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COVID-19 Cripples Traditional Courts

Chiefs are responsible for traditional courts which offer speedy resolution of disputes between community members. Image by CITE

BY NQOBILE BHEBHE | @The_CBNews | This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. | OCT 14, 2020

In Matobo traditional courts have been halted by the COVID-19 pandemic. With the restrictions easing, the backlog of cases has to be dealt with, however, the courts will face a myriad of resource challenges.

MATOBO (The Citizen Bulletin) — Traditional court systems in Matabeleland South are slowly emerging from the global COVID-19 pandemic wreckage that grounded them to a halt to face new realities of operations.

In Matobo district, the courts normally sit on Wednesday at Chief Nyangazonke’s homestead or at a designated place with presiding officers processing an average of ten cases per sitting depending on the gravity of cases on the court roll.

Traditional courts are part of the cultural heritage seen as a useful and desirable mechanism for the speedy resolution of disputes given their nature as an easily accessible and inexpensive system of justice.

Stock theft, domestic or family wrangles, grazing land disputes and petty crimes among others are frequently brought before the courts.

Villagers say during the initial COVID-19 lockdown phase, an unfortunate window of ‘opportunity’ for criminals caused a spike in crime levels.

“The initial 21-day lockdown announced in March and subsequent renewals caused an unplanned complete shutdown of courts. The abruptness of the lockdown brought confusion as to how the courts could function,” Chief Nyangazonke says.

“The COVID-19 pandemic induced panic within the government resulting in the announcement of stringent lockdown measures,” he says.

“It was tough for me as a Chief to move around my jurisdiction.”

“Our messengers of court were also immobile and could not serve summons with some ejected out of buses at roadblocks. The traditional courts stopped functioning.”
Chief Nyangazonke, Matobo district

Chief Nyangazonke says the community had little information on COVID-19 and the attendant cocktail of lockdown restrictive measures.

“The villagers only knew that COVID-19 kills and people should not move about,” he says.

The confusion contributed to defaults at various headmen courts that sat albeit with few people in attendance, explains the chief.

Central government through the ministries of Finance and Economic Development and Local Government promised COVID-19 allowances for chiefs. These allowances, according to Chief Nyangazonke were never allocated.

“I had planned to procure Personal Protective clothing (PPE), sanitizers and such material for traditional courts officers.”

The government is gradually easing the lockdown measures and traditional Courts will face a myriad of challenges including PPEs.

During lockdown villagers say crime levels increased, notably stock theft, meaning more work for the courts.

Stock thieves have taken advantage of the shut down of traditional courts to cause havoc in Maphisa. Image by Ray Mwareya | Africa Renewal

Artwell Sibanda, a Mtotobi villager in Manyane points to an increase in stock theft cases at the height of COVID-19.

“Crime has gone up to alarming levels. Gold panners are wreaking havoc in Maphisa and other areas where there are gold deposits. One homestead lost 17 goats within two weeks to panners who are desperate for food.”
Artwell Sibanda, Mtotobi villager

Sibanda is of the view that when court sessions finally kick in full throttle, presiding officers will have their hands full with a high number of cases to deal with.

Crimes of passion have also increased due to people’s inactivity. There are reports of increased domestic violence.

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The national gender based violence (GBV) hotline under Musasa project has recorded a total of 4,615 GBV calls from the beginning of the lockdown on 30 March until mid-July. The data presents an overall average increase in violence of over 60 percent compared to the pre-lockdown trends.

“People cannot freely go out and tensions tend to rise. Some are consuming illegal brews including spirits made at home. This can be extremely dangerous just as we are noticing high drug use among the youth. So, courts will deal with many issues as normal life has been disrupted,” says Sibanda.

Chief Ngangazonke has no ready statistics of pending cases as villagers are filling their grievances to headmen adding that the details will be known by the end of October.

Chief Mathema of Gwanda backed Sibanda’s assertion highlighting that the pandemic planted elements of delinquency among villagers indicating that crime levels and general disharmony is high.

“We are noting a new trend in the community. Intolerance and general disunity crept in among villagers.”

With the easing of lockdown regulations which among others permit movement of people, court sessions will also gradually return to normalcy, and Chief Nyangazonke anticipates a huge backlog.

“There has been an increase in cases that need the court’s attention which in most cases villagers took advantage to exert revenge on others knowing that they will be arraigned before the court after a long period,” he told this publication.

“No case will be prioritised over others,” he warns. “A case which was on top of the court roll pre-COVID-19 lockdown will be heard first.”

“We won’t weigh the gravity of a case to warrant being dealt with first. No. The court roll will be followed.”

Headmen face prospects of having to deal with an average of 15 cases per session, but that does not overly worry Chief Mathema.

“We are not attracted by numbers. Our courts duties are that of counselling and reaching an amicable solution,” he says.

However, COVID -19 has increased the workload for the courts and new skills set will be required, he acknowledges.

“There is too much tension in villages owing to unresolved grievances during lockdown. Beyond hearing cases and handing judgement, I feel counselling will be needed to bring closures in some instances,” Mathema adds.

The Chiefs have called for an increased and speedy opening up of the economy, particularly border posts to ensure that people who rely on cross-border activities return to work.  

Chief Nyangazonke says the traditional element of participation where every person above 18 years is allowed to attend, question litigants and give his/her opinion on cases means more people may attend the court gatherings, posing a challenge for social distancing.  

He however hopes villagers will get used to the new normal and observe COVID-19 protocols such as social distancing among other measures during court sessions.

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