Social Movements have Transformed Zimbabwe’s Politics

ZIMBABWEANS have mostly relied on political parties and elections to make their preferences known, but recently there has been an upsurge in protests, demonstrations, petitions, campaigns, marches, and organisations that pursue a people’s demand for both social justice and political change.

Citizens now seem to have become less supportive of opposition political parties. Bizarrely, there is at least more than 50 of them attempting to unseat a 37 year old regime notwithstanding a lack of resources for the task. Citizens instead have become more willing to use these non-conventional forms of collective action against an established and authoritarian regime. Toward this end, they seem to have been inspired by events surrounding the Arab Springs in the middle East.

Zimbabwe regularly holds elections whenever they are due, with the winner consequently taking all. On that basis, the current government is, therefore, “legitimate”. This has rendered Zimbabwe’s own version of Arab Springs impossible.

How then can social movements and activism be called upon to make a difference in Zimbabwe?

Are protests and demonstrations necessary for purposes of producing social and political change in a “democratic” country?

How do they change the life choices of the participants and what legacy could civil disobedience leave on society?

What conditions, and under which social movements can activism produce desired outcomes?

What, if any, is the post movement impact on the lives of former activists? This must be an experience that is different from the collective experience during the campaign.

These and many related  questions are not new, and many may have learnt of these across these on social media.

#thisflag movement and the #tajamuka campaign were regarded by some critics as irrational actions with no instrumental goals whilst some thought the movements’ actions would somehow turn into a revolution that would topple the government of the day.

Well, drawing on human rights, these civic organisations, social movements and lone activists may strengthen democracy in Zimbabwe by engaging in broad based education and advocacy campaigns that target rural areas and various government institutions such the army and the police force. Zimbabwe Yadzoka is one such social movement in Zimbabwe.

There is widespread thinking that some social movements and individual activists might largely be driven by outside influence through inducements such as donor aid. While it is understandable that civil organisations may need moral, financial and political support, it makes their legitimacy questionable, especially when the land question is brought into the equation.

Formidable social movements in Zimbabwe have, however, not ultimately coalesced into a sustained force for social and political change akin to the labour movements of Western Europe which permanently transformed the lives of the working class. In contrast, Zimbabweans have seen their livelihoods destroyed. Living standards in the country have also deteriorated further, resulting in political repressions and, maybe, virtual anarchy. Farm invasions and displacements also continue unabated.

This repression could, and at one point seemed to, have strengthened the resistance, rebellion, and dissent yet the repression may also have influenced demobilisation through such State apparatuses as the riot police. The dissent was definitely influenced by the repression in the same manner that repression influenced the demobilisation of many social movements.

In other contexts, the Arab Spring, for instance, Egypt, the repressive action of the government might not have had any impact at all. It might even have had the opposite effect of what government officials might have expected – that of strengthening the resistance and the rebellion.

There is also widespread belief that the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) resembles a supernatural force, with an inherent ability to infiltrate every political force and movement in Zimbabwe, thereby killing them off from within. This, however, could be giving them too much credit than they actually deserve, as such organisations need resources to function that well. Presently, the government is broke and a powder keg for corruption, dissidents, defections and rebellion.

This is because not every security personnel accepts the negative influence of repression on dissent as they also live in the same social conditions as those experienced by activists and the oppressed masses. The experiences of Zimbabwean social movements is varied, complex, and contradictory. Their efforts to speak on behalf of the masses are hampered by the “elected” authoritarian regime and limited by profound inequalities of resources, power and social capital that pervades their structures. They seek to operate in a global context but their local grievances risk being subordinated to the liberal agenda of western civil society.

Civil society and non-governmental organisations have emerged to fill in the gaps that have been created by the negative structural adjustment programmes and neo-liberalisation of state provided services often peddled by the regime using the language of empowerment and most recently, indigenisation. The general result has been the massive distortion of social resistance by the introduction of this donor syndrome, the distribution of donor money to activists and other social movement groups.

#thisflag movement and the #tajamuka campaign had sought to achieve goals of greater social and economic justice and more effective forms of political accountability and democracy. Donor funds raise questions as to what extent civil organisations and individual activists are representative of the masses they claim to speak for, and to what extent also they are subject to the influence of western donor agencies and NGOs that have provided a significant part of their funding.

In recent decades, a number of Zimbabweans living permanently or semi-permanently in the Diaspora has increased enormously. Many of these Zimbabweans in diaspora naturally retain a close interest in news, WhatsApp group discussions and sending remittances for various reasons.

It may be fair to say that these diasporians contacts have had an important effect on social movements back home. In fact, this is one of the most prominent and important elements of our social movements. The Diaspora is the source, not only of money but also like donors, provide remittances of a social and moral nature.

Zimbabweans in the Diaspora play a vital role in providing ideas. Due to Facebook, Twitter and Whatsapp, this flow of ideas has become a tidal wave. Residence in democratic countries has made many Zimbabweans critical of a long sitting government. Considering that many Zimbabwe  diasporians are scattered around the world, the potential for global mobilisation has become greater than ever.

Former activists’ experiences in the course of the campaign, whether they have won or lost, can lead to political learning that may inspire a second attempt or lead to a decision to never try again. Evan Mawarire could not stay away and was back within a few months. His involvement in the social movements has undoubtedly changed his life and that of many activists who came after him such as Linda Masarira and others.

It is worth to note that Mawarire demanded accountability while others advocated for an Arab spring style of regime change. Social movements have the ability to win victories in terms of changing the political culture. Even where they have suffered immediate defeats on policy issues, they can still obtain public policy gains in the long term.

However, with the elections due in a few months time, the activists may have inadvertently aided political parties, including Zanu PF which may, indeed, include changes that seem favourable to social movements and public opinion. The “Elected” officials might, where they see prospects of another electoral success, seek to indirectly incorporate changes that have been on the activists’ agenda.

Questions about the extent and operation of interrelated effects of social movements outcomes need to be addressed. So whether the political impact of social movements is understood as the adoption of policies which are inspired by their demands, it is clear that the political scenario has changed since #thisflag. For instance, there have been calls for fewer police roadblocks from within the regime.

The conclusion about the impact of civic, social movements and individual activism remain tentative. However, these movements may not have won the exact desired outcomes; they have obtained some benefits in terms of educating, being accepted as a legitimate voice and, indeed, have changed the political structure. It is worth noting that they may also contribute to polarisation and conflict.

Kingstone Jambawo is  a  staff  writer with The Solutions Tower is the media component of the Local Solutions Council that analyses and publishes Current Zimbabwe Issues.The Local Solutions Council is the Publisher of the The Solutions Tower.

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