The jury is out on Zim's constitution
The debate on the new constitution in the small Highfields community hall on Tuesday was just heating up when youths in "RG Mugabe" berets rushed forward in a scramble to get 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 in which all political parties are campaigning for a "yes" vote.
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.
The constitutional parliamentary select committee (Copac), which is overseeing the process, appears to be merely going through the motions of explaining it. Public interest is low and the committee is extremely short of the means to launch an effective publicity campaign.
At the Highfields meeting, Innocent Gonese, a Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) MP, and his Zanu-PF counterpart, Flora Buka, had to give up on the meeting after the scramble by the Zanu-PF youths, just when the two were beginning to take questions from the audience.
"Nothing will change with these people," a man shouted as the locals streamed out of the hall. The disturbance appeared to have annoyed those attending the meeting.
Outside the venue, Buka admitted 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 said.
The crowds have been small, even though the debate has been vibrant, if cautious. It is likely the draft will sail through, 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?"
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 shouted from the back, drawing more laughter.
Hearing about 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?"
The clause saying the military must be "subordinate to civilian authority" drew more mocking calls.
And when the speakers asked the crowd to vote "yes", a man retorted: "Just tell us what's in your draft. Don't tell me how to vote."
The constitution's supporters say it is better than the current one, which was drawn up on the eve of independence in 1980 and has been amended 19 times.
But the Copac meetings are revealing how weary Zimbabweans have grown of promises of reform, five years after the unity government was formed, pledging change.
At the Queen Elizabeth School hall in Harare, only a handful of people turned up and, before the speakers had finished talking, they 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 believes the message is being put across. "The enthusiasm is growing and we are encouraged by it. People want to read and understand it [the constitution] and they understand what's in it."
However, two weeks before the vote, the committee is still facing serious logistical hurdles. It says it has printed 90 000 copies of the draft constitution, 20 000 in local languages and 70 000 in English. Each district was allocated 500 copies, with MPs being given just 20 copies each. In many rural districts, voters are being asked to go to the local government offices to read it there. Copac also intends to translate 500 copies into braille to cater for the visually impaired.