Rights After Wrongs
Local Knowledge and Human Rights in Zimbabwe
Shannon Morreira



The Rise of Rights Talk in Zimbabwe

There are no “neutral” words and forms—words and forms that belong to “no one”; language [is] shot through with intentions and accents . . . All words have the “taste” of a profession, a genre, a tendency, a party, a particular work, a particular person, a generation, an age group, the day and hour. Each word tastes of the context and contexts in which it has lived its socially charged life; all words and forms are populated by intentions.
—Mikhael Bakhtin (1981: 293)

Globalisation has two sides: that of the narrative of modernity and that of the logic of coloniality.
W. Mignolo (2012: 5)

“Rights, Not Wrongs”: An Introduction

In 2007, I attended a protest held at the Home Affairs Refugee Centre in central Cape Town in South Africa. My research at the time was focused on Zimbabwean undocumented migration to South Africa—as a Zimbabwean living in South Africa myself, I had a personal and political interest in the topic and in taking part in the protest that day. As an anthropologist and a member of the activist group that organized the protest, I was present when a group of Zimbabweans began the process of writing on banners provided by the organizers before the event. A group of ten interlocutors, comprised of black men and women ranging in age from their early twenties to late fifties, clustered around an old sheet that was placed on the pavement outside the gates of the Centre, with one man brandishing a paintbrush and a tin of red paint. He squatted down, dipped the brush in paint, held it over the sheet . . . and then hesitated. “What do I write?” he asked. “What are we saying to these people?”

There was a moment of silence, followed by a plethora of answers—“We are tired of waiting for an appointment”; “We are not animals that must wait in the rain for them to let us inside”; “We want to be allowed to stay here because things are so bad at home”; “We are tired of being illegal when we have done nothing wrong”; “We want to say that we are suffering, here and at home”; “We have had enough of Mugabe and Mbeki”;1 and “We would not be here if we could make a living at home.” The man looked at his companions and said, “But I can’t write all those things on a banner. It must be catchy, quick—but it must say why we are here.” There was a pause while people tried to think of something catchy, something “quick”—and then one man said, “Just write, ‘We want human rights, not human wrongs,’ or ‘No rights in Zimbabwe, no rights in South Africa.’” Everyone in the group nodded approvingly, and the two banners were made. A language of human rights, it seemed, was able to speak across disparate intentions—to provide a summarizing symbol (Ortner, 1973) that could encompass suffering, tiredness, illegality, personhood, politics, economics, and morality (both “here” and “at home”) and “quickly” transpose these to the powerful realm of legal language.

That brief moment outside Home Affairs in Cape Town seemed to provide a window into the entanglements (Mbembe, 2001; Nuttall, 2009) at play when the notion of human rights is called on. Throughout my fieldwork as an anthropologist studying the Zimbabwean political and economic situation in the post-2000 era—working originally with Zimbabweans in South Africa in 2007 and 2008 and then moving on to detailed ethnographic work in Zimbabwe itself from 2008 to 2011—“human rights” (or just “rights”2) were invoked again and again, in contexts as diverse as the christening of a child or the personal recounting of a life history marred by political violence. For interlocutors, the phrase “human rights” came to take on a tangible force and seemed to carry enormous symbolic capital (Bourdieu, 1986, 1992). This is not unusual in postcolonial Southern Africa: Englund and Nyamnjoh (2004: 31) argue that the “rhetoric of rights” has become common to the postcolonial African lexicon.3 The conversation between protesters reproduced in this vignette is a good starting point for this book as it locates the Zimbabwean individuals present at a protest that day within a wider world of academic and political discourse. The vignette raises issues of local and transnational politics and economics, evokes the domains of citizenship and personhood, points to academic debates around human rights as legal practice and as popular discourse, and highlights the (contemporary) primacy of the law as a means to resist marginality (Comaroff and Comaroff, 2007; Robins, 2008b).

Why examine the ways in which Zimbabweans have been using ideas of rights? In the course of the anthropological fieldwork I conducted in South Africa in 2007 and 2008, it became clear that discourses of human rights were central to Zimbabwean migrants’ experiences of movement—or at least to the ways in which they recounted those experiences to an audience, be that audience comprised of anthropologist, neighbor, family member, journalist, Home Affairs official, or a mixture of all of the above (Morreira, 2010b). The language of rights carries power: To recount a difficult migration history in its terms means it is more likely to be heard than it is if told in another way. However, it became clear that migrants’ notions of what constituted their human rights, or an infringement of those rights, differed from those fixed in legal categories. The contradiction between the comparatively “fixed”4 definitions of human rights within a legal framework, and the malleable use of human and civil rights talk as discourse and practice within varied local contexts was apparent. In legal terms, rights and human rights are usually conceptually distinct and carry different political and social claims. That Zimbabwean interlocutors moved between both terms without much reflection seemed worth exploring. “Human rights,” far from representing a fixed set of laws that outline the basic rights of individuals, was an extremely malleable concept and one that, for migrants, shifted daily according to circumstance. I was led to question in what ways, if any, ideas of human rights were being used by Zimbabweans who were still “at home”—did rights discourse become relevant only on movement across borders, or was it just as relevant within the politico-economic context of contemporary Zimbabwe? And what could the use of rights-based language and ideology tell us about local articulations of so-called Western epistemologies or ways of knowing the world? What forms of knowledge get called on, and what kinds of hierarchies are created in the process? Such questions led me to embark on the detailed fieldwork within Zimbabwe that has led to this book.

The work presented here is based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Zimbabwe and, to a lesser degree, with Zimbabweans resident in South Africa, over a period from 2007 to 2011. I argue that although the international legal framework of human rights may present itself as universal, rights are enacted, practiced, and debated in local contexts that influence how, and for what purposes, ideas of rights are used. Narrow legal categories of human rights and civil rights get expanded in popular talk such that human rights and rights come to be used interchangeably: When trying to export such malleable popular uses of rights into the less immediately malleable legal domain of human rights, however, people run into difficulties. Anthropological approaches to the study of human rights by theorists such as Englund (2006), Goodale (2006a, 2006b, 2009a), Merry (2005, 2006), Wilson and Mitchell (2003), and Wilson (2006) assert the need to study rights in practice, arguing that detailed ethnographic examination of local contexts can show the ways in which supposedly universal ideals become localized. In this book I use the contemporary political and economic context of Zimbabwe as a case study to explore the ways in which a global framework of human rights has been locally interpreted, constituted, and contested. I argue that although localization can be seen to occur, it happens within a set of unequal power relations. This furthers anthropological debates around human rights by considering the ways in which the forms that localizations are able to take are the result of the ways in which knowledge is organized and prioritized globally, such that certain ways of representing experience—such as through a lens of individualized human rights—are accorded greater legitimacy than other ways of representing experience—such as through a lens of shared personhood and communal obligations. The politics of human rights discourses, then, can be seen through this case to be part and parcel of the globalized politics of knowledge and power, which carry colonial histories into the postcolonial present (Mignolo, 2012).

The ethnography presented here is multisited, as a key effect of the Zimbabwean crisis has been the movement of people across Southern Africa and beyond, and as the ideas that inform local manifestations of rights talk are global products. Although the assumed universality of rights is important to its global and local legitimacy (the fact that it purportedly applies to everyone, regardless, gives it moral capital), it is also because ideas of rights are flexible enough to be able to incorporate local ideas of morality and personhood that they are able to be considered valid in very disparate contexts. Nonetheless, such localization occurs within the terms of a framework of rights (which itself stems from the organizing logic of modernity) and is therefore limited.

A Brief Historicization: Zimbabwe in Context

The opening vignette showed rights talk to be the mode of expression chosen by Zimbabwean protestors in South Africa, as a means of speaking about political and economic conditions within both Zimbabwe and South Africa. How did so many Zimbabweans come to be seeking asylum in South Africa that they were using a language of human rights to critique the conditions in their home country that brought them there and to critique the inability of the South African refugee system to deal with their applications? The Southern African state of Zimbabwe has been in existence since 1980; prior to that, the colonized country was named Rhodesia—a British colony until 1965, it maintained white minority rule until the advent of independence in 1980. Zimbabwe’s contemporary situation has its roots in intricate colonial and postcolonial histories and events, and the emergence of rights talk as a mode of expression in Zimbabwe has its underpinnings in this long history, which encompasses precolonial political systems (Bhebhe and Ranger, 2001; Ndlovu-Gatsheni, 2008), colonization and British settlement in the 1880s (Raftopoulos and Mlambo, 2009), and a period of colonial rule until 1980 that saw the introduction and violent maintenance of British (and subsequently Rhodesian) political and legal structures (Ncube, 2001; Ranger, 2001; Ndlovu-Gatsheni, 2008; Raftopoulos and Mlambo, 2009).

In the 1970s the country underwent a violent struggle against Rhodesian rule; termed the Second Chimurenga (with the first Chimurenga being an unsuccessful uprising by both Shona and Ndebele people against the British South Africa Company in the 1890s), this nationalist liberation struggle eventuated in independence in 1980. The country’s first election to include the majority of the population was won in 1980 by one of the two major nationalist parties, the (predominantly Shona) Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) led by Robert Mugabe, which had fought the war against the Rhodesians alongside the (predominantly Ndebele) Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU).5 Independence was followed by a period of postcolonial nation building and economic successes that occurred in the 1980s under President Robert Mugabe’s rule (Raftopoulos, 2004). For all its successes, however, the decade of the 1980s was also a period of internal political violence, with the advent of Gukurahundi, a state-based systematic program of violence against the Ndebele population, ostensibly in response to the actions of dissidents but in reality an operation that targeted civilians and ex-soldiers alike (CCJP, 1997). Thus, although Raftopoulos (2004: 2) rightly categorizes the 1980s as “the years of restoration and hope” across some parts of the country, in others they were years of violence and dissatisfaction with the ruling party.

In the 1990s dissatisfaction with the ZANU-PF government grew more widespread: The 1990s saw a period of increasing economic decline, the implementation of an International Monetary Fund (IMF)–directed structural adjustment program and the beginnings of widespread frustration with the postcolonial system of governance (Bhebhe and Ranger, 2001). Varied kinds of civil society rose in Zimbabwe, with some liberal forms advocating mainly for democratic rights and the basic security of persons, whereas more radical forms such as trade unions and student movements advocated for socioeconomic rights (Helliker, 2013). Rights discourses (in the plural) gained prevalence.6 I will return to this in the following chapter, but for now it is enough to note that the institutional terrain of the country saw a rise in rights talk in the 1990s but that “civil society” was not homogenous and was thoroughly contextually specific. In other words, supposedly “Western” rights were not imported wholesale but were picked up and used in various ways by variously situated political actors.

By the late 1990s economic and political conditions had worsened considerably, and in 1999 Zimbabwe entered a period of severe economic collapse, which occurred hand in hand with a decline in democratic freedoms and a corresponding increase in political violence against citizens (Hammar and Raftopoulos, 2003; Kamete, 2008; Orner and Holmes, 2010; Murithi and Mawadza, 2011; Morreira, 2015a). An opposition party to the ZANU-PF government,7 the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) emerged out of the country’s trade unions in 1999, with limited electoral success but a wide urban support base. In light of this political threat, violations of the political rights of citizens became increasingly common under the Mugabe government—flawed electoral processes, state control of the judiciary and the media, and frequent violence against the opposition party members and supporters are just some of the critiques that have been leveled by rights organizations at the Mugabe regime (for example, see Human Rights Watch, 2006). Further, the increase in violence included a deepening of structural violence8 (see Morreira, 2010b; cf. Farmer, 1996, and Kleinman, 1997) to the point that, in 2007 and 2008, the undocumented migrants with whom I worked were trying (largely unsuccessfully) to use human rights discourse to argue that the economic situation was dire enough to warrant refugee status for Zimbabweans in South Africa (Morreira, 2010a). State institutions and infrastructure deteriorated to the extent that in 2004 Hough and Du Plessis categorized Zimbabwe as a failed state. Although such an epithet seems excessive given the state’s continued existence (and given the ways in which the state functioned extremely efficiently at some levels, such as the security sector), there is no doubt that life changed radically for most Zimbabweans in a very short space of time (Morreira, 2015a). The invocation of rights discourses by the Zimbabwean migrants present at that protest in 2007, then, occurred in response to the political and economic decline of the post-2000 period but also reflected a much longer history of shifting political institutions and the transnational flow of people and ideas. As Hall (2001a: 213) notes, a series of complex temporal connections are at play in what we characterize as the “postcolony,” such that “the ‘post-colonial’ does not signal a simple before/after chronological succession . . . rather [it] marks the passage from one [set of] historical power configurations or conjunctures to another.”

Many things have changed in Zimbabwe and South Africa since that windy afternoon in 2007 with which I opened this chapter. South Africa has seen the inauguration of a new president, Jacob Zuma, and the previous incumbent, Thabo Mbeki, largely disappeared from the South African (but not the wider African) political scene. Mbeki was integral to the development and implementation of South Africa’s policy of “quiet diplomacy” toward the Zimbabwean government (see Hough and Du Plessis, 2004), which had angered many Zimbabweans for its seeming ineffectuality at creating any positive change for Zimbabwe—hence the earlier comment that “we have had enough of Mugabe and Mbeki.” Zimbabwe’s main opposition party to ZANU-PF, the MDC, fractured into two factions in 2005,9 following political infighting, which complicated quiet diplomacy negotiations and weakened the opposition’s political position. In addition to changes at the level of party politics in both countries, the social landscape of South Africa was altered by the advent of countrywide episodes of xenophobic violence in 2008 (see Hassim et al., 2008, and Steinberg, 2008), which left sixty-two people dead, hundreds injured, and tens of thousands displaced from their homes (Worby et al., 2008).

Xenophobic violence resurfaced, albeit on a smaller scale, across the country again in 2015. The violence was directed at amakwerekwere, a derogatory term for “people who were identified as not properly belonging to the South African nation” (Worby et al., 2008: 7).

Shortly after the outbreaks of violence in 2008, while many of those affected were still residing in temporary camps and shelters across South Africa, neighboring Zimbabwe held both parliamentary and presidential elections, leading to a hope among the Zimbabweans with whom I worked in South Africa that they would be able to leave the uncertain place that South Africa had become to return to a safer and more economically stable Zimbabwe. This was not to be: Although the MDC gained a majority in parliament for the first time, Mugabe regained the presidency following a runoff election from which MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai withdrew because of violence against his supporters. The 2008 elections were locally, and to some extent internationally, perceived to be the most deeply flawed Zimbabwean elections up to that point in time10 (International Crisis Group, 2008; Masunungure, 2009). Despite fears of xenophobic violence, most of my interlocutors11 remained in South Africa.

In early 2009, a power-sharing deal was brokered between ZANU-PF and the MDC with the signing of the Global Political Agreement (GPA), which saw Mugabe retain the presidency and control of the National Security Council, while Tsvangirai assumed the post of prime minister and control over the Council of Ministers. Few of my interlocutors, however, felt the situation changed enough at this point to warrant a return to Zimbabwe. Rather, they feared that the only impact of power sharing would be the loss of a viable opposition to ZANU-PF as the MDC “sold out” to the ZANU-PF dispensation. Even though the signing of the GPA lead to improved economic stability over time, the majority of these interlocutors remained in South Africa. At the time I began field research in 2010, MDC-T leader Morgan Tsvangirai had just “disengaged” from the unity government following the (re)arrest of an MDC MP (New African, 2009), belying fears of the loss of MDC “morality” but effectively showing that, even under the new dispensation, power still lay with ZANU-PF. Tsvangirai subsequently “reengaged,” but throughout the period of my fieldwork in Zimbabwe the three parties coexisted in fraught and frosty conditions, with frequent incidences of political infighting that showed the Government of National Unity (GNU) to be largely a misnomer.

Writing in 2012, journalist Mary Ndlovu characterized the situation as one of “political paralysis” that “has brought economic stagnation and a continuation of social desperation” (Ndlovu, 2012); Iliff (2012) characterized Zimbabwe under the GNU as undergoing an “existential crisis beneath [a] thin veneer of normality.” In a similar vein, but drawing on a different cosmological foundation, the Zimbabwe Council of Churches (ZCC) deemed the situation serious enough to be categorized as a “moral crisis bedeviling Zimbabwe” (ZCC, 2009).12 Throughout my research, structural and physical violence remained common, both for Zimbabweans at home and for Zimbabwean migrants in South Africa. In July 2013, Zimbabwe went back to the ballot stations: The country held an election in which Robert Mugabe was reelected as president, and ZANU-PF won a two-thirds majority, effectively ousting the MDC from their (already limited) position in government. As with the previous election, the results were greeted with deep suspicion across the country, with accusations of rigging surfacing as soon as the results became known.

Theoretical Points of Departure: Rights in Context

The protest gathering with which I opened this chapter serves to illustrate the malleability of human rights within popular discourse. What, then, are “human rights”? On one level, the answer, although not simple, is at least easily definable—human rights constitute the minimum set of conditions in which people, by the simple virtue of being people, are entitled to live their lives. As much of human life is composed of relationships, these rights include guidelines for how people should treat one another and how states should treat their citizens. As such, human rights also constitute a normative moral guide for social behavior (albeit one based in a particular Western philosophical and ethical tradition) that has been encoded in national and international law. In Africa, for example, “human rights” are those things that have been written, in legal terminology or “legalese,” into the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) as adopted by the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1981 (Akokpari and Zimbler, 2008) and to which, as African Union members, Zimbabwe and South Africa are signatory. South Africa and Zimbabwe also each have a constitutionally encoded Bill of Rights. How many people, however, are well versed in such legal documents? Legal charters reflect a domain of a specific sector of the elite—yet “human rights” as a phrase is one that is drawn on by many more diverse sectors of the populace, from other elites to, as the preceding example shows, the deeply marginalized. Notions of “human rights,” then, have to reflect more than that encoded in charters—beyond this legal discourse lies a realm of rights that is truly “socially charged” (Bakhtin, 1981: 293), a realm that is, to mix my theorists and borrow a phrase from Richard Wilson (2006; cf. Appadurai, 1986), immersed in the social life of words.

The presence of rights talk in my interlocutors’ daily lives can be linked to both the political and economic conditions in Zimbabwe and South Africa and to the growing global emphasis on human rights. Wilson (2006: 77) has noted that “human rights became, in the second half of the 20th Century, a political value with global ambitions, analogous to political meta-narratives such as ‘liberal democracy’ or ‘socialism.’” In South Africa, ideas of human and civil rights form the backbone of the Constitution: Adopted in 1996, this rights-based document is one of the most protective of the human rights of its citizens in the world (or, in neoliberal terminology, one of the world’s most “progressive”).

The ideas (ideals?) of human rights can usefully be examined as a set of discourses, in that the metanarrative of rights constructs particular systems of language and thought with accompanying sets of rights-based courses of action and institutions. Such systems may differ slightly in varied local contexts, as is shown ethnographically throughout this book; nonetheless, all are governed by a particular means of making sense of the world. In The Order of Discourse (1970), Foucault argued that all knowledge is composed of rules, systems, and procedures; together, these produce the conceptual terrains by which we are able to comprehend, and act on, the world.

Human rights can be seen to be one of the main discourses of modernity. Nyamnjoh (2012b) argues that, in the social sciences, colonial epistemology has privileged an ahistorical mode of thinking about Africa, which “sacrifices pluriversity for university and imposes a one best way of attaining a singular and universal truth” (Nyamnjoh, 2012b: 131). Under the guise of modernity, such an epistemology has “promis(ed) ‘development’ for individuals and groups who repent from ‘retrogressive’ attitudes, cultures, traditions and practices” (Nyamnjoh, 2012b: 131). Both rights discourse and ideas of development more broadly are embroiled within this historical context. It is worth considering the ways in which ideas of rights have emerged as part of the epistemological hierarchies created by modernity.

Decolonial thinking, as seen in the work of Latin American theorists such as Mignolo (2012) and Quijano (1999) and as used in Southern Africa by Ndlovu-Gatsheni (2013), is predicated on the idea that although colonialism delineates a temporal period of oppression that has come and gone, coloniality—the underlying hierarchizing logic that places peoples and knowledges into a classificatory framework such that the European is valorized—is still very much with us. Decolonial thinkers argue that modernity is predicated on coloniality and that one product of modernity has been the creation and maintenance of the kind of knowledge and ways of being in the world that are considered legitimate. Quijano thus argues that a “colonial matrix of power” (in Mignolo, 2012: ix) consisting of interrelated forms of control such as patriarchy, racism, knowledge, authority, and the economy underlies Western civilization. Although colonialism may have been and gone, the colonial matrix of power is still very much seen, lived, and felt in the present day. Mignolo draws on the colonial matrix to argue that “such a system of knowledge (the ‘western code’) serves not all humanity but a small portion of it that benefits from the belief that in terms of epistemology there is only one game in town” (Mignolo, 2012: xii). Coloniality is also a system of management and domination that affects the ways in which people are able to be in the world, based on the social categories to which they have been allocated by birth, geography, or other circumstance. Modernity, according to Mignolo, provides a rhetoric of salvation, whether seen through the salvation provided by Christianity, by the civilizing mission, or by, in its latest permutation, discourses of “development.” Development discourse creates “the myth that there are global needs but only one (diverse) centre where knowledge is produced to solve the problems of everybody” (ibid., xvii).

Of course, critiques of development are not new. Postdevelopment theory, as seen in the work of critics of development such as James Ferguson (1990), Arturo Escobar (1995), and Majid Rahnema (1997), have long made similar claims. Escobar (1995) posits that development is driven by Western interests and Western systems of knowledge, such that development reflects Western hegemony. This results in a hierarchy of developed versus underdeveloped (“Third World”) nations, and a system of categorizing the world that sees “underdeveloped” nations as needing the help of the “developed” nations to become like them. Such a hierarchized knowledge system stems from the ways in which the social world is constructed under modernity. In Mignolo’s (2012) view, one theme of the colonial matrix is the narrowing down of valid possibilities, such that one way of being in the world is viewed as more valid than all others. One of the ways this can be seen to manifest is in development, which Escobar (1995) defines as a set of discourses in that it reflects knowledges, interventions, ways of viewing the world, and practices that carry the possibility of altering the social world. Although defendants of development discourse argue that the world is being changed for the better, postdevelopment critiques argue that this reflects Eurocentrism. In Mignolo’s terms, such Eurocentrism is itself a product of modernity, in that modernity and coloniality are intertwined.

Development interventions are not, of course, only epistemological: On a fundamental level they constitute practical engagements with the social world. Ideals of development are also not only driven by international “aid” agencies, but they also exist at the level of neoliberal economics within and across countries.13 Such critiques of development show the ways in which an underlying hierarchizing logic that places peoples and knowledges into a classificatory framework such that the European being valorized is still very much present in the so-called postcolonial world. Can we see such a situation occurring with regards to rights? I would argue that we can. Rather than simply being a manifestation of neocolonialism, then, neocolonialism and rights can be seen to be entwined in the same system of modernity/coloniality as is development. Like development, rights discourses create hierarchies of ways of being in the world; they thus could be read within the same Western paradigm of “salvation.”

This book takes the methodological position of using “discourse” as an analytic lens. Foucault (1970, 1977, 1991) was deeply critical of modernity, arguing that modern forms of knowledge and social institutions are historically created and that the interaction of power and knowledge under modernity has developed a particular system of domination. He argued that the development of modern forms of knowledge (as analyzed through the examples of psychiatry, medicine, the penal system, and the social sciences) gave rise to forms of authority over people and their ways of being in the world. Foucault is concerned with showing “how specific ways of thinking and talking about aspects of the world are forms of knowledge and power which work like languages and which we learn in the same way as we learn ordinary languages” (Jones et al., 2011: 128). This then is discourse in the Foucauldian sense: “systems of connected ideas that give us our knowledge of the world” (ibid.). Human rights can be approached as discourse, or as a set of related discourses, in that they are one of the ways in which the authority of modernity is enacted and constructed. Discourses of rights have become invidious in the modern world, such that they are often presented as the best moral option.

Rights discourses, then, reflect both language and practices; they are a way of speaking about the world as well as a “process through which social reality comes into being” (Escobar, 1997: 85). Indeed, the idea of discourse is useful in that it breaks down the distinction between language and practice, in that language itself is a practice. Throughout this book, then, when referring to human rights practice I invoke the broad realm of both talk and other forms of behavioral action; when a distinction between talking about human rights and enacting those rights has been necessary, I refer to “rights talk” and “the performance of rights,” respectively. Both talk and performance form part of the discourses of rights and are entangled within the organizing epistemologies of modernity.

Discourses such as human rights circulate globally (Inda and Rosaldo, 2008); as such they form one of the key “ideoscapes”14 (Appadurai, 1996: 31) that characterize the modern world. Appadurai’s characterization of human rights as a key “ideoscape” of globalization reflects that “rights” is one of a globally prevalent and circulating “chain of ideas, terms and images” (ibid.; cf. Robins, 2008b) that is invoked in diverse local contexts. Such circulation is not necessarily even (Tsing, 2000), but nonetheless the local contexts of varied spaces within Zimbabwe and South Africa are, like any other, globally inflected and globally informed. At times in this book it has therefore been heuristically necessary to separate the local and the global for the purposes of analysis; as such I refer to the ways in which global ideas of rights and justice play out in (and move between) local contexts. At other times it has been pertinent to complicate this distinction, examining the entanglements of the local and the global and how systems of power are implicated in the construction of both. Merry argues that the terms local and global tend to carry assumed meanings, where “local tends to stand for a lack of mobility, wealth, education, and cosmopolitanism” (Merry, 2006: 39), whereas global reflects the opposite. In using local I do not intend to bring to mind such associations; rather, I approach the term from an anthropological perspective that, unlike much of the academic consideration of globalization, is concerned not with the macro scope of such processes but rather with “how globalizing processes exist in the context of, and must come to terms with, the realities of particular societies, with their accumulated—that is to say, historical—cultures and ways of life” (Inda and Rosaldo, 2008: 7). Local in my usage, then, should not imply Merry’s marginality but rather represents the immediate and complicated localities in which global processes happen, “the experiences of people living in specific localities when more and more of their everyday lives are contingent upon globally extensive processes” (ibid.).

It is also worth noting, as Merry (2006) does, that all global ideas are circulating locals, in that they originate in a particular locality. In the case of rights, the fact that this locality is posited as broadly “Western” has led to accusations of imperialism, particularly given the emphasis within rights discourse on their purported universality. There is a distinction to be made between the idea of rights as a related set of globalized discourses, which refers to the global circulation of rights and the processes by which rights discourses move, and the idea of rights as universal, which originates within rights discourse and assumes an applicability across varied contexts that has been heavily critiqued (for example, by Eriksen, 1997; Wilson, 1997; Mamdani, 2000; Englund, 2004, 2006; and Nyamnjoh, 2004).

First, however, it is helpful to historicize the legal discourse of rights. Although international human rights were first legally codified following World War II, the notion of rights as inherent and inalienable can be traced back further, to the political changes wrought during the Haitian and French Revolutions (Scully and Paton, 2005; Stearns, 2012), the slow abolition of the Atlantic slave trade and the recognition of slaves as rights-bearing persons (Scully and Paton, 2005; Martinez 2012), and to ideas of the inherent dignity of humanity as put forward in the work of Western philosophers such as Immanuel Kant (Rosen, 2012).

The international human rights architecture as it exists today in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights can be broken down into four categories, or generations, each of which reflects, in the “inalienable” rights it encodes, the historical moment from which it originated. The rights promulgated following World War II, later colloquially known as first-generation rights, were mainly concerned with political rights and the basic security of persons (Messer, 1993; Robertson, 2006). Ideas of what constitute rights are closely linked, like any ideology, to context: The violent politics of World War II led to the creation of a category of rights that allowed for basic political freedoms for all individuals. Second-generation rights, as Messer notes, carried the influence of socialism in that they are concerned with socioeconomic factors: Rights in this conceptualization include ideas around working conditions, rights to a standard of living that ensures health, rights to education, and special rights for women and children. Though these rights exist at the same level as first-generation rights on paper, they are harder to implement, and the international jurisprudence of rights law reflects a greater emphasis on the protection of first-generation rights. This is partly due to legal precedent: It is easier to prosecute for human rights violations where prosecutions have occurred before. It is also difficult to prove responsibility for violation of these human rights. Second-generation rights, then, are not as pervasive as first generation.

Third-generation rights grew out of the postcolonial world order: African nations in particular emphasized the need for “solidarity or development rights to peace, a more equitable socioeconomic order, and a sustainable environment” (Messer, 1993: 223). Third-generation rights encompass a broad spectrum (such as the right to self-determination, the right to economic and social development, the right to environmental resources and a healthy environment, and the rights of indigenous persons) and have been characterized as aspirational “soft law” in comparison to first- and second-generation rights (Twiss, 2004), in that they are expressed mainly in documents that are only slowly gaining international recognition and endorsement. The rights in this final generation shift the emphasis away from the rights of the individual to that of the group; similarly, in Zimbabwean political rhetoric the sovereignty of the nation has been accorded greater importance than the freedoms of first-generation, individual political rights (see Chapter 1).

Human Rights in Practice

Anthropological studies that have examined human rights as practice (see, for example, Ross, 2003a; Merry, 2006; and Goodale, 2009a) use ethnographic examples to show how supposedly universal rights (where universality, as Abu-Lughod (2010) argues, presumes uniformity and neutrality across disparate contexts) become somewhat localized as they unfold and surface in varied ways in different contexts. The claims to a neutral, uniform universality that are made within the discourse can be seen to be erroneous: Merry (2006) has shown that international documents that claim universality were negotiated in particular social settings such that “the very instruments of a putatively universal international law are themselves part of a located culture, with its own transnational social spaces, rather than existing above any particular social world” (Abu-Lughod, 2010: 77). Englund (2006), in his ethnographic study of ideas of rights and freedom in Malawi, draws on Tsing’s model of “friction” (2005) to argue that universals only ever emerge through “frictional encounters” and are better conceived of as “engaged universals” to highlight the fact that “universality in the abstract remains a chimera . . . universalism is situational” (Englund, 2006: 26). At times the theoretical moves made against universalism have resulted in an outright dismissal of the relevance of rights as a form of meaning making: Abu-Lughod, for example, argues that neither universality nor cultural relativism as its foil provide sufficient means of analyzing the practice of power in daily life. Rather than using a model of universal rights and/or their absence, she argues that anthropology is better served by returning to models of kinship that allow for recognition of the complexities of human life as “power-laden, productive, social and ambivalent” (Abu-Lughod, 2010: 69). Nonetheless, the model of human rights retains global relevance: as with any ideology, the “political meta-narrative” (Wilson, 2006: 77) of human rights discourse is entangled in international and local fields of power, and universality may be evoked as a means of justifying the sorts of interventions required by a rights-based ideology.


1. Robert Mugabe is the president of Zimbabwe and of the political party the Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). Thabo Mbeki was president of the African National Congress (ANC) and of South Africa at the time of the protest.

2. In Zimbabwean popular speech, the terms rights and human rights were often used interchangeably, with respondents (including those who work in legal fields) moving between the terms without reflection in daily talk. Legally and academically these two terms are of course distinct. Words as used by people from disparate social positions, then, may have different meanings even when the terms that are used are the same. I explore this further in Chapter 4.

3. Nyamnjoh (2004), Kanyongolo (2004), Johnson and Jacobs (2004), and Halsteen (2004), for example, consider the surfacing of the rhetoric of rights in Botswana, Malawi, South Africa, and Uganda, respectively.

4. Although legal definitions are obviously social constructs and do shift over time, they do so more slowly than popular rights talk and cannot simultaneously stand for a number of ideas as they do outside of courtrooms and statutes.

5. A list of acronyms used in this book is provided at the beginning.

6. Helliker (2013) divides academic understandings of civil society into two categories, the liberal and the radical, and argues that within postcolonial Africa “civil society” has largely been viewed as that which falls under the liberal paradigm. By this, he means forms of civil society that are often driven by international donor or aid money and manifest as nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs. These liberal forms of civil society are the ones that are most likely to promote a discourse of human rights and democratic governance. In Zimbabwe in the 1990s, it is true that such forms of civil society proliferated. But, as Helliker (2013) has argued, “civil society” in Zimbabwe has never been a coherent or homogenous entity, and the sorts of agendas or kinds of rights pushed for within civil society have never been homogenous either. Although the liberal manifestations of civil society pushed for democratic rights and the security of persons, more radical forms of civil society as seen through trade unions and university students, for example, pushed for socioeconomic rights. The state, in turn, began in the 1990s to strongly promote ideas of “indigenization” (that can still be seen to be occurring in the present), particularly as manifested at that point in the fast track land reform program. Although the state promoted economic restitution in the 1990s through indigenization (and thus a particular form of socioeconomic rights), liberal civil society pushed ideals of rights-based democracy, and radical civil society pushed for socioeconomic and democratic rights. The varied elements of a diverse civil society came together in the late 1990s to push for constitutional reform, as discussed further in Chapter 2, but, although all were speaking in a language of rights, as was the state, they did not necessarily refer to the same thing. It could thus be argued that disputed notions of rights have been entwined in the Zimbabwean crisis since its beginnings in the 1990s.

7. In 1988 ZANU merged with ZAPU to form ZANU-PF.

8. The idea of structural violence stems from the work of Johan Galtung (1969) and refers to the social and economic forces or institutions that constrain or harm individuals by preventing them from meeting their basic needs. The term was popularized in anthropology by Paul Farmer in his 1996 examination of health care in Haiti, in which the poor have no access to basic services. In Zimbabwe, structural violence has its roots in colonial/Rhodesian social and economic structures, which limited the availability of basic services such as health care, education, and access to the economy to nonwhites and gave the black majority fewer rights than the white minority. In postcolonial Zimbabwe, structural violence against the poor has continued, and the rights of citizens have declined since the late 1990s (Harold-Barry, 2004).

9. These two factions are known as MDC-T (MDC-Tsvangirai) and MDC-M (MDC-Mutambara) after the respective leaders of each faction at the time of the split. MDC-M has subsequently, and confusingly, become known as MDC.

10. I use this phrase deliberately because, as is discussed in the following pages, the 2013 elections subsequently became viewed as even more flawed.

11. Where possible, I use interlocutor rather than informant to refer to research participants as the word better reflects the interactions and negotiations that occur during the research relationship, in which participants and anthropologist together construct particular kinds of knowledge. Devisch (cited in Olukoshi and Nyamnjoh, 2011: 16) refers to this relationship as ideally one of “mutually enriching co-implication.” For further discussion, see Morreira 2012a.

12. Ideas of morality surfaced frequently throughout fieldwork.

13. Julia Elyachar’s 2005 work in Cairo, for example, illustrates the ways in which neoliberal policies have driven transformations within the markets of Egypt. She argues that decisions made by bankers, social scientists, and economists—by, in other words, members of the knowledge economy—have a strong influence on the daily lives of microentrepreneurs and traders. Instead of, as the language of development suggests, “empowering” people, however, Elyachar argues that the poor are removed from the social systems of exchange that have protected them for generations and instead become enmeshed in “empowerment debt” that binds them to NGOs and international organizations. Such are the lived effects of hierarchies of knowledge.

14. Appadurai (1996: 34) characterizes ideoscapes as “concatenations of images . . . they are often directly political and frequently have to do with the ideologies of state power or a piece of it. These ideoscapes are composed of elements of the Enlightenment worldview, which consists of a chain of ideas, terms and images, including freedom, welfare, rights, sovereignty, representation, and the master term democracy.”