Constitution drive elicits cynicism in Zimbabwe
The debate on the new constitution in the tiny Highfields Community Hall was just heating up on Tuesday, when youths in “RG Mugabe” berets rushed forward in a scramble for copies of the draft.
The meeting was one of many that are being held across the country to get voters interested in the March 16 referendum.
But the meetings are only showing how sceptical Zimbabweans are that a new constitution, which has taken more than three years to draft, will bring real change to the way they are governed. They show just how weary Zimbabweans have grown of promises of reform, five years after the unity government was formed, pledging change.
The Zimbabwe Constitution Select Committee (Copac), the group overseeing the process, appears to be merely going through the motions, facing poor public interest and still badly short of the materials to launch an effective public campaign.
At the Highfields meeting, Movement for Democratic Change MP Innocent Gonese and his Zanu-PF counterpart, Flora Buka, had to abandon the meeting after the scramble by Zanu-PF youths for copies of the draft, just as the two were taking questions from voters.
“Nothing will change with these people,” a man shouted as the locals streamed out of the hall.
Outside the venue, Buka admitted that they were desperately short of materials. “We are going to try to print more copies, in both English and local languages, as and when our resources are increased by our well-wishers,” she told the Mail & Guardian.
Resignation of a leader
The crowds have been small, even though the debate has been vibrant, if cautious. It is likely that the draft will sail through the vote, as both Zanu-PF and the MDC are urging their constituencies to vote for it.
“So you say the Constitution will determine how the leaders must behave,” said a man, waving a copy of the draft at Gonese. “But anyone can tear it up. Where in this Constitution do I see guarantees that those who overrule the Constitution will be penalised?”
And when Gonese and Buka sought to explain how the Constitution would deal with the resignation of a leader, there were laughs and mocking cheers from the audience.
“There is no need for that clause,” one man heckled from the back, drawing more laughter.
On hearing of the clause that puts term limits on the presidency, one man stood up to ask: “Won’t whoever steps down cause problems for the new leader once they retire?”
To the clause saying the military must be “subordinate to civilian authority”, there were more mocking catcalls from the back rows.
And when the speakers asked the crowd to vote yes, one man shot up to retort: “Just tell us what’s in your draft, don’t tell me how to vote.”
Supporters of the draft say it is an improvement on the current Constitution, which was drawn up on the eve of independence in 1980 and has been amended 19 times, mostly to add laws designed to preserve President Robert Mugabe’s rule.
At Queen Elizabeth school hall in Harare, only a handful turned up. By the time the speakers had had their say, the few in the hall had begun to walk out. Old tensions also disrupted a meeting in Mbare, where Zanu-PF supporters walked out when Gonese started addressing the meeting.
Despite the difficulties, Gonese was hopeful that the message was getting out. “The enthusiasm is growing and we are encouraged by it. People want to read and understand it [the constitution].”
However, two weeks before the vote, Copac still faces logistical hurdles. It said it had printed 90 000 copies of the draft, 20000 in local languages and 70 000 in English. Each district was allocated 500 copies, with MPs given just 20 copies each for distribution. In many rural districts, voters are asked to travel to the office of the local government to read the draft. Copac also intends to translate 500 copies into Braille.