Hundreds of Zimbabweans from political parties, civil rights organizations, churches and ordinary citizens gathered Wednesday for the first public hearings towards a new constitution organized by the transitional four-month-old government of national unity. There were mixed reactions when the multi-party steering committee of legislators kicked off the process by explaining timelines and the process to achieve a new constitution.
About 1,500 people gathered at a Harare conference center and heard speakers from the majority Movement for Democratic Change party, MDC, and the rival Zanu-PF party say that the process will be people driven and that ordinary voices will be more important than those of legislators in drawing up a new constitution.
Kariba draft constitution
The only daily newspaper, which is the pro Zanu-PF, the Herald, carried a supplement to coincide with the first hearing. It contains a draft constitution written in a hurry in 2007 and known as the Kariba draft constitution. Zanu-PF says this draft is its constitution of preference and it retains enormous powers for an executive president. It was the Kariba draft which President Robert Mugabe, who belongs to the ZANU-PF party, refused to allow to be passed into law ahead of last year's elections won by the MDC.
There was a jovial and relaxed mood among many delegates, but important civil rights activists boycotted the launch because they say the process is controlled by politicians.
Lovemore Madhuku, who leads the National Constitutional Assembly said that he will not be involved in constitution writing because legislators, not the people, will drive the process.
"Legislators said public hearings were being held in other centers around the country, and that the process will take about a year to finalize before a draft constitution will be tested by a referendum," said Madhuku.
Optimism meets skepticism
Many of those attending the first public hearing were hopeful and optimistic, others were skeptical.
Churchman, Reverend Joseph Katife said it was a great day for him as the people would be involved in producing a new constitution.
"It was good, because we have the time to communicate with the constitution itself, to play a part in the constitution," he said. "I am going to be part of writing that constitution."
Wonder Muvandi, a former policeman from eastern Zimbabwe, says that parliament will produce the constitution and not the people and that the first hearing showed few Zimbabweans even understand what the word constitution means.
"The way they are handling the whole process is improper. They should have started off by educating the people first about what the constitution is," said Muvandi. "People do not know what a constitution is. The constitution making process is going to be very chaotic, it's not going to be in line, and this will end up by parliament itself, on its own will come up with a constitution for the people."
Some fear political manipulation
The few hundred remaining white farmers who survived Mr Mugabe's nine year campaign against them say they have suffered more harrassment, invasions and arrest since the establishment of the inclusive government.
Deon Theron, vice president of the Commercial Farmers' Union, says he fears there will be political manipulation of the constitution making process.
"What is going to be the political influence on this whole thing, that is everyone's concern, they keep saying it's going be people driven and the people will decide, but if you look at the process at the back of your mind you can still see the loopholes," Theron said. "Today we have got our first get together and everyone is sitting with the Kariba draft in front of them because it was in the papers today. Is that a coincidence? Of course it is not."
MDC speakers received the most applause of all speakers at the first hearing, but not all those who attended are politically aligned.