Zimbabwe's civil society vital to democracy
Writing on New Zimbabwe.com, Zimbabwean lawyer Dr Alex Magaisa opined that most people within Zimbabwe’s civil society were in it for the money and not the cause. Another lawyer Khanyisela Moyo responds. She argues this is a false dichotomy
By Khanyisela Moyo
FIRST and foremost, I would like to apologise to my friend Dr Alex Magaisa for this intervention’s harsh tone.
To start with, I would agree with Dr Magaisa‘s introductory averments that conflict resolution is not a one issue event, it is a process. This is typical to all conflict situations. I would also concur with him that there is a need to highlight possibilities for reform within what he calls Civil Society Organisations (CSOs). However, I find his arguments to be full of inaccurate and sweeping statements.
Contrary to Dr Magaisa’s view that CSOs compete for limited political space with the MDC, they actually strengthen the opposition cause. One could even say they indirectly work for the Movement for Democratic Change. In my work as a lawyer with the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum (The Forum) in 2002, I used to wonder whether I was an employee of the MDC or the Forum, as most of my clients – victims of state sponsored political violence - were predominently supporters of the opposition party. Contrary to Dr Magaisa’s comments, Zimbabwean civic society has done a good job in putting Zimbabwe on the international agenda. In so doing, they have indirectly reminded Western liberal states of their identity as promoters of human rights. This has also empowered and legitimated the MDC claims that the Zimbabwean regime is repressive.
To the extent that MDC and Zanu PF are the main political contenders, everything is bound to be reduced to a dialectical relationship between the two. While CSOs might appear to approximate to a third political actor they do not compete for the same political space as the opposition. Their efforts rather augment those of the opposition. They are indeed vehicles for social change in that their goal is not to attain political power but to influence the way in which the people are governed. CSOs are not a new phenomenon in Zimbabwe; even during the Smith era the organisations like the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace were an auxiliary to African liberation movements. At both international and regional levels the Zimbabwean government has found itself in a defensive position thanks to the shadow reports of CSOs. (Reference herein is made to the human and women’s rights organisations’ reports to the UN human rights treaty bodies, European regional bodies and African relevant human rights bodies. In short, CSOs and opposition efforts are complementary).
It is true that in conflict situations the distinction between the opposition and the CSOs, especially those defending civil and political rights becomes blurred. This is because they inevitably both sing from the same hymn sheet. Their mutual ultimate goal is to see a transition from repression to liberty.
Dr Magaisa claims that in order to gain donor funding CSOs snatch certain victories from the MDC; an example that he gives is the “ No” Vote Campaign to the proposed Constitution of 2000. This was indeed victory for civic society which actually legitimized the newly born MDC. In fact, there is nothing wrong with claiming success for purposes of seeking funds as long as the funding is put to good account. With due respect to Dr Magaisa, the ultimate victory for CSOs is the institutionalisation and the socialisation of human rights norms in Zimbabwe. Donor funding is just a means to an end, namely an internationally accepted regime that respects and protects the inherent dignity of its citizens.
Dr Magaisa states that in “… all of Europe, America and Asia, the first and most important fight was the struggle at a political level” not the fight for human rights. This can not be true as the principles of natural law – the roots of human rights law – have been used to justify revolutions (the genesis of which are the American and French revolutions of the late 18th Century). Even our independence in 1980 can be said to be a triumph of the human rights movements since human rights norms were invoked during the struggle.
It is noteworthy though that Dr Magaisa realises that after independence our liberation movements cared less about human rights. This should convince him of the necessity of CSOs; they act as checks and balances on any excesses of political power.
Dr Magaisa avers that a lot of talent is wasted in NGOs; he says that “Africa can not afford millions of apolitical people at this stage.” This is simply missing the mark. He misses the distinction between individuals within CSOs and CSOs as organisations. He seems to lift the organisational veil with great alacrity which as a company law lawyer he should be wary of doing. As individuals, CSO employees are free to belong to political parties and vote for the said political parties, they could also be co-opted by the parties they support. This is another level of political participation. They are not apolitical in that regard. CSOs simple do not contest elections.
Dr Magaisa accuses CSO leaders of not accounting to the masses. Why should they account to the masses? They are not their elected representatives; neither do they rely on taxpayers’ money for their existence. CSOs do account to donors and rightly so as they are funded by them. He claims that he saw CSO leaders at a London conference “crawling at the feet of donors”. I have a gut feeling that what Dr Magaisa merely saw was an exchange of niceties between domestic NGO representatives and their international partners which he mistakenly saw as a donor- recipient relationship. In any event, instead of overly criticising them, Dr Magaisa should commend the CSOs for being able to attract foreign capital when our government’s arrogance has led to the flight of foreign currency.
Dr Magaisa also accused CSOs leaders of engaging in lavish lifestyles and doing consultancy work. While they could be some bad apples who live lavishly on donor funds, doing consultancy work is not necessarily a bad thing. It does not necessarily follow that they would be a conflict of interest. In any event acting as a consultant is one kind of resourcefulness that is needed in our difficult circumstances.
He also states that in Europe people leave lucrative city jobs to volunteer or “earn considerable reduced wages in charities”. I have never seen it happen. In my experience with European CSOs (I happen to sit in the Board of two European NGOs), those who work in European charities normally have that kind of academic training and have made this their career path. Even those who volunteer in European charities do not necessary act purely from principle, they may also seek to boost their curriculum vitae. It is also not true that all salaries in African/Zimbabwean CSOs are quoted in foreign currency. By way of an example, as an employee of the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum my salary was in Zimbabwean dollars (in 2002). At that time I was also a junior teaching assistant with the University of Zimbabwe. My salaries for both jobs were the same. Most people would know that University lecturers were not highly paid then and now.
I would agree with Dr Magaisa that it is difficult for active members of CSOs and some in the Zimbabwean academic world to find a place within the MDC and Zanu PF establishments. Contrary to Magaisa’s position, I do not think the solution lies in uniting under the MDC rubric. In my opinion, this justifies the need for a “Third Way” proposed by G. Nyarota, T. Ncube and Prof Jonathan Moyo. This would not necessarily take the voters away from the MDC. There are others like myself who have no allegiance to either party. Personally, I would not support a ZANU PF that has not explained the Matabeleland atrocities of 1983-1987. Most of my contemporaries may well agree that this party has robbed us of our best years. We are now forced to act as the social services for our country, for example, in supporting the elderly and the unemployed, which should be the state’s responsibility. I also have issues with MDC because they still suffer from the tribal and gender bias in common with Zanu PF.
To elucidate, tribal considerations are the only clear explanation as to why MDC, which was born out of the ZCTU, chose to put Morgan Tswangirai and not Gibson Ncube (the then ZCTU leader) as its head. On the gender issue, it would appear that in both MDC and Zanu PF, the majority of women who rise up the ranks are those who are ex-girlfriends or wives of the power elite. However, this is not to say that I doubt the capabilities of these women. I have tremendous respect for most of our women in politics.
In conclusion, I will re-iterate that a third force in Zimbabwe political life is necessary for three reasons;
• Polarisation is not good for any society. (I have observed this from my brief experiences in N. Ireland where I am currently residing).
• Both MDC and Zanu PF have not adequately addressed issues of tribalism and patriarchy.
• While Zanu PF has failed in that it has made Zimbabwe a pariah state, MDC has also failed to assure many in the third world and some Zimbabweans that they would jealously guard our sovereignty.
Whilst the good
intentions of CSOs may be appropriated by some self-seeking individuals,
these organisations provide the necessary checks and balances on governmental
excesses in Zimbabwe.
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