Vol. 27 No. 1 (January 2017) pp. 4-6

RIGHTS AFTER WRONGS: LOCAL KNOWLEDGE AND HUMAN RIGHTS IN ZIMBABWE by Shannon Morreira. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016. 216 pp. Paper $27.95. ISBN 97808044799089.

Reviewed by Donald W. Jackson, Emeritus Professor, Department of Political Science, Texas Christian University. Email: d.w.jackson@tcu.edu.

This book attempts to contrast local knowledge and law in Zimbabwe and South Africa with the supposed universal principles of international law. Traditional community understandings of law represent a reality that we should respect and attempt to understand. Yet, there are important issues in our own time concerning the rights of people to escape from the too often repressive conditions in their home countries. Still, it is necessary to consider as well the plight of those who are trying to find better life prospects in another place – as contrasted with those who are seeking to avoid political or social persecution in their home countries. These distinctions between political or social refugees, and those who simply are seeking a better life, are integral in this important book. We live in a world in which capital resources and commodities usually can move freely around the world through globalization, while people often cannot. Why should this be so? Are we destined to deal with different realities?

Are human rights indeed universal or are they merely the products of particular cultures? The allegedly universal principles of human rights, perhaps as best represented in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, are often in conflict these days with contrarian points of view from different cultural and religious perspectives. Contrarians may well ask for solid conceptual foundations of universality – these possible cultural conflicts require that we must re-examine carefully the support for universalism. Are there indeed universal human rights that ought to be enforceable throughout the world, regardless of local religious, social or political preferences? The answers to such questions are not easy.

Shannon Morreira’s book is written from the perspective of an anthropologist. To me this means that we should understand the subjective realities that people experience in their own cultures. I am myself subject to an understanding of reality, in which some things seem to be objectively true. This creates a difficulty for some readers, including myself. As a behavioral political scientist, I have been persuaded by the arguments of Thomas Kuhn, in his book, Structure of Scientific Revolutions, that science involves paradigms that define “normal science” so that practitioners can communicate with one another and conduct “normal science.” In this sense, sciences are seen not as cumulative, but are instead conceptually sequential. Might this be true of cultural understandings as well? Also, as someone who was first educated as a lawyer, the ideal of enforceable universality has always been compelling to me. This ideal means that while we ought to avoid “Victor’s Justice” in our contentious world, we may nonetheless be able to establish universal principles of justice that ought to be enforced through law. The author’s book suggests different understandings of reality. Are we well—prepared to understand this possibility?

Here is an example of a contrary point of view from Zimbabwe: the concept of ngozi, which is much like the concept of gaçaca, a form of community mediation from the prior conflict in Rwanda between the Hutus and the Tutsis. It is important for us to understand justice in Africa separate (in so far as it can be so) from its colonial background. It is not obvious to me that our understanding of justice from the perspectives of Western civilization is in fact universal. Is there a universal meaning of justice? Thus in Chapter 2 Morreira introduces the concept of ngozi. The essential idea is that the ngozi represent the “avenging spirits of those from the community who have died” (p.57), but [*5] who continue to watch over the living members of their communities. While she does quite well explaining this concept, it is not easy for most of us to understand, for we do not ourselves think this way. Do you think this way?

I think it is important to point out that in trying to understand this book that Morreira relies on Michele Foucoult for the concept of “truth making” (p. 70). In Foucoult’s sense, truth is simply a product of a particular way of viewing reality. It may well be difficult for most of us to comprehend that truth is not always objective reality, but is, at least in part, the product of our own epistemic reality.

A pertinent illustration: When focus group leaders in Zimbabwe introduced the idea of transitional justice – Did the focus group know what a Truth Commission was, “broadly defined”? The focus group leaders explained that the first purpose was to record a narrative of instances of violence, the second purpose to add the provision for amnesty for truth telling, while the third purpose involved some measure of reparative or restorative justice. Understanding these alternatives, the focus group then “opted” for the need for a Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission. That made accountability effectively linked to reconciliation. The three purposes came together in this context.

Another quite fascinating concept is that of the “Tree of Life” (p. 73), which stems from an organization devoted to assisting victims of torture.

These victims sat under a “jacaranda tree” and spoke about what had happened in their communities. Their reports often were grim and disturbing. One of the participants recounted that, “Justice is hard to find in Zimbabwe—if you want to see it, come to our neighborhood or to a workshop, not to the court” (p. 74).

The Tree of Life was started by Zimbabweans in South Africa in 2003 and from there travelled back to Zimbabwe. These folks relied on a talking stone, which is passed from person-to-person to support participation. This Tree of Life relies on “ancestral and totemic histories of the participants—these are the roots of the tree of life. Then the discussion moves onward to the trunk of the tree that represents the lives of the immediate participants” (p. 77). The last phase is that of the fruits and leaves of the Tree of Life—what the participants have to offer as the gifts of their own lives for their futures.

The Zimbabweans that Morreira grew up with were profoundly patriarchal, while the modern world of the United Nations involves the possibility of adhering to covenants that propose to protect human rights of everyone, such as the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW, 1981). In our own reality, we must recognize the conflicts between traditional authority and the prospects for a universal understanding of humanity. Can these be brought together? Morreira thus writes that, “I belong to both worlds, legally, whereas they do not. I stare at the fence. Gloria Anzaldús words [regarding] the Mexico United States border enter my mind unbidden” (p. 92. The border is an open wound — “una herida abierta” (p. 92).

In her conclusion on “The Situationality of Human Rights,” Morreira discusses the reality that ethnographic studies illustrate that universality is quite problematic. Might we overcome this by almost universal nation-state adherence to international covenants? Or is there a better prospect for all of us to recognize the universality of human dignity and rights? This would require the global recognition of the universality of human dignity, respect for all, and rights for everyone. However, we have learned in the past few decades that such understandings are too often grounded on singular understandings of humanity. Can we do better in a fractured and contentious world? Can we recognize universality? We may hope so! Morreira concludes by noting that the “entanglements of the local and the global in formal and informal rights” provide prospects for better understandings – but also for prospects that are “less benign” (p. 148). [*6]

I recommend RIGHTS AFTER WRONGS for your thoughtful reading and consideration.


The United Nations General Assembly. 1981. “Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.” Treaty Series, vol. 1249: 13.

Kuhn, Thomas. 1962. THE STRUCTURE OF SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTIONS. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


© Copyright 2017, by author Donald W. Jackson.