Rethinking strategy on the Zimbabwean crisis

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DURING the period in the run to the elections until recently, there were projections that if Zanu PF took over power and recaptured the state, the steep decline across all social indicators would plunge the country into a totally failed state category and compel the ruling party to follow the path of democratic reforms. Currently, with an opposition that is in complete disarray and a people who have been thoroughly beaten into docility, it might be the time to re-think our approach to the crisis.
We are faced with a situation of unparalled magnitude, because some of the democracy evangelists are also joining the chorus, ‘international re-engagement is the new game in town’ with the full support of some of our international friends whose foreign policies explicitly underlie the importance of human rights and democracy promotion in their foreign relations. One wonders what has changed in the country for us to be very enthusiastic about re-engagement that is based on flimsy grounds other than the evidence-based ‘action for action’ principle. The current chorus goes against conventional psychology that behaviour that is encouraged will thrive.
Despite several explicit articles in the European Treaty, in particular Article 21 and several articles in the Cotonou agreement and the EU various human rights instruments, Europe has been backpedalling on its commitments and has begun to whisper when it comes to Zimbabwe. The lack of courage to stand on principles and hide behind vague pragmatic considerations cannot be supported by evidence and neither can it survive legal scrutiny. It is a lack of courage that will simply embolden and encourage human rights violators while depressing those who truly believed that our friends would stand with us when it really matters.
If the current trend continues, Zimbabwe will find its permanent position in the back burner of international policy discourse, with a totally forgotten civil society, which will make it another Cameroon. In re-thinking the future, we need to recall our solid achievements of yesterday that laid the foundations for where we are but we should never overestimate what such achievements can do to help solve the current challenges. There is need to re-think what civil society means and in so doing expand its definition to fully include those who have strove for a better Zimbabwe from the margins of the struggle, but who might have the solutions hidden in their deep seated aspirations.Advertisement

Should the above prognoses be correct, there is need for those in the human rights and democracy promotion community to reconsider their approach to the crisis. This enquiry cannot hide behind the rhetoric that Zimbabwe is a failed state led by an illegitimate government. We all know that although the government lacks political legitimacy, it has grown stronger, and even the contestation of political and economic power within the same government is an indication that it is alive and might be so for some time, which disqualifies Zimbabwe from being a failed state.
In re-thinking new solutions to approach the crisis, there is need to acknowledge that we are facing a political economy crisis, and that the two cannot be decoupled as doing so is reductionist. There is also need to acknowledge that Zimbabwe human rights violations cannot be addressed separately from the broader political economy issues. In the case of Zimbabwe, the conventional wisdom that human rights defenders should distance themselves from politics needs to be critiqued and re-examined.
While human rights defenders must not be partisan, the political economy and human rights issues in Zimbabwe are too mangled together to be addressed separately. During the recent SAPES Trust-NED Conference in Zimbabwe, the writer asked the question, ‘How come those working on civil and political rights attended the first day of the conference while those working on economic and big political issues attended the second day?’ That reductionist approach has led to groups fighting for the same cause from different silos.
During her visit to Zimbabwe in May 2012, Navvi Pillay made a similar observation, albeit in a different context, when she said ‘The right to vote or to freely assemble does not mean too much to someone who is suffering from hunger or ill health because she cannot afford decent health care’. At the same time, as the noted Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has so aptly argued, no famine has ever occurred in a functioning democracy. It seems that the full, active and meaningful participation in designing and implementing government policies by those affected enables early warning of a crisis and the formulation of the most appropriate policy responses. Likewise, access to information, including through a free press, enables people to better prepare and protect themselves against such crises.
The purpose of this article is not to provide a prescriptive solution to how the crisis must be approached because there is no one prescription that can work on a very sick patient. However, conventional wisdom says that one cannot solve today’s problem at the same level of thinking they were at when the problem started which is why there is need to re-think. The 2013 elections and the period leading to it marked a defining moment in our history and punctuated the end of an era. Those working in human rights and democracy have to clearly understand this in devising a new strategy. Distinct teams working on different themes on a single-issue basis might work to solve immediate problems but this will not remove the underlying root. In suggesting a new approach we can get wisdom from the wise words of Stephen Covey, when he stated that if you are tasked to clear a bush, before doing so you need to climb the tallest tree and assess whether you are clearing the right bush in the first place.
The Zimbabwean bush has changed; there is need for us to ask the big questions to cast a new vision that defines what our cause is and devising appropriate interventions that build cohesive traction around such. This process requires deep searching. The causes of the nineties and two thousands has changed and the wheels that drove it have changed too while some of the players who were behind it have changed colours. For instance, while it was not necessarily a bad idea for the MDC to join Zanu PF in government, the GNU period showed us all in broad day light that some within the MDC, if given power, would perform worse than the Zanu PF government they would like to dislodge. However there are a few within the MDC rank and file who have maintained their integrity even when the trappings of power and lavish life were thrown at them. Some within the opposition are not different from Julius Malema who comes to parliament dressed like a common worker while his life indicates otherwise.
The other factor that must be taken into account is that the farm workers, organised labour and university professors who started the change movement are no longer present as they were back then. University professors who were driven to indigence through poor remuneration have either joined politics or are now chasing money as consultants. The farm workers and the blue-collar workers have been disenfranchised due to the destruction of farms and industry. In their place, Zanu PF has been building peri-urban shanty towns and other informal re-settlements, which are nothing but information and propaganda ghettos to drive their murky indigenisation agenda. At the same time, the middle class hardly exists as part of it is largely based abroad. There is therefore need to create a cause that appeals to the middle class in their current geographically disenfranchised state. We need to find where they are and how they can buy into the cause in an organised fashion.
We also need to locate the working class in their informal settings and identify what really matter to them and build the cause around that. There is a limited understanding of this dynamic, and those who understand the dynamic seem to do so only from a theoretical perspective. Further, the regional politics has changed, and our interlocutors are no longer the same, as some have also come out clearly in public that they were on the Zanu PF side during all the years we thought they were impartially arbitrating our political contests. This calls for a calibration of our engagement with the region.
In identifying the foundations for a new cause, we need to acknowledge that in the nineties, the cause was built around the two foundations for a new constitution and the socio-economic issues. The constitutional cause ran its course until 22 May 2013 when a new constitution was adopted and when its founder subsequently formed a political party. While the current discourse on constitutionalism and the need to re-align laws with the new constitution is a noble cause that should be pursued, it cannot be a sole foundation for the new cause the writer is proposing.
In the nineties, the socio-economic issues gave rise to the food riots thus laying foundations for the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum and the subsequent economic crisis occasioned by the farm invasions created the political economy cause which gave birth to other strong coalitions formed to fight political hegemony. These were mainly formed when the ruling party lost in the constitutional referendum and lost popularity during the 2000 parliamentary elections, and also the subsequent discredited and violent elections of 2002.
So what is Zimbabwe’s current problem? To quote Shannon Smith, at the present juncture, Zimbabwe’s problem can be summed as follows, “There is a select few in Zimbabwe who remain committed to maintaining power and wealth at the expense of their people, and their nation [and these few have strong friends in the region]. They are actively undermining democracy in Zimbabwe and thus depriving all its citizens of a more democratic, prosperous future. These few, powerful, self-interested individuals are degrading the country’s future. They are more interested in retaining power at all costs than in re-joining the community of democratic nations”.
Any solutions that do not take this into account will not quite work, and may work for a limited duration on limited issues but will be overall doomed to fail. The danger inherent in not addressing the above issue is that there is a palpable challenge that the culture of power and wealth will become the national culture and no one will see anything wrong with that. If that culture spills over beyond Zanu PF which is now the case anyway, then we all lose the moral high ground to correct it because those in power will simply turn around and say, “What moral authority do you have to rebuke me when we also gave you a farm that was illegally acquired?”
How do you confront such a government in order for it to change? There are no easy answers because in Zimbabwe, the government, state security, state apparatus and the ruling party are all conflated and stand as a threat to any dissenting voices. Currently one of the state tactics is to approach democratic evangelists one by one and convince them that we all need to work together. Once we are all co-opted in, we begin working from a compromised position because our independence is lost. While one of civil society’s duties is to work with government in devising policies that duty should never be subservient to its duty of holding the same government to account on all issues, including issues of citizens’ participation in elections or democracy.
In democratic countries, it is easy to confront undemocratic tendencies by government, for example, citizens are allowed to protest and can even threaten civil disobedience. A classical example in the UK was that of an old lady who said she would rather go to jail for failing to pay council tax on account of poor services. In Zimbabwe, while laws such as POSA explicitly limit citizens’ right to protest, there is nothing in the law that explicitly outlaws civil disobedience, except the people’s lack of courage. For instance, why would workers placidly go for months without a salary and continue to work for a boss whose $250,000 per month’s salary is guaranteed? Why would one pay for electricity that can be cut on whim? In the writer’s view, this could be the basis for a new cause because these issues affect all the classes. Sinking boreholes and buying electricity generators might work now but it is not the public’s duty to undertake core services that must be carried out by the state.
While others may argue that the donor community must not disinvest from the Southern African region because of the current democratic backsliding sweeping across the region, the donor flight especially from supporting core causes for the advancement of human rights should also lead to a re-think and if this is done, we might soon harvest the dividends from such a re-think. Donors, who are committed to change, will remain, but there is a need to reflect and take an audit on the reasons of why some are fleeing. Some might genuinely be fleeing because of the change in their priority countries, but some might be doing so because they fear that doing the same things that did not produce results yesterday is not the right way to conduct business.
One would argue that the donor flight might temporarily affect the way we all work, but this might also lead to more innovative inter-disciplinary working arrangements and spontaneous grassroots campaigns that can survive on meagre resources and survive donor flight. The current changes might mean that the struggle for change will be relocated at the right place. That place is in the villages, towns, and the few remaining workplaces. When the pain hits the middle class, and threaten the security of their children, they will do something to protect that security.
In conclusion, one would argue that there is need for a re-think, and to adopt creative ways to approach the crisis but such re-think should not simply be done for the sake of it. When every organisation begins to jump on the bandwagon of ecosoc rights, this simply means most of them are doing so just for the sake of it. It is not about a few people fighting for economic rights but stimulating the whole population to fight for themselves. However, in so re-thinking, we must not underestimate the immense ground we covered yesterday in getting to where we are, but where we are is not good enough for the challenges that lie ahead.
A Citizens Convention soon might be necessary to craft a robust way forward, and if we do not do it, the poor and the oppressed will find a way of doing it themselves, and in the process we would have lost a chance to take the struggle forwards in securing a just, tolerant, secure Zimbabwe which can only be built on firm democratic foundations. It is time to heed Modercai’s words to Esther when she was reluctant to save the Jews from destruction when she had the opportunity to, “For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”
This article was originally published by the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum