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Justice in Africa: what it means to Africans?

- Kemantha Govender

My interview with Dr Ruth Murambadoro about her book, Transitional Justice in Africa: The Case of Zimbabwe was a sensory experience.

*This book is a available for purchase at: Amazon, Palgrave MacMillan Books, Exclusive Books.

While making a case for the importance of decolonising our understanding of justice, she reinforced the idea that research is about honouring a responsibility to communities to document their encounters while “offering a lens for  their experiences to be heard in tandem to the mainstream debate on peacebuilding and African approaches to justice”.

Her offering in the form of a monograph, which was released this July, is a product of her doctoral and the postdoctoral phase of her career (2015-2019). An elective during her postgraduate studies at the University of Pretoria, Peace and Conflict in Africa built the foundation for her enthusiasm for peacebuilding.

Rural communities

While Murambadoro may not have used the word spirituality in this interview, the manner in which she described central themes emphasised the interconnectedness of the African people and just how important a factor this was in her work. It does offer those who believe in ancestry and spirituality, context or simply a space to think about justice in a personal and meaningful way.

“In the past two decades the global peace project has been under scrutiny for its emphasis on Eurocentric models of justice which do not cater for the justice needs of African communities.

“Instead it has been considered an avenue used by Western nations (who often take a lead in intervening in conflicts on the continent) to perpetuate coloniality, because of the reliance on preserving the colonial state over redressing the systemic violence created by colonialism on both the psyche and well-being of African persons,” she said.

Murambadoro offers “a multiple temporal analysis of state-sanctioned violence looking at its impact on interpersonal relations of persons in three rural communities most affected by the post-2000 electoral violence, namely Buhera, Mudzi and Uzumba”.

She said she focused on rural communities because they are often the hot beds of violence that is underreported and the communal element of African families is much more visible in the periphery than it is in urban areas.

“My interest was to provide an understanding on how the foundations of African communities i.e. imba, mhuri and musha are affected by state-sanctioned violence….  Imba also referred to as mumba in the monograph is both a place of residence and symbol of the ancestral lineage spanning over generations. Mhuri is the family/clan and musha is considered a place of one’s origin. Tapping into these understandings of African beings brought to the fore the interconnectedness of humanity and the values as well as practices that forge relations within local communities.”

Murambadoro explained that relations in the African community are not limited to physical beings or understood in linear form but extend across generations hence, the impact of violence does not affect an individual but all persons related to the being.

She paid great attention to the interpersonal experiences of persons who encountered state-sanctioned violence and historicised the cyclical nature of violence to depict how it metamorphosis throughout the life journey of those subjected to violence. For instance, in chapter 2 of the monograph Violence, Transitions and Relational Harms,’ relates how various participants experienced violence in both the colonial and post-colonial era, and its impact on their psychosocial well-being. This brings forth the human being behind these encounters of violence, an area that the independence government never addressed by choosing to ‘let by gones be by gones’ a feature of amnesty that prevailed in the liberal peace paradigm around the 1980-90s.

Chapters three and four ‘Harm, Displacement and Interpersonal Justice’ and ‘Spirituality, Rituals and Remedy’ respectively explores how such effects of violence are addressed and the processes of reparation that rebuilds social harmony within the being, and between the being and other beings including the extended community (metaphysical realm).

Practical example

Murambadoro used murder as an example to explain the impact of wrongdoing and justice. When a murder takes place, ngozi, which is an avenging spirit that can torment the whole family until redress has been offered, is evoked. Death is considered a rite of passage into the realm of the living dead, because life among the African communities in the study, revolves around multiple temporalities involving the dead, living being and future generation (unborn).

The living dead are essential players in the well-being of the living beings and when one dies, they continue to serve in the family as a guardian who protects and intercedes to Musikavanhu (God the Creator). This role of the living dead requires one to transpose to the realm of the dead with a clean spirit, hence several rituals are performed during the funeral and post burial of the deceased.

However, when one has been murdered they are considered to have a burdened spirit hence cannot be accommodated among the living dead, instead their spirit will lie in limbo. This state of limbo causes havoc and misfortunes among the living beings hence, there is need for redress to be rendered for the spirit of the deceased to find rest among the living dead (vobwo). This builds to the notion of death being regarded a dignified encounter in the livelihood of an African being.

Redressing ngozi often involves the wrongdoer offering compensation and participating in cleansing rituals that breaks the spirit of bondage and retains dignity to the deceased allowing them to rest among vobwo. A wrongdoing is regarded as a bad trait that contradicts their shared principles of kugarisana nevamwe (living in harmony), kuzvininipisa (being humble), kudyidzana (friendship or fellowship), kuzvibata (self-discipline), rukudzo (respect), kushanda nesimba (industrious), and kudzoreka (teachable spirit), among others. These principles instil a reciprocal duty among community members that is demonstrated through positive and negative traits in the conduct of beings. Positive traits resemble the above principles and attract good fortune, while negative traits work in tandem and often beget bad omen such as being tormented by ngozi (avenging spirits). 

The violence observed in the studied communities has disrupted the human relations that hold people together and this has great consequences on the development and progression of the mhuri (clan). A key need of the studied communities is to preserve their heritage through redressing the physical, spiritual and psychosocial harms inflicted on their families to ensure there is harmony among the living beings, unborn and living dead. This entails performing rituals, ceremonies and symbolisms that promote for a rebirth/renewal of their essence based on shared principles.

Murambadoro believes that centering justice on human relations is critical to building sustainable peace among African communities, especially because of the rich communal networks that exist within families, arguing that these are often bruised by political tensions at the community or national level and destroys the harmony that brings prosperity to the being and extended metaphysical community.

She said that cultivating the bonds underlying these networks helps to build resilience because it humanises the impact of violence on human relations and their interconnectedness to the environment (including metaphysical realm), which is crucial to their survival and the future generations.

Key themes

As an avid scholar on gender, governance and peace and security her perspectives on the transitions and justice processes in Zimbabwe were shaped using the intersectionality lens with the chapter on ‘Spirituality, Rituals and Remedy’, being built on narratives of various women in the studied communities to bring forth the complexities around how women are subjected to violence.

Murambadoro also looked at Rwanda, Uganda and Mozambique as they made for good cases to draw lessons from because of existing literature around use of tradition-based approaches in peacebuilding processes. The Gacaca courts in Rwanda for example, are often cited as a successful intervention that brought more attraction for African justice approaches within the peacebuilding arena, especially because they were adopted at a time the liberal peacebuilding mechanisms had failed to offer justice to many Rwandese people.

“The magnitude of the Rwandan genocide brought to the fore inefficiencies of the colonial administrative and Eurocentric legal systems, features that were prominent throughout my research on Zimbabwe and other African countries. What was required in Rwanda as it is for participants covered in the monograph, is a human-centred approach that invigorates the sense of shared values among African communities from which a new future can be birthed for both the living beings, unborn and living dead.

“This is a recurrent theme l noted in Uganda and Mozambique through the tradition-based rituals, ceremonies and symbolisms that were adopted for peacebuilding processes at the local level.  Human relations were central to the processes that were enacted in these countries and I was able to draw lessons in terms underlying norms and values that inform human interactions in African settings. Thereby adding volume to the growing discourse on a decolonial turn to peacebuilding,” she explained.

Murambadoro was a visiting researcher at the Centre of African Studies, University of Cambridge when she completed the bulk of writing. She is a political scientist by training but considers herself a political ethnographer and oral historian. She spent several months living among the communities to develop a first-hand encounter of their everyday livelihood (i.e. participating in their everyday activities). She also used surveys and spent some time in the national archives in Harare working through various documents to get a better understanding of the socio-cultural practices that inform the ways of being among communities she was studying.