Denationalisation and the politics of citizenship in Zimbabwe

Marina Lourenço
/ 6 mins read
Marina Lourenço

Statelessness as a human rights issue has been neglected across the globe. I tried hard to avoid beginning this post restating something which has probably become a cliché, but the truth is that, like most human rights issues, statelessness is a sensitive and often politicised subject. Like in Europe, statelessness in Zimbabwe is very closely related to migration, state succession and the rights of migrants. The lack of reliable data creates a group of vulnerable, invisible people. In fact, the very absence of any data in some countries gives an indication of the extent of the problem. This is the scenario in Zimbabwe, where we have watched, especially after 2001, a denationalisation of persons holding Zimbabwean citizenship by birth whose parents were born in a foreign state. While it is true that States have the authority to design their nationality laws according to national interests, is this a legitimate limitation to the human right to nationality?

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to conduct an on-site study visit in Zimbabwe and, while not ignoring that there are other factors potentially creating statelessness in the country, I focused my research on the question of deprivation of nationality by birth resulting from legislative alterations in early 2000s and the interpretation given to this law, as well as their impact particularly on persons of Malawian, Mozambican and Zambian descent.

Zimbabwe, once prosperous Rodhesia, was a favoured destination for white settlement under the British empire and, as a result of the rapid growth of profitable commercial farms, it also attracted labour migration, which came mainly from Nyasaland and Northern Rodhesia (today’s Malawi and Zambia, respectively), and Mozambique. As a consequence of this substantial migration into Zimbabwe, a considerable parcel of the country’s population is composed by persons who were born in Zimbabwe but whose parents were born elsewhere. Due to legal developments in the field of constitutional and nationality law, many of these persons have become or are at risk of becoming stateless.

The constitution adopted after independence from Britain allowed for dual citizenship, but the situation changed with an amendment in 1983 and a new Citizenship of Zimbabwe Act in 1984. The new law determined that no citizen of Zimbabwe was entitled to be a citizen of another country and that Zimbabwean nationals with an entitlement to a foreign citizenship renounce the right in terms of Zimbabwean law and by the end of 1985. Since a foreign country is not bound by Zimbabwean law, the result in practice was that dual citizenship persisted in relation to certain countries, that allowed for it, such as Britain.

In 2001 the government introduced the Citizenship Amendment Act No. 12 providing that the renunciation of a foreign citizenship is made in accordance with the law of the relevant foreign country. The government’s justification for this amendment was based on accusations against persons holding dual citizenship of engaging foreign governments to use diplomatic and other means against the ZANUPF government. Most of the respondents interviewed during this study seem to be convinced, to a greater or lesser degree, of the political motivations behind the 2001 amendment, with one of them even affirming that the measure was ‘a very deliberate effort to disenfranchise people who were thought to vote against the government’. In the 2000 parliamentary elections the growth in support to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) was attributed by the government to people of foreign descent, including farmers and farm workers, Zimbabweans of Malawian, Mozambican, Zambian, British or other foreign origin.

Even though a simple reading of the Citizenship Act leaves no doubt that the requirement of renunciation applies to those people who actually have dual citizenship, the Registrar-General Tobaiwa Mudede gave the provision a much wider application, ordering that any Zimbabwean with a possible claim to foreign citizenship timely renounce this potential citizenship in order to remain a Zimbabwean. This has been the position of the Registrar-General until the present day, in spite of a clarification published by the Minister of Justice and a few rulings of national courts on the opposite direction.

The result of the 2001 amendment to the Citizenship Act coupled with the interpretation given by the Registrar-General was that a great parcel of the country’s population, including persons born in Zimbabwe, ceased to be citizens of Zimbabwe. Persons whose birth certificates would show that their parents were born elsewhere would be regarded by the Registrar-General’s office as aliens, and in order to re-acquire Zimbabwean citizenship, they had to apply to resume their Zimbabwean citizenship – but only after renouncing the nationality of her/his parent’s country of origin. In addition to economic and geographic obstacles (such as consulate fees or travelling), in many cases is simply not possible to renounce the foreign citizenship, either due to  prescription of the possibility of claiming such foreign citizenship in the first place, impossibility to produce documentation, or other reasons.

Even in the event of a successful and speedy renunciation of foreign citizenship, the process of re-acquisition of Zimbabwean nationality results on nationality by registration, rather than by birth. This is certainly unsatisfactory as the nationality granted represents a weaker bond with the State and it can be more easily taken away.

Several respondents interviewed during this study called attention for the impact of the deprivation of Zimbabwean citizenship in the enjoyment of other human rights, such as the right to vote, children’s access to education and access to birth registration. It has been also pointed out that births have been registered to couples that have their documentation in order rather than the real parents, when the latter do not hold their own birth certificates. This situation also produces vulnerability in several spheres of life, and in particular in relation to marriage, property and inheritance.

Zimbabwe is in breach of international legal obligations to which has voluntarily committed itself. In addition, the limitations on the right to nationality derived from the Registrar-General’s interpretation of the Citizenship Act are arbitrary, and inconsistent with the law and decisions of the competent authorities.

Some of the respondents I interviewed during this study visit pointed out that most people only get to know their citizenship status when facing an emergency situation, such as need of renewal of passports or identity documents, or an imminent travel. The level of bureaucracy and the lack of prepared personnel to deal with the issue were also striking – a visit to the facilities of the Passport and Citizenship Office in Harare and a look at the hundreds of files holding crucial documents registration left in complete absence of any apparent order, were very discouraging to say the least. It was a painful verification that, in a country where most of the population lives in poverty, the deprivation of nationality only adds an extra burden to their lives and turns their human rights into dead letter. 

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