HARARE, ZIMBABWE — Namatai Kwekweza didn’t expect to spend a cold night in jail last month.
The activist went to the Ministry of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs one afternoon with a simple, urgent message: Public hearings to amend the constitution had left out the voices of some Zimbabweans.
Her message led to her arrest and highlighted the tensions around the hearings, which enraged critics, who say the government should not have called the convenings during a pandemic.
“Our movement is restricted,” says Kwekweza, 21. “Many were not aware of this process and were not able to travel to the designated public hearing centers.”
Civil society groups say the ruling party sought to smother debate in order to drive through changes that favor the current regime.
Government officials say the process was open and fair, and that Zimbabweans had ample chance to take part. They also say they took pains to protect the public’s health.
And caught in the middle were citizens, who scrambled to find out when and where hearings were being held in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, which has locked down the country since late March.
As of July 17, Zimbabwe had 1,420 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and 24 deaths.
The constitutional drama began in December 2019, when the government proffered changes to 28 provisions of the document. Some address the selection of vice presidents, as well as promotions and terms for judges.
A 2013 referendum approved the current constitution, which demands that the public have adequate opportunity to comment on proposed revisions.
The government set public hearings across the country for March 29 to April 3. But in late March, Zimbabwe announced its first case of COVID-19, which led to restrictions designed to limit the public’s exposure to the coronavirus.
The pandemic pushed the hearings to June 15-19. By then, the government had eased restrictions, but some remaining directives affected the convenings.
Hilda Nguwi, a mother of two who sells secondhand clothes, lives on the outskirts of Harare. She wanted to attend a hearing but did not have the letter required to get there.
“These days it is very difficult to travel to town because of the police roadblocks, where the police request you to produce a letter stamped by your employer confirming that you work within the essential services sector,” she says.
It didn’t matter: Nguwi belatedly learned that the government moved the hearing in Harare to radio and Zoom, the online videoconferencing platform. Officials had planned it for June 19 and announced the switch on June 16, she says.
“The public hearing in Harare was shifted on short notice from a physical to an online and radio hearing with no justification why it was done,” Kwekweza says. “Some did not know what Zoom is or did not have internet connectivity to participate.”
Kwekweza says that, at its peak, 194 people took part. “In a city like Harare, with more than [1.5] million people, that’s not sufficient,” she says.
The Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum reported that the same hearing was “marred with problems and challenges for participants,” which included a late start, participants who couldn’t get into Zoom, and high data costs for those who attended the two-hour meeting.
Tapiwa Chengeta, a teacher who lives in Marondera, about 76 kilometers (47.2 miles) east of Harare, attended a meeting where authorities let in just 50 people at a time, a restriction applied to meetings of all kinds during the pandemic.
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Chengeta says fear kept some people at home.
“I don’t think many citizens were able to air their views because of fear of COVID-19, even though the amendments sought affect them,” Chengeta says.
The Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum found that at a hearing in Gwanda, 527 kilometers (330 miles) southwest of Harare, officials checked temperatures, offered hand sanitizer and placed seats 1 meter (3 feet) apart. Yet, according to a Forum report, “there was not much distancing in long queues of participants waiting for their session.”
The Forum found problems at other gatherings. In at least one hearing, more than 50 people crowded into the room. At others, attendees didn’t wear face masks.
And some hearings grew raucous. In Masvingo, 290 kilometers (180 miles) south of Harare, more than 300 people showed up, but only 200 could go inside, in clusters of 50. A group of young people outside chanted and sang in protest, saying they wouldn’t leave until they were allowed in. Police had to restore calm.
“Physical distancing and wearing of face masks were not observed in the queues,” the Forum reported. “Some of the police officers who were called in to restore order did not have face masks.”
But Misheck Mataranyika, chairperson of the Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Committee in Parliament, says the government took every measure to ensure participation while protecting citizens.
He says the speaker of the Parliament gave the public more than the 90 days’ notice required to amend the constitution, and officials followed all coronavirus precautions at hearings. Citizens may still send comments to Parliament via email or letter, he says.
Mataranyika adds that the proposed changes are only tweaks and would boost groups such as women. One would extend Parliament’s so-called “women’s quota” – seats designated for female members – by 10 years. The quota is scheduled to lapse after 2023.
Marvelous Khumalo, spokesperson for the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, says revisions affecting vice presidents and judges would invest too much power in the presidency.
One possible change gives presidents the power to choose their vice president. The head of state also would pick some judges, including for the Supreme Court, without a parliamentary committee interviewing them publicly.
“For any democracy to prosper, the three arms of the state – the judiciary, the executive and the legislature – should be functioning independently, without influence from the other arm,” Khumalo says.
Lovemore Madhuku, a constitutional lawyer, says the timing of the public hearings was unconstitutional.
“Those constitutional provisions are meant to give the public a very genuine chance to be able to air their views,” he says. “You cannot go to the people in such a restrained environment, in the face of a global pandemic.”
Kwekweza says officials should have waited for the pandemic to pass.
“If 3.3 million people participated in the constitution-making process in 2013 and 94.5% voted yes,” she says, “then 3.3 million Zimbabweans must be involved in this process in 2020.”
Linda Mujuru is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Harare, Zimbabwe. She specializes in reporting on agriculture and the economy.
Linda Mujuru, GPJ, translated some interviews from Shona to English. Click here to learn more about our translation policy.