The hurdles to collective action in Zim

By Levi Kabwato

A LONG time ago a farmer decided to deal with a troublesome mouse once and for all. The plan was to set a very lethal mousetrap. Upon realising that his life was threatened, the mouse enlisted the services of a cock at the farm to disarm this mousetrap.

The mouse pleaded with the cock to help him pointing out that this mousetrap would be fatal for someone at the farm in the future. The cock sarcastically retorted that it was only the mouse who was under the direct threat of this trap and it was his business to deal with the trap on his own.

 

The mouse unhappily walked away and asked a cow if she could help in this predicament only to receive the same answer as the one which had been given by the cock.

As time went by the trap caught a snake one night and the farmer went to investigate and possibly celebrate the end of the troublesome mouse, only to be bitten by the angry snake. As the health of the farmer deteriorated it became necessary to kill the cock in order to make chicken soup in the hope it would help cure the farmer. The farmer eventually died and it became necessary to slaughter the cow to feed the gathering mourners. The mouse was very sad to watch his friends die in these painful circumstances.

 

The mousetrap was everybody’s business after all.

This sad story captures the problem of collective action in Zimbabwe today.  As William Heath writes, “…the mere fact that people know that a certain social change would be in their interest does not mean that they will have an incentive to do anything about it.”

One of the reasons why the oppressed — especially those who constitute the middle class — will be reluctant to do anything about their situation is that they live fairly comfortable lives and that “revolutions are risky business” to them.

The Zimbabwe crisis has at the centre of it a middle class that generally benefited from the chaos that plagued the erstwhile breadbasket of Africa over the past years. Indeed, many from this class have become rich overnight.

 

While some left the country for greener pastures others stayed behind to benefit from the money sent in by those in the diaspora. This state of affairs made those who were living relatively comfortable lives and capitalising on the chaos in Zimbabwe more reluctant to join the revolution preferring to mind their own “businesses”.

 

An end to tyranny and the chaos associated with it would also spell the end of their hay-making days so they preferred the oppressor’s sunshine to shine forever.

It is such shortsightedness and selfishness that has stalled the struggle for democracy in Zimbabwe and is underlined by the thinking that unemployment, poverty, hunger — among other calamities affecting the poorest of Zimbabweans — is none of their business. But then, an unemployed, hungry poor population will steal and rob from the rich and possibly kill them in the process.

Secondly, the oppressed suffer from a “free-rider” problem in which one party quietly hopes the other will revolt against the oppressors, meeting all the costs that come with such activity at no expense whatsoever to them.

 

This follows from the observation that agents naturally desire to have other agents fight their battles for them but still share the spoils equally. Freedom is a public good that can be enjoyed by everybody regardless of their participation in the revolution so why participate? This is perhaps the greatest plague that has resulted in the regression of the Zimbabwean revolution.

It would seem that people are too busy to be bothered about political activity, even the simple task of registering as a voter. Besides why must you face the prospect of being arrested and being beaten up when Morgan Tsvangirai (Movement for Democratic Change) and Lovemore Madhuku (National Constitutional Assembly) can be beaten on your behalf?

Take student politics as another example of how students have completely abandoned the struggle for fear of being expelled from college. Most students have done a cost-benefit analysis and elected to stay out of politics for fear of not obtaining their degrees. What the students have conveniently forgotten is, if they together put a united front against the oppressor, the oppressor would be in a weaker position.

There is no way, for example, 5 000 students will ever be expelled from the University of Zimbabwe in the aftermath of a mass protest. The “if you injure one you injure all” (we need to reprint these T-shirts) spirit that became the heart of student politics in the early 1990s when the likes of Professor Arthur Mutambara led student activism seem to have deserted student politics at present. Ironically, as long as the political problems are not dealt with, high unemployment will still be common, much to the detriment of the non-participating agents.

Many scholars agree that the state never has enough resources (army, police, and intelligence) to deal with well-coordinated collective action. The army, for instance, will never have the capacity to spread across an entire country at the same time. But also, these agents of violence live with the masses and share the same everyday challenges with them. They do not sleep and eat at State House. However, because the state is able to coordinate and concentrate its resources, aptly maximising on legislation and the rational behaviour of the oppressed, it will be more than capable of containing dissent and punishing those who oppose it.

But the masses — the oppressed — are disjointed making it risky business for any one individual to engage the oppressor because there simply is no guarantee that other oppressed members of society will join in. In Zimbabwe the police, weak as they may be, have been known to apprehend a significant proportion of transgressors. The idea behind this, usually, is to instil fear in the minds of the citizenry by using the apprehended transgressors as living examples of what consequences can befall those who speak against the state so that they refrain from challenging the regime.

The point here is not to incite the masses but to highlight this obvious weakness of the state. This, also, is not an attempt at inciting public violence but a genuine effort to make the masses aware of the potential power they hold over tyranny and fear.

There is likely to be an election in Zimbabwe this year. As we approach this election, all Zimbabweans would do well to remember that despite one’s position of advantage, misgovernance, unemployment, poverty and corruption affects all of us directly or indirectly. Apathy will only enhance the advantage of the oppressor. Let us remember that the oppressor’s brutality is directly proportional to his vulnerability and fear of the mind of the oppressed.

Hence, there is an urgent is need to synchronise the efforts of students, labour, peasants, opposition political parties and civil society. Any success of the fight for freedom in Zimbabwe will depend on how the oppressed conduct and organise themselves between now and the day of the election this year. If not for ourselves then for posterity’s sake!

 

  • Levi Kabwato is the Media and Communications Officer for the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition’s regional office in Johannesburg.

 

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