with the dead, before reparations, before identification documents are issued, before development interventions, before compensation is given, and before everything else, there has to be an apology. Culturally and spiritually, a working relationship that allows the state to work with survivors and victims, including the dead, to complete the reconciliation process does not exist until an apology has been given, and processed through spiritual and cultural ceremonies, and accepted on behalf of both the living and the dead.

An apology is not directed at the living only, but also at the dead. The various ceremonies held during this stage are meant to communicate with the dead and ask for their blessings and support as the process of reconciliation unfolds. It is meant to ask the dead to forgive those who killed them and ask for their permission to attend to the rest of issues, including exhumations, where deemed necessary. Just like in other major religions, an apology in our traditional African religion is meant not only to seek forgiveness, but also to bridge the spiritual and physical gap between to two sides.

Apologies on their own are not enough. As alluded to above, an apology is a big step that opens a journey towards healing and reconciliation. A journey that the entire nation should walk together. This means an apology as an act of contrition should not be an end in and by itself, but should be the beginning that inaugurates a series of practical and meaningful measures such as truth telling, sincere and meaningful consultations, individual and collective reparations, public memorial monuments, revision of school textbooks to accurately capture what happened, economic and political reforms, constitutional and legal reforms, psycho-social support for victims, development interventions and reforms of offending laws and institutions, and, where deemed necessary based on the findings of an independent body, some legal sanctions, among others.

The content of the apology matters as much as what follows after it. If nothing follows then the conclusion will be that it was just an empty apology, a gimmick. But when these concrete steps are taken after the apology then the sincerity of the apology is affirmed. An apology must unambiguously describe and acknowledge the injustice being apologised for and the suffering that was experienced by victims and then go on to commit to practical steps to atone and prevent similar occurrences in future.

For example: “On behalf of the Government of Zimbabwe I apologise to (dash) for (dash) and commit government and the entire nation to do the following things (dash) to redress the injustices and prevent similar harm in future and help the nation to achieve national healing, reconciliation and unity.”

We also want to extend an invitation to anyone else who wishes to come down into our communities to apologise to our people. Notwithstanding the fact that by then an official apology might have been issued and despite the fact that a truth-seeking body may be already at work at the time, there may be individuals who may want to tell the truth, acknowledge personal responsibility and apologise for their own individual acts or omissions during the Gukurahundi atrocities directly to communities and households in addition to appearing before a truth body. We will welcome any sincere acts of contrition. On this, author, historian and professor, Margaret MacMillan, offered this advice: “An apology offered and, equally important, received is a step towards reconciliation and, sometimes, recompense. Without that process, hurts can rankle and fester and erupt into their own hatreds and wrongdoings.”

1.2 Truth-telling and acknowledgment

Your Excellency, truth-telling, i.e. uncovering and exposing the truth on what happened, how it happened, where it happened, why it happened and who did it and the acknowledgment of the atrocities and their results is a sine qua non of sustainable national healing, reconciliation and the restoration of the dignity of victims and survivors. We must seek and expose the truth on Gukurahundi without fear or favour. Without truth and acknowledgment, nothing closer to national unity, cohesion and healing can ever occur. Let the past speak and let the present listen.
We believe Archbishop Desmond Tutu was right when he said: “Truth is at the heart of reconciliation: the need to find out the truth about the horrors of the past, the better to ensure that they never happen again”. And when he said: “Societies and individuals are entitled to know the truth about mass human rights violations. It is a human right and a value in itself. We should not silence the past. The past refuses to lie down quietly, in any case. It has an uncanny habit of returning to haunt one.”

The truth-telling process, for example, enables victims and survivors to know about the circumstances of gross violations of their human rights, to know the fate of their disappeared loved ones or at least know the circumstances under which they disappeared or were killed. It also serves to inform the nation about what happened to their fellow citizens. Acknowledgment of the occurrence of the deaths, injuries, rape and related suffering that took place during Gukurahundi is therefore key to closure.

When one reads Section 252 (c) of the constitution, it is clear that truth-telling is contemplated in pursuit of justice, healing and reconciliation. Truth-telling is not important only for victims, but also for perpetrators.

They too need to be freed from the tremendous bondage of the burden of unacknowledged injurious conduct in respect of having killed, raped, tortured, starved and disappeared fellow citizens directly or through the agency of someone else.

Your Excellency, in its briefing paper in September 2012, the International Centre for Transitional Justice (ICTJ Uganda) had this to say about truth-telling and reconciliation: “Truth telling plays a critical role in acknowledging the wrongs suffered by victims, fostering reconciliation, community healing, and preventing the recurrence of the past abuses in post-conflict societies. Establishing the truth about past violations will not only help determine the most appropriate remedies to be offered to victims, but it will also help identify the necessary reforms that can prevent such violations from happening again.”

Though communities completely agree that the truth body should be truly independent and impartial, there are, however, varying views on the nature and composition of this body. There are three proposals that our communities put before us:

(a) National Peace and Reconciliation Commission (NPRC);

(b) An international retired judge-headed (Motlanthe Commission-like) body specifically set up for Gukurahundi atrocities; and

(c) An independent international judiciary commission headed by a retired judge with experience in handling mass atrocity crimes and specifically set up for Gukurahundi atrocities.

In regards the NPRC, there is a view that a better-resourced, well-staffed, robust, independent, focussed, systematic and orderly NPRC should be able to prioritise and do the job. The view is that the NPRC should ditch non-priority issues and focus on Gukurahundi as foremost among the issues within its mandate.
Others, however, are totally against the idea of the NPRC handling the Gukurahundi issue. They, in turn, want to see a special truth body specifically established and dedicated to handle the Gukurahundi atrocities. It is important that while they propose an independent Gukurahundi body, they do not in any way suggest that the NPRC should be disbanded. They only propose that the Gukurahundi issue be handled by a separate body with a clear mandate and timeframe.

Your Excellency, those objecting to the NPRC say that it has too many things on its plate, is too thin in capacity to handle a massive job like Gukurahundi and has too wide, too erratic, too nomadic, too congested and too haphazard a mandate to do effective, efficient and independent work and establish facts on the Gukurahundi issue.

They submit that the NPRC public outreach meetings will not give sufficient time to the Gukurahundi issue and that, in any event, it is wrong to put the Gukurahundi atrocities at the same level with other forms of violence, tragic and unacceptable as it is, that have occurred in the country since 1980. They argue that Gukurahundi survivors and victims are dying and memories fading and that with so many competing issues for the NPRC it will not be able to give adequate, proper and due attention to the Gukurahundi atrocities while witnesses, victims, survivors and perpetrators are still alive.

Based on the foregoing, they propose an independent commission specifically and solely set up to handle Gukurahundi atrocities. This commission, they say, can immediately forge ahead without delay. Beyond this stage, the folks proposing an independent commission themselves diverge into two proposals: the first being a Motlanthe Commission-like truth commission and the other being an independent Judicial Commission on Gukurahundi Atrocities.

There are two proposals coming from our communities as to the composition of the proposed independent Gukurahundi Commission. The first one is that it should be headed by a relevantly-experienced foreign retired judge and, like the Motlanthe Commission, be a hybrid of a majority of eminent international persons of relevant skill and some locals of untarnished and unimpeachable reputation coming from civic society, the clergy and professional bodies.

The second proposal on the composition of the proposed Gukurahundi commission is that it should be headed by an international retired judge with experience in handling mass atrocity crimes and be composed entirely and only of foreign persons of global reputation pooled together for their expertise and integrity on mass atrocities.

Your Excellency, as chiefs, we decided that the only way to do justice to the views of our communities in this regard is to present all these varying views as they are and hope that you will be in a better position to then work with us to elect the best option that will deliver the best results for victims and survivors.

Notwithstanding the multiple proposals from communities, whatever truth-telling platform is eventually agreed on, all of us are agreed that it should be impartial, credible, objective and wholly independent of political or other interests other that the pursuit of restorative justice and should have wide powers and adequate human and financial resources to fulfil its utility. Everything reasonably possible should be done to ensure that whatever truth body is agreed on it has all resources necessary to enable it to perform its functions effectively, vigorously, efficiently and on time. The truth body should employ its own staff and be free to invite and receive international financial and technical assistance as it sees fit.

A process that lacks the key attributes of independence because of the influence and/or control of interested parties or one that has inadequate budgetary and human resources will not be viewed as legitimate by victims and survivors. Like the entirety of the process of redressing Gukurahundi in respect of which a lasting solution has to be found, truth-telling should be credible, victim-centred and victim-driven.

The goal of the truth body should be to restore the dignity of victims, open the pathway to healing and deter similar atrocities. In pursuit of this goal, it is the view of our communities that the truth body’s terms of reference should, in the main, inter alia, be:

(a) To thoroughly and impartially investigate Gukurahundi atrocities and the circumstances of what happened between 1982 and 1988 in Matabeleland and Midlands and, to the extent possible, determine the scale of and culpability for, among other things, deaths, rapes, disappearances, torture and gross human rights violations in the hands of security forces and any other state and non-state actors.

(b) To provide a secure, safe, credible, independent and impartial platform for victims, survivors, perpetrators and any other witnesses to freely speak out.

(c) To produce an as accurate a record of what transpired as is possible, determine specific actions to be taken to redress the atrocities and provide a comprehensive set of recommendations on, but not limited to, restorative justice measures and political, policy, legal, constitutional and institutional reforms that may be necessary to give full effect to the legitimate rights of victims and survivors.

(d) To do anything that is reasonably necessary for, or incidental to, the effective redress of Gukurahundi atrocities.

To be continued next week.

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