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Traditional leaders shouldn’t take lead role on Gukurahundi burials




I LIKE what Zimbabwean lawyer and University of Kent law lecturer Alex Magaisa once said after the reign of Robert Mugabe. He said that it would be difficult for President Emmerson Mnangagwa to fail because of the low that Mugabe had sunk during his disastrous rule. Many Zimbabweans said the same.
Mnangagwa had a huge opportunity from the beginning to resolve the Gukurahundi issue even if he is one of the prominent political players accused of being among the architects.
There are certain low hanging fruits that Mnangagwa could have quickly picked. These include issuing an apology for Gukurahundi, acknowledgement of his role in the atrocities, the return of Zipra properties seized by the state or even the release of the Dumbutshena and Chihambakwe commissions of inquiry reports.
An apology is the starting point.
Writing for the International Journal for Transitional Justice, in an article titled The Anatomy of Apology and Forgiveness: Towards Transformative Apology and Forgiveness, Joram Tarusarira said while an apology and forgiveness are important, the process must interrogate deeper issues.
“The central thesis of this article is that while apology and forgiveness are vital for dealing with a violent past, there is a need to critically transform the socio-political epistemic subjectivities that underpin a wrongdoing,” Tarusarisa says.
“These include political discourses, narratives, ideas and ideologies that justified the wrongdoing in the first place and are thus its bedrock.
“This is against the understanding that brutality and violence are sustained by particular epistemologies, logics and reasonings. Failure to bring about their transformation results in not stopping the repetition of brutality and not realising sustainable reconciliation, as well as stifling key aspects of dealing with the past, such as truth seeking, truth-telling, justice and accountability.
“By drawing on the state-sponsored massacres in Matabeleland and Midlands provinces in Zimbabwe in the early 1980s – the Gukurahundi massacres – this article argues that current calls for, and implementations of, apologies and forgiveness are often undertaken without considering the need to transform the epistemic bedrock of conflict and violence, which engenders apology and forgiveness.
“This lack of focus on transformation makes apology and forgiveness susceptible to abuse or underutilisation, and thus impotent in facilitating sustainable reconciliation. The article emphasises the need to transform the cognitive and epistemic subjectivities underpinning wrongdoing, thus making a case for transformative apology and forgiveness”.
Mnangagwa’s government has not been tolerant and progressive on handling Gukurahundi. Even peaceful Gukurahundi commemoration, art installations or songs are banned.
Instead of genuinely addressing the issue, government is playing victims groups against each other, continues politicking, obfuscation of information, and crippling the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission operational capacity.
Gukurahundi, which has been described variously by the Zanu PF government as a “closed chapter”, “moment of madness” and “Western conspiracy”, is now apparently going to be handled by local traditional chiefs.
Chief Charumbira said recently Matabeleland chiefs will be handling the reburial of Gukurahundi victims. Gukurahundi democide and other killings are a national issue, not a regional one, therefore, it needs a national victim-driven approach.
There was an initial sense of excitement when Mnangagwa signed into law the National Peace and Reconciliation (NPR) Act in 2018. This was despite the NPR Bill being previously rejected twice due to a myriad of issues which are presently being exhibited. The inadequacies of the Act include that it gives too much powers to the minister in charge, is not victim-focused and lacks technical detail with regards dealing with human remains.
The current tenure of the commission has now expired and nothing tangible has been achieved except a few workshops. Mnangagwa has been playing around with the commission including through underfunding and being selective with whom he deals with.
Now the Matabeleland Collective are out, and the chiefs are in!
The duties and function of chiefs in Zimbabwe is administered by the Traditional Leaders Act (2000) and the Chiefs and Headmen Act (1982).  In the Constitution of Zimbabwe Amendment (No. 20), (2013), section 282, traditional leaders have the following functions: to promote and uphold cultural values of their communities, and in particular to cement extended family relations, to take measures to preserve the cultural traditions, history and heritage of their community’s sacred shrines.
It is also the duty of traditional institutions to facilitate development in accordance with an Act of Parliament to administer land and protect the environment.
Chiefs are also meant to resolve disputes amongst people in their communities according to government laws and exercise other functions imposed on them by an Act of Parliament.
The constitution draws the line on the traditional leaders with regards to the scope and extent of their duties. There exists a conflict between traditional forms of judicial authority and modern forms of judicial authority. This contributes considerably to the significance of traditional leadership institutions and customary law towards the realisation of the right to access to justice.
The problem with the current set up and nature of politics in Zimbabwe is that chiefs and traditional leaders are heavily partisan in favour of the Zanu PF government. This in in contrary to the constitution section 281(2): It states that traditional leaders must not be members of any political party or in any way participate in partisan politics; act in a partisan manner; further the interests of any political party or cause; or violate the fundamental rights and freedoms of any person.
Traditional leaders, who dare not follow the Zanu PF propaganda line are often ostracised and hounded as what has occurred to Chief Ndiweni.
With consideration to the legal, political and practical matters, how then it is possible chiefs are given a mandate that is not only beyond their remit but also challenging to implement.
The government of Zimbabwe should put the needs of the victims first. Not merely putting out statements and shifting policy decisions away from the NPRC.  The current chiefs, in my view do not possess the relevant skills or resources that are required with regards exhumation, identification, and reburial of human remains. This also applies to the spirit mediums the government has previously allowed in the identification of human remains together with the Fallen Heroes Trust.
The approaches used by the Amani and Ukuthula trusts is better within a forensic context. Chiefs might be useful in the ceremonial reburial of individuals after all the necessary work has been done by the technical teams and the NPRC. They can also be useful in regards memorialisation of Gukurahundi and looking after shrines.
In conclusion, the use of traditional leaders has not been used elsewhere around the world in regards the reburial of victims unless there has been a disaster such as Cyclone Idai.
The use of chiefs in Zimbabwe is not valid in law, they are mostly partisan, do not have relevant experience or skills. Lastly that it is not what the surviving victims want hence recent lawsuits.  
Victims who have been consulted in various Gukurahundi studies would like an apology, acknowledgement of offences committed, and a restructured independent authority to oversee Gukurahundi, compensation, and justice.

Silika is based in Britain and holds a PhD in forensic archaeology and genocide from Staffordshire University in the United Kingdom.