#ThisFlag, #Tajamuka: Zim’s democratic counter-narratives

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Zimbabwe’s current political economy is indefensibly decaying and doing so with cataclysmic effects on people’s livelihoods.

Tamuka Chirimambowa & Tinashe Chimedza: Academics

The economy has all but stagnated and the informal sector has become an income mainstay — we are talking about buying and selling tomatoes; buying and selling second-hand clothes on pavements.

Agriculture is locked in perennial turmoil and command agriculture is only helping the elite expropriate more state largesse. The state bureaucracy has become an extractive network of state institutions — everything is commoditised and taxed; toll gates are pervasive; police roadblocks are given targets; council debt collectors have become aggressive; usurious custom duties are normal and the list goes on. There is pervasive agreement that the status quo must be transformed; the war vets have openly rebelled and there is growing demand for opposition coalitions to build political power to upend an ancien political order. Even those within Zanu PF are increasingly calling for the “owners of this project” to press for change.

On the economic front the bond notes are just a provisional ineffective patchwork to a deep-seated structural malaise which cannot be resolved without addressing the non-productive economy. By actively campaigning to expose those with political power, #This Flag social movement’s Pastor Evan and Advocate Fadzai Mahere, #Tajamuka/Sesijikile’s Promise Mkwananzi and other activists going back to Itai Dzamara’s #Occupy Africa Unity Square are expanding the ranks of those that have struggled against a political regime which has decayed and only exists to profiteer on people’s taxes, literally — if you doubt this profiteering, witness a first lady who spends US$1,35 million on a ring which is the equivalent of paying for close to 200 nurses’ salaries for a whole year.

The advent of information communication technologies like Facebook Live, YouTube channels, WhatsApp groups, live streaming applications, Twitter and Instagram, has shifted and expanded the concept of the public sphere and the public forum.

Communication is power and with it comes the possibility of building counter-narratives and eventually counter-power contrasted to those with nationalist authoritarian state power. The advent of these forms of communication also implies that the old forms of the “public forum” are being disrupted, re-organised and partially displaced by innovative, creative and even cheaper forms of instantaneous communication. In the 1990s and partly into the 2000s, the public forum that used to be held in hotels, or the town hall meeting was a necessary forum yet this form of citizen engagement was an unwilling prisoner of geography. It is now possible to argue assertively that these new forms of communication actually constitute effective public forums in themselves. In certain instances, these forums of citizen engagement have escaped the nervous eye of police surveillance and organisers do not have to contend with state security harassment. Facebook Live and/or a YouTube can actively engage thousands of citizens in some cases far beyond what the old town hall meeting or the rally can do — some of the videos are shared virally. While there are limitations to these forms of citizen engagement, these are not debilitating.

It is necessary to build counter-narratives that expose the decadence of the “party-state” and social media plays a critical role in this process. The recent interview, live, of Joice Mujuru by Fadzai Mahere (viewed and shared by over 35 000) makes possible the direct questioning of those with political power, putting pressure on them and putting them on notice that the alert citizen is watching. The ruling political class has maintained a Stalinist hold on public media, especially TV and radio, and they recently rejected the launch of Kwese TV. The discussions on social media can no longer be dismissed as a “past-time” for armchair critics because opinions are being shaped by these mediums like Twitter, YouTube, Facebook Live, etc.

Social media is becoming a “gold mine” for the tech-savvy political actor. In Zambia, President Edgar Lungu now has a weekly broadcast on Facebook; in Kenya President Uhuru Kenyatta has bypassed the “older generation” to get the younger voters and more excited electorate. Private newspapers like NewsDay, Daily News, Zimbabwe Independent and The Standard have kept this flame burning. Let us be real here: the teenager is likely to read H-Metro, watch YouTube videos, spend time on Facebook, or follow Twitter debates and know more about “Stunner and Olinda“ or “Andy and Bev”. This is the generation that will vote, it has no time for rallies, for polemic political essays, newspapers and research papers; it is the selfie-obsessed narcissistic generation and they consume news in sound-bites not rumbling speeches done by old pot-bellied men.

Brian Raftopoulos argued that Zimbabwe’s political economy has been re-configured. The almost complete disappearance of the “working class” and its numeric power means that projects to mobilise and engage citizens have to be re-thought, re-organised and in some cases the old way of doing things must be creatively discarded. This reconfiguration has a concrete bearing on the strategies and tactics of those engaged in the project for a democratic Zimbabwe. The question that arises is: how do those wanting a better Zimbabwe organise the different social groups: the “shrinking working class”, students, youths, women, vendors, public sector workers, commuter omnibus operators, tuckshop owners, cross-border traders and “new farmers”. What it implies here is that mobilising the citizen has become a much more sophisticated theatre and old tactics wash away like soap in water and the social and political power of civil society becomes all but “thin air” interspersed by bombastic press statements issued without the backing of political power. Such things tyranny glees at.

In the 1990s and running into the 2000s, civil society generated political and social power by actively focusing on material questions that affected the everyday life of people. The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) did not conjure its social and political power from prophecies, heresy or from supernatural sources. The political and social power of the ZCTU, the student movement, women’s movement, residents’ association and human rights groups, was built from engaging directly with the citizen and projecting the people’s agenda at a national level.

The battles of the last two decades spectacularly achieved in delivering “institutions” that unfortunately now spent more resources on organisational development, monitoring and evaluation reports, donor roundtable meetings and strategic planning sessions. Manoeuvring within the maze of donor networks and institutional conundrums consume far more energy than organising concrete social and political power. What has set in is the old “square-cube law”: as the institutions grow in size so does the energy and resources needed to just keep it alive, which has nothing to do with the initial objective of setting up the institution.

There is a class of leaders, activists, non-governmental organisation workers and labour activists who made immense contributions to the struggle for democracy in Zimbabwe. Unfortunately, they now constitute a self-congratulatory ecclesiastical impenetrable order given to its own mendacity. Their place in history is indelible and is marked in the advent of the new Constitution for Zimbabwe as a culmination of an intense political struggle.

Their place in history and on the side of the citizens is sealed, it is not in doubt. Often, this has been achieved with high personal costs and sacrifices. But here is a point of excruciating pain: rather than recruit, train, equip, support and mentor new waves of younger leaders, activists and so on, they have become comfortable in singing about yesterday’s battles. Yes, they sing in nostalgic fashion gloating over their wine and beer glasses, designing frameworks to define authentic activists and anything that falls outside their ancient reminisces is quickly thrown out as “sell out” and “reactionary”. When this “high priesthood” organises any sort of forums, it becomes a forum for reminiscing old networks, everyone in the room is familiar with each other and there is no one new. The man or woman at the presentation table continues thundering and hammering points to a converted few, with the same ideas and at the same venue they met 19 years ago.

There are new opinion makers on the rise, they are building influence to a very wide audience, including within social groups that have been politically inactive and at times indifferent. One does not have to agree with their methods, but a little bit of intellectual honesty will point to the fact that they are opinion makers when they tweet, post something on YouTube or Facebook and is instantly viewed by 50 000 people.

The social media presence also projects the ordinary citizens’ views into the African and global arena where Zanu PF’s ideologues have distorted what is at stake in Zimbabwe. As the old saying goes “truth is incontrovertible”.

While the “old guard” is ensconced in its “earned” boardroom chairs, there are new opinion makers that are emerging. History is replete with examples where those who have attempted to defy the winds of change have been overtaken by time. Institutions and people that do not reform themselves and insist on old Burke’s wisdom that “the old is good” have often found themselves redundant. The immutable “law” sketched by Darwin kicks in here and we re-state it again: it is not the strongest, but the best able to adapt that survive.

#ThisFlag, #Tajamuka/Sesijikile and #Occupy Africa Unity Square point to the fact that the pro-democracy movement is socially and politically active only outside the parochial definitions of the last decade. What have shifted are the methods of engagement, the forums of contestation and in some cases even the players are new.

While the old activist will only respect the “tent” with the biggest numbers, the terrain is shifting and new forms of social movement contestation are emerging. A close reading of history reveals that no transformative political movement gladiates teleologically from one victory to another victory; such things even the Papacy cannot conjure. Political struggles develop in a non-linear way, especially when confronting a fascist tyranny, which has morphed into becoming the state itself. The tyrant does not sleep at all, he organises listening posts among the people and continues panicking. Every whisper, conversation, movement and song is listened to and treated like a subterranean ferment because the tyrant always thinks here they go again these plebeians sharpening the guillotine for my neck.

The evidence of non-sleep in the laager is galore; just watch how everyone is required to pitifully prostrate themselves and declare that the “dear leader is God-chosen”, “only second to Christ”, a “modern Moses”, is now a “spirit medium”, must be declared “life president”, recantations that “I have no ambitions”, that there is only “one centre of power” and that “only a Mugabe can rule Zimbabwe”. Watch the First Lady vociferously “slashing and burning” real or perceived opponents publicly declaring that the dear leader’s ghost will “rule either from a wheelchair” or “from the grave”. Remember Joseph Stalin’s mausoleum — they pulverised it when Russia recovered her senses.

The old and the new have to get together in couching new counter-hegemonic narratives to construct counter-power so as to democratise the state and expand opportunities for citizens. So, the question that most people ask: does social media replace the more traditional modes and strategies of organising? Here we mean public display of political power and engagement like rallies, or the door-to-door campaigns, or the more contentious street protests and or boycotts of certain political targets.

The responsibility of a dynamic leadership is to adjust and respond adequately to the objective demands of the concrete conditions. The political struggle does not make its participants “fall in love” at the “touch of a hand”, there is constant intense exchange of ideas. Zanu PF has bequeathed us a viciously atavistic violent state apparatus which extracts and intimidates; which strikes terror and indoctrinates; which rots the national moral fibre and corrupts its young; which expropriates and feeds obese and whose leaders view the citizens as subjects to be superintended over like the colonial native.

Ultimately, we are searching for a democratic, prosperous Zimbabwe where every citizen can freely assert their self-initiative without the ghost or the spectre of the police state constantly irritating his or her mind — in that struggle the ranks and pews of the believers must be actively replenished — purposefully.

Chirimambowa is a co-founder of the Institute for Public Affairs in Zimbabwe (Ipaz) and is currently reading for a D Litt et Phil in Development Studies at the University of Johannesburg and Chimedza is co-founder of Ipaz and has published on democracy and elections in Zimbabwe and studied Social Inquiry. Ipaz is a public research organisation focussed on empirical and theoretical research, debates, dialogues and exchanges aimed at enhancing public participation to expand, deepen and project citizen engagement and keep public power democratic, accountable, responsive and transparent. This paper is published as part of an ongoing public engagement and thought leadership series. — gravitas@ipazim.com

One thought on “#ThisFlag, #Tajamuka: Zim’s democratic counter-narratives”

  1. Rejoice Sundirai says:

    Thank you for this well thought out write up with well articulated issues.
    However it left me profoundly powerless as I have not the slightest idea of where we can ever find “a responsible dynamic leadership which can adjust and respond adequately to the objective demands of the concrete conditions”

    Also I am struggling to visualize who will take responsibility for actively and purposefully replenishing the “ranks and pews of the believers’ . We are in for a long haul!!!

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