“A Tale of Three Dinner Plates” – forensic, narrative and psychological truths and the challenges facing human rights researchers in Zimbabwe

Human rights reporting in Zimbabwe has been extensive in the last few years, and civics have played a monumental role in keeping Zimbabwe in the public eye – but human rights reports have a very specific mandate and a very moral intent. It is their task to keep track of what could be called “forensic truths” – the essential facts of what happened such as might be raised in a court of law – for lobbying purposes. Human rights reports are not intended to document history as it unfolds in all its nuanced realities, but to be the sledgehammer that may change world opinion, that may make it easier for refugees abroad to get asylum, that will give a voice to the voiceless and raise funds for medical and legal aid for those at the receiving end of state violence, and that will keep the record that may one day contribute to redress and prosecution or compensation. When being confronted by the shocking reality of tortured people day after day, there is neither time nor inclination to whimsically debate the relativity of narrative truths, or how subjective, partial or biased the story being told to you by the person bleeding on the floor might be. Human rights organisations work urgently and against deadlines – to get something together before the next SADC/AU/EU/UN meeting, to keep Zimbabwe in the public eye and to counteract endless ZANU PF propaganda.  Zimbabwean civic groups have compiled an unassailable record of the systematic and brutal methods by which ZANU PF has remained in power since 1980. Much of this evidence relies on medical findings and lawyers’ reports, thus meeting the necessary criteria to stand as forensically accurate: somebody either has a hundred welts on his/her body consistent with being whipped with a raw hide whip or s/he does not; a lawyer either had to represent 200 peaceful protestors in police custody, or s/he did not.

All the same, over the last fifteen years of interacting in direct and practical ways with tortured communities, our team has been reminded time and again that truths are often relative, the stories told to us are sometimes partial or highly selective – or are culturally and psychologically true, but empirically false – and that this sometimes only becomes obvious over months or years of returning and working in the same villages and regions. Human rights reports have some of the same limitations attributed to truth commissions, which “have tended to disaggregate the collective nature of social struggles” and that “foreground forensic evidence in the service of a historical narrative [that] marginalizes the experiences of the victims”.  This “microscopic approach” means that human rights reports sidestep what Grandon and Klubock refer to as the “historian’s problem of analyzing the relationship between structure and experience, between individuals, individual events, and broader socio economic and political processes.”

While the moral and actual responsibility of senior ZANU PF office bearers and officials is unequivocal for the terrible abuses that have taken place in Zimbabwe since 1980, at the village level the edges can blur quite significantly as to who the “good guys” and “bad guys” are.  People who have been shockingly tortured in one era of violence, may become the perpetrators in another. The national and political narrative we use to explain our actions influences our perception of how right or wrong they are. If you genuinely believe that you are defending the nation against recolonisation and defending the land, if you are following orders from powerful people from outside your village who have given you impunity, do you have diminished responsibility or not?  How does this influence your own and others’ perceptions of your guilt?  As we will see in this story, the tendency to generalise about who deserves to be punished – all ZANU PF supporters, or all MDC supporters, depending on which side of the fence one sits – can lead to innocent bystanders on both sides  becoming victims. If somebody who has been sorely provoked by ZANU PF then attacks a ZANU PF supporter who was not among his own persecutors, will the MDC community perceive this as acceptable street justice, or as an offence? This blurring of guilt and responsibility at the village level has its advantages in my opinion because we are (hopefully) starting to look towards an era in which we may have increasing space – and certainly a desperate need – to begin the process of national healing, particularly in rural villages across the nation. To illustrate the many, many thousands of  blurred, fascinating and forensically rather complicated tales that have not yet been told in Zimbabwe in relation to the current violence, I am going to tell a story in which three dinner plates play a significant role. [Full document available below]

“A Tale of Three Dinner Plates” – forensic, narrative and psychological truths and the challenges facing human rights researchers in Zimbabwe
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Fri, February 15 2008 » Conflict resolution, Essays, Transitional justice

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