Zimbabwean Lives and Zimbabwean’s Mental Health Matter

When the Research and Advocacy Unit (RAU) posted an opinion piece to celebrate World Mental Health Day on 10 October, we made the following comment:

When the theme for 2020 is increased investment on psycho-social support amid the pandemic, we should not only focus on the short-term, but on the long-term as well, and we see that one simple investment is entirely in the hands of everyone and the government: stopping the violence. Stop the violence and stop creating new victims, and create a system in which all the victims and survivors that are the legacy of decades of OVT can be healed!

This comment is given greater depth with the publication of a new report by RAU and the Counselling Services Unit (CSU). This report compares the effects of Organised Violence and Torture (OVT) for two different groups of survivors: those from the Liberation War and those from the early millennium.

Drawing on the data from the assistance given to survivors by the Amani Trust, the report describes the psychological consequences of OVT. The study looked at 712 survivors, 392 from the Liberation War, seen between 1995 and 1999, and 320 from the post-2000 period, seen between 2000and 2002. All these persons were assessed before assistance was given, and the report covered the kinds of abuse they received and the findings from their medical history and psychological assessment.

These two groups have very different lengths of time before they were offered assistance. Those from the Liberation War were seen only in the 1990s, more than twenty years after their original abuse. Those from 2000 to 2002 were seen usually within months of their abuse. In both cases, the assistance was offered by a non-governmental organisation, the Amani Trust, although the programme of assistance for the Liberation War survivors was being done in collaboration with the state health service in Mashonaland Central Province.

When the two groups were compared, a number of differences emerged.

Firstly, the Liberation War survivors reported many more kinds of different forms of torture than those from recent times. This may seem obvious to many – a “real war” is probably more violent than other kinds of civil conflict – but this an oversimplification. One factor that may be important is the role of proactive impunity during the Liberation War. The Rhodesian government passed the Indemnity and Compensation Act in 1975, the effect of which is that all acts committed when on government business were exempt from prosecution or litigation.

This was done in response the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace’s work in exposing torture and other atrocities, and these violations were criminal acts. The Rhodesian government avoided this problem by eliminating the possibility of criminal liability, and this may have contributed to greater violence since there was no possible comeback for the perpetrators. This impunity was consolidated by a British government amnesty in 1979, further consolidated in 1980 by a Zimbabwe government amnesty.

Such impunity has not been available for perpetrators post-2000, although there were amnesties provided for Gukurahundi and the violence in 2000. This may have inhibited the violence perpetrated between 2000 and 2002, but it should be pointed out there was also practical impunity in the form of phony arrests of victims and failure to prosecute the perpetrators in many cases. This reduced the survivors to seeking civil litigation as their only remedy for their abuse; very costly and lengthy, but frequently successful as the reports of human rights groups point out.

The second main finding was that the survivors of the Liberation War were more likely to have a psychological disorder. However, it was not possible to determine whether this was due to having had more severe OVT or the length of time between the original abuse and getting assistance. It might well have been due to both. Nonetheless, both groups had high numbers of people suffering from psychological disorders.

The third point of difference was that the survivors of OVT from the liberation War, although many years after their abuse, were all able to openly seek assistance from a programme based in both state and church hospitals. There was official support for this programme, obviously because there was no sense that the government was responsible for the violations. This has not been the case since 2000:survivors frequently have been turned away from state hospitals, forced to be reliant on the services of non-governmental organisations, and there is no official state assistance for these victims.

This is scandalous. Since the promulgation of the amended Constitution, and the establishment of the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission (NPRC), there is the legal basis for assistance for victims of OVT. Section 252 (e) gives explicit recognition to this, requiring the NPRC to develop programmes to ensure that persons subjected to persecution, torture and other forms of abuse receive rehabilitative treatment and support. Admittedly, the task of ensuring transitional justice is a very tricky mandate for the NPRC, but not so the direct assistance to survivors of OVT, and, as the RAU/CSU report indicates, the survivors straddle the decades.

There could be no greater contribution to ensuring peace than assisting the survivors of OVT to health, all of them from all the decades. A comprehensive programme for all, irrespective of time, political affiliation, or ethnicity would make the nation realise so clearly the immense burden that OVT creates for families, communities and the nation as a whole. Perhaps even politicians will in the end learn that the resort to OVT benefits no-one in the long term.

Source: Research and Advocacy Unit