If Zimbabwe is a constitutional democracy, why are its citizens not free?

Rejoice Ngwenya is the founder and Executive Director of the Coalition for Market and Liberal Solutions (COMALISO) in Zimbabwe, and a contributing author for the Free Market Foundation. COMALISO works for a Zimbabwe that respects the free market, property rights and constitutionalism. 

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This article was first published on Dailyfriend.co.za on 
31 October 2022  

If Zimbabwe is a constitutional democracy, why are its citizens not free?

There is irrefutable evidence that freedom – be it economic or political – has strong bearing on the quality of lives of citizens. We human beings are like air surrounded by a vacuum – we have a natural propensity to ‘break out and be free’. What we know is that there can never be true freedom in the absence of effective, liberal democracy. That is not a contested fact. The problem occurs when we attempt to synonymise ‘constitutional democracy,’ and freedom. I have, on numerous occasions and in several writings, cautioned ‘democrats’ to consider the Zimbabwe example where political independence faltered in bringing political freedom despite three successive ‘democratic constitutions’: at Lancaster in 1979; Constitutional Commission in 1998 and COPAC in 2009.
Yet those in power and their lapdogs want to still argue that, unlike South Africa that suffers from the effects of so-called ‘Apartheid white capitalist interests’, Zimbabweans are (meant to be) fully enjoying both political and economic freedom. However, when one considers the natural outcomes of a democratic free country as expounded by the Index published in Economic Freedom of the World (EFW), measuring it against Zimbabwe’s standards becomes an exercise in futility.

The EFW indices are Immigration & Travel; Income & Productivity; Economic Growth; Entrepreneurship & Innovation; Increased Entrepreneurship and Innovation, Conflict; Investment, Labor Market Outcomes; Human Rights & Social Development—Trade; Reduced Corruption, Environmental Outcomes, Inequality. At first glance, this seems like a daunting task for any one country to ever assume a high rating based on this plethora of what I term ‘freedom characteristics’. But who said delivering liberal democratic outcomes would be easy? In essence, it means political parties like ZANU.PF and ANC, whose provenance is embedded in nationalist socialism, no matter how hard they try, cannot pass the EFW test of economic freedom.

This is why even though our constitutions are generally considered ‘democratic’, we remain languishing in the third ‘least free’ quartile on the Index.
Between 2009 and 2013, I like hundreds of other citizens, was part of a team that re-crafted the national Zimbabwe Constitution. It was a process accruing the usual coterie of critics – for good reason – but producing commendable results under difficult political circumstances. Though with an overwhelming support of the document in the ensuing 2013 referendum, one cannot still argue that our constitution was beyond reproach. For starters, it emerged with controversial and self-contradicting ‘property culture’ clauses, never mind the seemingly sweeping executive powers that somehow subdued the peer review capacity of Parliament and the judiciary. And yet on the whole, we did manage to capture the spirit of democracy.
Nonetheless, liberal democratic constitutions are designed for liberal governments led by individuals predisposed towards true freedom. Without a complimenting law and complimentary leadership capacity with a willingness to adhere to constitutionalism, the sixty million United States Dollars we invested in the popular process went to waste. Especially in attempting to respond to a basic question: to what extent are we Zimbabweans free? The oppression fault lines are crudely exposed.
As African liberals, we know that economic freedom has impeccable outcomes, but not before there is effective democracy, rule of law, constitutionalism and so on. Just like his predecessor Robert Mugabe, current President Emmerson Mnangagwa has been lethargic in putting in place the right legislative instruments to effect the ‘good’ constitution. The symptoms and consequences of desired outcomes therefore point out in the red zone. Immigration is mainly outbound with very little inbound tourism because of our country’s high-risk status. Our productivity cannot quench the intensive thirst for employment, hence the economy being 90% informalized.

Low productivity means less employment opportunities, higher poverty, and an over-reliance on imported goods. We all know what this does to our balance of payments. A weak currency and depressed foreign direct investment factor subdue domestic consumption and savings which leaves the population vulnerable to hyperinflation where central bank is ‘print happy’. High interest rates discourage entrepreneurial innovation, thus there is a high burden and expectation placed on government to provide jobs. This expectation results in dissent, pointing toward perennial internal conflict or at worst, unresolved electoral disputes due to lack of confidence in the institutions of national governance.
We Zimbabweans are a pretty unhappy lot. Our state of democracy produces vindictive politics, disputed electoral outcomes and questionable judicial judgements. Political opposition is constantly intimidated and, at worst, its leaders incarcerated without bail. There is always some form of social unrest with health and academic sectors constantly on industrial action. Zimbabwe’s human rights recorded has violated all known regional, continental and global protocols to the extent that both the USA and EU have adamantly and defiantly refused to lift sanctions.
If you consider the astronomical levels of corruption, you would wonder why a ‘police state’ and numerous other state institutions are struggling to turn the tide against cartels and ruling party acolytes. Despite Zimbabwe being classified as a resource-rich country, its citizenry is highly impoverished with high levels of inequality. The Mnangagwa regime is quick to explain that poverty is a result of “illegal Western economic sanctions”. On the other hand, independent observers and opposition elements attribute this poverty to bad policies, lack of rule of law, corruption, weak Parliament and weak institutions of national corporate governance.
Yet for us liberals, we simply look at what level of EFW the country is perched. In fact, by understanding the nature of economic freedom, one’s question will be answered on why Zimbabwe is listed as one of the least free countries in the world.

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