Knox Chitiyo
Associate Fellow, Africa Programme

On 16 March 2013 an estimated two million Zimbabweans voted on a new draft constitution. Polling stations reported a steady, albeit less than brisk, procession of voters during the course of the day. Although some civil society groups urged a popular 'No' vote, citing significant flaws in both the process and content of the draft constitution, there is little doubt that the majority of voters were in favour of the draft for representing an important marker of Zimbabwe's recovery and international rehabilitation.

Zimbabwe has been guided by the Lancaster House Constitution - negotiated in London in 1979 as part of the Lancaster House agreement - which ended the 14-year liberation war. The Lancaster Constitution was a compromise document whose key provisions included a bi-cameral parliament (with a House of Assembly and a Senate); an independent judiciary led by a Chief Justice; a symbolic presidency with the prime minister as head of government; land acquisition and land resettlement that could only be done on a willing buyer/seller basis; and no substantive legal amendments to the land agreement for a minimum of ten years.

For an agreement that was negotiated in haste amidst considerable rancour all those years ago, the Lancaster House constitution has proved to be surprisingly durable. It has remained as Zimbabwe's constitution ever since, but with numerous amendments. One of the key constitutional changes in the interim has been the creation of an executive presidency with two vice presidents. The current arrangement, of a president, prime minister and two vice presidents, was designed as a temporary measure to help resolve inter-party conflict and led to the creation of the 2009 coalition government, after a decade of crisis. 

In 2010, the Constitution Select Committee of Parliament (COPAC) was established as a cross-party body tasked with drafting a new constitution. It has worked overtime to incorporate and balance widely divergent inter and intra-party, state and popular views on what should be included in the new constitution. The 180-page document incorporates many of the post-Lancaster House constitutional amendments, but there is much that is new. Some of the key provisions of the draft constitution include a Bill of Rights which enshrines human rights into law; increased decentralization of power and limited devolution; equitable distribution of resources; a tangible commitment to the rights of women, children, and minorities; dual citizenship; the inviolability of the post-2000 land reforms; and a presidency which is limited to two terms. 

Representing a step forward

Inevitably, the final draft, which was made public in February 2013, has been overwhelmingly endorsed by some and damned with faint praise by others. Many Zimbabweans feel that the new draft is a major step forward, with its legal commitment to human rights and development and checks and balances on the powers of the Executive. Others felt that there was insufficient time for a public awareness campaign, particularly in rural areas, and that most Zimbabweans were being asked to vote for something which they had not had a chance to read or fully understand. There has also been some criticism that the draft did not go far enough in limiting the powers of the presidency.  

The vote on 16 March was largely peaceful because all the political parties agreed to campaign for a 'Yes' vote, and also because violence would have reignited memories of the disputed and ultimately bloody 2008 presidential and parliamentary polls. There is also a powerful regional presence: the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union sent observers and are pushing for an orderly transition in Zimbabwe. There is general consensus that credible constitutional-electoral cycles and enhanced political stability are vital for regional and pan-regional development.

Zimbabwe's constitutional referendum matters, both for what it is and for what it signifies. The draft constitution is an imperfect document, but it is Zimbabwean owned and there is much in it which could improve the lives of Zimbabweans inside and outside the country. It is a new social contract and may well lead to improved governance in Zimbabwe. However, any constitution is only as good as its enablers. With general elections looming later in 2013, it will not be long before the new constitution faces the acid test of best practice.