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Beyond human rights violations

By Alex Magaisa

RECEIVED wisdom attributes the collapse of Zimbabwe to rampant abuse of human rights. So pervasive is this view that the language of human rights dominates every

facet of discourse on Zimbabwe.

That the human rights perspective is so dominant is testament to the great efforts of the human rights movement both in and outside Zimbabwe.

The result is that challenges to the power and legitimacy of the Mugabe regime are invariably predicated on human rights violations.

That may well be true but to the extent that it obfuscates other grounds upon which the authority of the regime can be effectively challenged, the human rights narrative has been limiting.

In other words, it is important to appreciate that there are other ways of attributing the collapse of Zimbabwe, beyond the human rights narrative. One of these ways is to understand the collapse as a failure of resource management by an inadequate regime.

The preference for the language of human rights is understandable — the evidence of abuse is capable of dramatic and effective presentation evoking emotion and sympathy across nations, it is popular and makes headlines.

Indeed, the human rights movement has created an industry in which individuals gain a living whilst doing something about which they feel passionate.

But the dominance of the human rights narrative should not lull us into the belief that it is the only or even main index upon which the power structures within a nation can be managed or challenged. The human rights narrative has been hugely useful in mobilising the population but its dominance has also been limiting.

It has been limiting in that it is at once too narrow and too dominant in relation to other ways of understanding the problem and challenging the power structures of the Mugabe regime.

It is too narrow because it confines the critique of the Mugabe regime within the language of human rights, so that every aspect of its failures, even if it can be articulated and challenged on its own independent basis, tends invariably to be couched within the human rights narrative.

This is hardly a complete representation of the weaknesses of the Mugabe regime and the consequent collapse of the country.

Rather, it has to be said, it is more apt to specify the regime’s incompetence in managing the nation’s resources. It is neither necessary nor inevitable to dress this in the language of human rights.

The fact is they have had 27 years to transform the nation’s economy but instead, having inherited a sound economy from their colonial predecessors, they have caused its demise.

To say that this is a result of human rights violations is to mask the managerial incompetence of the regime, which should be a legitimate point of challenge by those who think they can do better.

The opposition’s claim to power should not simply be that they claim to be better protectors of human rights but that they are better managers of the country’s economic resources. The opposition can and should be able to challenge the power of Zanu PF on its failures on the economic front, outside the usual human rights narrative.

The land question is a concrete and relevant example of an issue that has been dressed in the language of human rights, whereas, it can, equally and perhaps more effectively be dealt with from the perspective of economic management.

In other words, the relative weaknesses about and emanating from the contentious fast-track land reform programme are best captured and effectively represented as an illustration of the regime’s poor grasp of economic fundamentals.

It is undoubtedly a human rights matter, but from a political viewpoint, the most potent charge against the regime is that both the process and outcome has shown the regime’s failure to usefully and profitably manage a strategic economic resource.

To simply view land as a matter of human rights is to confine the matter to cyclical debate, in which holders claim their existing rights, against equally legitimate rights of those that seek to redress historical wrongs. An economic view of land however, cuts across such cyclical debates, focussing mainly on whether land is put to its most effective use in terms of productivity.

The blow of the seizures might have been cushioned if the regime had made a proper plan to economically manage the resource properly and effectively.

As it is, seven years after the initial farm seizures, the issue is not confined to whether the government violated human rights but whether it has, in fact, managed that resource effectively. That it has failed and has shown no promise that it can do any better should be sufficient ground to challenge its authority. The question has to be asked: What does it hope to do in the next five years that it has failed to achieve in the previous 27? This is the regime’s greatest point of weakness, shorn of the cyclical human rights debate.

It is, of course, easy to categorise everything under the banner of human rights but it does not always provide an accurate picture or strategically effective challenge.

Countries can, and a number do, thrive economically, despite charges of human rights violations, China being, perhaps, a prominent example, with one of the world’s fastest growing economies yet remains accused of all kinds of rights violations.

But it is not even necessary to go that far. The average Zimbabwean often reminisces about the old days, referring ironically, to the colonial days. “Zvaiva nani” — (“it was better”), they say, a sad indictment of the current regime’s economic performance.

It is not that Rhodesia was the best protector of human rights. Far from it! It is that despite being a human rights violator, the colonial regime remained an effective manager of economic resources, so that even though tainted by the unfairness and inequality, even those in the periphery were capable of sustaining even the most basic existence, which persons in comparable situations today cannot.

A rural businessman could operate a shop in the township — which today he cannot. Thus at that time, the greatest challenge against the regime’s authority was its failure to respect human rights but the same could not be said of its ability to effectively and productively manage the economy.

As it stands today, the present regime fails on both counts, yet whilst much is made of the human rights failures, little is attributed to poor economic management.

This, of course, is not to diminish the value of human rights nor is it to undervalue the efforts of the movement that sustains the language of human rights.

It is simply to urge alternative strategies of challenging the legitimacy and validity of claims to sustain authority — to say that the challenge does not simply have to be human rights based but can also be articulated on the basis of poor economic management.

It is to suggest that the challenge can more usefully be sustained on the basis of the regime’s painfully evident failures in economic management.

It is for the opposition forces to address these limitations and demonstrate cogently how it can do better in terms of fair, equitable and profitable resource management that would sustain a sound economy.

Hardly three months before the presidential and parliamentary elections, there is no indication from the respective parties about their policies on these issues, besides continual critiques of the patently obvious collapse.

As it is, Zimbabwe presents a perfect case study for students of management on how not to manage economic resources. It does not need the apparel of human rights to demonstrate these failures.

But in challenging the power structures, it is necessary to articulate a position focussing squarely on these specific failures and how the opposition hopes to do better. That way, there is movement and diversity from the cyclical human rights debate towards those aspects to which the regime can have no ground to stand on.

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