Women say ‘don’t touch our Constitution!’

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Guest column: Miriam Tose Majome

PART 1

Since 31 December 2019 when the Constitutional Amendment Bill No 2 was published in the Government Gazette various groups of women have been meeting to try and understand what it means and what the Executive arm of government is trying to do.

The Bill will be subject to Parliamentary processes after the prescribed 90-day period. It is largely expected to sail through despite the misgivings of the majority of Zimbabweans. The Bill is proposing to change the Constitution in 27 different places but under one single Amendment Bill. The draft Bill has been released and is available for reading on many platforms. Various writers and legal experts have been analysing it extensively and it is worthwhile to search for and read some of the analysis. The point of this article is not to analyse the specifics of the proposed amendments. It is to register that the women of Zimbabwe do not want anyone touching their Constitution.

This will be the second amendment since the Constitution was passed in 2013. The women from all walks of life, political and religious affiliations unanimously resolved to reject the attempt to amend it again. The women resolved to refuse to be drawn into debates about the merits and demerits of the specific amendments. They are sceptical of both the manner and motives for amending it.

They know that allowing themselves to be drawn into debating the actual content will divide them so they have resolved to simply say: “Don’t touch our Constitution!” Once they start debating the content they will be divided. It is not about the content — it is about the principle. The women of Zimbabwe thus reject the attempt to amend the Constitution for whatever reasons good or bad.
They birthed that Constitution and want it to remain as it is even with all its flaws as they love all their children good and bad.

The reasons that have necessitated yet more constitutional amendments in a short space of time are largely unknown. The Justice minister has not yet publicly explained why this is a priority now.

None of the many women present at the different meetings have heard him explain. Like other Zimbabweans they only became aware of the intention to change it after publication of the notice in the Gazette. Some of the recurrent questions at the meetings are:

i Why is amending the Constitution a priority now?
ii What is so wrong with the Constitution that it requires 27 corrections?
iii What are the cost implications of the amendment and how will the process be funded?
v Will the views of ordinary people be considered?
vi How will the amendments benefit the country?

Perhaps the minister will explain the urgency behind the proposed radical alteration of the country’s supreme law. If the minister cannot explain this and how it will benefit the country there is no reason legislators should allow the Bill to pass. The supreme law of the land should not be so casually tinkered with. If politicians loved their country more than they love power they would never use a Constitution to advance their own situational, sectional or personal interests.

Interestingly one of the proposed amendments will have the effect of reducing Parliament’s oversight powers. It will be interesting to see if Parliament will voluntarily give up its power to the Executive. Section 327(2) states that international treaties do not bind Zimbabwe until they have been approved by Parliament. Section 327(3) gives it the right to veto agreements the Executive makes with international financing organisations. However Clause 23 of the Bill proposes to alter section 327(3) so that it will no longer apply to agreements with foreign banks or similar non-State institutions even if the agreements impose fiscal obligations on Zimbabwe.

Parliament will no longer have the constitutional power to approve loan agreements with such non-State institutions. The Executive will be able to unilaterally bind the country to any bad deals without parliamentary oversight. Given some of the irresponsible decisions our government makes it is not unfathomable to find one day that our dear leaders mortgaged the Victoria Falls to an international financier. This is how Sri Lanka lost control of its strategic Hambantota Port to the Chinese after it failed to pay its debts. Parliamentary oversight helps to save the country from falling into these sort of debt traps and being at the mercy of more powerful and sophisticated foreign financiers.

The Zimbabwe Constitution took much more than the 5 years it took under the Copac driven process during the GNU. Since the obsolescence of the British driven Lancaster House Constitution there were various attempts to write an authentic home grown constitution which Zimbabweans could identify with. There were no public consultations during the drafting of the Lancaster House Constitution in 1979. A constitution just had to be cobbled together by hook and crook to end the war because the world had grown tired of the Rhodesian issue. After independence there were many failed attempts to write a better one. Examples were the Constitutional Commission of 2000 which resulted in the infamous NO vote that incensed President Robert Mugabe to hitherto unknown heights of presidential fury, the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA) Draft, and the little known Kariba Draft among the more reported failed attempts.

Finally and miraculously during the Government of National Unity between 2013-2018 Zanu PF and MDC to everyone’s surprise and their own managed to actually work together and produce something. The two traditional enemies even through all the snarling at each other cobbled the Constitutional Parliamentary Commission (Copac) together and through the blood, sweat and tears of Zimbabweans produced a Constitution in 2013. It was far from a perfect document yet it was oddly functional but that was not its beauty. Its beauty was that Zimbabweans from across the bitterly divided political and social landscape accepted it.

They identify with it and take pride in it because they were involved in its making during the nationwide consultations.

All these sacrifices have not been lost in the memory of the women of Zimbabwe. However, some powerful people just because they can want to throw all this away for reasons suspected to be about consolidating sectional power interests. All the past failed and successful efforts by Zimbabweans to write their own Constitution are at risk of being retrospectively turned into shams – national charades. It was always known and accepted that the party with a parliamentary majority could change the Constitution but even the worst sceptics did not expect ZANU (PF) would actually change it so soon and so radically. 28 constitutional amendments in just seven years is radical and goes against the national grain. Just because they can change doesn’t mean they should.

Next week we will conclude the reasons Zimbabwean women do not want their Constitution touched.

Miriam Tose Majome is a lawyer and a teacher. She can be contacted on enquiries@legalpractioners.org

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