Researcher Ruth Murambadoro firmly believes that justice is best applied when it has a local flavour. Having conducted extensive research in her native Zimbabwe, Ruth is skeptical that international justice is better than traditional African justice mechanisms at addressing the grievances of victims and affected communities.
“That’s what I’ve been experiencing in my research, that justice is not a one-size-fits-all, it has to be tailor-made. We have to make sure that we attend to what people need,” said Ruth at a recent HAGUE TALK themed on “How to get inclusive justice.”
As part of Justice Hub’s #MyJustice series, we feature her recent HAGUE TALK:
I would like to share a story that I experienced as I was doing my fieldwork. It is the story of justice that was demanded by a man called Moses Chokuda. This man passed away in 2009 at the hands of ZANU-PF supporters. As it was political violence that led to his death, our formal justice system took it up and criminal proceedings commenced.
Unlawful killing is a taboo
In our custom when someone dies, you are usually buried in two or three days. At most your funeral happens within a week. But for Moses, he could not be buried for more than two years because his spirit was demanding justice.
What do I mean by this?
In our custom, a human being is a spirit being. You exist in three forms: the “living”, which is us, then there are the “living dead” which is our ancestors, and then, finally, the “living unborn”, the future generation. At some point, I was part of the future generation but now I am one of the “living”.
When you die, it is a right of passage to transition into the living dead. But, if you die unlawfully, it becomes difficult for your spirit to transcend into the realm of the living dead. That’s why Moses was demanding justice. According to our custom, unlawful killing is a taboo. The only way you can die is by natural means. So if you are killed by another person, first there has to be an appeasement that is done according to the demands of the spirit of the dead.
A burdened spirit is a spirit in limbo which comes back to haunt the living. Unless something is done to appease the spirit of the deceased, the society does not live in harmony. This was the case when Moses died.
Through consultation with the spirit of the deceased, which is part of our custom, Moses’ spirit spoke and it said what it wanted. This included bulls, money and a cleansing ritual. The murder suspects came to their senses (which is what our custom does) and paid compensation according to what the spirit demanded. When that was done, people went to the mortuary, they took his body and they buried. Moses was able to transcend and take up his role as one of the living dead.
The court system took over two years to reach a verdict. When the judges finally reached a verdict, the accused were sentenced to 18 years imprisonment. One of the accused had already died.
When you talk to the community that witnessed the awakening of Moses’ spirit, they will tell you that when an injustice is done, for example, if you beat me, you may hurt the physical body but the pain goes deep inside. If you want to make amends, you have to make sure that you do not only attend to my physical wounds but you also address my spirit.
Now the people are living in peace and Moses’ spirit is also resting in peace because justice was served.
What is Justice?
What then do I take from this experience? What is justice?
As a living spirit, justice is an all-encompassing process where you make sure you attend to the psycho-social and the spiritual. If you take care of the physical only, you will not have served justice. That’s what Moses wanted.
Is out international system prepared to do justice according to what we want? It doesn’t seem so. You know why? Customary practices are looked down upon because they do not meet international standards. Let’s take the case of a rape or murder as an example. If you were to set aside these crimes and address them as a single thing, what you will find is that within our customary practice, there is an equivalent justice process that can address the specific issue.
When that is done according to what people want, they will actually notice that justice has been done. It is not just about sending someone to prison and living with a burdened spirit. That is not justice. That’s what I’ve been experiencing in my research, that justice is not a one-size-fits-all, it has to be tailor-made.
We have to make sure that we attend to what people need. We do not have to do justice for the state. We do not have to do justice for the international bodies. After all, it is an individual that is affected. Since it is an individual that is affected, how much time to we give to understanding the depth of the wound, in order to provide justice that is deep enough to pluck the root of the wound?
Ruth Murambadoro is a Peace and Conflict Scholar based at the Centre for the Study of Governance Innovation (GovInn), South Africa, where she is completing her doctoral studies with the University of Pretoria.
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