Zimbabwe's civil society, and diminishing political space
Zimbabwe's civil society is one of the most vocal in the region. Zimbabwean authorities say most are dabbling in politics and are in fact corrupt themselves. Writing for New Zimbabwe.com today, Zimbabwean lawyer Dr Alex Magaisa says many are in it for the money, and not for the cause
By Dr Alex Magaisa
THE publication of two articles on New Zimbabwe.com last week attracted an avalanche of responses. A key and one of the more tantalising challenges that came my way, could be crystallised in a famous line attributed to Lenin, “What’s to be done?” which in this context, this must be read in the context of Zimbabwe.
A mere mortal that I am, I do not claim a monopoly of ideas nor do I hold the single key to the resolution of the Zimbabwe problem. No single person does. But I also have faith in the power of ideas and believe that critical thought provides the invaluable therapy against the ills of complacency and taking things for granted. The experience of the last 5 years has taught us that the resolution of the problems is not and will not be accomplished in one event. Rather, it is a process and like all processes, there are going to be phases through which the country must pass and we all need to generate ideas.
In this article, I attempt an examination of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), more commonly known as Non-governmental organisations (NGOs), in the process of transformation in much the same way I did in relation to the MDC in a previous article. The principal aim is to demonstrate that instead of constructing a unified force designed to pursue the common theme of democratisation and protection of human rights, the CSOs may have, albeit unwittingly, disabled the opposition political organisations, in particular the MDC. I am particularly concerned with the competition for political space between the MDC and the CSOs, that claim to be apolitical, and the resultant shrinkage of space for the opposition, among other consequences. There are some who will choose to interpret this as an attack on CSOs. It is not. At the basic level, it is a call on CSOs to take a critical self-assessment of their role and purpose in the political process within the Zimbabwean context. Like the MDC, they too need to redefine their perspectives, strategies and purpose in light of past experience. Let me hasten to add that there are many people within the CSOs who have done great work at very high risk and whose work deserves commendation. But too much commendation and less critical assessment explains why Zimbabwe is in the state it is today so the better to leave praises to a late stage and to others and concentrate on possibilities for reform.
Firstly, a closer assessment of the political landscape in Zimbabwe reveals wider and more complex dynamics than mere appearances sometimes suggest. In particular, there is a tendency to reduce everything to the dialectical relationship between ZANU PF and the MDC – to portray and understand the Zimbabwe problem from two dominant angles represented by each of those political parties. The successes or failures of the MDC are therefore often measured against the position of ZANU PF. This, I fear, is incorrect. This is a simplistic picture that obscures the myriad of actors and forces on the Zimbabwean political landscape. These actors and forces must be subjected to greater scrutiny as regards their role in the processes of change and march towards democratisation obtaining in the country. As I have indicated, of particular concern is the phenomenon of the Non Governmental Organisation, more fashionably referred to as Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) often presented as necessary vehicles in Africa’s march towards democracy and human rights protection.
It is unfortunate that there is that view that people can participate and make an impact on the political process through vehicles that do not actually seek political power and that have no mandate to make laws but at best, appeal to moral conscience, pressure, goodwill and support mostly from external forces. Instead of strengthening the political process, the proliferation of CSOs on the political landscape, has simply highlighted the problem but not mobilised enough to effect change. In fact, while providing people with a convenient forum for debate, it may also turn them away from the political organisations, which are the key to political change and transformation. There is no shortage of opposition forces. The problem is that there is division within the opposition forces between those who participate within the realm of the political party and another large group that calls itself CSOs whose individuals prefer to be known as “activists”, at the same time proclaiming to be apolitical. For whatever reason, they do not want to be called politicians. Unlike the ruling party, those who are in the opposition are thus divided into the “political” for MDC and the “apolitical” mainly in CSOs. As I see it, Africa and in this case, Zimbabwe cannot afford people who claim to be apolitical.
Contrary to common posturing, the numerous CSOs are in fact political vehicles and to the extent that they are, they are political actors, which compete for political space against genuine political parties. For most opposition forces in Africa political space is limited, dominated as it is by the ruling liberation parties. The opposition forces have to fight for that space under very difficult conditions. Now, considering that in most cases both the main opposition party on the one hand and CSOs on the other are engaged in battles for space against the same ruling party, it is easy to see that how they too become competitors against each other for the limited space that they are able to get. The ruling party never sees the main opposition party and the CSOs as different in character or goals that they pursue. Anything that challenges the position of the ruling party is identified under the large and all-encompassing banner of “the opposition”. Whatever the protestations to the contrary, that is the reality of our situation. The tragedy here is that instead of pursuing the similar goals that ought to unite them, the opposition party and the CSOs become embroiled in a fight amongst themselves, for the limited political space.
This pretence that “we are civil society” and not political organisations is based on a fallacious distinction, which fails to take into account the context within which they operate. To be sure, to most of the population in Zimbabwe, there is no distinction between the MDC and CSOs that have been fighting for human rights, etc. To the extent that the CSOs attempt to portray themselves as apolitical and impartial advocates for rights, they only serve to confuse a population that is already mentally harassed by the conflict between the two main protagonists. The “No” Vote against the proposed 2000 Constitution is the clearest demonstration that the distinction is known only to those who lead and run CSOs but not the masses. It seems widely accepted that the No Vote was more an _expression of protest against the ruling party rather than the Constitution itself, although of course those in the CSOs that led the “NO Campaign” would have us believe otherwise.
We understand them – in order to get more donor-funds, they need “claim” certain victories. So the “No Vote” is used to state the case for CSOs relevance rather than the MDC, which incidentally rose from within the realm of the so-called apolitical CSOs.
In addition, it is inconceivable, within the context of African politics, that CSOs can purport to be fighting for human rights without at the same time being engaged in politics. In all of Europe, America, Asia, the first and most important fight was the struggle at the political level. What is it that makes people believe that they can simply change the opinion of ruling parties in Africa, from self-appointed positions in CSOs without first engaging in the struggle for political power? Arguably, it is necessary to change the political system in order to achieve the human rights goals. In other words, the achievement of human rights is largely dependent on whether one can transform the political system.
This is what the liberation movements had to do against the colonial forces – human rights did not just come through campaigns run by “apolitical” CSOs – the goals had to be achieved through political means and political parties were constructed regardless of how often forms of political organisation were banned. It is simply a pity that after getting political power, the liberation movements cared less about human rights. To the extent that there is a crop of CSOs that purport to be apolitical, they are wasting energy and resources by failing to take a politically bold approach. They are competing for limited space with political parties, which are better positioned and oriented towards political transformation. The same youths who should be running with and for the political parties are instead lured by the donor handouts that come through CSOs.
It is easy to see why people are easily tempted into believing that CSOs are key to change of fortunes on the continent. That may be so only to the extent that they conscientise the masses with regards their rights and mobilise people to be more vigilant. Others indeed play crucial social functions. But let us pause for a moment. Do CSOs contest elections? How does political power change? No – CSOs do not contest elections and they do not form governments. Yet that is exactly what Africa needs today – an active political culture in which every person realises that they are political and have a role to play in politics. Yet this phenomenon of CSOs appears to be breeding the norm of being apolitical. As I have stated, Africa cannot afford to have millions of apolitical people at this stage.
Another problem with CSOs, which also has negative consequences for the opposition movement is that despite preaching accountability and good practice to the politicians some of their leaders adopt the behaviour and lifestyle of politicians. The public cannot distinguish between the leaders of political parties and the leaders of CSOs and this causes the masses to despair about the whole political process. The behaviour of some CSO leaders is probably unsurprising because as I have argued, they are politicians operating under camouflage. Ironically, it is never clear to whom they are accountable. There is something incorrect about an organisation that is funded by one group of foreigners and yet claims to act in the best interests of another mass of people, especially in matters of self-determination. In whose interests do those who get funds really act? They can close the organisation the next day and not have to face accountability to the local masses. I had occasion to witness the unfortunate relationship between some donors and some CSO leaders at one conference in London. It was sad to see whole men and women almost crawling like toddlers at the feet of donors – all to satisfy the donors! Instead of engaging on matters of substance with the Zimbabwens that had gathered at the event many of the leaders were too busy chatting up donors in anticipation of another pay-day. It’s simple really: They tell them all they want to hear.
Thereafter they retire to the hotel and hop onto another plane to Washington and the routine goes on … Then they return home with US dollars and arrange a meeting at one of the Harare hotels, where an invited “distinguished” guest speaks and this and that … and so on and so on. All too often a few months after taking a position a leader of a CSO relocates from Glen View to Avondale. He trades his battered Datsun Pulsar for a Toyota Land Cruiser – which more often, is ferrying relatives to a funeral or a wedding, and o, yes, they also get fuel coupons because they are “working for the good of the people”, they may not paid “salaries” but get “allowances”, etc. Yes, his lifestyle changes. Sometimes the chairperson, is also the chief executive and he is also a consultant … and so on. And you tell me politicians do not do the same?
It is a sad state of affairs when the CSO sector is seen as an employment creator. When that happens, you suspect the cause is only of secondary importance. In Europe, they leave lucrative City jobs to volunteer or earn considerably reduced wages in charities. In Africa, people leave the private sector to join CSOs for the salary quoted in foreign currency, for the vehicle and other perks. Few do so for the cause. People look after each other, just as the politicians do. Unlike directors of companies, issues of conflict of interest, duties and powers are not properly regulated. Like their political party counterparts, the CSO leaders become entrenched in the organisation or in the sector. Perhaps worse, as soon as he loses his position, he goes on to set up another one. They hop from one CSO to another and it is as if their very lives depend on the persistence of the crisis. The result is a vast collection of CSOs led by different individuals some with egos the size of Zimbabwe, fighting for donors among themselves and fighting for space against political parties. So today you hear of a “coalition”, tomorrow there is a “forum” and the next day there is an “alliance”, etc. There are forums, coalitions and alliances all representing the same smaller CSOs. What is the sense of purpose? Is there really any justification for these different layers? If only they were political organisations designed to seek political power and therefore control change. But they are not and at best can only highlight.
Unsurprisingly great talents and resources that would otherwise accrue to political parties are instead diverted to the numerous CSOs. There are many strong and active members participating within the realm of CSOs who could make a huge difference if they could be bold enough to declare their political aspirations and take on the challenge. Many of us, especially the intellectuals, prefer to stand behind the cover of CSOs and proudly proclaim our “apolitical” credentials. But there is also another argument which might explain the existence of CSOs – that the opposition parties themselves do not offer sufficient space to others, in particular ambitious ones who may not have been around at the time of formation of the party. So for example it is not unusual to hear young cadres arguing that the MDC has been “privatised” by a certain clique and we are therefore not able to participate in its structures at the appropriate levels. Could it be that the opposition is losing talent by closing its doors? Could it be that the same people eventually end up forming CSOs to play a role in the political process and to gain visibility within the context? It may confirm the argument that some of the people in CSOs may in fact be politicians who have not managed to find space or have been rebuffed by the main opposition party. That is something to seriously think about.
What then is the point of all this? It is this that even though Zimbabwe appears to have one dominant opposition party, there is in fact a potentially powerful force represented at present by so-called apolitical CSOs. There are too many opposition forces fighting each other for the same space, same resources, same limelight and for the same goal yet some are not bold enough to stand in the clear. There is unnecessary and unhelpful division. The scenario is therefore akin to where you have different opposition parties contesting against the ruling party, which wins not because it is more popular, but because of split votes in the opposition. The key is to unite as political force from a common political platform.
So for example,
the MDC leadership must desist if it has such tendencies, from the “privatisation
of internal space” and open up avenues for other actors that could
be powerful partners – both individuals and organisations. If
such an opening were available, there is really no need for a new political
animal on the scene but that people now talk of such an animal should
however warn the MDC and other opposition parties of the need to open
up and consolidate. As for CSOs, I reiterate the point that this business
of being impartial and apolitical is not necessary. It is not to disparage
the many good men and women out there, but to suggest that there is
need for redefinition of purpose and strategy. What we see and hear
from them has become all too predictable.
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