Speaking Out

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Wed Mar 28, 2012

Betsy Apple Speaking Out: Why a South African Legal Case Matters to Women in Zimbabwe

By Betsy Apple

Photo: Christine Jesseman  
  Protesters outside North Gauteng High Court.

The unexpected, dramatic postponement of a hearing scheduled for March 26 in the North Gauteng High Court in South Africa has implications for women in Zimbabwe who were brutally raped by President Robert Mugabe’s supporters during the 2008 elections there.

The Southern African Litigation Centre (SALC) and the Zimbabwean Exiles Forum (ZEF), asked South African prosecutors in 2008 to investigate torture in Zimbabwe around the 2008 elections. The alleged perpetrators were high-level members of Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party, and the victims were part of the political opposition.  SALC and ZEF claimed that the torture was so serious that it rose to the level of crimes against humanity, and therefore within the power of the South African National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) to investigate and potentially bring to trial. The South African law commonly known as the ICC Law (after the International Criminal Court, which South Africa supports) was enacted precisely for this purpose: to give South Africa the ability to address the worst crimes, even if they were committed elsewhere, so long as the perpetrators set foot in South Africa.

The NPA first stonewalled, then ultimately refused to investigate these crimes. SALC and ZEF, convinced that the refusal was for illegitimate reasons, brought a legal challenge seeking to compel the NPA to uphold its responsibilities under the ICC law. After many delays (largely engineered by the NPA), the hearing was scheduled for March 26 in High Court. Days before the hearing, the head of the NPA appointed new counsel and terminated the prior State Advocate. At the same time, the head of the unit within the NPA responsible for investigating international crimes filed an affidavit in court swearing that he had wanted to investigate, but had been lied to and manipulated by his colleagues at the NPA, resulting in the NPA’s refusal to do its job.

Why does this matter to women who survived politically motivated rape during Zimbabwe’s 2008 elections? Because they, too, like their compatriots who suffered torture, are seeking justice for the crimes they endured, and because accountability for such crimes isn’t possible in today’s Zimbabwe. AIDS-Free World is working to prepare a similar request to the South African NPA, asking it to investigate and potentially prosecute the sexual crimes against humanity in the 2008 elections. If the High Court finds that the NPA failed to carry out its responsibilities under the ICC law to investigate and prosecute torture, the women who suffered widespread rape can take one step closer to justice.

The hearing is rescheduled for March 28. Demonstrations outside the Court on March 26 illustrate the importance of this case for those who seek justice for crimes against humanity in Zimbabwe.