Zimbabwe: rule of law under the cosh?

16 April 2015

The rule of law is falling victim to political machinations in Zimbabwe, and this could be eroding one of the core pillars propping up that country's democracy, says Beatrice Mtetwa.

Mtetwa, a Zimbabwean human rights lawyer, was speaking at UCT's law faculty on 16 March, as part of the inaugural 'Leading in Public Life' programme at the university.

The law's power over Zimbabwe's policies and actions was being compromised from many sides, said Mtetwa. For instance, the country's previous constitution was amended often, seemingly to overcome court findings of unconstitutionality. This rendered 'precedent' meaningless, she said.

It was hoped that the new Zimbabwean constitution would lead to an improvement in the independence of the judiciary, for example, but this has not proven the case. Mtetwa pointed to Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's recent remarks – about a challenge to the expulsion of members of the ruling party – put pressure on the judiciary. While the chief justice made a formal statement describing the comment as inappropriate, the damage to the independence of the judiciary was already done, she said.

"Whichever way the courts find, the public will believe the decision would not have come about had the statement not been made by the president," said Mtetwa. "The casualty of this is the rule of law."

This 'arbitrariness' in the law could have dire consequences for human rights, democracy and economic development, all of which lean heavily on the rule of law.

Photo by Michael Hammond

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