NGOs and the constitutional debate in Zimbabwe: From inclusion to exclusion

Sara Rich Dorman*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Two competing processes of constitutional reform occurred in Zimbabwe between 1997 and 2000. In 1997, the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), led by churches, NGOs and unions, was formed and initiated a constitutional debate. In 1999, the ZANU(PF) government of Robert Mugabe attempted to reclaim the debate by launching a Constitutional Commission (CC) with a mandate to consult Zimbabweans and draft a new constitution, to be voted on in a plebiscite in February 2000. The governmental process was unprecedented in its participatory and inclusive nature. Opposition politicians, NGO activists and church people were included alongside ZANU(PF) stalwarts. At the same time, the rhetoric used against those in the NCA who rejected the invitation to participate grew increasingly exclusionary and intolerant. The ruling party was, in this period, beset by revelations of scandals, financial crises and declining social services. The constitutional debate was, at least in part, an attempt to regain control of political discourse, even as the state's ability to provide services was weakened. Instead, the public consultations provided a platform for the articulation of devastating critiques of the regime's political and economic policies in public meetings that were covered extensively in the media. The government's defeat in the referendum, in which voters rejected the draft constitution, legitimated the existence of organisations and ideas outside the hegemony of the ruling party/state. The voting public (albeit a largely urban selection of the potential electorate) affirmed the claims made by the NCA to speak and act outside the remit of the state. This rejection of the way in which politics had been done since independence set the stage for the violent and coercive politics of 2000 and beyond.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)845-863
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Southern African Studies
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 31 Dec 2003


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