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HomeElections 2023Language Matters: How ZEC Can Ensure Effective Communication for Credible Elections

Language Matters: How ZEC Can Ensure Effective Communication for Credible Elections

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Zimbabwe is a multilingual country with 16 official languages, reflecting its rich and diverse cultural heritage. However, not all languages are equally represented or respected in the public sphere, especially during electoral processes.

This poses a challenge for the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), which is mandated by the Constitution and the Electoral Act to conduct free, fair and transparent elections and referendums.

According to section 3 of the Constitution, one of the founding values and principles of Zimbabwe is “the nation’s diverse cultural, religious and traditional values”.

Furthermore, section 6 of the Constitution states that “the State and all institutions and agencies of government at every level must—(a) ensure that all officially recognized languages are treated equitably; and (b) take into account the language preferences of people affected by governmental measures or communications”.

The Electoral Act also recognizes the importance of language in ensuring effective communication and participation in electoral processes.

Section 4 of the Act states that “the Commission shall endeavour to ensure that every person who is entitled to vote at an election or referendum is given every opportunity to exercise his or her right to vote”.

Section 5 of the Act states that “the Commission shall ensure that every voter is informed of his or her rights and obligations under this Act and any other law relating to elections or referendums”.

Section 160A of the Act states that “the Commission shall ensure that all information and educational material relating to an election or referendum is produced and disseminated in all officially recognized languages”.

However, despite these constitutional and legal provisions, there are still gaps and challenges in the implementation of language policies and practices by ZEC. For instance, according to the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN), there have been reports of language exclusion and discrimination in some areas during the voter registration and voter education exercises.

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ZESN stated in its pre-election update that “ZESN members in Chiredzi, Masvingo Province have reported that information is being disseminated in the three major languages thus English, Shona and Ndebele with the exclusion of Shangani spoken by ethnic group in the community. In Mashonaland East, Midlands and Mashonaland West, ZESN members have reported that ZEC is distributing information and educational material in indigenous languages.”

This situation is not only unfair and unjust to linguistic minorities but also detrimental to the credibility and legitimacy of the electoral process. Language is not only a means of communication but also a marker of identity, culture and belonging.

When people are denied their right to use their own language or access information in their preferred language, they may feel alienated, marginalized and disenfranchised. This may affect their willingness and ability to participate in the electoral process, or even lead to conflicts and violence.

Therefore, ZEC must take proactive measures to address the language issues and challenges in its electoral operations. Some of the possible measures include:

Conducting a comprehensive language audit and needs assessment to identify the linguistic diversity and preferences of the electorate in different regions and constituencies.

Developing and implementing a clear and consistent language policy and plan that ensures equitable treatment and representation of all officially recognised languages in all aspects of electoral processes, such as voter registration, voter education, nomination, ballot design, polling, counting, results transmission and announcement.

Recruiting and training electoral officers who are competent and proficient in different languages, especially those spoken by linguistic minorities.

Producing and disseminating information and educational material in different formats (such as print, audio, and visual) and media (such as radio, television, and social media) in all officially recognized languages.

Establishing effective mechanisms for consultation, feedback and complaints from voters and stakeholders on language-related matters.

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Collaborating with civil society organizations, media outlets, traditional leaders, religious leaders, political parties and candidates to promote awareness and respect for linguistic diversity and rights.

By adopting these measures, ZEC can enhance its communication effectiveness and efficiency with the electorate. This can foster trust, confidence and satisfaction among voters and stakeholders. This can also contribute to the promotion of democracy, human rights and social cohesion in Zimbabwe. Language matters for credible elections.

Another group that faces challenges in accessing information and participating in electoral processes are persons with disabilities (PWDs). According to ZESN, PWDs remain marginalised in information dissemination by ZEC. ZESN stated that “Recognition of PWDs has been noted at rallies but only witnessed when they were given priority to sit in front at rallies (CCC and ZANU-PF) Bulawayo, PWDs remain disenfranchised from accessing voter education materials from the ZEC social media accounts.

The limited availability of inclusive information dissemination techniques impacts negatively on the participation of marginalised groups.”

This situation violates the rights of PWDs as enshrined in the Constitution and the Electoral Act. Section 22 of the Constitution states that “the State and all institutions and agencies of government at every level must recognise the rights of persons with physical or mental disabilities”.

Section 155(2) of the Constitution states that “the State must take all appropriate measures to ensure that every citizen who is eligible to vote has an opportunity to cast a vote”. Section 160A(2)(b) of the Electoral Act states that “the Commission shall ensure that all information relating to an election or referendum is accessible to persons with disabilities”.

Therefore, ZEC must take proactive measures to address the language issues and challenges in its electoral operations

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Multi-award winning journalist/photojournalist with keen interests in politics, youth, child rights, women and development issues. Follow Lovejoy On Twitter @L_JayMut

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