Civil society's present and future role in Zimbabwe

By Richard Lee | July 27th, 2011

Zimbabwe is at a crossroads, so is civil society. The starting point for this paper is that Zimbabwe is in transition in its politics, economy and society and indeed

in its international engagements. Furthermore, (and this is contestable), the transition is irreversible though it can be slowed down and even stalled. Indeed, political transitions often involve taking two steps forward and one step backwards; it is the trajectory that ultimately matters.
 
Moreover, like all transitions, the Zimbabwean one is an uncertain transition both in terms of process and outcome. There are institutional factors that facilitate positive change while others militate against it. The role of human agency is to influence the trajectory of change and ensure that the outcome is a more democratic Zimbabwe. This is the central challenge for civil society today, that is, to influence the process of democratisation and keep the process on track, while blocking anti-transition efforts that seek to drive the process towards political regression and bring hard authoritarianism back in.
 
Transitioning from Authoritarianism in Zimbabwe
 
O’Donnell and Schmitter (1986, 6) are eminent scholars of political transitions and they define a political transition as:
 
“... the interval between one political regime and another. Transitions are delimited, on the one side, by the launching of the process of dissolution of an authoritarian regime and, on the other, by the installation of some form of democracy, the return to some form of authoritarian rule, or the emergence of a revolutionary alternative.”
 
Bratton and de Walle (1997, 10) echo this perspective, agreeing that a regime transition ‘is a shift from one set of political procedures to another, from an old pattern to a new one’. O’Donnell and Schmitter emphasise that characteristic features of a transition are that ‘during it the rules of the political game are not defined’ and that actors struggle ‘to define rules and procedures whose configuration will determine likely winners and losers in the future’. These features of a political transition fit the Zimbabwean case very well.
 
Authoritarianism in Zimbabwe has a long tradition. In fact, historically, Zimbabwe is more familiar with authoritarianism than with democracy. Furthermore, Zimbabwe has only experienced democracy in its minimalist sense. This resilient authoritarianism dates back to White settler colonialism that originated more than a century ago. Authoritarianism was not only a central tendency during colonialism but was part of the baggage inherited by the Black Nationalist class that captured the state in 1980. Instead of overhauling this structural inheritance in a democratic direction, the Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) regime systematically maintained and reinforced the autocratic pillars of the state. The point of belabouring this is to stress the inherent and historical endurance of Zim- babwe’s brand of authoritarianism and to warn democracy promoters in civil society about the hard struggle ahead; to borrow Nelson Mandela’s formulation, the road to democracy will be no ‘easy walk’. Authoritarianism is an integral part of Zimbabwe’s political culture and is a tough nut to crack. Our experience of the Inclusive Government (IG) to date is eloquent testimony to this.
 
Although Zimbabwe’s transition had been underway for some time – albeit often invisible to the naked eye – it was formally launched in September 2008 with the signing of what has come to be known as the Global Political Agreement (GPA). The tripartite GPA was signed by President Robert Mugabe of ZANU-PF, Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T), and Arthur Mutambara of the smaller MDC-M faction. It was no one’s best option; it was simply the least worst option.
 
Zimbabwe has a large, diverse and active civics community ranging from residents’ associations and student groups to think-tanks and trade unions. Critical watch-dog functions performed by civil society organisations (CSOs) in the democratic governance arena include election monitoring, political violence monitoring, corruption monitoring and tracking public opinion.
 
But civil society in Zimbabwe suffers from general weaknesses common to the sector across Africa as well as specific shortcomings that arise from Zimbabwe’s particular crisis. In terms of financing – and, to a lesser extent, agenda-setting – CSOs in Zimbabwe are creatures of the international donor community, which provides most of the necessary material resources. One of the key challenges confronting Zimbabwe civil society is autonomous existence. This problem exists at two levels: domestic and external. Domestically, the challenge is to free civil society from opposition politics, specifically from the MDC and particularly from the larger MDC-T formation. Internationally – and this is the less palatable part – civil society needs to be less dependent on international donors if it is to enjoy meaningful autonomy in terms of crafting its own agenda. One of the tragic realities of Zimbabwe civil society is that it has really not been anchored in its domestic constituencies, though some are more advanced in this than others.
 
As we see it, the struggle for democratisation should also be conceived at two levels; internally i.e. within the civic organisations, and externally, that is, the struggle to democratise the state and national politics. Carrying out the latter task entails another challenge, that of organising and participating in collective action. Another sad truth about Zimbabwe society is what may be characterised as a high, if not overdeveloped, sense of ‘organisational sovereignty’, by which I mean oversensitivity to organisational turf and the felt need to defend such territory. This organisational psychology militates against effective and sustained collaboration among civil society organisations as each organisation wants to do its own thing in its own way with little ‘interference’ from others.
 
Moreover, CSOs have suffered as much as the government of Zimbabwe from the exodus of skilled professionals, which has left many organisations bereft of their most talented and experienced people. Finally, because the trade unions and other civil society groups played crucial roles in the formation of the political opposition during the 1990s, the sector finds itself extraordinarily politicised today. For example, rather than playing a non-partisan mediating role, some strategically located civic organisations find it necessary to pronounce on whether various contending political parties deserve the sector’s support.
 
Because of its perceived association with opposition parties, civil society has, in the last decade and a half, attracted undue attention from the state. The Private Voluntary Organisations Act, which formally governs the civic sector, grants the Minister of Social Welfare considerable discretion over the registration, finances and operations of CSOs. Government to non-governmental organisation (NGO) relations have long been a terrain of political struggle, with the state stepping up surveil- lance of and threats against organisations engaged in governance and human rights work in the last decade. However, a government proposal in 2004 to require
the re-registration of all NGOs and to limit funding to CSOs involved in democratic governance work, actually prompted new – albeit ephemeral – levels of unification within the sector.
 
By the standards of most other African countries except South Africa, Zimbabwe’s civil society is robust. It is a heterogeneous community, spread across the spectrum from humanitarian charities and community-based organisations to developmental NGOs and governance-oriented civic associations. Civil society organisations are a rather recent phenomenon in the country’s political development with most being born during the decade-long crisis from the late 1990s onward. Despite duress, they have been boldly vocal in speaking truth to power by challenging the monolithic and hardening authoritarian order of the ancien regime.
 
Relations between the state and civil society have metamorphosed and oscillated over time. Civil society organisations were embedded in the ZANU-PF party-state in the 1980s, played midwife to the birth of the opposition politics of the MDC in the 1990s, and have been seeking an influential autonomous role vis-à-vis the transitional government since 2008. It must be accepted that civics are not of one mind on this. The SADC-led dialogue process triggered tensions within the opposition-civil society alliance when it became clear that civil society was being excluded from political negotiations. For instance, civil society hesitated to lend support to the MDC during the March 2008 election campaign and held its own ‘peoples’ conferences’ to call for economic and constitutional reform. Civil society has important roles to play in monitoring the implementation of the GPA and any benchmarks for reengagement with the international community, as well as for preparing the ground for a free and fair election (e.g. including voter registration and education, tracking press freedom, election observation using international standards, and parallel vote tabulation).
 
Moreover, the installation of a transitional government and the terms of the GPA created divisions within civil society itself. Emblematic of this is the rift over the constitution-making process with key organisations like the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) and the Zim- babwe National Students Union (ZINASU) vehemently opposed to a leading role for Parliament. They argued, in a minority position among civic organisations, that the process of crafting the new constitution is insufficiently ‘people-driven’. Recognizing that constitutional reform requires political power and technical expertise, other Zimbabwean civics and NGOs are participating in events sponsored by the Parliamentary Select Committee on Constitutional Reform.
 
Serious governance problems afflict civics and other voluntary organisations, most which operate with little or no oversight. A ‘founder’s syndrome’ is prevalent, whereby the first leader of the organisation becomes the President or Secretary-General of the organisation and runs it like a private fiefdom, sometimes for life. While the rest of the economy was shrinking after 2000, a civil society ‘industry’ was booming courtesy of donor funding, often with little accountability and transparency. Moreover, CSOs suffer many technical deficits. Masunungure (2008, 66) has observed that, “political economy analysis in par- ticular, but policy analyses in general, are Zimbabwean civil society’s weakest areas... (and are) especially evident in complex policy fields like land and agrarian issues.” However, civil society is largely unencumbered by party-state baggage. Provided its capacity is further strengthened, civil society can continue to provide a useful entry- point for political reform and development assistance.
 
A significant number of governance and human rights CSOs was born after the adoption of the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (ESAP) to fill the gap left behind by the retreating frontiers of the state (and this also meant extending the frontiers of civil society) and to deepen and widen democratic governance. The state, then, appeared to have abandoned or rather suspended its hegemonic project vis-à-vis the rest of Zimbabwe society to the extent that the regime actually felt compelled to adopt the civil society project of crafting a new constitution for the country.
 
Civil society was so robust that, in alliance with the fledgling opposition MDC party, it successfully campaigned for a ‘No’ vote in the February 2000 referendum on the state-driven draft constitution. That was the high water mark for Zimbabwean civil society and probably the boldest and most resounding victory in its history. Soon thereafter, the party-state – which had been in reactive mode – awoke, sharpened and displayed its fangs, and used them in a multi-frontal attack on the opposition, the media and civil society. State-civil society relations then degenerated into deep polarisation and conflict and a protracted struggle for space. The state re-engaged its hegemonic gear and did so with a vengeance. The state became an ‘angry state’ in defence of an ‘angry regime’ and an ‘angry’ ruling ZANU-PF party. Governing by anger became the modal form of governance. It was under this set-up that the March and June 2008 elections were conducted, laying the contextual framework for the intensified Southern African Development Community (SADC)-facilitated inter-party dialogue, which culmi- nated in the power-sharing deal.
 
The country plunged into a multi-faceted crisis from which it is struggling to escape, partly via the GPA exit door. And it was during this crisis-ridden decade that a large number of governance and human rights organisations were conceived, born and nurtured. A distinctive feature of civic-oriented CSOs at the turn of the century was that, in the aftermath of the triumphant defeat of the regime’s draft constitution, virtually all these organisations harboured visions of a short, sharp and decisive victory over the state and the ushering in of a new post-authoritarian era. This soon turned out to be an illusion, but then civil society was slow to adjust and reorient
to the new reality of a vicious but insecure state determined to ensure its indefinite prolongation at the apex of the power pyramid in Zimbabwe. The civics clearly underestimated the regime’s quest to retain power. If there is one constant about ZANU-PF, it is that the party takes power seriously, and struggles for it seriously. This, the civil society community later discovered sometimes in rather tragic ways. The general point is that civil society failed to correctly read the situation and adjust their programmes and strategies appropriately. This contributed significantly to the deep sense of frustration, fatigue, and even withdrawal as the crisis wore on seemingly without a flicker of light and hope at the end of a long, dark tunnel. After the GPA and the formation of the Inclusive Government (IG), is civil society reading the situation correctly this time around? This question is among many that this paper tries to address.
 
Read the rest of the article - including the three most-likely future scenarios - and then join the debate
 
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