But on arrival in Harare one Thursday afternoon in November 2011, things did not appear that way. Initial impressions were of an orderly, peaceful city: children walking to school in neat uniforms, people waiting at bus stops, traffic obeying signals, produce for sale and many of the other signs of normal urban life. True, the infrastructure was dilapidated but the city was functioning and life appeared far from chaotic. I later learnt that “dollarisation” had eased many of the recent economic difficulties and had brought some financial stability.

I joined forces with James Evans from 3 Verulam Buildings (attending on behalf of the COMBAR Africa Committee) and, after meeting some of the administrative staff at LSZ’s headquarters in central Harare, we were driven to Nyanga, three hours away in the Eastern Highlands. Once out of Harare, it becomes obvious that Zimbabwe is primarily a rural country with vast tracts of open countryside for a relatively low population.  In fact, in area, Zimbabwe is slightly larger than Germany, but with a population of around 12-13 millions.

The Summer School

The Summer School was held at the Troutbeck Inn, originally a colonial bungalow built by a Scottish colonel more than 2,000 metres above sea level. It was a beautiful setting and far removed from what one expects of Zimbabwe given its media profile. Summer School began with an introductory speech by Tino Bere, the President of the LSZ, welcoming Patrick Chinamasa, the Minister of Justice, who remained present throughout. Mr. Bere described some of the problems experienced by lawyers in Zimbabwe every day as a result of the widespread corruption and inefficiency that was blighting the Zimbabwean legal system, ranging from the serious (such as judgment on an urgent application being delayed over a year) to the more comical (apparently some Zimbabwean advocates have a tendency to leave court and go to the lavatory during their opponent’s submissions).

The keynote address was delivered by Justice Thomas Masuku from Swaziland, focusing on the theme of the conference, “Tackling Corruption and Inefficiency in the Justice Delivery System”.  The judge – who later was to prove surprisingly adept at volleyball – gave a valuable insight into similar problems faced by the judiciary in Swaziland and his own personal experiences, warning of how corruption and inefficiency can cause a loss of confidence in the institutions of the law, which in turn can lead people to adopt “lynch law” so that they are prepared to take the law into their own hands in order to settle disputes. The President of the Southern African Development Corporation [“SADC”] Lawyers, Thoba Poyo Diwati, then gave a regional view on corruption and inefficiency, citing the suspension of the SADC tribunal before it could give a decision on a claim brought by white Zimbabwean farmers for discrimination.

After lunch, Sternford Moyo, a partner in Harare firm Scanlen & Holderness, spoke about the recent indigenisation laws passed in Zimbabwe (the Indigenisation and Economic Empowerment Act 2007) which provide that 51% of the shares in any Zimbabwean business must be owned by “indigenous Zimbabweans”, defined to mean any person who suffered racial discrimination prior to independence. But, as Mr Moyo pointed out, the Act does not specify where that discrimination had to have taken place and thus a national of any country is potentially an indigenous Zimbabwean. Mr Moyo criticised the Act and argued strongly that one cannot strengthen the economically weak by weakening the economically strong. He also criticised the Government’s failure to consult the profession on new legislation and deplored the poor drafting of this and other recent Bills. The Minister of Justice was invited to comment:  “I do not think I have an opinion” he said, to much laughter.

James Evans spoke on international best practices and standards regarding judicial independence and integrity, and I gave an impromptu potted history of the likely inefficiencies we will face in the UK should the Legal Aid Bill be passed into law. Whilst Zimbabwe does not have a system of legal aid, the delegates were interested in the concept and they recognised how access to justice and speedy justice were integral parts of the rule of law.

Questions to the Minister

I was intrigued at the continuing presence of the Minister – a leading member of ZANU-PF – throughout the conference. It was striking that each of the speakers frankly criticised the Government and, on occasion, ‘the Honourable Minister’ himself. Chinamasa had an opportunity to answer those criticisms on the second day during a question and answer session. He spoke about the indigenisation programme and emphasised the importance of “not losing sight of the forest when looking at the trees”.  This rather opaque comment bemused the audience in light of the detailed criticisms that had been made of the legislation earlier on the first day. The questions were pertinent and critical and the Minister’s answers were often openly mocked or laughed at by the audience. Zimbabwean lawyers were clearly unafraid to hold their political leaders to account through rigorous questioning at the conference, even if they cannot do so effectively at the ballot box.

James asked the Minister whether he would welcome assistance from the Bar Council and COMBAR in drafting a code of conduct for the judiciary (no such code currently existing) and new procedural rules for the court. The Minister said he would and declared “I am sincere”; the reaction from the audience suggested he was far from sincere, doubtless reflecting the Government’s well-documented antipathy to UK involvement in Zimbabwe.

I had an opportunity to speak to the Minister privately and he spent a few minutes happily reminiscing about past visits to England; upon being reminded, however, that no such visits were presently possible owing to the EU-wide travel ban on Zanu-PF Government members, “Oh yes,” was his response, “we have a little bilateral issue going on”.

Telling jokes and a tug-of-war

This is the first conference of lawyers I have attended where jokes were told at every opportunity and which ended with opportunities to play volleyball, football, tennis, squash and a tug-of-war between delegates. The joke telling culminated in a competition during the Gala Dinner on the last night with over 20 delegates taking part. One young lawyer suggested I should tell a joke jointly with him. I was to be a preacher delivering a sermon and he was going to translate it into Shona. This double-act had the room in uproar with everyone on their feet cheering. I assume that the joke was in the translation which left me as the only person who did not get it. Nevertheless we won the competition!

Buddy Scheme

In addition to fostering links between the legal professions in the two jurisdictions, one purpose of the visit was to launch the Bar Council buddy scheme. This I did before the Gala Dinner in typically understated British style. This did not satisfy the Zimbabweans who made me re-launch the scheme a few minutes later with noise, vigour and energy. The aim of the scheme is to enable informal communications between young lawyers in the UK and young lawyers in Zimbabwe in order to facilitate the sharing of common experiences, in the hope of providing a measure of solidarity to our Zimbabwean colleagues. Despite the jovial atmosphere of the summer school, this is still a country where lawyers are subject to arrest by police and to surveillance by central intelligence and who appear before judges wholly lacking in independence.

We hope to pair each volunteer in the UK with a young lawyer in Zimbabwe, ideally according to practice area. Email addresses will then be exchanged. Participants may remain in the scheme for as long as they wish. There was much interest from young Zimbabwean lawyers about the scheme and there has already been considerable interest from English lawyers. I very much hope it will be up and running later in 2012. The Zimbabwean lawyers we met were resilient and friendly, determined to adhere to the highest professional standards despite their economic and political difficulties. With the Buddy Scheme in place they will have our assistance.

Anyone interested in joining the buddy scheme should contact Emma Brickell at the Bar Council or David Nicholls.

James Evans, 3 Verulam Buildings
David Nicholls, 11 Stone Buildings