The film Democrats, which aired on Independent Lens, traces the challenges and tensions that arose in Zimbabwe over the attempt to charter a new national constitution. While that African nation had a constitution before, this new document was to usher the country into a new, more democratic era. After many years under the rule of President Robert Mugabe, who remains both revered and reviled with almost equal measure in his home country, international pressure led different factions in Zimbabwe to agree it was time to move forward politically.
While the film captures an important and ultimately positive story about a country expanding its civil rights, Zimbabwe’s new constitution remains in flux and not entirely resolved. It appears to be a case of two steps forward and one step back.
New Update (11/16/17): Since this post was originally written in 2016, something major has happened in Zimbabwe. A coup was orchestrated by the military and long-time president Mugabe is under house arrest. Read the latest on the BBC, as well as their analysis of what this means for Zimbabwe.
Many Zimbabweans almost instantly warmed to the military’s move to take control of the country, and confine President Mugabe to his official residence.
“The military has done a good thing,” says one bookseller. “They will ensure we get a transitional government.”
He is firmly convinced that Mr Mugabe’s 37-year rule is coming to an end.
There has been a sudden change of tone in the country, and the sense is that many Zimbabweans have been yearning for change.
Any change, it seems, would do.
Democrats Banned in Zimbabwe
One important update related to Democrats is about the film itself: it remains banned in Zimbabwe. Douglas Mwonzora, an opposition party representative featured in the film, accused the Zimbabwean government of being oppressive by banning the documentary.
“I am aware that they banned Democrats, which is the documentary on the constitution-making process. The documentary has won over 15 international awards and it’s ironic that it is banned in Zimbabwe,” he said. “It contains the truth and the people of Zimbabwe are eager to see the documentary. I hope the Constitutional Court will intervene positively. The ban is not justified. It is oppressive to ban it because they (government) don’t want the truth in that documentary to be shown,” Mwonzora said, insinuating he would mount a legal challenge against the ban.
Democrats filmmaker Camilla Nielsson also provided us with her own update in the interview we did with her.
The Constitution: Is it Working?
While the new constitution for Zimbabwe was finally ratified, it hasn’t fully become the democratic dream many had envisioned. Here’s more from the Voice of America news site:
Marking two years since its ratification, however, Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) released a statement calling for “a deep and sincere reflection” on whether the charter was being used to bring greater accountability and to safeguard people’s rights and freedoms. Indeed, many critics say the new constitution, which many perceived as more liberal than its predecessor, hasn’t changed realities on the ground. ZLHR spokesman Kumbirai Mafunda, for example, calls the new constitution a “paper tiger that is becoming increasingly meaningless and ineffectual.”
The constitution does have some positive points, at least. “[It] is particularly strong where it puts the aspirations of ordinary Zimbabweans at the centre of government,” writes Petina Gappah on Comment is Free. “A strengthened bill of rights obliges the state to put the empowerment of women and girls ahead of regressive cultural practices; makes significant inroads into the death penalty; forbids all forms of torture; guarantees freedom of expression and belief; and imposes obligations on the state to take steps to ensure access to shelter, health education, food and legal aid.”
Mugabe Still In Power
President Mugabe is seen in the film Democrats as an aging leader who has severely divided the country, from loyalists who want him to reign as long as he can to those who have seen their country decline under his increasingly disconnected and arguably totalitarian rule. There was hope for the future when the new constitution was agreed on and set into law in 2013, yet Mugabe remains in office. In fact, just last week thousands protested in Zimbabwe’s capital against Mugabe’s alleged misrule.
Why is he still in power?
For one thing, there are numerous key clauses in the constitution that won’t take effect until 10 years have passed. For another, it allows for Mugabe to maintain power as long as he’s alive. From the Guardian (emphasis ours):
[T]here’s the constitution’s most exciting clause: the introduction of term limits. Each president is allowed a maximum of two five-year terms, but this does not apply retrospectively, meaning that – if he is re-elected – Mugabe is constitutionally entitled to another decade in office. And if he should die, or resign, within that 10-year period, then his party would be allowed to appoint a successor rather than go back to the electorate.
Opponents and critics of Mugabe have often criticized him for having a “let them eat cake” attitude, so it was probably ironically amusing, or upsetting, to see him literally doing that at his recent birthday party.
For what it’s worth, just days after that 92nd birthday celebration, Mugabe stated that “his successor must be chosen democratically and that his wife will not automatically inherit his role.”
Zimbabwe is currently suffering through financial crises and drought. In that same interview, Mugabe added that his government would take possession of all diamond operations because existing miners had robbed the country of its wealth. “In the mining sector, the mining of diamonds will be reserved for the state, be a matter for the state alone,” Mugabe told state broadcaster ZBC TV. “We have not received much from the diamond industry not much by way of earnings. I don’t think we have received two billion dollars.”
A mere formality, Mugabe has once again been nominated by the ruling Zanu-PF party as its choice for President in 2018 — when he will be 94 years old. And now it appears at least one of his opponents will be a familiar face to his cabinet: Joice Mujuru. Mujuru was President Mugabe’s second-in-command, the first woman to become Zimbabwe’s vice president, until she was fired in 2014 after Mugabe accused her of plotting to oust and kill him. She was the highest-ranking former Zanu-PF member to oppose Mugabe after she formed a new party to go against her former boss, the Zimbabwe People First (ZPF) party.
Lewis Machipisa, an analyst for BBC’s Africa bureau, sees a victory unlikely for Mujuru, for several reasons, including the ruling party’s strength and the possibility that law enforcement investigates her “over the business empire she and her late husband built following Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980. They will want to know if she was involved in corruption or if her wealth is clean.”
Opposition party spokesman Douglas Mwonzora was recently arrested — and then subsequently released — after questioning why the security at the High Court in the capital city, Harare, demanded party leader Morgan Tsvangirai’s identity document before entering the premises.
Tsvangirai has certainly not been out of the public eye, at least. You can read Tsvangirai’s recent remarks to University of Zimbabwe students in The Zimbabwean, which calls itself “a voice for the voiceless,” and publishes news and stories more critical of the Mugabe regime.
Douglas Mwonzora is also on Twitter (though not prolific) for those looking for more updates straight from the source.
Zimbabwe had the worst Christmas in years. Our civil servants have not yet received all their money. Mugabe and his ministers are holidaying
— Douglas Mwonzora (@DMwonzora) December 27, 2015
MDCT is organizing a March against poverty and corruption in Harare on the 14th of April, 2016. We start at Freedom Square. All are welcome
— Douglas Mwonzora (@DMwonzora) April 5, 2016
Mwonzora may want to watch his step, however. While the Zimbabwe government recently announced that it has decided not to ban social media platforms, it will still “be actively involved in regulating its use by penalising those who abuse such platforms.” Somewhat reassuringly, though, “the Minister dismissed any suggestions of a ban on social media in the country, and referred to anyone suggesting such a ban as being mad. He cited the positive impact such platforms have had for the people of Zimbabwe and how the government is only concerned about the abuse of such platforms.”
Barring anything unforeseen, the election in 2018 will be the next major event in the ongoing saga of the first democratic Zimbabwe constitution.