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Accepted paper:

Defining 'Justice' and Debating 'Professionalism' in Zimbabwe's Land Cases


Susanne Verheul (Oxford University)

Paper short abstract:

This paper explores the nuanced meanings accorded to law by Zimbabwean judges and politicians, to argue for understanding not only of how law can be mobilised for political ends, but of how specific interpretations of law influence the construction of state authority within postcolonial polities.

Paper long abstract:

This paper examines political contestation within Zimbabwe's judicial system through a focus on land cases. I argue that these cases offer insight into how specific, politicised, interpretations of law influence the construction of state authority within postcolonial polities. To contextualise the understandings of law that emerged in contestations over land in the courts after 2000, I first situate law historically to examine what kind of judicial culture emerged from the interplay of law's repressive and reformative roles under Rhodesian rule. Under colonial rule, the tensions between judicial officers' commitment to formalism on the one hand, and their efforts to deliver 'substantive justice' on the other, shaped the legal cultures of professionalism that carried over into the postcolonial era. Responding to growing opposition in the late 1990s, ZANU-PF, Zimbabwe's ruling party emphasised a narrow retelling of liberation war history, and turned to land for political currency. I argue that when land reform was challenged through the courts, ZANU-PF drew on its specific understanding of history to frame its land policies as ensuring 'justice' for colonial land alienation, and as protecting the 'sovereignty' of the Zimbabwean nation. In this manner, challenges to the government's land policies were cast as 'unjust'. Certain legal and political actors, however, contested ZANU-PF's interpretation of 'justice' by drawing attention to the judiciary's historical commitment to 'substantive justice'. Through public debates between certain judges, law-makers, politicians, and street-level bureaucrats, on whose justice law ought to protect, the law has remained central to state authority in Zimbabwe.

panel P079
Politicized bureaucrats in and beyond Europe: conflicting loyalties, professionalism and the law in the making of public services [LAWNET]