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  • New Constitution-making process - Index of articles

  • Zimbabwe referendum marred by intimidation and arrests
    Ben Freeth, The Guardian (UK)
    March 18, 2013

    Elections are in the air in Zimbabwe. A referendum on the new constitution was held this weekend and the general election is due before the end of October. But the signs all suggest that the upcoming vote will take place under conditions not dissimilar to 2008, when elections were characterised by widespread intimidation and political violence.

    Yesterday the office of the Prime Minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, was raided by police, who arrested four officials - apparently for impersonating officers. A prominent human right lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa, was also arrested for "defeating the course of justice".

    I was in Chegutu, near Harare, recently. An elderly church pastor had held a meeting at his local church to discuss the constitution. Three policeman barged in and arrested the pastor and some of his parishioners under the notorious Public Order and Security Act, as they had been having a meeting of more than three people without getting police clearance, as required.

    Gift Konjana and Pastor Bere described their ordeal of sleeping on the concrete in a dark and over-crowded cell, sharing dirty blankets and a toilet, an often overflowing hole in the ground, in the corner of the room. It is an experience that many Zimbabweans know only too well.

    After a couple of nights inside the magistrate gave Konjana bail, but he was immediately re-arrested without charge. Konjana went on hunger strike, saying that he would not eat until he had been charged. They finally let him out the next day.

    Several days later 14 people in Movement of Democratic Change t-shirts were on their way to a meeting with Tsvanagarai. Under the long standing security laws, used selectively prior to each election, such meetings need to be cleared by the police at least four days before, and this one had been. Unfortunately, though, they stopped their bus in Chegutu to get some lunch. Police accused them of congregating illegally and they were arrested and put in the cells, where they spent the next week.

    At the same time a witch-hunt has begun for anyone with wind up short wave radios. In Lupane, in the south of the country, police have asked children at school whether their parents have these radios. Zanu-PF retains control of the airwaves and is determined to crack down on anyone listening to broadcasts from outside the country.

    One of our employees told me about his parents-in-law a few weeks ago. They had refused to go to a Zanu-PF rally up in Mount Darwin, in the north of Zimbabwe. The next thing they knew a group of youth arrived and burnt their house down. They lost everything that they owned. I thought back to when the same thing happened to us and a number of our workers on the farm.

    In Headlands at the end of last month, Sherpherd Masiri, a well known MDC activist, was out campaigning when his house was petrol bombed and burnt to the ground. In it his 12-year-old son Christpowers Masiri was sleeping; and like so many victims over the last four decades, he was burnt to death . When I saw pictures of his charred body lying on the burnt floor of his ruined home, I could only think of my own son, born at the same time, who managed to survive despite our house being burnt down. "It could have been him" I kept thinking. "How many more and going to suffer the same fate in 2013?"

    The draft constitution was voted on this weekend. Although there are those in civic society who have expressed grave concerns about the document, both MDC and Zanu-PF – including the war veterans – campaigned for a yes vote. Although there are some better things in the constitution, I have yet to understand why MDC supported it. President Robert Mugabe approves the draft constitution essentially because, firstly, his powers remain little diminished but secondly because it allows him to continue to take land without any legal process. Property rights remain insecure and the door is open for the grabbing of white-owned mines, banks and businesses which will create further job losses and will continue to stifle investment.

    In the classic Orwellian tradition, the draft constitution goes against international law on a few fundamental issues. The most critical area of concern is that the bill of "rights" allows a wrong. Just like the Animal Farm inscription on the barn door which said that "all animals are equal but some are more equal than it others", it asserts that "discrimination is unfair…unless it is found to be fair."

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