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Luke-ing the Beast in the Eye: The triumph of non-violent people power: Lessons from History

By Luke Tamborinyoka

In any country, it is the people–and not the leaders—who are sovereign. As long as they engage in massive peaceful action within the precincts of their respective Constitutions, it is always the within the remit of ordinary citizens to sculpt, redefine and determine the manner in which they ought to be governed.

Luke-ing the Beast in the Eye with Luke Batsirai Tamborinyoka
Luke-ing the Beast in the Eye with Luke Batsirai Tamborinyoka

In the case of Zimbabwe, section 59 of the Constitution, written and affirmed by the people themselves in a referendum in May 2013, gives citizens the inalienable right to protest and petition the government, provided they do it peacefully and in line with the dictates of the supreme law of the land.

In the run-up to and in the aftermath of the July 31 2020, there has been a flurry of statements, nay a hubbub of noises from the regime in Harare ostensibly to proscribe, malign, vilify and criminalise the people’s democratic right to protest and petition. And yet our Constitution unambiguously gives citizens the inherent right to peacefully exercise people power in order to prise open the ears of an impervious government, moreso one that pickpocketed the people’s will in July 2018.

Memory is a site of the struggle. It is a hortative realm to encourage a cowed but despondent citizenry that invariably gets frightened away from its sacred right to point out the glaring inadequacies of their own government.

Indeed, history is replete with myriad hortative incidents of peaceful, non-violent people power that fundamentally shaped and redefined the governance culture in various countries and carved out new circumstances for a people that were on the brink of losing hope.

What is ironic in Harare is how a regime that circumvented the electoral route in November 2017 is now repeatedly reminding us, ad infinitum, of its purported legitimate mandate, even if they yet again sneaked onto the citadel of authority through the pitch-dark orifice of electoral pilferage in 2018.

Now they are accusing innocent people of plotting to unleash wanton violence in the nation, yet the only large-scale violence we have ever witnessed as a country has been at the behest of the State.

Only on Tuesday this week, on the occasion of the country’s Defence Forces Day, Mnangagwa paid tribute to the military for quelling what he called foreign – sponsored violent action by the country’s civic and political groups.

The irony was lost on him that it was rogue members of the same military he was lauding that day—and to which he is Commander-in-Chief—that were fingered in the brutal violence and murder of the country’s citizens by the Motlanthe Commission of Inquiry that he appointed himself.

Today, the country’s citizenry awaits those culprits in the military to face justice in line with the recommendations of Mnangagwa’s own Commission of Inquiry. The problem in this country has never been citizen violence but State-sponsored violence that began with the Gukurahundi massacres in the early 1980s and in which Mnangagwa’s name features prominently.

This treatise seeks to give snippets of some history lessons on the utility of peaceful, non-violent people action as a prudent route in redefining new circumstances for an oppressed citizenry.

In my last instalment, I intimated on the monumental consequences of one simple non-violent gesture by one Rosa Parks, a citizen of the United States, on Thursday, 1 December 1955. Wielding no gun and brandishing no weapon at all, she refused to abet the racist laws in her country through compliance. Declining the mandatory rule to stand up and cede her seat to white passengers in the bus, Rosa remained glued to her seat so that the dignity of the black person could stand again.

Put simply, she stood up to racial segregation by sitting down. That simple, non-violent gesture triggered the Montgomery bus boycott mainly by black citizens in a move that would greatly impact on American history.

Under the leadership of Martin Luther King Jnr, a largely black population with a sprinkling of white people made a tenacious and audacious statement against racism by boycotting the racism-riven buses for almost a year until 13 November 1956 when the Supreme Court ruled that racial laws requiring segregation were unconstitutional. Throughout that whole year of boycotting the buses, the people had decided it was far much better to walk in dignity than to ride the buses in humiliation!

Peaceful, non-violent people power had triumphed yet again!

On 28 August 1963, during the Washington March, Martin Luther King Jnr electrified the 250 000 non-violent crowd when he delivered his famous I-have-a dream speech at the Lincoln Memorial. The peaceful, non-violent march culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Peaceful, non-violent people power had triumphed and redefined a people’s circumstances.

Yet again, in March 1965, Martin Luther King Jnr led the celebrated 87 kilometers march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery in the face of hostility and brutal, vicious attacks by whites. The aim of the peaceful march was to dramatise the dire need for a Federal Voting Rights Bill. The landmark legislation, the Voting Rights Act which enfranchised black people was passed into law by Congress the same year in 1965.

Peaceful, non-violent people power had triumphed by redefining a country’s laws and governance culture.

King Jnr encapsulated the efficacy of non-violent people power. On April 4 1968, when he was assassinated by a sniper as he stood on a balcony in Memphis, Tennessee, Martin Luther King Jnr had taught the world a cardinal lesson on the utility and efficacy of non-violent people power. A few weeks after his death, the Civil Rights Act was passed by Congress, an enduring testimony to what non-violent people power could achieve.

Zimbabweans must continue to be agitated and encouraged by these events from History. In any case, it is perfectly within their Constitutional right to sonorously and peacefully express themselves in order to redefine their own lived circumstances because others have done it before.

This treatise is not meant to incite but solely to give insight on how others have done it before. After all, there is a whole world of difference between incite and insight!

In any case, it is not criminal to incite a people to exercise an inalienable right that is enshrined in their own Constitution.

In June 1989, the USSR collapsed by dint of seismic but massive non-violent people action. People power led to the collapse of Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet Union and a people’s circumstances changed without a bullet being fired. The Warsaw Pact folded and in one fell swoop, the map of Western Europe was redrawn by popular movements.

Peaceful, non-violent people power had triumphed yet again.

Take note Zimbabwe. By sheer collective courage and unstinting tenacity, a people’s desperate circumstances were redrawn and redefined.

In neighbouring South Africa, despite spending 27 years in prison on Robben Island, Nelson Mandela took the route of non-violence through dialogue, negotiation and sheer political dexterity to carve out a Rainbow nation of unity, peace and development.

South Africa’s independence largely came through the CODESA talks and through negotiation; itself exogenous to the tenuous route of violence and massive loss of human life. Nelson Mandela became the embodiment of Ghandi’s notion of satyagraha or non-violence.

For his efforts, the indefatigable Madiba won the Nobel Peace Prize. Through his aversion to non-violence, Mandela exhorted an oppressed people and charmed the world through his uncanny dexterity in avoiding both the violence and needless triumphalism.

Independent South Africa has had its fair share of critics for its enduring racial inequality but we can learn a lot from Madiba about the power, efficacy and utility of exhorting an oppressed people to pursue the path of non-violence.

It was equally through the triumph of non-violent people power in the Philippines that the dictator Ferdinand Marcos fell. It remains a cardinal lesson that fraudulent elections have a knack of sealing the fate of dictators.

Like the proverbial deck of cards, Marcos’ avowed dictatorship crumbled on 22 February 1986 in the aftermath of a pilfered plebiscite. The optics of defecting soldiers and unarmed nuns confronting an armed military was the acme of the triumph of non-violent people power!

Non-violence works. Even in instances where a peaceful but agitated people’s action has been violently suppressed through murder and repression, the echoes of people power have endured. Pertinent examples are the Sharpeville massacre of 21 March 1960 and the Tiananmen Square incident in China in June 1989 which pricked the world’s conscience because of the sheer heartlessness through which desperate and oppressed voices were brutally quietened.

In the case of the Sharpeville massacre, it was clear South Africa would never be the same again, even if the oppressor for a moment appeared to have won the duel with the people. In the case of Sharpeville, it is poignant to note that even after the callous murders of innocent people, the world still listened to the voice of the oppressed and Chief Albert Luthuli deservedly won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1960.

Keep prodding, Zimbabwe. Momentous collective action by the people works and a peek into history will yield practical modules on the successive triumphs of peaceful, non-violent people power!

Closer home, it was the peaceful, non-violent but robust ZCTU-led protests in 1998 that culminated in the formation of a people’s project called the Movement for Democratic Change and eventually catapulted into the national political limelight a simple trade unionist called Morgan Richard Tsvangirai. Zimbabwe’s politics would never be the same again after the massive display of non-violent people power in 1998.

The politics of boycott represents another form of non-violence and at one point Boycott became Morgan Tsvangirai’s middle name. Notwithstanding the derisive reference by some to boycott as a prudent political and even electoral strategy, it often-times works and an example on this will suffice.

In 2008, there was a massive blood-letting of ordinary Zimbabweans by the Mugabe regime, with Mnangagwa tugging RGM’s brutal coat-tails. Hundreds if not thousands of Tsvangirai’s supporters lost their lives following his victory in the first-round poll of 29 March 2008. Morgan Tsvangirai eventually pulled out of the proposed run-off poll that was due on 27 June 2008.

Following that senseless and mindless blood-letting, I was involved in the drafting of Tsvangirai’s speech in which he announced his withdrawal from the run-off poll, even if he was to win the second round as well.

In his speech, delivered on Saturday 22 June 2008, Morgan Tsvangirai famously declared : “I refuse to walk to State House on top of dead bodies and graves.”

Because of Tsvangirai’s withdrawal, the run-off poll became a sham as both SADC and the AU said the outcome of 27 June 2008 did not represent the will of the people of Zimbabwe.

It was that profound affinity to the sanctity of non-violence by the people of Zimbabwe under the able leadership of Morgan Tsvangirai that bred the inclusive government and gave the people respite. Tsvangirai simply led the people away from a violent sham.

Peaceful, non-violent people power bred a new government and habitable national circumstances in the aftermath of the massive violence of 2007-2008. The inclusive government was a product of clean hands and an adept leadership that had simply walked away from violence, which resulted in the June 27 2008 event having a sole runner—one violent political athlete who failed to convince the world he had won the bloody race in which he had contested against himself!

Only 14 days ago in the year of our Lord 2020, Zimbabweans did it again. By collectively harping on peaceful action on 31 July 2020, the people smoked out the regime and exposed its brutality to a shocked world.

Now the regime is increasingly getting isolated and the world’s glaring eyes are now firmly trained on Zimbabwe. Indeed, our current national moment in which the human rights crisis in the country has gripped world attention represents the triumph of non-violent people power.

We in the MDC Alliance are still to mobilise for our own led action, even if we were fingered in the action which we did not call ourselves but which we supported in principle. But we have since branded 2020 as the Year of Action and it is well within our Constitutional remit to lead public demonstrations at our own chosen time.

The nature, form, content and timing of those peaceful public protests is our own business and remain a matter of strategy. And by its very nature, strategy is allergic to megaphone communication!

We will not be scared away from our Constitutional rights, even if the regime embarks on a doomed scorched earth policy to decimate the people’s party led by the people’s President, Advocate Nelson Chamisa. Now that the Zanu-PF-instigated Khupe/Mwonzora/Komichi plot to collapse the party has dismally failed, the regime is getting more and more desperate.

They are shocked that the people’s project remains standing, notwithstanding their spirited effort to collapse it. To their utter shock, Chamisa has refused to die, both literally and politically and the plot now is to sow seeds of divisions in the people’s leadership, to pursue and abduct individual leaders from their homes and to have some of them charged and convicted on trumped up charges. Several people’s leaders, journalists and activists have either been arrested, are on the police wanted list or are being stridently pursued by unmarked cars in a desperate attempt to lull a whole nation into silence.

But impunity has short legs. The people and their leadership will continue to refuse to be cowed, waiting for their own chosen moment to spring up and Constitutionally show their traction.

Indeed, history is replete with examples that show the efficacy and triumph of people power. The people, in their own chosen moment, shall boisterously express themselves in a massive and irreversible way.

There is no substitute for non-violent, collective people’s action in redefining a people’s circumstances as history has shown in the examples alluded to above.

As Federico Mayor, the former UNESCO director-General so aptly put it in 1999:

“Non-violence is a strategy for action, not inaction and certainly not docility……It is based on big ideas and over-arching ethical imperatives that are communicated in everyday gestures. Ghandi walking to the sea and silently plucking a grain of sand, Rosa Parks staying seated on the Montgomery bus, Martin Luther King and thousands of others walking to work in the famous bus boycott. ”

The nation is ready and agitated. Zimbabweans are ready. Across the vast labyrinth of this our beloved country, one can sense a society heavily pregnant with a new one.

Indeed, for those of us publicly calling for peaceful Constitutional action, the desire is neither to seek martyrdom nor sainthood. We remain concerned patriotic citizens driven by nothing else but the purity and sanctity of our cause.

Luke Tamborinyoka is the Deputy Secretary for Presidential Affairs in the MDC Alliance led by Advocate Nelson Chamisa. He is a multiple award-winning journalist who was once elected and served as the secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists.

Tamborinyoka served as spokesperson for almost 10 years to the country’s democracy icon, Morgan Tsvangirai until the latter’s death in 2018.

He is an ardent political scientist who won the Book Prize for Best Student when graduated with a Bachelor of Science Honours degree in Political Science at the University of Zimbabwe. You can interact with him on Facebook or on the twitter handle @luke_tambo.