Performing Power in Zimbabwe: Power Politics and the Courts Since 2000

Performing Power in Zimbabwe: Politics, Law, and the Courts Since 2000. by Susanne Verheul (Cambridge University Press: New York 2021)

Reviewed by, Lance Larkin, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

In Performing Power in Zimbabwe: Politics, Law and the Courts since 2000, Susanne Verheul asserts, until 2012, Zimbabwean courtroom performances by attorneys, litigants, defendants, witnesses, and judges highlight the ways that law can be transformed. Rather than approach the law as a tool of repression by an authoritarian regime – that is also resisted by an oppressed populace – this book demonstrates that interactions within the courtroom constitute productive sites of political contestation. Seeing how citizens demand professional application of the law not only underscores their engagement to reform or reject state governance, but also their commitment to hold the government accountable to its citizens.

Verheul examines the colonial history of law within 1960s white-ruled Rhodesia (what became Zimbabwe) in Chapter 1 to compare black nationalists’ demands then with current law-based arguments for government accountability. Not only did the activists at that time argue for equal citizenship, but nationalist litigants thronged colonial courts dressed in party regalia. However, following majority rule in 1980, the new government relied on repressive colonial laws such as the Emergency Power Act and used secret militias to brutally depose the opposition. The author draws strong connections between the demands for equitable law by black nationalists, and the claims of her informants fifty years later.

Despite contemporary pressures, the courts maintained a tentative independence that was regularly ignored by the Zimbabwean government. Based on an understanding of judiciary professional conduct as bound in post-independence justice, Verheul’s informants emphasized a continued thread of professionalism in their own interactions with the law in Zimbabwe. The key contribution of this book to studies of law is the observation that “rather than subverting the legal rules [from the historical colonial legacy] and the norms and morals these rules prescribed, litigants stayed within them in order to exploit the spaces for social change opened up by these rules” (p. 13). By taking their cases to the courts, both defendants and litigants seek to write their grievances into the material record. Not only do court documents hold their cases for future constituencies, but informants’ performances are witnessed by the public observing the proceedings from the gallery. The author emphasized how this observing public is silenced as they are not allowed to participate in the trials, but I would argue that their witnessing has a much wider spread than just the courtroom. It is unfortunate she did not pursue this further, perhaps by interviewing other newer activists unconnected to these cases.

Admittedly, Verheul was constrained as her methods were limited to the whims of the Zimbabwean government. Observing political trials in the Magistrates’ Courts during two three-month visits (starting July 2010 and November 2011), she supplemented this fieldwork with extended interviews and document analysis. She cites prosecutors who condemned the politicization of the attorney general’s office and widespread corruption after the country suffered an economic collapse in 2008. This lack of professionalization was judged harshly by her informants, resulting in shaming of court government partisans by both non-politicized prosecutors and magistrates.

Just as these judicial professionals asserted their understanding of ethical court practices in Chapter 2, Verheul found citizens committed to the rule of law who saw it as their duty to report the crimes of government militia to police (Chapter 3). Two of her informants insisted that the police officers at their stations make a record of the militia members’ crimes, demanding that the state and its officials follow their own rules to safeguard its citizens. Despite these men being obstructed, threatened, ignored, and in one case, arrested, both citizens repeatedly demanded the police follow proper legal procedures. Their insistence for the correct application of the law mirrored the hopes of arrested political activists.

The young, black, urban-based political activists – often arrested multiple times – had no illusions about being treated fairly, but instead saw the process of being criminalized by the illegitimate state as solidarity performance and a fight for justice. The theme of performance within Zimbabwe’s legal system is more fully explored throughout the rest of the book. The author describes courtroom scenes of human rights lawyers highlighting the sensory signs of unwashed and bruised bodies as evidence of a corrupt and broken justice system (Chapter 5). Following the description of conditions and tactics within the courtroom, Verheul provides three chapters focused on high profile case studies: trials of a group arrest during the short Government of National Unity era (Chapter 6), the political impact of the Mthwakazi Liberation Front’s legal targeting in Matabeleland (Chapter 7), and the shuttering of artist Owen Maseko’s exhibition following his arrest and detention (Chapter 8).

Comparing her examination of courtroom performances with other scholars’ work, Verheul underscores that legal consciousness should be contextualized within a historical trajectory that includes the subject’s arrest and detention. Furthermore, the interaction between the state and its subjects should not just be limited to court records. Researchers should expand their lens to include the material and sensory conditions within the courtroom. Verheul argues that by looking at these issues, researchers will move past the purported “binary purpose of these trials as either enabling state repression or facilitating resistance, to examin[e] the negotiated authority that emerges out of the performances of state consciousness that marks the relationship between law, the state and its citizens in the run-up to and during the trial” (p. 16). She also states that observation of courtroom performances highlights the differences in understanding law and state power within judicial institutions.

One of the significant functions of this book is to refocus scholarly attention onto the implications of a transition to democracy. Besides highlighting the historical failures of post-colonial states (e.g., the violent urban demolition campaign of Operation Murambatsvina), the author sheds light on the process of citizens gaining state consciousness and demanding the Zimbabwean government hold to its promises of a rule-bound democracy. The echoes of Zimbabwe’s colonial past are still heard as the government uses colonial-era laws against citizens, including activists. Verheul’s close examination of courtroom performances illuminates an important site for understanding how citizens demand state accountability.

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