Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Zimbabwe Citizenship Battles

Critics says there is a ZANU PF political agenda behind registrar-general’s incessant harassment of people over their citizenship.
By Tichona Shorai
It is often hard to tell whether Zimbabwe's registrar-general Tobaiwa Mudede is a misanthrope, or whether he simply approaches his important job with exaggerated zeal.



He draws up election voters' rolls and supervises the count. He gives you your national identity at birth, and can withdraw it. He determines whether to give you a passport or not, and can also withdraw it. Mudede can cost you your citizenship and render you stateless if you have no claim of citizenship to another country.



For more than twenty years, President Robert Mugabe has relied on his fellow Zezuru clansman Mudede to enhance the head of state's increasingly absolute powers. Mudende, a hard-line loyalist of Mugabe's ruling ZANU PF party, has responded with fervour bordering on fanaticism.



Since the enactment of the Citizenship Amendment Act 12 of 2003, Mudede has been engaged in a relentless battle against people perceived "not to be Zimbabwean enough", according to his interpretation of the law. Unfortunately for all his dogged diligence, the courts have been reluctant to respect his wishes - he has lost virtually all the cases at great cost to the taxpayer.



His starting point in all these litigations is simple enough: Zimbabwean law prohibits dual citizenship. It is his unenviable burden to ensure compliance with the law. But this law was complicated by the 2003 amendment which asserts that Zimbabweans whose parents were born out of the country “potentially” have a claim to the citizenship of the country where their parents were born and must therefore “renounce” this potential.



Critics say the amendment was meant to disenfranchise thousands if not millions of Zimbabweans of Mozambican, Malawian, Zambian or British origin who were perceived to be opposed to President Mugabe’s rule and the notorious land reform exercise which began in 2000 and saw thousands of whites driven off their farms and sometimes killed.



These alleged aliens were seen by Mugabe and ultra-loyalists like Mudede as underpinning the white economy by providing the bulk of the labour on commercial farms. They were further accused of voting for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change in heavily rigged elections in 2000 and 2002, which nevertheless came near to toppling Mugabe and ZANU PF.



In a statement in the state-owned daily Herald newspaper in January 2005, Registrar-General Mudede’s office advised people who had been rendered stateless by the amendment to regularise their status. This meant renouncing non-existent foreign citizenship ahead of a parliamentary election in 2005.



People affected included those who were born outside Zimbabwe, whose parents were Zimbabwean nevertheless. Mudede also defined as stateless anyone born and bred in Zimbabwe but whose parents were aliens.



Powerful businessman John Bredenkamp, born in Zimbabwe and operating in Zimbabwe, lost his Zimbabwean citizenship after he was accused of using a South African passport on 65 occasions.



A classic case still to be resolved is that of Judith Todd, the daughter of the late Rhodesian prime minister Sir Garfield Todd, who was deposed as head of government when he tried to liberalise Rhodesia's apartheid-style rule. Todd, who subsequently tried to help black guerrilla fighters, was deprived of his passport by the government of Ian Smith and was twice placed under house arrest. After Rhodesia became independent Zimbabwe, Todd gave 3000 acres of farmland to black guerrillas who had been disabled in the war of liberation.



Mudede has tried since 2002 to deprive Judith Todd - born in Zimbabwe/Rhodesia in 1943, and expelled by the Smith government from Rhodesia because of her liberal views - of her citizenship because she has not renounced any claim to citizenship of New Zealand, where her father was born.



Judith Todd returned to Zimbabwe after independence, but just as she had opposed with courage the racism of the past, so she also became a trenchant critic of the increasing terror tactics of Mugabe's government.



Mudede has in the past lost court cases even where it has been widely accepted that the parents of the affected person were not born in Zimbabwe. In each case, it has been demonstrated that the Registrar-General’s office was guilty of misinterpreting the law. In a case reported in the now defunct independent Daily News in 1999, Mudede lost a citizenship lawsuit against 18-year-old Sterling Purser whose father was born in the United Kingdom.



Although Purser was born in Zimbabwe in 1982, Mudede wanted to deny him a passport, claiming that he had not renounced his British citizenship. Purser insisted he had renounced British citizenship, as required by Zimbabwean law. Mudede argued that the renunciation had to be done with the British authorities because he was “a British citizen by descent". Mudede lost the case.



Purser’s lawyer, Adrian de Bourbon, said by demanding that Purser renounce his British citizenship, Mudede was acting beyond the scope of the legislation. “Mudede, who is merely a government official, cannot himself become the arbiter of what is and is not the law," said De Bourbon. "The law is clear. Provided the renunciation is done in the prescribed manner, it has effect for the purposes of the law of Zimbabwe of bringing an end to foreign citizenship.



“In view of the attitude adopted by Mudede who, rather than behaving as a responsible public servant, has taken it upon himself to ignore the law, it is respectfully submitted that this is an appropriate case in which Tobaiwa Mudede pays the costs personally for this unnecessary litigation.”



Nevertheless, Mudede, who has been registrar-general since soon after independence, was undeterred.



He had earlier lost a similar case against Roby Carr who wanted to renew her passport, which had expired. Mudede refused, saying she should first renounce her British citizenship. The Supreme Court ruled that Carr had fully complied with the law.



In both the Purser and Carr suits, Mudede was ordered to pay the costs.



Mudede, who qualified as a barrister at Gray's Inn in London, was back in the dock again in 2005 after he had pursued lawyer Joseph Sibanda, trying to deny him a passport because both his parents were born in Malawi. The registrar-general’s office said he must first renounce his Malawian citizenship before he could get a Zimbabwe passport.



In a precedent-setting judgment, Bulawayo High Court judge Tedius Karwi ruled that Sibanda, who was born and bred in Zimbabwe, was a citizen of Zimbabwe by birth. Justice Karwi ruled that Sibanda was "a Zimbabwean citizen with all privileges, duties and obligations attaching such citizenship".



Following the string of cases that he has lost in the courts, it came as surprise when in January he again tried his luck with Zimbabwe-born media mogul Trevor Ncube, whose mother was born in Zimbabwe but whose father came from Zambia. When Ncube submitted his passport for renewal because it had run out of pages, he was shocked to receive news that he was no longer a Zimbabwean citizen. Mudede declared that Ncube had forfeited his Zimbabwean citizenship because he had failed to renounce his Zambian citizenship in 2001, although Ncube has only ever been to Zambia twice on business trips.



"His [Ncube's] failure to comply with the requirement to renounce Zambian citizenship within the prescribed period automatically meant loss of Zimbabwean citizenship," said Mudede. The Ncube case renewed fears among hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans whose parents were born outside the country of being made stateless by the registrar-general.



Ncube, whose two weekly newspapers are the only independent media surviving in Zimbabwe, tested the issue in the High Court where, on January 25, Justice Chinembiri Bhunu ruled that there was no legal reason to strip Ncube of his nationality. "It is accordingly ordered that Ncube is a citizen of Zimbabwe by birth," said the judge. "The withdrawal or cancellation of his citizenship is unlawful, null, void and of no force or effect."



After the High Court had previously ruled that Sibanda, both of whose parents were born in Zambia, was a Zimbabwean by birth, it is curious that Mudede thought he could win his case against Ncube.



Critics says there is a ZANU PF political agenda behind Mudede's incessant harassment of people over their citizenship. They suggested that the aim was to strip Ncube of his citizenship as a prelude to shutting down his Zimbabwe Independent and Standard newspapers that are both critical of government policies.



"The two papers that I own stick out like a sore thumb," said Ncube, who warned that the last vestiges of Zimbabwe's press freedoms face imminent threat. "The pressure is on to try to soften us." He added that he believed the state was trying to intimidate his journalists by sending the message that “if we can do this to your boss, we can do it to you”.



Tichona Shorai is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor in Zimbabwe.