- Rights After Wrongs: Local Knowledge and Human Rights in Zimbabwe by Shannon Morreira
In 2008, images of beaten bodies and reports of extreme political violence began emanating from Zimbabwe. These were the effects of an election race between incumbent President Robert Mugabe and the leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change-Tsvangirai (MDC-T), Morgan Tsvangirai. While Tsvangirai ostensibly won the first round of elections in May 2008, he did not pass the 50 percent majority required for him to become president. A run-off election was held from which Tsvangirai withdrew, citing life-threatening persecution of his supporters. Mugabe—as the only contender—won the run-off. The MDC claimed that 200 of its members had been killed over the course of the election and its aftermath, while reports produced by local human rights NGOs documented the torture, beatings, and rape of countless others. World record hyper-inflation, a fuel crisis, and a vast shrinkage in GDP had led to the general disintegration of public services, including health and education in Zimbabwe between 2002 and 2012. Since 2005, an estimated 1.5 million Zimbabweans have legally and illegally migrated from the country into neighboring South Africa.This is the political context in which Shannon Morreira's book is set.
Conducting fieldwork in Zimbabwe and South Africa between 2007 and 2011, Morreira explores how global discourses of human rights are applied, debated, and experienced in the context of the Zimbabwean "crisis." Morreira examines the process, or rather questions the possibility of the localization of human rights in the context of Zimbabwe and South Africa. She makes three points. The first is that human rights are not simply a neutral set of laws applied uniformly across the world. Instead, as a Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 90, No. 2, p. 559–564, ISSN 0003-5491. © 2017 by the Institute for Ethnographic Research (IFER) a part of The George Washington University. All rights reserved. [End Page 559] discourse, they actively shape the conceptual terrains by which we understand and act on the world, as well as how our claims are recognized within it (Foucault 1970 as cited in Morreira 2016:10). The second is that rights talk can be used to cover over the workings of power. And the third is that people can use rights talk to mean different things. In particular, different notions of justice and truth are contained within rights talk as it is used by different groups of people (in this case Zimbabwean migrants and the South African state). In making these three points, Moreirra questions the possibility of the "vernacularization" of human rights discourse in diverse settings. Human rights discourse can be localized, in the sense that it is employed by local actors in local settings. But, drawing on Foucualt (1970), Bakhtin (1981), and Mignolo (2012), Morreira argues that while the global discourse of human rights is used in Zimbabwe, this process of localization takes place "within a set of unequal power relations" (4). Human rights laws are not only the product of a European world, but are also intrinsically linked to the project of modernity and colonial epistemology (Nyamnjoh 2012 as cited in Morreira 2016:10). Thus localisation is a one-way process. Local actors may use human rights discourse to mean different things, but these divergent meanings are not incorporated into global human rights law.
The book begins with an examination of the fraught process of writing a new constitution in Zimbabwe, following the formation of the GNU in 2009. Both state and civil society discourse emphasized the need for a "people driven" constitution, and in 2010 a constitutional outreach program was rolled out across the country to allow "the people" to comment on what they thought should be included. While the reality was that a few political elite would actually draft the constitution, both state and civil society used the language of participatory democracy and freedom in framing this attempt to encode people's rights. Morreira shows how the language of participatory democracy provided the state with a veneer of legitimacy...