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Publication Details

Reference
Gumbo, Hopewell  (2004) Mobilizing in the Conjuncture: a report from Zimbabwe . Zvakwana, Sokwanele, : -.

Summary
The ongoing world-wide fight for the democratization of communities and states has been conducted through the prisms of many different historical experiences. But a simple question has to be asked: Why keep on keeping on with the struggles for democracy, not to mention all the other isms? The answer lies in the stark reality of the violent greed of imperialist expeditions and authoritarian local elites under whom even bare life can only be defended by a fight for the right to live. Africa is no exception. Memories of wars against colonial domination and the taste of virtual victory are still so fresh yet the continent is riddled with authoritarian and comprador elites and so teems, as it must, with virbant struggles to constitute counter-power.

The Zimbabwean scenario generates one of the most exciting, but challenging and at times depressing and demoralizing experiences for activists. The country is currently going through one of the most grueling economic crises in its postcolonial period. The collapse or rather, the inherent failure of the IMF and World Bank Economic Structural Adjustment Program, ESAP, led to massive suffering and the entrenchment of corrosive poverty in most sections of the community. Inflation has hit unheralded levels. The cost of basic commodities is rising on a daily basis. There are no laws to control prices. A schoolteacher’s salary only manages to cover the costs of traveling to work and back each day. Domestic workers are just working to live. They can’t afford to buy themselves clothing let alone support others. The actual figures that record the conditions under which people struggle to survive as so obscene that one always finds oneself thinking that there must be some mistake, some exaggeration. But the excess lies in the vast and frenzied accumulation and of the self-enriching Zimbabwean elite.

The cold fact is that the growing opposition to both the World Bank’s brutal market fundamentalism and the crass self-serving authoritarianism of the ZANU-PF regime has failed to realize under meaningful change. On the contrary the crisis has got deeper. The first responses to the neo-liberal crisis, in the mid nineties, generated vibrant mobilization of resistance against the World Bank’s ESAP. The organized working class primarily drove this resistance. This grassroots force grew in leaps and bounds and discovered that its first serious challenge was not to confront Mugabe or the Bank but rather the lethargic labour leadership bureaucracy, which sought to accommodate the state. The labour bureaucracy had earlier attempted to mitigate the crisis through programs aimed at working within the then political confines of the government in an arrangement knows as Tripartite System – a deal between the trade union bureaucracy, government and the bosses. But the pressure from below was so sustained and fierce that the labour movement eventually withdrew from this corporatist arrangement.

After overcoming their own comprador union bureaucracy trade union militants began to confront the state and to agitate for political change. This struggle quickly developed popular appeal and, in equal proportion and pace, brute repression from the state. The state repression, characterized as it was by the universally evocative images of state authoritarianism – politicians sneering as riot police beat students and so on – had the effect of bringing the middle class section of society, often with liberal donor support, into the movements. As this influence grew the movements increasingly began to speak about key liberal concerns like the rule of law and then to speak in the out-rightly neo-liberal language of ‘good governance’. The bread and butter issues that had galvanized ordinary working people rapidly drifted off the movement’s agenda as more donor funding poured in and more co-opted academics became active in the movements. The results of all this are apparent in the very watered down but still tentatively progressive Working People’ Convention Declaration, whose academic input the middleclass NGOs provided. Issues like the rule of law and the constitution predominate and are articulated in very abstract terms that very few in the grassroots base can understand. The masses, workers and students stood back and watched as the (well paid) “professionals” took over the people’s struggles and ‘professionalised’ the people’s anger and fighting spirit. These are some of the hard experiences that Zimbabweans working for the building of a social movement for a democracy that includes food, education and health in its manifesto have had to endure. It is sickening. Dehumanizing. One can only hope that one day these bitter lessons will be turned into hard fighting ammunition.

So, despite their fantastic and energetic struggle, Zimbabweans still live under the regime’s dictatorship. We have failed to hammer the final nails into the ZANU PF coffin. And this, let there be no mistake, is the major challenge that faces the nation. But the recent Zimbabwe Social Forum offers a glimmer of hope for those whose pessimism of the intellect and not infected their will to fight on. The Zimbabwean Social Forum has issued a direct challenge to the progressive NGOs working to build a vibrant grassroots movement in the current period of transition, where demands in the transitional set-up have to more than anything else be people centered, if sustainable development is to be realised.

Who will deliver? How is the change going to come? What is the change that is really wanted? These and many other questions are necessary in an attempt to appreciate the challenges faced in the process of not only delivering change of regime but also real meaningful change to the tormented ordinary citizens. The suffering majority are those in the grassroots - working class, waged, peasants, the unemployed students etc. The challenge of building a formidable grassroots based and mobilized force is, to say the least traumatic, for many progressive revolutionaries who have seen the torch of freedom sink deeper since the exciting prospects of the inspiring mid nineties. Civil society has the grueling task, in these days of delayed democracy and weaning forces and voices.

Any theorizing of questions of strategy has to begin by recognizing the existence of two major contesting political parties in the country, ZANU PF in power and MDC in opposition. It is arguable that a stalemate has been reached on both the electoral and diplomatic fronts and the MDC has failed to follow the mass action route with any serious commitment. Some might want to say there is still time for diplomatic relief but this is a fantasy. Mbeki’s loyalties seem to lie, tragically, with the Mugabe dictatorship and Western governments are only interested in neo-liberal outcomes. Anyway, we have to face up to the fact that the two parties are not that different ideologically. The Chronicle, a state run newspaper sums this up in reporting on the manner in which the MDC councilors are responding to growing grassroots mobilizations on municipal services in story titled, “ Storm brews at Council chambers” “ ……A storm is brewing at the town house with some councilors threatening to take the executive to task over its decision to allow the Bulawayo Residents Association to hold meetings………..they were not happy with the meetings dubbed state of the Bulawayo residents…... Township Series…” These meetings were precisely aimed at encouraging debate and popular participation of residents in local government but in a bigger way to build alternative responses to municipal problems on a community level and develop progressive civic agenda. The MDC, supposedly the urban working class’s redemption saw it otherwise. This ZANUfication of the MDC is clear in many other ideological issues besides this single undemocratic scandal yet the urban masses continue to vest their hopes in the MDC. But the MDC’s willingness to close down public spaces for debate contradicts their MDC’s claimed democratic agenda and directly compromises the liberation agenda whose tone was set by the Working People’s Convention four years ago. The Zanufication of the MDC present a major challenge to current efforts of building a movement based on a people’s agenda. It is more baffling to here of the current talks going own centered around the “vampire elites” in both parties, signaling a possible government of “national unity.”

Movement activists are confronted by a polity split into support for two dubious parties; an economic crises that pushes inflation up every day; the depression following the MDC’s failed ‘final push’; continued political violence; vicious intolerance by the ruling party, rumours of talk about talks; reported splits in the opposition with threats on the presidency; a crippled education system with hardily any University having been open due to labour unrest at the beginning of the 2003 2004 academic years; major strikes in the various industries; a huge strike in the health sector threatening thousands of lives already in danger due to drug shortage and high health care access costs; the fact that so many people have to exhaust all their energies on the struggle to survive and widespread pessimism about the prospects for a liveable future. All of this presents major challenges and the general feeling is that as the attempt to reconstruct the society through parliamentary opposition has failed at least in the last four years we need to rebuilding grassroots social movements for social and economic justice. This is probably the only way the lost confidence can be regained as hope in the radical potential of social movements cuts a trajectory along the whole ideological grid.

But how is grassroots mobilization achievable in a broadly muddy and confused political set up? Many would argue that we need to begin to consider that the key players beyond and behind the political parties are the civil society organizations that have been on the scene since 1990. For some time they have had a direct or indirect relationship to the main opposition party. They are generally led by the same middle class NGO types and usually parrot the same rhetoric. They rarely bother to ideologically interrogate themselves for fear of exposing the real nature of their leaders. Most have benefited from funding from the Western donors who support the neoliberal agenda that is in such direct conflict with the aspirations of the poor majority. This ideological confusion has been “the tragedy of the movement” for the past years - a premeditated refusal to ideologically contextualise the economic crisis and the resistance movement rooted in the masses. But these groups continue to survive despite disillusionments in the prolonged war against the regime where immediate salvation is seemingly far from being achieved. Why? An attempt to answer this shows that the level of poverty and unemployment has pushed many into weird survival tactics. And so people present to donors, in the donor’s preferred language, the issues that the donors want to hear about, thus acquiring more and more money. Resistance has been commodified.A shift is probably under construction from the politics of activism to the neoliberal politics of money and self aggrandizement.

NGOs have been able to co-opt the energies of the poor and commodify their resistance potential. An NGO that pays bribes in some or the other form for activism survives or even flourishes. Donor funding has become a numbers game as well as an ideological game. So the grassroots base tends to be drawn towards spaces where there are financial reward for demonstrations, pickets, workshops and other sites of struggle virtually skimming the cream out of the movement. Those leaders that are drawn from the grassroots get co-opted and do much to close ranks to more radical activists. Many envy the highly paid NGO leaders and look forward to their day their sun. Remaining activists get demoralized and feel used and abused for personal agendas.

There are however genuine and progressive sections that still bear capacity for real mobilization work. In fact recent work with the labour and residents associations has shown exciting potential. These sector have had virtually no contact with the corrupt NGO world. In order to avoid co-option we must seek to begin from an ideologically based rendezvous from the start which seeks to encourage self activity at local community level linking up with broader class allies. Encouragingly the labour movement has also started to wake up under pressure from below. However this is often articulated in the form of a desire from the movement to organize the people rather than the other way around.

The masses always ask, ‘What did you achieve?’ The monster seems to always be too big. This enervating impression is further entrenched by the media, controlled by the state and designed to ensure that people’s thinking is channeled in certain particular directions. The nation has currently been reduced to a dog eat dog scenario where individual fights for survival allowing various reactionary tendencies to creep in. Workers are forced now to fight each other when they attempt to board public transport. Transport operators who previously used to fight in solidarity with workers in times of hardships are now enemies viewed as the perpetrators of the hiking of fares.

With seemingly nobody responsible for reorganizing resistance the masses are becoming more and more disillusioned and difficult to organise. This is worsened by increasingly despotic police state. With a number of laws passed that inhibit collective action, little hope is felt by the marginalized. People feel insecure and dejected. Middle class Bureaucrats have found refuge in this and seek to diffuse fighting momentum by sighting repression as an insurmountable obstacle. But our memories of struggles against colonial settlement and apartheid need to be invited to the surface lest we forget what sought of sacrifice and heroism ordinary people are capable of.

Hope is and should not be lost. The nation is currently witnessing exciting workplace struggles similar to those in the middle and late 1990’s. The challenge is to reorganize around the socio-economic issues that animate grassroots concerns. We need to reject our “friends” in the donor community who have invested more in corporatist co-option rather than democratic movement building. And as we reject our ‘friends’ in the donor community we need to form alliances with radical sections in the emerging movement of movements against neo-liberal globalization and imperialism. This is where we can draw real support and develop real solidarity.

Amidst all the uncertainty in the conjuncture the mood of the working class and the general public at large is strengthening with each new strike. An intensification of the current forms of resistance and the possible generalization of the strikes needs to be worked for and held out as a real possibility. Grassroots pressure can resuscitate lost hope and pressurize grassroots based organizations like the Trade Union Congress into a radical redirection.

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