EDITORIAL COMMENT: Commission vital step to democratic culture President Mnangagwa

President Mnangagwa obviously gave a great deal of thought to whom he would invite to form the seven-member commission to investigate what happened in Harare on August 1, the only bloat on our peaceful harmonised election, why it happened and how we can avoid a repeat.

The seven members between them have a great deal of experience in varied disciplines. All are well-known and have reputations to protect. Most important, they are under no pressure to please the Government, showing the President wants the truth. The four outsiders, the majority of the commission, are obviously exempt from any possible pressure; in effect they just have to deliver a report to the President, shake hands and catch a flight home.

And those four present an interesting mix: a retired South African president, the third of the five post-democracy presidents of that country and someone who has seen it all, repression before democracy and the virtues of a democratic state; a retired Commonwealth Secretary-General, someone who had the confidence of a huge swathe of the democratically-elected heads of government on this planet and who, as a Nigerian, has intimate knowledge of what happens when democratic institutions fail and the incredible benefits when everyone agrees to live together in an open democratic space; a retired top general from Tanzania, who not only has expertise, but who commanded the defence forces in the region’s oldest democracy and a senior English barrister who is not only trained to sift evidence in the light of the law, but is a citizen of a country where democratic traditions are embedded in the cultural foundations.

The three Zimbabweans, the minority, are also independent in practice as well as theory and the only reward they can hope for is to see their reputations enhanced. Again they are immune to Government pressure as none can be harmed by the Government: two are senior academics from Zimbabwe’s top ranked university, one in social science and one in constitutional law, interesting additions to the commission’s pool of expertise and one is a senior Zimbabwean lawyer whose professional colleagues regarded her sufficiently highly to elect her their spokesperson and professional leader as president of the Law Society.

Academics are ranked according to the rigour they follow in their investigative research and the integrity they show when presenting their findings; lawyers build their professional reputations on expertise and even more important, the integrity they display. None of the three Zimbabweans has any history of being a Government toady and one indeed has been a frequent critic of lapses in democratic openness and was an opponent of the President in the just ended election.

The most important point for all seven is that none of them can risk their reputations or integrity. They have to let the chips fall as they fall, without having any prior agenda to “fix” someone or having anyone whitewashed by their report.

There has been some criticism of the commission, largely by those, we suspect, who felt they had a better qualification to be a member and because they know who needs to be “fixed”. We are confident most people will recognise that the seven have the expertise, background, immunity from pressure and the integrity to fulfil their commission from the President to tell him exactly what happened, why it happened and what needs to be done next.

Some may not have realised it yet, but by appointing commissioners of this calibre and promising to publish their report, President Mnangagwa has, in effect, surrendered his freedom of action.

He will have to accept the report and to take the recommended action and implement suggested changes in law or procedure. Harry Truman once famously noted that the buck stops on a Presidential desk. Being a shrewd man, our President has taken the necessary steps to ensure that when the buck, in the form of the final report, stops on his desk it will at least shine with truth and integrity.

Since President Mnangagwa assumed office nine months ago a great deal of democratic space has been opened. We were all very proud of the way we conducted ourselves in the recent election, culminating in those two major rallies by the principal candidates two days before the poll and taking place 2km apart.

Shoppers in city centre supermarkets that evening were impressed when people in different coloured T-shirts stood together in till queues and were in the same kombi going home. We seemed to have grown up.

We want to know what went wrong a few days later and why. We all want to keep and even extend, that democratic space. We all want everyone to have freedom of speech and association so long as other people’s rights are not infringed on. We all want a culture of tolerance, vigorous democratic debate, and the right to disagree in peace.

We are developing a democratic culture and the commission’s report will be an important step in that process.

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