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Tuesday, June 18, 2024
HomeNewsProlonged Legal Battles: Impact on Zimbabwean Teachers’ Mental Health

Prolonged Legal Battles: Impact on Zimbabwean Teachers’ Mental Health

By Tendai Makaripe
The radiance that usually characterised Sukoluhle Ndlovu’s face vanished as she recollected her arrest on January 12, 2021.

Ndlovu and 15 other teachers from the Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (ARTUZ) were arrested and charged with promoting public violence under Section 37(1)(a) of the Criminal Law Act.

The group had demonstrated at the Public Service Commission offices in Harare, demanding the restoration of pre-October 2018 salaries of $540 and better learning facilities for students.

The protest was swiftly thwarted by the police, who arrested several union leaders, including President Obert Masaraure, Deputy Secretary General Munyaradzi Masiyiwa, Ndlovu and others.

“The arrest was violent and traumatic. We were surrounded by baton-wielding police officers,” Ndlovu told 263Chat.

“They made us run to their lorry, where we were forcibly shoved inside. It was terrifying as they threatened to beat us. The arrest was psychologically and emotionally traumatising because we had no idea where they were taking us.”

She added that upon reaching Harare Central Police Station they were made to sit on the cold floor and “treated like dangerous criminals.”

“We spent several hours at the charge office without being charged. We were then put in cells where we had to share a toilet with our male counterparts. After three days, we were taken to court for a bail hearing, which was denied, and then transferred to Chikurubi Remand Prison.”

Masaraure chipped in: “The beatings our members received at the hands of the arresting details, the harassment in custody at both police cells and remand prison, and the filthy and inhuman conditions of the detention facilities, resulted in serious mental deterioration.”

Sadly, three years after their arrest, Ndhlovu and her colleagues, now known as the ARTUZ16 are yet to see the finalisation of their court case.

Numerous excuses have been proffered for the delay in finalising the trial resulting in the group appearing in court over 30 times according to Masaraure.

“Our lawyers have since applied for a discharge but the ruling has been postponed three times now,” said Masiyiwa.

“At one point we were told that the magistrate was on maternity leave while on another occasion we were advised that the record could not be located.”

An official from the Judiciary Services Commission who requested anonymity said it is uncommon for a case to drag three years.

“This can result from various factors, including a high volume of cases leading to court backlogs, limited judicial resources, and the complexity of specific cases requiring extensive evidence and witness testimonies,” he said.

“Additionally, procedural delays, such as adjournments requested by either party for further preparation or unforeseen circumstances affecting court operations, can contribute to extended trial durations. The JSC is committed to addressing these challenges to ensure timely justice delivery.”

Unfortunately, the delay has affected the ARTUZ16 in various socioeconomic and professional facets of their lives which has contributed to mental health challenges.

Interviews with some ARTUZ16 members revealed that the majority of them have lost various positions at their workplaces because of the case.

“Our members who were Heads of Departments, sporting directors, and deputy heads among others have since been reduced to mere teachers because of this case in a typical guilty before prosecution stance,” said Masiyiwa.

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This has affected the members’ social and professional standards as they have to adjust to a new reality and the shame that comes with being demoted or removed from a position in a school set-up.

Additionally, the 263Chat investigation on the matter revealed mental health issues emanating from friction between affected teachers and their spouses.

Some reported that their partners accused them of thuggery and violent behaviour which led to their arrest.

“My partner is still cross with me. He believes that the delay in finalising the case is a testament to the fact that our case is serious and I am lying to him that we were making our grievances known. I sometimes have insomnia and panic attacks because of this,” said an ARTUZ16 member who requested anonymity.

The ARTUZ16 members also reported mental health problems like stress due to the financial toll the case is having on them.

For three years they have been travelling to Harare for court sessions.

Majority of the 16 are from Lupane, Bubi, Mwenezi, Mutoko and parts of Mashonaland West Provinces and are grappling to raise transport money to Harare and back to their stations.

“Individuals from Lupane must budget around US$100 per trip to Harare for food and accommodation, which is excessive. Frequent police reports further strain their time and finances.”

Masiyiwa told 263Chat that they have reported to the police over 130 times in the past three years.

Analysts argued that the mental health implications of prolonged court cases are dire.

“Prolonged trials can cause “legal burnout,” where continuous legal stress wears down individuals’ coping mechanisms. This can lead to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. Ensuring timely judicial processes and providing psychological support are crucial to helping individuals manage stress and protect their mental health during extended legal battles,” said mental health advocate Joyce Dube.

Additionally, the need to attend court sessions means that teachers are not present in the classroom, leading to gaps in instruction and inconsistent learning experiences for students.

This disruption affects students’ academic performance and overall educational continuity, making it challenging to maintain the quality of education.

Anxiety relating to the outcome of the case is also triggering mental health problems for the ARTUZ16 whose case is a bit similar to that of Gerald Tawengwa, a former teacher who was charged in 2019 and dismissed in November 2022 for absenteeism.  

“Some people were after my life, linking my activism work to opposition parties. I had to leave. My home was broken into the day I left,” he said.

“Things have been bad since my dismissal. Sometimes I fail to pay rentals or buy food for the family. I am grateful to some ARTUZ members helping me during this tough period which I do not wish upon anyone.”

Analysts believe that the law is being weaponised to punish dissenting voices of the ARTUZ16.

Law student and academic Mlondolozi Ndlovu contends that the case has become more political than legal, which explains the lengthy delay in finalising the case adding that the interests and purposes of justice are not being served here.

“This is persecution using prosecution and it affects people’s mental wellbeing. Because of this, they cannot plan, travel, or look for jobs. The law was designed not to punish but to correct. When you keep people in pre-trial, you punish them,” he said.

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Section 69(1) of the Zimbabwean Constitution ensures the right to a fair hearing within a reasonable time by an impartial court, while Section 70(1)(b) guarantees a fair and public trial for accused persons.

These provisions mandate timely judicial processes to promote justice and maintain public confidence.

However, the ARTUZ16 case highlights the failure to uphold these rights, despite Zimbabwe’s commitment to international conventions like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) (Article 14); and The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) (Article 7) which advocate for fair and timely trials.

A former prosecutor in Harare who requested anonymity said some of these cases are not bona fide cases that the state wants to prosecute, but are just mechanisms to silence the voices of those perceived to be in opposition by exercising their freedoms and constitutional rights. 

“There are no complicated investigations to be done, there are no extra-territorial investigations on these cases, so there is no need to prolong the accused person’s placement of remand. This is just a violation of the accused person’s speedy and fair trial as espoused in the constitution.”

He added that uncertainties in trials violates the mental and physical well-being of the accused persons.

“Our laws allow presiding officers such as judges and magistrates to remove a matter from remand on grounds such as prolonged and undue delay in the finalisation of the matter, the problem is that it’s not effectively implemented especially on politically motivated prosecution.”

Analyst Lazarus Sauti believes that prolonged legal battles and job layoffs is a threat to the feeling of safety and security that accompanies mental peace.

“Legal matters are expensive and time-consuming, which makes them stressful. Anxiety and depression are enduring consequences of losing one’s work,” he said.

“Long-running legal disputes and job terminations jeopardise human rights and human security provisions, including economic, personal, food, health, and community security. Partnerships are strained. Things get tense. It has a major psychological effect.”

Research has shown that timely resolution of cases helps reduce the emotional burden, allowing individuals to move forward with their lives and avoid prolonged periods of instability and fear. Ensuring swift justice not only upholds legal rights but also promotes mental health and the overall well-being of the accused.

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Zimbabwe has to implement legal reforms that safeguard the rights of unionists, ensuring that charges brought against them are legitimate and not politically motivated.

To avoid prolonged court cases, it is essential to conduct thorough investigations before making arrests.

This ensures that charges are based on substantial evidence, reducing the likelihood of extended legal battles due to insufficient or weak cases.

“Proper investigative practices help uphold justice, prevent the misuse of the legal system, and protect individuals from unnecessary psychological and financial burdens associated with long trials. Ensuring proper investigations before arrests can streamline judicial processes and maintain public confidence in the legal system,” said Ndlovu

 

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263Chat is a Zimbabwean media organisation focused on encouraging & participating in progressive national dialogue

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