Why 2013 Could Be a Turning Point for Zimbabwe

This year is bound to be an important one for Zimbabwe. Four years after violent elections in 2008 led to a power sharing government, the country is finally preparing for a referendum on a draft constitution and national elections should be held by the end of the year. This could mark a turning point for Zimbabwe.

Unfortunately there are indications – growing political violenceongoing corruptionlack of substantive reforms – that it could instead serve as a repeat of 2008. In such a polarized political climate, the role of civil society becomes critical. This week the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights hosted a roundtable discussion with Magodonga Mahlangu and Jenni Williams of Women and Men of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) on the challenges facing civil society in this potentially historic year for Zimbabwe.

The discussion almost immediately turned to the hostile climate that NGOs face in Zimbabwe today. Robert Mugabe’s ZANU PF party conference ended with a resolution to “enforce deregistration of errant NGOs deviating from their mandate.” The result has been a growing crackdown on civil society organizations, particularly those involved in human rights. Last week police arrested the director of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Association (ZimRights), Okay Machisa on charges of fraud and forgery. His arrest followed that of another ZimRights official in December on the same charges and this week charges have been levied on the entire organization. Largely considered to be a political ploy by ZANU PF, the arrests have shaken many inside Zimbabwe creating what Williams called a “flee or fight” attitude among civil society workers. Even though people expected a crackdown as elections neared, Mahlangu admitted they were unprepared with the levels of arrest and lacked the full ability to keep people involved safe from persecution. While there is the possibility of reforms if the draft constitution passes, in the meantime there is no effective rule of law at the local and regional level as the courts make it clear they are taking orders from Harare.  As Williams stated, the result of the ZANU PF conference has been a redoubling of the efforts at persecution through prosecution rather than allowing open participation in society in the run up to the elections.

Yet despite the hostile environment, both women were optimistic on the opportunity the referendum on draft constitution holds. If it passes, the constitution will be the first actually written by Zimbabweans since gaining recognized independence in 1980. Although the final version will not be presented publicly until February, earlier drafts granted new protections of basic rights and a process of devolution to limit the powers of the central government. It is on this last point that Mahlangu and Williams shared hope for real change and the ability to hold politicians accountable, not just with institutional issues such as the rule of law but also with corruption and the provision of basic services. However they also cautioned that in order for the final vote on the referendum to be legitimate, all parties would need to respect the referendum process and allow time for proper translation of the text into local languages for consideration by the people. With the politicized nature of Zimbabwe society today, where everything is seen as a battle for power, whether that will happen remains anyone’s guess.

This type of prisoner’s dilemma, where a positive outcome is surely possible but general suspicions and a climate of fear make it far more likely that the worst outcome will be realized instead, underlined most of the discussion. Even when organizations like WOZA adamantly fight to stay neutral among political parties and keep to the issues, they are still often perceived as being agents of ZANU PF’s opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). The constant search for agendas amongst the rampant corruption of both political parties makes operating even more difficult while all that much more necessary. Despite all the factors working against them, both Mahlangu and Williams remain hopeful that change is possible and Zimbabwe could make the first steps towards a more inclusive and just society this year, with civil society helping guide the way from the ground up.