Trying times for civil society

Zimbabwean civil society organisations (CSOs) are facing a trying period as donors withdraw support for human rights. CSOs have played a critical role in bringing the government of President Robert Mugabe to account - especially in the period from 1999 to 2009.


That era will be remembered for the shocking disrespect for and violation of a whole array of human rights – including flagrant persecution of perceived political enemies, property seizures and constrained access to health, shelter, education and municipal services.

The civil society movement started gaining momentum as it became clear that Mugabe’s government, in power for close to two decades, was increasingly becoming recalcitrant and arrogant to calls for good governance. Because they were coming in to provide checks and balances as non-state actors, almost completely funded by foreign donors, the CSOs were inevitably labelled agents of regime change by the government.

That spin survives up to this date. It is not for me to address the motives that drove the foreign donors to pamper local CSOs with money, but I have no doubt that these organisations played, still play and will always play a vital role as societal watchdogs. I am scared by the hypothetical possibility of a Zimbabwe without the NCA, ZimRights, ZPP, ZESN and Crisis Coalition.

These organisations, always working under hostile conditions as the Mugabe regime had decided to view them as the devil’s face, managed to monitor the myriad human rights violations perpetrated by a government whose powerbase was severely threatened by a growing multi-faceted resistance. They told the world of the excesses of the Mugabe government and succeeded, together with a feisty private media, to rally support for downtrodden Zimbabweans.

With the advent of the Government of National Unity (GNU) that was set up in February 2009, which brought together erstwhile political foes in the form of MDC-T, MDC-N and Zanu (PF), the majority of civil rights organisations suddenly found themselves treading shifty ground. It was a confusing era for them, and understandably so. The majority had been formed on the general objective of bringing the Mugabe government under the spotlight for gross civil and other rights violations. For them, Mugabe and his regime were the natural focus.

Enter the GNU and these CSOs had to realign themselves. The two MDCs became part of the loosely defined government that was marked by sharp discord and parallel tendencies as each of the formations sought to promote and protect its own turf instead of working to better the lot of the citizenry.

Things were made no better for the CSOs as it became more and more evident that those opposition parties that had sprung up as the vanguard for democracy, rule of law and decent society in fact had a propensity to borrow one or two weaknesses from Zanu (PF). They had to contend with a government full of contradictions and seemed unsure of who to watch over. For instance, in the event of police violations, would they have to blame Kembo Mohadi (Zanu-PF), Theresa Makone (MDC-T), Augustine Chihuri (Zanu-PF) or all of them? Mohadi and Makone were co-ministers of Home Affairs under whose jurisdiction the police, headed by Chihuri, fell. Makone was always complaining that Chihuri and Mohadi left her out and she thus did not have any power. Yet, some argued, MDC-T had voluntarily entered the “three-headed creature” and Morgan Tsvangirai was the Prime Minister who should rein in his ministers.

The most trying period for the CSOs, though, has been the post-2013 poll period. Mugabe and his party claimed to have won with a landslide, even though the election results remain contested. The whole world was shocked by the magnitude of the “victory”. Worse still, donors started packing their money bags and made it no secret that they were shifting their attention to social and economic rights as a way of improving livelihoods and empowering local communities. The net result is that many civil rights organisations are now broke, downscaling or shutting down. Disturbingly, some of them are now tending to realign themselves. I see that a number of them are making a beeline to government, seeking all sorts of partnerships. I am not averse to government-CSO synergies, for as long as they are forged out of informed and voluntary choices and designed to benefit the people.

My suspicion, however, is that the current stampede to partner government is a product of the shock and confusion the CSOs have experienced, especially after July 31 2013.

We still need a robust civil society movement fighting for human and other forms of civil rights, just as we still need a robust opposition. I do not see anything that removes their relevance now, considering especially the crisis that we are going through, which threatens to undermine the modest gains that were made in the past five years. The CSOs need a thorough re-think of their objectives, strategies and activities so as to convince funders to support them. – To comment on this article, please contact [email protected]

Post published in: Opinions & Analysis

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