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Civic Groups Discuss Ways to Help New Zimbabwe Government

As Zimbabwe's new government gets under way in Harare, a group of Zimbabwe activists gathered in South Africa recently to examine how civil society can help.

Zimbabwe activists and analysts told a symposium in Johannesburg that the new unity government in Harare has raised some hope for easing the Zimbabwe crisis. But they also say it faces tremendous challenges.

The head of the Zimbabwe Solidarity Forum, Sipho Theys, notes that long-time President Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party have been taking actions without consulting their new partners in government -- former opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and the Movement for Democratic Change.

"When you've got a situation where the other party plays the game -- yes, they know the game very well -- and you've got another party who comes fairly new into the game, this is not a very level playing field," Theys said. "And, based on that, the civil society needs to come up very strongly in raising the issues that will affect this government."

The power-sharing government was launched three weeks ago, after months of negotiations that followed disputed and often violent elections last year.

The chairman of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, MacDonald Lewanika, says, as a result, the new government was certain to be full of internal contradictions sending confusing signals.

"A government that is supposed to be run on the basis of consensus will always run into challenges around positions which are not necessarily consensus positions," Lewanika said. "A government that has got ministers that seem to duplicate each other will run into challenges of who is supposed to do what in that particular government."

But he says there have been some changes. For example, he says the new leadership is talking with civic leaders.

"You would never have heard of government going to meet with labor leaders to discuss critical issues of national importance, but that is already happening," Lewanika said. "Civil society leaders are meeting the minister of constitutional affairs. Those things were an anathema in the past regime and they are positive things that we would like to encourage the government to continue doing."

The top priorities of the new government are reversing economic decline and reviving public services like health and education, which are in crisis after years of falling productivity, hyperinflation and skilled worker exodus.

But civic leaders say there are other aspects of the power-sharing accord that also require prompt attention.

University of Zimbabwe Professor John Makumbe says the trauma from years of violence and injustice must not be overlooked.

He says a truth and justice commission should be set up to address human rights violations and deal with what he calls "the culture of impunity in the country."

"The commission must focus on exposing the truth. Who perpetrated violence? Who violated human rights? Who committed corruption? And, then it must prosecute those people in a court of law. And, then a verdict can be reached. And, only then will the commission decide whether to send them to prison or forgive them," he said.

But other civic leaders disagree, saying reconciliation should be the primary focus of any truth commission.

Another task facing the new government is to oversee the drafting of a new constitution, leading to new elections. A two-year timetable has been mentioned for this process.

A new constitution has been already been drafted, as part of the recent negotiations between the various political parties. But a group called the National Constitutional Assembly wants to see a new charter coming from popular consultations.

Its South Africa coordinator, Munjodzi Mutandiri, says the document drafted by the politicians serves mainly their own interests.

"There should be an all-stakeholders constitutional conference, from all sectors of life: students, laborers, churches, politicians. And these people should come up with a people-driven constitution," Mutandiri said. "But comprehensive public engagement should be central to that process. These politicians can never be trusted with the future of people's lives."

However, some analysts say legal experts must have a large say in drafting any effective constitution.

Many activists worry that the new government will not last long enough to fulfill these tasks. But they say it appears to be the only alternative to another period of confrontation and violence.

As a result, they say civil society must try to work with the new leadership and help point the way out of the crisis.