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Civil society threatened by political ‘incest’

By Trudy Stevenson

I HAVE watched with interest over the past few years as civil society organised itself into interest groups — residents, journalists and women as well as constitutional and human rights groups — joining the traditional trade and student unio

ns and churches.  Indeed, some of the first civil society groups I had dealings with were obviously in bed with government, with ministers etc as their patrons and trustees.

During the ’90s the phenomenon of new — ie post-Zanu versus Zapu — opposition politics became established, first with the Zimbabwe Unity Movement, then the Forum Party, the Zimbabwe Union of Democrats and United Parties while there was also the revival of Zanu-Ndonga and the UANC. In 1999 the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) was  formed.

Meanwhile stronger and more confrontational civil society groups made their voices heard. Some were born long before but took on a new life, such as the Catholic Commission for Peace and Justice (CCJP) which had stood up for the majority and against human rights abuses during the Smith regime but now stood up for the same majority against the Mugabe government when the abuses of Gukurahundi were perpetrated. 

CCJP’s publication of Breaking the Silence — Building True Peace, about the atrocities in Matabeleland and Midlands during Gukurahundi, was a milestone for civil society.  It caused serious conflict among those who had carried out the research project, and the Catholic bishops tried to avoid publication, in the end, probably fearing retribution by the state, but it was much too late to put a lid on such well-grounded and widespread research. 

Mike Auret, later MP for Harare Central briefly until hounded into ill-health by the Zanu PF government he had originally championed, was director of the CCJP during this period, and to his eternal credit, stood up for the tenets of his faith and the CCJP motto: if you want peace, fight for justice.

Other non-governmental organisations were more or less successful and more or less straightforward. 
ZimRights started off well but had problems under the chairmanship of Nick Ndebele, with accusations of both corruption and vote-rigging in the organisation widespread. 

The National Constitutional Assembly (NCA) was one of the first “umbrella” civil organisations launched with tremendous hype and enthusiasm in the UZ Great Hall, with Margaret Dongo, then an independent MP, as the guest of honour. 

In retrospect, the platform given to an “opposition” politician certainly sowed the first seeds of strife within the NCA, and planted the idea in the minds of the general public that it was OK and indeed desirable to have opposition politicians actively participating in NGOs either directly or behind the scenes. After all, this is what Zanu PF officials did with their own set of NGOs.  Thus it was that NGOs and civil organisations became politicised without anyone really questioning the wisdom of this.

It may even have continued to work fairly well, with the “government” set of NGOs and the “opposition” set, except that government soon became jealous even of its own NGOs, which commanded more resources and more influence among donors than government itself!

I recall overhearing two former Zanu PF women MPs bemoaning the fact that NGOs were more powerful than government some 10 years ago.  This was around the time some powerful women politicians tried to take over the Association of Women’s Clubs, resulting in a court battle and a section of the Private and Voluntary Organisations Act being declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

As the “opposition” NGOs expanded and became increasingly militant and well-resourced, government’s reaction was predictable: they must be controlled and if possible closed down.  Thus we had the NGO Bill presented to the last parliament and even adopted at the third reading, despite vigorous resistance and all-night debate.  Yet strangely, President Robert Mugabe never signed that Bill into law.  We now hear rumours that it will be modified (strengthened, or weakened?) and represented — this remains to be seen.

Meanwhile NGOs continue to operate on both sides of the political divide, and while many manage to remain truly apolitical, others try unsuccessfully to camouflage their partisanship in various ways. 

The “Save Zimbabwe” convention hosted recently by the Christian Alliance highlighted the problem of partisanship. On the programme to make presentations were the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), the Zimbabwe National Students’ Union, the NCA, Crisis and Women’s Coalition. 

The ZCTU presentation began with Lucia Matibenga, vice-president of the labour movement but also national chairperson of the MDC-Tsvangirai Women’s Assembly.

Elizabeth Marunda, formerly spokesperson for Crisis and also a member of the MDC-Tsvangirai, made the Women’s Coalition presentation. 

Lovemore Madhuku of NCA conducted elections at the MDC-Tsvangirai congress earlier this year, and many NCA structures comprise the very same people as the MDC-Tsvangirai structures.

A similar situation prevails in the Combined Harare Residents Association, which ostensibly changed its constitution earlier this year to ensure non-partisanship, but whose new structures are in many wards led by MDC-Tsvangirai office-bearers. Its representative on the national Zimbabwe United Residents Association is the MDC-Tsvangirai organising secretary for Harare North, while its representative in the NCA is or certainly was until recently MDC-Tsvangirai secretary for Harare Province. 

This politicisation of civil society does not go unnoticed, nor is it likely to strengthen civil society. Indeed, it is already causing disaffection. 

More seriously, it has become such a widespread incestuous relationship that instead of civil society organising itself more widely, its organised members are actually dwindling, since the same person holds positions in several organisations at the same time!

Furthermore, someone will chair one organisation one year and then move to another a year or so later, round and round the circuit. 

We should remember that incest is forbidden in the Bible and in most cultures for the very scientific reason that the product of incest is often weak in some way, if not also physically deformed.  Let us save our civil society from a similar fate.

* Trudy Stevenson is MDC legislator for Harare North.

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