Why protests are important

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Dumisani Muleya

LAST night as I was scrolling down latest postings — usually not very useful except for banter and comic relief — on our WhatsApp chat group feed with former journalism training classmates, I came across a quote by Howard Zinn, an American historian, playwright and socialist thinker, and immediately seized on it. I was scrambling to find something interesting to write under deadline pressures and here was a God-send quote by Zinn:

Editor’s Memo Dumisani Muleya

“Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is that people all over the world have obeyed the dictates of leaders … and millions have been killed because of this obedience … Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war, and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient, while the jails are full of petty thieves … (and) the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem.”

This aptly describes Zimbabweans in many ways, particularly as the country faces today’s anti-government protests which are a litmus test in that regard. That’s why the regime was battling to prohibit them last night.

Even if Zimbabweans have over recent years tried to push back against government brutality and failure, their docility still remains largely undeniable and scandalous.

Former American ambassador to Harare Christopher Dell described Zimbabweans at the height of the economic meltdown and hyperinflation under toppled dictator Robert Mugabe as “famously passive”.

While acknowledging Mugabe as shrewd and brutal, Dell also observed that Zimbabweans are passive — ready to accept something without protest, or to do what someone else wants without asking questions. The only question Zimbabweans generally ask when asked to jump is: how high?

While indeed Mugabe was a brilliant tactician and thrived on his ability to abruptly change the rules of the game, radicalise the political dynamics and force everyone else to react to his agenda, as Dell said, he was aided and abetted in his misrule by Zimbabweans through acts of commission, omission, or both.
People generally get a government they deserve.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa may not enjoy the same aura and popular support as Mugabe at the zenith of his power, but there are some Zimbabweans blindly following him; believing in him hook, line and sinker, hence supporting him to the hilt.

Even youths — who must be the ones fighting for change, not just as today’s heartbeat of society, but future leaders — also support him blindly and in the process ruin their own future.

As Nigerian Nobel Prize laureate Wole Soyinka suggested in a social commentary about his country, one can also say only in Zimbabwe will thieves be regrouping to loot and youths whose future is being stolen will be celebrating that.

Zimbabwean youths, especially those with Zanu PF connections, have become notoriously complicit in the destruction of their own future. As long as they share the loot or pick up crumbs from their masters’ tables, they are happy to tag along.

Yet the truth is that protests are so fundamental to human rights and democratic progress.

There are many reasons why today’s protests are important, from a party political, but democratic perspective. The demonstrations will make people realise they are not alone in their poverty and suffering. They may also set the agenda and start a new debate on governance and the country’s direction.

Those in power may try to ignore people if they are just passively grumbling, but if they take action they will feel the heat and start engaging. That is when debate and national dialogue begin, and solutions emerge.

If the authorities feel that demonstrations are going nowhere; they will remain stuck in their fossilised mindset and it becomes business as usual.

Conversely, if protests have a critical mass, are co-ordinated and sustained, the status quo becomes untenable and unsustainable. Then people can start talking.

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