Saying no to Zimbabwe's constitution

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Socialist Review spoke to Tafadzwa Choto of the International Socialist Organisation in Zimbabwe about the significance of the recent referendum on a new constitution

Can you explain the background to the constitutional referendum? How far back does it go?

The constitutional question dates back to 15 years ago as Zimbabweans have been demanding a new democratic constitution to replace the 1979 Lancaster House constitution that was negotiated and ushered in at Zimbabwe's independence. Social, economic and political demonstrations by workers, students, peasants, women, war veterans and even by the middle classes, forced the Zanu PF government to accept the need for a new constitution.

In 1998 Zanu PF handpicked individuals to constitute a Constitutional Commission that later came up with a draft constitution that was rejected by the masses in the February 2000 referendum.

The constitution was rejected, firstly, because the process was flawed as the commission comprised mainly supporters or sympathisers of Zanu PF.

The draft did not contain socio-economic and democratic rights that the majority of Zimbabweans have been fighting for. Thereafter Zanu PF and both wings of the split Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) appointed commission that came up with a new draft constitution in 2008.

Again the process was not inclusive, leaving the constitutional question unresolved. Continued pressure saw in 2009 the Government of National Unity (GNU) set up a Constitution Parliamentary Select Committee (known as COPAC) which was made up of representatives of three political parties, and initially civil society representatives were included.

What does the proposed new constitution look like?

The COPAC process was supposed to take 18 months but it ended up taking close to four years. The process was deeply flawed. It was not broadly representative. It was disproportionately dominated by the political parties through parliamentarians and the executive president and excluded the civil society representatives. Even though two Stakeholders Conferences, and an outreach process of gathering views took place, they were only consultative and not decision making.

Working people's demands for political and economic democracy were left out. However, there are some notable gains especially for the rights of women and the inclusion of socio-economic rights. But a deeper analysis of the draft shows that it still does not address fundamental issues of severe poverty, gender and social inequality, economic democratisation and full political democracy.

Nor does the constitution guarantee funded rights to health or education. Instead it says these rights can only be met depending on the availability of resources, without mentioning that the money can come from natural resources that the country has such as diamonds.

This allows the elite politicians and the rich to loot diamonds, platinum and land instead of funding the socio-economic rights of the people. Despite an unemployment rate of around 90 percent, the constitution does not talk about job creation or workers' rights such as the right to a living wage or the right to strike.

The few who are formally and informally employed do not have any pensions and the draft does not address this. It also denies civil servants collective bargaining rights and does not allow them to be politically active in any political party. And though the death sentence has been removed for women, it still applies to men aged between 21 and 70. Currently the Glen View 29 are a group of young activists accused of the murder of a policeman. They may face death if convicted. The death sentence should be abolished for all.

How did the opposition to the proposed constitution come about? Can you explain the united front?

The Democratic United Front for a People Driven Constitution (DUF) is a united front of various social and youth movements which participated in the COPAC constitutional process in order to advocate working people's socio-economic and democratic rights. It involves socialists, student activists, residents associations, representatives of the informal sector and trade unions.

It was formed after it was agreed that it would be wrong to boycott the whole process, but instead we should utilise the opportunity and mobilise to try and win working class demands. DUF produced charters on socio-economic rights and mobilised aggressively for their support in the COPAC Outreach Programme in most of the major urban centres. DUF managed to win some of its points like the bill of rights, and women's equality that is currently in the draft constitution.

When the draft came out DUF sought to enter into an alliance with trade unions and other progressive organisations to campaign for a No vote since the draft reflects the interests of the politicians and capitalists, but does so in a deceptive manner that deludes the working class that their interests are covered too.

How successful has your No campaign been?

The No vote got 179,489 (5.4 percent) votes, as against 3,079,966 Yes votes (94 percent). But I would say that the 5.4 percent by the No vote is a very significant minority. This is against a background where the No campaign was denied any form of media coverage. It was blacklisted by both the state controlled and private media. There was very little time for a successful campaign and all court applications to challenge this were dismissed in favour of the COPAC draft. It was also successful given the fact that, as Marx said, "the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class".

The Yes vote was backed by the main political parties and business, religious and media interests.

In the rural areas memories of violence of June 2008 in the elections were still fresh in the minds of many, so many went to vote Yes and most will vote for Zanu PF in the forthcoming elections to avoid the threat of violence. Compared with the 2000 referendum when there was a high level of struggle and a fighting spirit everywhere, this referendum was held in a very different context with few struggles by workers. The working class has been fighting for more than a decade now and many are tired. They want to get rid of authoritarian rule and saw voting for the constitution as a step forward in doing so. Many workers see the rejection of the constitution in 2000 as a mistake, believing that if the Yes vote had won then, the president would be going now. However the draft constitution allows the current president, in power now for 33 years and 89 years old, another ten years in office if elected!

The MDC-T (led by Morgan Tsvangirai) has demobilised the masses from fighting and encouraged such false illusions. And having been lulled by the dictatorship and abetting its undemocratic practices in the referendum, it will now be impossible for MDC-T to cry foul when the same happens in the run-up to the parliamentary elections. But the 179,489 who voted No lays a strong foundation for fighting against capitalism. I salute the women and men of Zimbabwe who were brave enough to say No, especially in urban areas where the MDC-T is still dominant. The No vote was about 10 percent in the urban areas.

Can you explain how normal Zimbabweans are surviving? How are you coping on a daily basis?

Before the referendum fuel prices were increased in order to get money to fund the referendum and the forthcoming general elections. The prices of basic commodities went up. Since the referendum the country has been experiencing increased power cuts and people are going for days without electricity. Zimbabweans are living in poverty but many are placing their hopes on the forthcoming elections to bring change and an end to their daily poverty.

On the other hand repression and violence are increasing. The day after the referendum vote a leading human rights lawyer was arrested and ended up being thrown into Chikurubi prison, where she spent close to a week before being released by the High Court.

Do you think it's possible to recapture the spirit of resistance that almost got rid of ZANU PF in the late 1990s?

I am not sure because the masses still see MDC-T and Tsvangirai as their way out of the current crisis. There is no doubt that there will be some excitement as we move towards elections but its ideological base will be very weak. The opposition has also been in the unity government with Zanu PF which pushed through further attacks against workers. It is unlikely that organised labour will campaign for opposition in the elections.

The United Front that was formed to campaign for the No vote in the referendum is disillusioned and is not going to be campaigning for the opposition.