On the 14th of October 2019, Trevor Ncube sat down with prominent Zimbabwean human rights lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa. Beatrice has been internationally recognised for her defense of journalists and press freedom, and in 2008, The New York Times described her as “Zimbabwe’s top human rights lawyer”. In this episode, Trevor and Beatrice discussed her long-spanning legal career, and she shares on what has guided her ongoing fight for justice and what she believes are the barriers to a strong justice system in Zimbabwe. Watch this interview, Part 1 and Part 2.
Trevor: Greetings Zimbabwe, Africa, and the world. Welcome to “ln Conversation with Trevor” where I go beyond the headlines and beyond the sensational. Today I’m in conversation with internationally celebrated Zimbabwean lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa. Beatrice welcome to In Conversation with Trevor.
Beatrice: Thanks for having me over
Trevor: Thank you. I’ve been looking at your CV and you have an absolutely impressive record as a human rights defender. You are celebrated in Zimbabwe and celebrated all across the world. The American Bar Association gave you a Human Rights Award in 2010, you were also awarded an honorary doctorate from a University in the UK and one in the US. You’ve got an award from Rhodes University in Grahamstown, you are also an adjunct professor at Carleton University in Ottawa. Moreover, you are a Council of the International Bar Association for Human Rights and a former president of the Law Society of Zimbabwe. And finally, perhaps my favorite one is that Fortune magazine has named you one of the world’s greatest leaders. What does that do to you? What does it say about your work ?
Beatrice: Well I don’t know what criteria is used to come up with who gets which award. Because when you take on a case you really don’t know where it’s going to take you. You don’t know whether it should be a celebrated case or not. However, the reason one takes on case is really to try and get justice for someone who might otherwise not get justice. So, I always get pleasantly surprised when l get awards and the title of human rights lawyer. You know a title l would have actually chosen for myself that best describes me is a ‘divorce lawyer’ because I don’t consider myself to be just practicing human rights. This is because I do more family law cases than human rights cases. I just happen to do work for people who have the capacity to publicize my work. For instance, if you do work for journalists they put you in the limelight and I suspect that’s the reason why I’ve got all these awards.
Trevor: Of all these awards that I’ve just highlighted which one means the most to you? and which one had the biggest impact on your work and life?
Beatrice: I think the African ones actually have more impact on my work and life. As far as I’m concerned, the general perception is that human rights are eurocentric. So when you get an honorary degree from Rhodes University or from the Sydney and Felicia Kentridge award in South Africa, it’s greater than the Western ones. What this says is that what you are doing resonates with other Africans, it is not a Eurocentric thing. Human rights are universal and they should be enjoyed by everybody in Zimbabwe and everywhere else. So for me this speaks to who we are and as Africans we should not ask for standards that are lower than other people’s elsewhere.
Trevor: Why do you do this work? This is dangerous work particularly being a human rights defender. I know you said you do quite a lot of divorce work but you your profile has grown because of the work that you do around human rights. Why do you do this dangerous work?
Beatrice: I don’t even consider it dangerous. You know, if a person wants to use a lawyer and they choose me as a lawyer, I really should be given the carte blanche to do my work without any fear of any possible reprisals. Let’s say I defend somebody, and that person maybe was injured when they were arrested or abducted, and a doctor treats that person… why should I be regarded as doing something that I shouldn’t do, when the doctor who treats the same person is just treated like he’s doing his work. So my view is that I don’t go in thinking of danger because the law says I’m entitled to do what I do, in the same way that any other professional is entitled to what they do. I get surprised when it becomes dangerous because I go in not expecting danger. I go in on the basis that the Constitution says you have the right to a lawyer of your own choice, and the lawyer should have the freedom to do their work in the best way they know how.
Trevor: Let’s look at a couple of cases which help tell your story. You fought for the freedom of a number of journalists and prominent amongst those was Andrew Meldrum from The Guardian and Toby Handin and Julian Simons from the London Sunday Telegraph. Tell me about that experience and the lessons you got from that?
Beatrice: The importance of media freedom is completely underestimated. For me, it is one of the core freedoms. You can talk about democracy, but if you can’t spread the word through the media it’s completely pointless. And you cannot talk democracy, really, without people being able to interrogate what you are talking about. So media freedom is at the core of democracy and it should be defended with everything that we have. So, you know, Andrew Meldrum was the first to be prosecuted under AIPPA. It was a case that attracted a lot of attention internationally because everybody had complained about this law being draconian and now we were seeing it in actual practice. It was very stressful in that were in the glare of everybody to see how this case would go. I’m glad that I can say what I’ve always said, which is that the magistrates who hear most of our cases do a wonderful job, but they hardly ever get mentioned as being really the drivers of this. If Andrew Meldrum had been prosecuted at the Superior Court, I am absolutely certain that he would have been convicted. But at the Magistrate’s court level he was actually acquitted which said a lot about our judiciary, especially at that level.
Trevor: What does that say about our judicial system? If the magistrate level is okay but the superior courts is not as far as they’re concerned. What does that say?
Beatrice: Well I mean it’s completely pointless to capture the little people down there. So if you really want to capture people, do it at a level where they can make a whole lot of difference. We know that our judiciary particularly at the time that this case was heard, was completely compromised. We had just had a judiciary kicked out of office and new people brought in. So, it was a very tense time in terms of the judiciary. And for me it was great that the magistrates were never actually seen as people who ought to have been ‘captured’. But, we are slowly starting to have a situation where magistrates are now being allocated cases not because they’re in that court, but because they are dragged from some other place to hear a particular case because they are trusted. We’re seeing a whole lot of this happen.
Trevor: So, the ‘capture’ is coming down to the magistrate level? That is worrying isn’t it?
Beatrice: I remember, for instance, when I was arrested, the magistrate who was supposed to be in my court was taken out and a different magistrate was brought in. So I knew immediately that I was not going to get bail on my first hearing, because of that change. And even for trial purposes, when the case was allocated to a particular magistrate, I knew that I was going to be convicted. So we had to do everything possible to make sure that he had to recuse himself. We were able to actually make the person that I was representing when I was arrested appear before him and give evidence of what happened. We were then able to say since you’ve had this evidence, which I’m going to say and you have already rejected it, you cannot hear the case. So he had no choice but to recuse himself. That’s how I ended up before a magistrate who basically happened to be in that court that day.
Trevor: Wow. So has the situation changed now and is it worse or better?
Beatrice: I don’t think we can say the situation has changed because you can see just by looking at the corruption cases that are being taken, they are being taken to the same magistrates. Is it a coincidence that the same magistrates are hearing the same cases over and over again? Is it a coincidence that suddenly they are all refusing suspects, because the law says you are innocent until proven guilty? You are being denied a passport to go for medical attention when not so long ago people were getting their passports to go for medical attention. Is it a coincidence that a court gives you back the passport but someone completely outside the system can come and grab that passport from you at the airport.
Trevor: That’s frightening.
Beatrice: For me, it’s actually getting worse. And it will get worse as long as those who interfere with due process and the due administration of justice are allowed to be a law unto themselves.
Trevor: What role do the magistrates, judges and so forth play? Should they not be standing up and speaking out?
Beatrice: If I was a judicial officer and I have made an order releasing a passport, and I find the passport back in my court without any due legal process, I would be livid. And I would refuse. Because it completely undermines your power as a court. It completely says that actually you are not a judge or you are not a magistrate, you make no decisions that we we will respect if we don’t like those decisions. And it goes to the core of the separation of powers. Nobody from the streets can just go to the airport and take a passport from a person who’s been given that passport by a court, unless they have power behind them, unless they are protected.
Trevor: So there’s a big question mark on separation of powers?
Beatrice: Absolutely. No question about that
Trevor: What do we do about that?
Beatrice: There has to be political will to respect each branch of government. Unfortunately, all our branches are stand alone entities which are not very strong. You go to Parliament for instance, Parliament has allowed the system to continue where we are literally run by statutory instruments and directives. In fact, l am surprised we’ve not had a statutory instrument this week. It’s like ‘wow’ you know it’s Thursday and there’s no statutory instrument. Parliament is failing to play its oversight role. Parliament sucks up to the executive, which they shouldn’t do, and of course it follows that when that happens the judiciary follows suit. When you get a Chief Justice saying a President has the discretion to refuse the list given to him by the Judicial Services Commission as to who to appoint, you know that you are in trouble, because that is not what the Constitution makers intended. That is not how the Constitution should be interpreted, and that is not what the Constitution says. So we are in trouble.
Trevor: So we are in trouble?
Beatrice: We are in trouble. And until each one of the three branches of government decides to really play their role as standalone entities and say we are not here to dance to the music of the executive. And the judiciary says, we are sorry, once the law is in our courts we will interpret it as we see it, and the politics of the law remains outside.
Trevor: Let’s move now to another big case. You took charge of challenging the results of 37 districts after the 2000 Parliamentary elections. That case must have been daunting. What lessons did you get from that? 14:31
Beatrice: I didn’t do it alone, I had Selby Hwacha help me because we were in the same firm and we helped each other. The problem was that we had so little time to file so many petitions in a very diverse environment. It was extremely difficult. For example, to get instructions from a client in Mberengwa and get all the statements in time to file was extremely difficult. So we had to kind of improvise and then supplement as we went on along. And then of course we had the cases go to court and once again, it was quite clear that the decision had been made to stall the hearing of the applications until the next election. The one or two that were heard successfully, there were appeals, and again the appeals were stalled until the next election, so that the petition is rendered academic. So, the lessons that came from this was to give time frames, that it must be done within such a period. And those are some of the lessons be learnt. But unfortunately, although there are those time frames, I don’t think the judiciary is playing its role in ensuring that things are done and heard timeously. For me, it is a scandal that more than 12 months after an epic case like the ConCourt challenge, that the Constitutional Court heard on the presidential election, we still don’t know the reasons. Why is the Constitutional Court not being exemplary? Why has it taken so long? We had judges hear a similarly important case in England on Brexit, and within 10 days the judgment was out and the reasons known. So why is it taking so many judges so long to write something that the whole nation is waiting for?
Trevor: So what should we do with that particular case for instance?
Beatrice: I think as lawyers we are not doing enough to put pressure. Our colleagues in Namibia went to court to force the courts to deliver judgement. It was interesting because the Justice they were compelling had since been elevated to the position of Chief Justice. And he did give judgement a day before the case was to be argued. But do we have to go through that? I mean you see the Judicial Services Commission interviewing potential judges emphasising on the need to dispense justice speedily. One would also think that the persons asking those questions are going to do the same when it comes to them. I mean, the best thing to do is to be the example. I mean, if the magistrates, and the judges in the High Court and the Labour Court are to be conscientious and deliver judgments timeously, they must see the ConCourt, Constitutional Court and Supreme Court doing the same.
Trevor: So it appears from what you’re saying that we have a deficit of accountability and trust. We’ve talked about the Magistrates, the higher courts, the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court, the institutions are not performing their tasks, what should citizens do about this? 18:20
Beatrice: I think the oversight institutions should be taken to task
Trevor: By who?
Beatrice: By the citizens. I think there’s this tendency to think that only lawyers should be taking these things up. Citizens should also go to court to say this is actually not proper.
Trevor: Why are the citizens not doing that?
Beatrice: Some do. But the access to the Constitutional Court for those who try, the access is extremely difficult. The intention to have an open court, an open justice has been defeated. To get to the Constitutional Court, you might need to get leave. And that leave cannot be given by all the judges. That leave is given by one judge. If this is a constitutional matter, surely the Constitution makers did not envisage that a single judge could sit in his chambers and determine whether or not you should have access to the constitutional court. The constitution says everyone has the right of access to the courts. I’ll give you an example of what happened when we had that very same presidential petition. There lots of people, other entities that were cited as respondents in that case. They filed their responses in support of the petition, and the Chief Justice called everybody into his chambers and said ‘you are only allowed to file if you are against, not when you’re in support. If you do not withdraw, I will order cost against you on a punitive scale.’ That was completely unheard of. If I want to support you in your application, and I’m cited as a respondent why should the Chief Justice stop that, and does he have the power to do that? Should that decision not be made by the entire bench? And once you have those little restrictions, it really means that certain cases will never see the light of day because they’ll be blocked at the first instance. That’s extremely discouraging, not just to the lawyers but to the citizens at large.
Trevor: But, one would have thought that those people that were in the room should have persevered?
Beatrice: The cost can be quite astronomical. And generally, in constitutionalism, you do not use costs to threaten people not to assert their rights. Even when you lose, generally, in constitutional matters, there ought to be no order as to costs, because of the constitutional importance of the matters that you might have raised. Because of the public interest factor. Otherwise, people are not going to bring challenges because they fear being mounted with costs.
Trevor: Wow. Let’s move on to other issues, the case that you handled which is perhaps, in my view, one of the toughest that you’ve had to deal with which is Jestina Mukoko case. Tell us about that experience and the lessons from that?
Beatrice: That was a very emotional case. It needed innovation. After I got the call that morning that she had been abducted and a report had already been made at Norton police station, we immediately brought an application for her to be produced by the police, because the person who abducted her claimed to be the police. So the police came and said ‘oh well you know we didn’t do it. We are actually treating this as a criminal abduction and we are also searching for her.’ So we said okay, for once we are on the same page with the police and had an order by consent to work closely together. We know what happens to people who have been abducted. It was also extremely difficult to get advertisement in the state media at that time. And the police agreed to that, and I think that is what probably helped because we then used that court order to make sure we put adverts. In the advert we asked people who knew where she was to phone in. It was interesting because by that morning, the Sunday Mail had agreed to put in the advert if we paid in forex which was hard to access those days. It was also interesting how calls started coming in, the interesting thing was that they pointed at the same place. I’m not going to say the place because I think I might compromise some people out there, but it’s incredible how the public, even within this system do not like what is happening. Most of the information that you get you actually get it from people within. So there can be no question that this was a state sponsored thing, even where she was being held and the people who held her were known. The sad thing is that nothing has happened to them. Yes we went to court to get damages for her unlawful detention and unlawful arrest. But who paid the damages? You and me, the taxpayers. The actual culprits have gotten away with it.
Trevor: We know these culprits, they are walking in the streets?
Beatrice: Oh yes! Absolutely they’re known.
Trevor: They’re in the system and walking in the streets?
Beatrice: They are in the system. Most of them have been promoted. So basically you get rewarded for breaking the law.
Trevor: Have they been named anywhere?
Beatrice: In some of the court proceedings, yes they have.
Trevor: Are you at liberty to share them here?
Beatrice: No, not really, not without Jestina’s authority.
Trevor: Okay! But she knows these people?
Beatrice: Yes she does.
Trevor: What’s your view of the current reported abductions, we’ve had two of them. What is your take on that?
Beatrice: I mean when you have impunity of course it’s going to continue. This is because the people who’ve been doing the abductions and the unit that does the abductions remains in place. They know that whether they are known as the abductor or not nothing is going to happen to me. They’ll continue doing that and so impunity is our biggest problem.
Trevor: What is your take on some people who think there’s a third force, a rogue element and people who think that it’s organized within the state. Where do you stand as far as those three are concerned?
Beatrice: The current abductions are not different from the ones that happened before. They are not there. If there’s a third force, that means there’s always been a third force. But if there’s a third force, and you know who are in the third force, why not deal with them. It would be a sad indictment on our law enforcement agents if they say they cannot investigate and find out who are in the third force. So my view is, this is part of an organized process that has been there for as long as I can remember. Its members know that they are not subject to the law, because they have protection. If there is a third force, it is a third force within the system, and the system must then deal with it. Because that would mean me and you are not safe if our law enforcement cannot find who is doing this.
Trevor: None of us is safe.
Beatrice: Yeah! Nobody can be safe if they can’t find who they are.
Trevor: What’s the intention?
Beatrice: You’ll see that they will not come and abduct someone who is quietly going about their business. You will see that all those who have been abducted have been prominent in speaking out. So clearly, that it is an orchestrated abduction you can see without doubt. The intention is to say to you and me, if you do what Gonyeti does, and clothe it with satire, you could be very well be a part of this. If you think you can stand up for doctors and be Dr Magombeyi, you could very well be abducted. So fewer and fewer people will want to be the face of any struggle. Fewer and fewer people will want to stand up and say no, this is not how things should be done, we all have rights. You know, if you are an employee, you have of labor rights that entitle you to withdraw your labor. You shouldn’t be abducted for leading that.
Trevor: Are you worried of being abducted? There’s been attempts to get you back to Swaziland. Are you worried about it ?
Beatrice: Well nobody knows who’s gonna get abducted and when. If I went about looking over my shoulder, then I simply wouldn’t be able to do the work. My view is that what will be, will be and when it will happen, how it will happen is completely out of my hands. If there’s one thing I can’t change is when, how, by whom and by whose hand I will die. I can’t change that. So I can’t go about my life looking over my shoulder because I’m scared that someone might abduct me, if they want to abduct me.
Trevor: You’re a very brave person where do you get the courage? Where do you get the inspiration to continue doing what you’re doing?
Beatrice: I actually don’t consider myself brave. I just consider myself a slave to the Constitution. It gives me certain powers, and I’m not going to take them in half measures. I’m allowed to do what I do, because we’re told that the Constitution is the supreme law in the land. So if the supreme law says I can be a lawyer and do what I do, I’m not going to stop doing it because someone might think I shouldn’t do it in a certain way. Interestingly, when the very same people who regard my work as controversial get into trouble, you will be surprised at how many of them call me. You then hear them saying, we don’t trust the other lawyers because they can’t stand up to the system. So they know that you’re just doing your work.
Trevor: So they harass you, and when they get into trouble they come to you?
Beatrice: Yes, they do want you to help them.
Trevor: Fascinating! What keeps you going and what encourages you to
Beatrice: Nothing actually beats helping someone get justice, where otherwise, they wouldn’t have been able to get it. You know you can’t compensate it with money because most of the cases I do, there’s hardly any money to be made. But to be able to say it is possible that I was one of the small cogs that saved Jestina’s life, it’s worth doing. It’s worth being able to get someone out of prison who wouldn’t have been able to get out of prison. I mean when I was locked up in Chikurubi, I was like, I don’t know how long I’m going to be here for and I said to the officers give me a pen, paper, table and a list of people who have been here the longest. And she allowed me to do that. And when I got out of jail I was able to see about twelve women released from prison, because they’d been forgotten there. I didn’t get to Chikurubi and start thinking oh my God, l decided to get justice for others.
Trevor: This is amazing. So you took advantage of your being in prison to do justice?
Beatrice: For me being in Chikurubi was like God took me there to be able to see the conditions in prison and help some of these women get out. Actually, if it was allowed, I think every lawyer should go to prison. Every lawyer should experience what it is like. It’s important to know what happens to your clients when they go behind that door at the courts and are said to be going to Chikurubi. If you’ve been there you start practicing your law a little differently, because you don’t want them to be there.
Trevor: You know, in journalism, we talk about don’t shoot the messenger, but I think when it comes to you, we should be talking about don’t shoot the lawyer. I look at the stuff that you’ve gone through and reading through that stuff, one would think that you are a common criminal. You have been imprisoned, you’ve been assaulted, you’ve been threatened by the police. You have spent over eight days in 2013, in prison, charged for defeating and / or obstructing the cause of justice. That’s pretty daunting Do you ever feel tempted to give up?
Beatrice: I haven’t so far felt tempted to give up. I mean my attitude is that if this is what they’re doing to me, it means I must be doing something right, if someone wants to stop me. And also, I think, I’m now over 60 and I’ve spent most of my life doing this work. It would be like a complete waste of the past 25-30 years of my life to then give up, you know. So what would I have been fighting for? I’ve never really thought that I would give up. Yes when the new dispensation came in, I thought we human rights lawyers would sit back relax and I would be able to do commercial work and earn good money like other lawyers. But it hasn’t happened. So I have not thought of giving up, no!
Trevor: So, you’ve been disappointed by the new dispensation when it comes to issues of human rights?
Beatrice: Yes, I have actually. I mean we have a brand-new Constitution and we are told that it needs to be realigned, and the realignment is taking forever, and I can tell you here now 2023 will be here and there’ll be no realignment.
Trevor: Why is this process taking such a long time? One would have thought that it’s an easy thing?
Beatrice: There is no political will to realign. Nobody is going to legislate themselves out of power. That is the bottom line. So for as long as Parliament remains partisan, and nobody’s preaching the realignment agenda, those laws are not going to be realigned.
Trevor: But the opposition is there in Parliament, one would have thought they would be doing a song and dance around realignment?
Beatrice: But it’s not happening that’s the bottom line. Their numbers right now are not great, but still we are not hearing much about realignment. Realignment is something that the President ought to have done when he was Vice President and he had the portfolio of Minister of Justice. Since most of those laws fall under the Justice portfolio so why was that not done soon after 2013. And also, for the judiciary – do we really need to realign the laws to give people rights that the Constitution gives them? Surely, if the Constitution says I have certain rights and I go to the Constitutional Court, nobody should be telling me about realigning. The court should determine whether or not that right has been violated, and then give a time frame and say to the legislature and the executive, we are giving you six months within which to do X, Y, Z to put this in place.
Trevor: Why are the courts not doing that?
Beatrice: Because everybody really is singing from the same hymn sheet. You know, if the executive is not doing much to make sure that certain laws are taken to Parliament, and Parliament is not demanding realignment, do you think the judiciary is going to take a different position?
Trevor: Again one is tempted to ask where are the citizens when it comes to this. These are critical issues.
Beatrice: These are critical issues, but when citizens think of the abductions, the beatings and whatever might happen, the arrests . . . You see lots of people being arrested but they never actually get prosecuted. Like Pastor Evan, they get arrested because they’ve raised their head.
Trevor:-So it is intimidation?
Beatrice: The fear of what might happen to you. All of us are like you know if I’m okay and in my little corner and can hustle for bread and diesel for the generator for my kids, why do I want to rock the boat. But actually, if we all took the position that these are rights that were given to us all as citizens and we must really stand up and seek to enforce them, I think things would be different. I’m very, very impressed with the doctors. The way they have been absolutely united, from the lowest doctor, to the top most specialist. It’s been fantastic to see how united they’ve been, and that’s how we all should be really, in our respective professions. When someone does what they have to do, if the law comes down hard on them, we should all be there to say you will not do this to someone who’s fighting for all of us.
Trevor: We ought to stand up and fight for what we believe in?
Trevor: Democracy is about fighting for your rights
Beatrice: For your rights yes! And it’s mine and your relatives who are being subjected to poor healthcare. It is them, who can’t access any medical help in our local hospitals. And the doctors are saying give us the tools with which to heal people. Is that something that shouldn’t be asked?
Trevor: Wouldn’t it be encouraging if the public supported that kind of move because it’s the public who are the beneficiaries?
Trevor: But we’re not seeing any of that happen?
Beatrice: The doctors are not asking for the health delivery system to be improved just for themselves. It’s for the populace. And if the public were to say we are behind the doctors, we are the consumers of the medical services in these public institutions, we will march with the doctors. But we are not doing that. And those who are doing what they are doing to the doctors, when they need medical attention they jump on a plane and go elsewhere. So they really don’t care what’s happening at Parirenyatwa. I mean you are having people at Parirenyatwa being referred to a Mission Hospital in Mt Darwin. When, in the early 80s, we were getting people from Malawi and Zambia coming for medical attention at Parirenyatwa because it was the best health institution in this part of the world.
Trevor: What’s your view about political reforms? What’s your assessment right now of where we are?
Beatrice: Well, it will depend on who’s driving the political reforms and what they are meant to achieve. Are they meant to achieve a GNU where everyone is accommodated, and then they all eat together together until the next election? You know, they’re all happy eating together without actually looking at how it affects the ordinary person. Then it’s pointless having those political reforms. Political reforms require political will, and it requires all of us not political actors alone. We know political actors have an agenda and the agenda is power retention.
Trevor: Power grabbing and power retention!
Beatrice: If those who are not in politics are excluded, we will have a deal that will suit the politicians, but it will not necessarily suit you and me and the rest of the people who are not in politics.
Trevor: As a lawyer who has worked quite a lot around issues of freedom of expression, media freedom and freedom of association, what’s your view on the successor bills for POSA and AIPPA? Are you satisfied?
Beatrice: Not really. No I am not. You will find out that what they take out from one Bill they put in another one. And also we have a judiciary that does not interpret rights in an expansive manner. There is a very myopic way of looking at what rights are. Surely once the Constitution says you have a right, there ought not to be restrictions to the enjoyment of that right. Because once you give that little window of an exception, and you have a judiciary that is not very keen on expanding on rights, then we are doomed. We’ll just have the very same thing happening over and over again under a different name.
Trevor: That sounds very depressing. Are you hopeful at all about us getting out of where we are right now?
Beatrice: I am an eternal optimist. I believe that everything has a time and a day. I believe that if apartheid in South Africa could fall spectacularly the way it did, then everything else is possible. If the Soviet Union fell spectacularly with its walls the way it did, it can happen anywhere. So, yes I am very hopeful that we will see some change, certainly during my lifetime.
Trevor: That’s good to hear. In your view, what will it take to have a strong human rights culture in Zimbabwe. What are the key things that would address all the things that you’ve just outlined?
Beatrice: I think if we all resolved to do whatever we do infused with human rights it might help. My background was in prosecution and when I was a prosecutor, my motto was to prosecute with integrity, infuse human rights into my prosecution, understand that an accused person has the same rights as the witness. And if you practice company law or you are a brewer, whatever your job is, if you do it from the perspective that whatever you do it must respect the rights of everyone else, that might help. How to achieve that, of course, is a different story altogether because firstly; this capture thing has completely killed all of us. I mean people that I worked with were human rights defenders who I thought l knew, the minute that they got certain positions, you ask yourself if it’s the same guys you knew. It’s now all about what’s in it for me instead of what’s in it for all of us. And that’s the biggest problem, so we should all try very hard to spread the word of doing whatever we do with integrity.
Trevor: The burden of ensuring that we have a human rights culture – where do you think this lies? In the citizens knowing their rights and fighting for their rights? Is the state respecting the rights of the citizens? What do you think?
Beatrice: I think it’s a mixture of both. We have oversight on institutions for instance, the Human Rights Commission. It really ought to be able to teach citizens about their rights. We also ought to expand on advocacy as civil society. I think we are also to blame – but there are so many restrictions as well. For instance, you find that with political rights, under the Electoral Act, they are certain things that can only be done by a certain name. But why can’t I be free to go anywhere and preach to people about the rights they have under the Electoral Act, how free are they to do what the law allows them to do. Why should there be restrictions. So firstly, we must fight to remove restrictions on who can do advocacy work. The Treasury must fully capacitate our oversight institutions. We have a Gender Commission. What does it do? I have no clue, but I know that it has no money.
We have a Human Rights Commission. It’s been doing fantastic work to a point where the government has even complained about some of its reports. But it is completely underfunded. It cannot carry out its mandate of educating people about their rights. We have the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission, but what has it done to ensure that atrocities of the past are dealt with and are never repeated, and that there is some form of reparation and that those who are victims are fully heard in public and are able to really get over this period. It has been acknowledged that wrong things were done, so everybody has a role to play. But our Chapter 12 institutions particularly should play a greater role than they are doing. I know that they are not properly funded, but they probably should do a little more to fundraise. And I also think you guys in corporates, you should do a little more in capacitating civil society groupings that try to teach about rights. You would be very surprised that in most of the organizations that deal with rights, we never get support from corporates, because of the environment. They are worried that if you support lawyers who do work for human rights, or support doctors who do work that’s rights related, your license might be revoked. So I think corporates under their banners, under ZNCC and CZI, you should do more to promote human rights.
Trevor: That’s an important point.
Beatrice: The world over, corporate social responsibility is no longer limited to drilling a borehole or two, or building a school or supporting a school. It goes beyond that.
Trevor: Do you think education, making sure that our schools and our universities teach human rights would that help? Are we aware of our rights? Do we need to be taught about rights at an early age at a high school and at university, would that help?
Beatrice: I think it would, because a lot of us suffer from the deficit of not knowing what is possible and what’s not possible. Or where you know, you don’t know where to go. Or where you do know where to go, the systems are such that you cannot actually get the relief that you require. You can go to the Human Rights Commission and report and they do everything they’re supposed to do. But actually they don’t have the capacity to go and say this right has been violated. So we all need to work together starting from the advocacy part, teaching everyone to know their rights. Knowing your rights does not mean you’re asserting it. Encouraging people to assert those rights at a practical level, and also making sure that our systems that are supposed to provide oversight on rights work properly. Judicial capture should simply not be there because it means we’re not going to enjoy our rights. If I can know the right I can assert it but if at the end of the day there’s no one to say yes I am entitled to this right and I order that this should be done in order for you to enjoy it, it’s all pointless. So everybody should be involved, the knowing of human rights should not be limited to schools or universities. It should go up to the judicial officers themselves because there’s this thinking that if I work for government, human rights have nothing to do with me. Which is completely not the point. If you work for the government, you have an even greater duty to ensure that the rights of people in that atmosphere are respected.
Trevor: Wow. So you and Towanda Nyambirai broke away from Kantor and Immerman and set yourself up in 2006. That must have been an interesting part of your career, owning your own practice. Tell us about that journey and the experiences you got from that?
Beatrice: I was looking for something that would give me the freedom to do my work without really worrying too much about whether I’ve met a target or not. You know law firms they work on targets, money is more important than enjoyment of rights. So Tawanda and I go a long way back. I knew him when he was a student at UZ and he came in looking for someone who could represent his brother who had been kicked out of college. And he had no money and his brother had no money too. So I took on the case and I did it for him and that’s when our friendship started, when he was still at law school. So when I said to him I’d really like to set up here I don’t like the idea of being a one-woman show, he said we can start together. It’s been a very interesting journey. Tawanda is more a businessman. He does some of the big corporate cases. He’s really more interested in his businesses cases and it’s been interesting and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.
Trevor: How was the challenge of funding and what are the lessons to those that are thinking of setting up their own law firms and partnerships?
Beatrice: Well, setting up a law firm is really not that expensive, unless you want to start at the upper end. I mean, I had second hand everything and l didn’t mind. I had a dilapidated old car. I don’t have the pressure that you men have of driving fancy cars. So I was able to buy a second-hand library from a colleague who was leaving for Botswana. So it was not bad and Tawanda of course had the money. Interestingly, quite a number of my clients really helped me. I remember one client who said, oh I’ll buy you all your computers, which was quite interesting, because I mean, this was just a client. People were very supportive, and I didn’t feel the strain of starting up. I didn’t borrow from anyone and Tawanda provided and sublet his premises.
Beatrice: It was a great journey. And I now have a crop of very dedicated young lawyers, one of whom is very keen on human rights. And the reason he came to Mtetwa and Nyambirai is because he said I want to do human rights and I want to make a difference. It’s encouraging when you have young people being passionate and also it means that I can relax a little bit. As I cannot run as fast as I used to and it means I can hand over the baton to the younger generation.
Trevor: You’ve done well. You did five years in Zimbabwe as a prosecutor, and two years in Swaziland as a prosecutor. What role did that play in who you are right now?
Beatrice: I wouldn’t trade my years of prosecution in Zimbabwe for anything. Firstly, I never intended to leave prosecution. I wanted to be a career prosecutor in the hope that I could infuse treating everybody with respect regardless of their circumstances. It didn’t quite work out that way. But, the lessons I learned from my prosecution is that; whatever you do it with integrity. No half measures. My colleagues used to be surprised that I’ll go to the office on a Sunday when I was a prosecutor. They used to ask me why l am doing that. You don’t want to go to court, and court work is public work, and look stupid because you are not prepared. And the complainant, the people who expect justice from you, expect you to be prepared. So the lessons that came from there, the lesson is that whatever you are doing do it to the best of your ability, prepare, prepare and prepare. No half measures. There’s nothing as terrible as a guilty person getting off because the prosecution has been badly done. And equally, there’s nothing worse than having an innocent man convicted.
Trevor: So when you look back now at the crop of the prosecutors that we have, and the prosecutorial profession, does it give you satisfaction? Are these part of the captured people?
Beatrice: Well, I was just reading this morning on one of the lawyers groups about a prosecutor openly soliciting for a bribe. I mean all the years I was in prosecution I never heard of anyone offering bribes to prosecutors. Certainly, I never received any offers of a bribe and it just was completely unheard of and if it came to the fore, one would have been prosecuted for that. I think we just take everything for granted, and you can see why standards are where they are. I mean, you have a fully-fledged interview to get a Prosecutor General, you get the top three completely not considered, you get number six appointed. Do you seriously think that you are going to have the best prosecutorial body led by a person who did not impress at the interview? No you’re not! And is that not an act of corruption on its own? Is he going to be strong on corruption? Because if he is there not through due process, but through corruption, I mean what other criteria was used to appoint him other than that he was seen as someone the executive can work with. Therefore, why do you think that the prosecution as a body will live up to the ideals that the Constitution says it must be – independent, full of integrity, impartial. It’s not going to be like that. We need the right people in some of these institutions.
Trevor: But clearly from what you’re saying, we don’t have that within the prosecutorial arm of the judicial system. As I’m listening to you, I know you’re saying you are you’re an optimist. But I can’t help but get a bit deflated by the fact that it does appear that the majority of us are captured. The prosecutors are captured, The judges are captured, and we are afraid to fight for our rights. What hope do we have as a people?
Beatrice: We are learning from all of these things. We are seeing what happens when we get captured. Surely, from these lessons we must know that the best men and women for positions must be appointed. And I believe that we will have the political will to say Trevor Ncube is the best person to run this organization, and you must be appointed. The fact that you may not like his politics, or his tribe, or whatever other isms must be completely irrelevant. What should be important is the fact that you are the best man or woman for the job and if you are you should be appointed.
Trevor: So you’re still hopeful?
Beatrice: I am, yeah.
Trevor: Let me ask you this. When are you writing a book. Because what you’re telling me right now could make an amazing book. Your life story is an amazing book. It’s a book I would love to read, it’s a book that a lot of people would love to read. It’s a book that will have lots of lessons and inspirations for a lot of people. When are you writing this book?
Beatrice: I don’t know that there would be that many people to read that book. But who knows, maybe when I retire, maybe, I might, I don’t know.
Trevor: There’s a book in all of us and there’s a book in you.
Beatrice: Maybe I will when I retire.
Trevor: There’s an issue of Zimbabwean law students who have studied at Rhodes, Wits or from outside the country, who are required to sit for tests. They sit for a year doing nothing studying for this test to convert. Is that the right thing to do? Why are we doing that? If they’ve passed at Rhodes with flying colours and we want them to come and sit, pay fees to convert their qualifications, what’s your view on that?
Beatrice: It makes a mockery of the political slogans that we are integrating in the region, we are opening borders, we have COMESA (Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa), we’re doing this, we’re doing that. But here we are. We don’t trust our colleagues across the border. We want our kids to write exams again here. But again, the argument is that there has to be reciprocity.
Trevor: But we are punishing our own kids.
Beatrice: There has to be reciprocity, in that if South Africa will not admit us without writing exams, those who qualified there must do the same here. For me it simply does not make sense because generally the law in the region is the same. Once you’ve been to law school you know where to find which piece of legislation. And you should see the cost of writing these exams. The young lawyers were recently protesting about that just now. The fees have just gone through the roof. It’s now US$1,000 per subject for kids who are not earning even US$500 per month.
Trevor: For parents who’ve paid four years for these kids to go to school.
Beatrice: Yes. And where on earth do you expect these children to get this money from in an economy like this?
Trevor: But why is the Law Society not changing that?
Beatrice: There is an argument for changing it but whether it will happen or not I don’t know. For me, the fact that the fees are what they are is absolutely a scandal. A lot of kids will be forced to write one subject per sitting because it’s taken them that long to raise the US$1,000. It just makes a mockery of all this pretence that we have a SADC region that’s pulling together, that we’re sharing resources, whether human or otherwise. That we can cross borders and do business with each other. That’s just mirage. It’s not happening. It’s political sloganeering.
Trevor: What book are you reading at the moment?
Beatrice: I’m reading Stuart Doran’s Kingdom, Power, Glory.
Trevor: And how is it?
Beatrice: The book is saying to me everything that’s going on now went on 30 something years ago, and basically nothing has changed. Stuart Doran’s book is really historical and not fiction. I think we need to look at how we can change this cycle that simply has not been broken. It has not been broken, everything that happened to Joshua Nkomo happened to Morgan Tsvangirai and it just continues happening. When are we going to stop that?
Trevor: Let me ask, when do you think we’re going to stop that?
Beatrice: It’s up to you guys, with the power to do it. There has to be the political will.
Trevor: Would you advise a student considering studying law to take up human rights law?
Beatrice: Well of course, because I’m passionate about rights, I probably would do so. But my view is that every branch of law needs people, and I would say to every student who studied law, whatever passion you follow, infuse it with human rights. Do it properly. Do it with integrity, look at the impact it will have on the next person. My view is that basically, we are all human rights activists, one way or another. It’s just that sometimes we don’t realize that some of our interventions are based on rights. But if we all consciously say, as a publisher I will infuse all my publications with human rights, I’ll do everything with integrity, I think we’d all be better people. We should have the diversity of different people doing different things, but it is how we do them that really should make us one.
Trevor: This kind of job must take a toll on you and the family, how have you been able to cope?
Beatrice: I actually don’t think it’s as stressful as people think. You do get a case that will stress you a little bit, but generally there’s a whole lot of fun side to human rights. You can’t believe some of the fun things that we get to do, how we play with the police. How we’ve been able to pull a fast one on this one or that one. The strategy that goes into it is a lot of fun you know. For instance, I told you how we managed to get a magistrate to be forced to recuse himself because we strategized and we’re able to be one up on him and he never saw it coming. So there’s a lot of fun side to it. Plus also I think that all those in my social circles know that I am a party animal. So where there’s a party, I’ll dance up a storm. So I do relax quite a bit.
Trevor: That takes us to the next thing, how do you relax?
Beatrice: I just like chilling with friends and having fun.
Trevor: I know you love dancing?
Beatrice: Absolutely!, Dancing is my one exercise that I can do over and over again.
Trevor: We asked people on Twitter to ask questions and one question that has kept coming is would you consider being a judge?
Beatrice: It’s a great job to be a judge. But I think we all should accept certain things that were not suited for. I don’t have the demeanour of a judge. I wouldn’t be able to behave the way a judge should behave. I would not have the patience that judges are required to have, when you have to sit in court and listen to a whole lot of crap that lawyers will be submitting before you. I’m just not judge material, and I’ve accepted that, and I’m quite happy with it. I also think where I am, I have the freedom to choose what I want to do. If I become a judge, I’ll just be allocated a file on issues that I might have no interest in, other than that justice must be done. So, it would be great to be a judge, but no thank you, I’m not judge material. I would make a very bad judge.
Trevor: So, that’s a resounding no!
Beatrice: I would interfere proceedings, I would just be a cantankerous judge.
Trevor: Beatrice it has been amazing chatting to you. Your story is an inspirational story of fighting for the underdogs, a story of defending human rights and you’ve been celebrated. l think you deserve to be celebrated, so, thank you so much. We didn’t take for granted you coming in to In Conversation with Trevor.
Beatrice: Thank you so much for having me.
Source: In Conversation with Trevor