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Defining an inclusive Zimbabwean civil society compass (Thinking with and beyond 2018)

By Takura Zhangazha

A Presentation to the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute Civil Society Think Tank Meeting. 

Takura Zhangazha
Takura Zhangazha

Cde Chairman,

I would like to begin by thanking you for inviting me to this key Zimbabwe Democracy Institute (ZDI) civil society think tank meeting.  I have been advised by  the organizers that the  primary objective of this meeting is to find common ground for pro-democracy activists on key rallying points for civil society as the country undergoes what is an inevitable but default transition. It’s a transition  that in my view is now regrettably based on how long the current incumbent president can retain his hold on power.

Either by way of the internal succession dynamics of the ruling Zanu Pf party or anticipation of the inevitability of incapacitation motivated by age leading to resignation or demise in office of the current incumbent.

And this is invariably the talk that is dominating public and private discourse.

So ZDI is correct to indicate that the country is undergoing a form of transition.  One that many may not be comfortable with, but a transition all the same.

The definitions of the nature of this transition already differs not only between members of the ruling party and their adherent ‘factions’ but also among opposition political players as well as those from mainstream civil society that leans toward various strands of democratic change and that which is keen on operating within the context of the status quo.

Either way, there are certain realities that transcend assumptions or knowledge of an ongoing transition that many Zimbabweans, deliberately or by default, are now well in full anticipation of.

And these are realities that must inform the manner in which pro-democracy civil society pursues its agenda.  Even before we begin to address civil society’s own realities.

The first political reality for all Zimbabweans is that the past, especially where it relates to assumptions of assuming our politics have directly opposite and ideological ends, is effectively over.

Even if we wished it had stayed.  The ruling Zanu Pf is in effective ascendancy over a perpetually divided mainstream opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T) and it’s offshoots.

For many who have suffered premeditated state and ruling party sanctioned or sponsored political violence for expressing opinions or mobilizing views different from those of the state and ruling party this is a truth we would prefer not to confront with reason but what can only be referred to as understandable anger.

But to be fair to the country and to those that would pursue an alternative path to the establishment both now and in the future we need to be candid and anticipate what’s occurring as well as what is on its way politically.

This aforementioned ascendancy of Zanu Pf is essentially positioning itself for an unassailable hegemonic dominance over Zimbabwean society.

In other words it is not just political or about political rallies.  It has become a sum total of not only how the ruling establishments can comfortably shoulder  fights amongst its elites, deride the opposition and potential coalitions as placing ‘one zero upon another zero’ and not changing the latter’s essential lack of value as a counter- hegemonic project.

This would essentially mean that even in the event of a Zanu Pf loss of its current leader, the opposition may still remain unable to take complete advantage of what it would perceive of as a transition.

And where we add new civil society statements on national transitional authorities, far from being in a position of strength, they remain an indication of the sense of powerlessness of pro-democracy civil society.

In other words and thus far, we are  anticipating and ‘prophesying ’ in order to warn the ‘non-believing’ multitudes against a pending nasty turn of political events.  Or where we have acted, we have sought a radicalism that, while important and sometimes driven by the effective use of social media,  has been at best ephemeral in its impact on national debate.

It has however had a profound impact on how the struggle is increasingly being perceived in short term frameworks that regrettably remain ungrounded in clear strategic thinking or without any ideological praxis/consciousness.

The reasons for these developments are multilayered but a key one has been the fact civil society organizations have been having challenges understanding the full import of the incrementalist/ minimal but progressive change they contributed to when supporting or deriding the inclusive government’s  COPAC process.

The compromise nature of the constitution meant that it was never going to ‘hit the ground running’.  The new constitution did not signify a revolutionary moment.  It signified forward motion but not arrival.  And it is this progressive forward motion that mainstream civil society is still grappling four years on to try and protect.

But in essence, we still have to analyze the fact that there are some issues that can be key rallying points that mainstream civil society can use.

I have identified these as fivefold, namely elections, constitutionalism, young peoples democratic consciousness, the national economy and freedom of expression/media freedom.

The first rallying point which is that of elections is pointed out because we are already a year away from general/harmonised  elections.  The inevitability of the harmonized election dominating public discourse essentially means that civil society has to rally around finding common ground on key electoral issues.  And the most important electoral issue that will confront civil society is that of biometric voter registration.

Not only in relation to the fact that it is most likely that civil society will be excluded from the civic education process of the same but more importantly in relation to having clear positions on supporting the process altogether.  And this is key. Ambiguity on the part of civil society will lead to greater public confusion and an electoral process that will be neither democratic nor popularly legitimate.

The second rallying point of civil society is that of ensuring that the principle and practice of democratic constitutionalism is made more popular.  This is despite the fact that there is limited knowledge of the constitution itself to warrant immediate public outcry.  But someone has to start from somewhere and this is beyond reacting to government’s decisions to attempt to amend an already inert national document.  This is however not only linked to electoral processes but must be positioned to be ongoing, perennial and beyond 2018.

The third significant rallying point for civil society must be that of integrating the current and potential consciousness of young Zimbabweans into all of their programmes and advocacy campaigns. The activism characterised by gatekeeping and refusing to pass on struggle knowledge and experience to young activists will not help mainstream civil society in the least.

If there are organisations that do not still consider it a priority to work with young Zimbabweans they are basically not geared to survive in the near future. Young citizens are yearning for a new consciousness which extends beyond slogans and social media.

At the moment very few civil society organisations are providing this. Or if they are, in some cases, it is to perpetuate the traditional politics of exclusion of young 18-35 year olds.

On this I will give my own personal example of how growing up reading all sorts of literature on activism and ideological arguments was easier because there were organisations that were the homes of debates and progressive arguments. Nowadays young citizens get subjected largely to dogma and not debate or engagement.  Where the latter minimally occurs it is with ideas that lack application to national and regional social democratic struggle contexts.

The fourth element that civil society must galvanise around is that of the state of the national economy. And this not just in the political parlance of how ‘the economy will scream’ and eventually bring down the incumbent government by default.

Civil society needs to look at the economy in ideological terms and remember even if they don’t agree with Marxism they must remember the key analytical tool that is looking at issues from a ‘base and superstructure’ perspective.  And even if there are differences in ideological perspectives of economic development, these must at least be debated and allowed to compete for popular support.

Such an approach will help Zimbabweans understand not only the role of the state in a national economy but also where the argumentation is informed by the democratic values of transparency and accountability will also go a long way in combating the endemic corruption that is characteristic of state capitialism.

The final rallying cry for civil society within the context of an expanding reach of the interent and it’s offshoot, social media is freedom of expression , the media and access to information. Civil society needs to rally against criminal defamation and the attendant victimisation of social media activists for expressing their views. Even if these views are on the president or on the state of civil society itself. Where we begin to abandon protecting freedom of expression we fall victim to a state that will happily charge people with treason for expressing views on social media.

In conclusion,  Cde Chairman, I do not think that these rallying points can be singulalry themed.  They can however be inter linked through a structural social movement approach that transcends either electoral or funding cycles. Such an approach would be characterised by civil society being more candid about the realities it faces and where it stops blowing in the direction of ephemeral political events,  overcoming a subservient preoccupation with pre-determined  Zanu PF or opposition succession dynamics and staying focused on values, principles and the passing on of struggle knowledge to younger generations of activists.

*Takura Zhangazha presents/writes here in his personal capacity. The views expressed here are his own.  (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com )