End of innocence: Re-imagining opposition, civil society in Zim

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MDC Alliance leader Nelson Chamisa addressing a rally.

IF there has ever been a nation that lives on an inexhaustible dose of hope, it is Zimbabwe! So many millions of Zimbabweans finally realise that something is seriously wrong with the way the government is handling our economic, political and social affairs.

Brian T Kagoro
Lawyer

MDC Alliance leader Nelson Chamisa addressing a rally.

If Zimbabwe is viewed as democratising post the November 2017 coup, it is mainly because democracy has been trivialised to the point at which it is no longer threatening to political elites within Zanu PF, who may now embrace democracy and enjoy democratic legitimacy without subjecting themselves to the rigorous inconveniences of democratic practice.

The question, therefore, is whether civil society and the political opposition in Zimbabwe could play a critical transformational role in the post-coup period by assuming the following roles:

Radical transformation of the status quo;

Ensuring adherence to the tenets of constitutionalism , human rights and rule of law;

Empowering citizens to reclaim and exercise their rights (socio-economic, cultural, civil and political);

Strengthening the capacity of citizens to demand accountability from those that wield state and/or economic power in society; and
Confronting and transforming unjust forms of social, economic and political power at all levels.

Over the last three decades, Zimbabwean civil society has achieved many milestones and also missed some obvious opportunities. Some of the milestones that civil society has achieved include: Normative victories such as the struggle for the new constitution finally achieved in 2013; the ratification of international, regional and national human rights norms and enforcement mechanisms, etc.

There, however, is growing pessimism regarding the continuity and effectiveness of human rights norms and law in overall national democratisation and development processes. More so, given the silo approach to human rights. Human rights normative frameworks and laws need to be reinforced by, among others, economic reforms, comprehensive state reforms and transnational and domestic advocacy efforts in order to be effective. In particular, human rights (for example voting rights, pre-trial rights, affirmative action for women and other minorities, etc.) do not seem to lead to structural change, let alone behavioural and attitudinal change in the absence of other factors of struggle.

The growth of a professionalised and bureaucratised civil society in Zimbabwe has also unwittingly led to the de-politicisation and over-legalisation of social struggles and the hijacking of struggle spaces by a conservative lawyer class (my learned colleagues). These tend to reduce human rights to a technicist legal social engineering exercise (for example, litigation and legal drafting) as opposed to politically conscious social struggles about being, becoming and belonging. This tendency has increased in the post-coup period because of the illusion that courts were more amenable to grant objective judgments in certain cases.

Conservative lawyerisation of social struggles has led to a visceral reaction by certain elements within the broader civil society to what they perceive as an ideologically shallow pre-occupation with institutionalised individualism.

A few amongst non-governmental organisation (NGO) leaders have amassed both influence and wealth from social do-goodism, merchandising the plight of the oppressed and sheer dishonest means. However, the generalisation that all NGO leaders only articulate certain issues because they are paid to do so is as shallow as it is ignorant.

I am aware of the work impelled by consciousness that some lawyers, social workers and political scientists do. However, in the post-coup period it is important to take note of the dichotomy between procedural and substantive transformation and justice. It is also important to attend to the ethical and ideological ambiguities as well as the difference between fighting to transform a system and merely struggling for opportunities to enter the elite spaces.

I get the sense that after decades of fighting against the Mugabe regime some of the civil society leaders are simply fatigued, depressed or traumatised to have to fight a new form of authoritarian state. Elevated levels of depression amongst human rights workers (as well as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), arising out of negative appraisals about human rights work need to be taken into account in understanding the post-coup civil society in Zimbabwe.

Hope and scepticism

The actual and present condition of Zimbabwe is one of deep trouble, a deeper trouble than the worst imposed during the Mugabe years. There are several centres of power (official and unofficial) and no urgent realisation of the imperative of social dialogue.

The new regime says the right things and yet in essence it is a harsh government that rules by diktat with an unmitigated sense of impunity and arbitrariness. Even the most ardent Zanu PF supporters are continually asking: “Do you think these chaps know what they are doing? Do you think there is still time to turn this economy around?”

Everyone realises that we are tottering on the edge of either a breakthrough or an unmitigated disaster.

Among certain sections of the elite, there is a belief that Mnangagwa is “sincere” and should be given enough time to implement his version of glasnost and perestroika in Zimbabwe. Amongst the poor, despair rots civil society and, as demonstrated by the August 1 2018 extra-judicial killing of citizens, the state has increasingly become hostile to anything else but opinions that affirm and celebrate the incumbent. The cost of living has skyrocketed in the past few months and prices of basic commodities have bolted out of the reins of rational control. In light of all these challenges, many have begun to ask: “Where is the opposition in all this and where is civil society?”

Who is to blame?

There is a near-religious belief that something positive must happen to alleviate the suffering of the broad mass of the people. Some are of the opinion that, “Zimbabweans have not suffered enough yet”. But, what is that quantum of suffering that constitutes “enough”? And is critical consciousness that leads to redemptive political action necessarily an outcome of deeper suffering? Are citizens to blame because they cheered the coupsters on in November 2017?

Is the opposition to blame because it naively enabled the renewal of Zanu PF without obtaining prior constitutional and other political guarantees in November 2017? Are we all to blame for failing to use the electoral process on July 30 2018 to clean house across the political divide? Is it the international community whose hand was so visible in attempting to manipulate a result in favour of a particular faction aligned to Western and Eastern interests? Are Sadc and the AU to blame for playing the role of marriage officer or undertaker during both the November 2017 coup and the July 30 2018 plebiscite? Is it all the above?

Little time left and trust imperative

There is need for honest optimism as well as nuanced scepticism. I believe that Zimbabwe still has time to turn herself around but, as each day passes, the time left is very little. What then can Zimbabweans do to get the country turned from a course of self-destruction to economic structural transformation guided by a capable democratic developmental state?

John Maxwell argues that “You build trust with others each time you choose: integrity over image, truth over convenience, or honour over personal gain”.
Both parties struggled on various fronts and to varying degrees with integrity versus pre-occupation with image, subordination of truth in the interest of convenience and personal gain versus the critical question of honour. We transacted the July 30 2018 election in a severe ideological and ethical vacuum.

The opposition managed to raise 22 presidential candidates and more than 100 political parties that hardly spoke to each other. The 2018 election confirmed what previous elections had already aptly demonstrated, namely that the collective Zimbabwean experience is that in order to effectively democratise and dislodge Zanu PF’s stranglehold on power, opposition parties need each other.

They need to be united to counter the threat of militarisation of the state and politics, marginalisation, rapacious corruption and the more established opposition political parties may have accomplished the consolidation of whatever little gains. No one opposition political party can be a sustainable miracle if all other political parties are under-developed, structurally, ideologically, financially and ethically weak.

A turnaround strategy

Realising all this begs the question “what then is that genuine turn-around strategy that will recover our national sanity”? The answer before November 2017 and indeed July 30 2018 seemed simple enough: “Elect a president and a parliament who understand and believe in the constitution, rule of law, separation of powers, human rights, inclusive national development governance and will fight to take Zimbabwe to a place of pride amongst the comity of nations.”

The ballot did not deliver the change that many had hoped for. The election has come and gone and it seems almost a foregone conclusion that power is safely back in the hands of the men in uniform, perhaps more than ever before.

Street credibility and statecraft

The opposition and civil society have done a lot over the last two decades to stop the unbridled advance of autocracy and kleptocracy in Zimbabwe. This may have happened at the expense of thorough institution building. As such, the research and ideation capacity of the opposition is relatively weak, as is its ability to engage issues of geo-economy and geo-politics.

The diplomatic competence of the opposition is much weaker than its street credibility and ability to organise and mobilise at rallies. The business of statecraft requires a delicate balance between the street level and boardroom level or power corridor politics.

There exists a mismatch between how the opposition is perceived in the broader African region and internationally versus its levels of popularity within the country.

The opposition and civil society in Zimbabwe face severe funding and resourcing challenges. In part because of perceptions amongst certain donor circles of a change regime and also because civil society has severally been caught in transparency gaps. However, the most critical challenge pertains to the following:

Building a new national consensus on the content and process of Zimbabwe’s transformation (i.e. the social contract);

Identifying and developing new innovative ways of re-energising the base around a minimum programme of action (the constituency challenge); and
Articulating in intelligible terms the agenda for transformation and the reasons why such transformation is needed (the communication and explanatory challenge).

Searching for redemption?

I read a poster recently whose author is unknown to me that simply cautioned as follows: “Watch your thoughts, for they become your words. Watch your words, for they become your actions. Watch your actions, for they become your habits. Watch your habits, for they become your character. Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”

It is exactly 20 years since the launch of the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA) in 1998, 26 years since the establishment of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Association (ZimRights) and 30 years since the anti-corruption demonstration by University of Zimbabwe (UZ) students with support from the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU). It is high time the opposition and civil society introspected.

The opposition and civil society are likely to differ in their approach to several aspects of the Mnangagwa regime. Their judgment of the sincerity of the regime may be similar, but their strategic and tactical approaches may differ significantly.

In an environment where civil society is trying hard to assert its independence from both the ruling party and the opposition as well as redeem lost trust amongst its key constituencies, the innocence of old has not been lost.

Zimbabwean civil society has experienced the opposition and the ruling party in power (during the post-2008 Government of National Unity and Global Political Agreement) as well as within local authorities. It has clear judgments of lines of synergy and points of difference between itself and the opposition.

The opposition has attempted the go-it-alone and limited coalition approaches and paid a significant price for disunity. It does not require a rocket scientist to persuade an opposition in search of redemption to understand the imperative of inclusive leadership and inclusive politics.

Kagoro is a local lawyer. He was instrumental in the formation of Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition. He has served as a consultant for several regional organisations, including the African Union Commission, New Partnership for Africa’s Development and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. He has published a number of articles on Zimbabwean and world politics. — Twitter: @TamukaKagoro77.

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