Root and Branch, Tree of Life: Sowing the Seeds of Grassroots Transitional Justice
Andrew Iliff
10 March 2010
Introduction
Zimbabwe’s acute need for justice and reconciliation highlights a longstanding tension in
transitional justice practice. The need for transitional justice processes in Zimbabwe has
been clear since at least 2003, when Zimbabwean civil society articulated an ambitious
set of transitional justice objectives in the Johannesburg Symposium. 1 Yet nearly seven
years later, this agenda remains in limbo, stranded by the failure to find a political
solution that might loosen the grip of perpetrators on the reins of power.
Practitioners and theorists assume that transitional justice cannot proceed until the
individuals most responsible for rights violations cease control of crucial state functions,
including the police, military and judiciary. This assumption has the ring of common
sense – you cannot expect the chief of police to cooperate in his own arrest and
prosecution.
Yet this singular focus by international observers on international crimes and
concomitant national or international accountability can be to the detriment of more
modest, local strategies that. focus on community level reconciliation, dialogue and
accountability This essay outlines emerging grassroots reconciliation strategies in
Zimbabwe, which suggest that in situations of ongoing violations in which international
criminal accountability for gross violations remains out of reach, transitional justice
advocates should bracket international crimes until more propitious circumstances
prevail. In the meantime, advocates should promote non-state, locally developed
programs to promote community healing and reconciliation, which in turn lower the
stakes of future political contests.
Background: The Zimbabwean Crisis
The contemporary Zimbabwean crisis is broadly characterised by a violent campaign to
retain political power on the part of the Zimbabwe African National Union (Patriotic
Front) (ZANU [PF]). While the immediate crisis comes in the face of widespread
popular dissatisfaction with thirty years of repressive single party rule, economic
collapse, and a potent electoral challenge from the Movement for Democratic Change
(MDC) the roots of the crisis, however, can be traced back to the liberation struggle of
the 1970s and still further back. Since 2000, widespread political violence has marked
each election; following parliamentary elections in 2005, the government launched the
Murambatsvina campaign of evictions that affected 700,000 people.

1

See Themba Lesizwe, Civil Society and Justice in Zimbabwe, Proceedings of a symposium held in
Johannesburg, 11-13 August 2003, Pretoria: Themba Lesizwe (2004).

Oxford Transitional Justice Research Working Paper Series

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