The phrase “cast in stone” speaks of dreadful permanence, stultifying non-malleability, and crushing immovability.
It is a term often used to refer to the law, and with good religio-historical cause. One can think of the Hittite, Hebrew and Mesopotamian accounts of how they received their divine laws. Our largely Hebraic education and socialisation in Zimbabwe means we are more familiar with the Exodus and Deuteronomy accounts of how God handed down a law cast in stone to Moses.
Fed on a diet of hell-fire and brimstone theology almost as much as we are increasingly adapting to the lightweight fare of the “prosperity gospel”, many Christians are still held in awe by the Mosaic narratives.
Few can resist being enthralled by a preacher who knows how to boom to them, quoting from Exodus Chapters 19 to 21, how God descended on Mt Sinai amidst “thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud”. And how “the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud” filled Moses’ ears as the refugees from Egypt waited down below for God to give them the Decalogue, or the Ten Commandments.
The manner in which the commandments were given was as important as their content. A statement was being made. The recipients of the law were to be left in no doubt as to who the master was, as to how feeble and frail humanity was.
God wrote them with his own finger on two tablets of stone, according to Moses’ account, and thereafter directed that the tablets be ceremoniously kept in the Ark of the Covenant.
One academic argument is that God chose stone to impart permanence, non-malleability and immovability. The law was cast in stone.
It is that same approach to the law that mankind has tried to apply for ages. When a law is made, we want to think of it as permanent, as if it is some divine directive that is cast in stone and be ceremoniously guarded over in modern arks of the covenant called Houses of Parliament and supreme/constitutional courts.
What we often forget is that regardless of how solemnly we approach legislative houses and courts of law, there are no “thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud” to lend a sense of the supernatural to our laws. We remain in blissful ignorance that we do not have divine fingers with which to pen laws, we use something as mundane as ballpoint pens. And even as we claim that the law is cast in stone, we proceed to use Eversharp on recycled paper to record it.
The law is not cast in stone.
The law, one can say, is a reflection of the loves and terrors, and history and aspirations, of a society. Yes, some of those loves and terrors don’t change. The history doesn’t change.
But some of the loves, terrors and aspirations change. And the law should change to reflect these.
It is a lesson South Africa is learning the hard way, with its judiciary not only rolling back independence but indeed safeguarding apartheid’s loves, terrors, history and aspirations.
Thankfully, it is a lesson that Godfrey Chidyausiku grasped quickly and even more quickly dealt with more than 15 years ago when our bench made the claim that the law was cast in stone and tried to stop land reforms.
The late ex-Chief Justice saw the law for what it was: a vehicle with which a society must achieve its greater destiny beyond the parochial intentions who would have us believe God himself had descended on Parliament Buildings and given Zimbabwe the Lancaster House Constitution.
As the nation mourns the death of Chidyausiku, our lawmakers would do well to learn the lesson that the former Chief Justice learnt so long ago.
Our lawmakers should — rather than waste precious time debating useless motions and insulting each other in the Houses of Parliament — be looking at the law and seeing how best it can be used, tweaked and/or changed to reflect our history and aspirations.
Where is the debate on getting companies to bank in Zimbabwe so that we stop externalisation? Where is the debate on graft in public offices and how best the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission can be empowered so that clever-by-half officials do not keep the critical institution tied down in Constitutional Court litigation?
Where is the debate on ease of doing business, investment promotion and trade policy? Where is the debate on industry, infrastructure, agriculture, social security and all the other things that affect people’s day-to-day lives? Chidyausiku showed us that the law can be used to change — or, perhaps, guarantee – a nation’s destiny. In mourning his death, t is something we would do well to build on. After all, it is not the law that should be cast in stone — it should be our destiny that is.
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