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Gumbo, Hopewell (2002) Zimbabwean Civil Society: a report from the front lines (July 2002). Special Report for the CCS Website : -.

Sustaining a vibrant civic movement in neo-liberal post election Zimbabwe is a nightmare. What’s more the people of Zimbabwe may have to inhabit this nightmare for the few more years that the current regime may still retain power. An effective confrontation of the complex challenges facing civil society in contemporary Zimbabwe requires an exhaustive examination of the current crisis. These factors include the agendas of the funders and the funded groups; the funding itself; the nature of its availability and the political and legal environment it dictates.

Zimbabwean civil society emerges from a strenuous period stretching from the mid nineties to the current post parliamentary and presidential election period. This period saw spectacular dimensional changes, particularly with respect to how the crisis arising from the IMF sponsored ESAP programme had to be dealt with. Different groupings understood the crisis differently but students, organized together as the Zimbabwe National Students Union, ZINASU and workers organized as Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, ZCTU were key forces on the ground.

Other broader coalitions like the National Constitutional Assembly were also effective and sought to broaden the base of the fight for constitutional reforms, by grouping together civic organisations from various schools and philosophies. The churches also came in on particular issues some including civic issues. The Organization of Rural Associations for Progress (ORAP) played a key role in bridging the rural urban gap as an important partner of the National Working People’s Convention of February 1999. Of course workers and students were also involved in their particular day to day issues.

But, nevertheless, one striking reality was the galvanization, though not on a clear ideological path, of the various struggles by civil society towards transforming the sporadic and spontaneous resistance to neo-liberalism into a coherent demand for political power as the solution to the neo-liberal crisis under ESAP. Demands for a wage increment became demands for a new government as demands for education grants by students became demands for a government that would provide for education. Demands for a new constitution became demands for bread and butter issues as constitutional provisions were seen as a hindrance to the right to fight for better education health and wages. At this time the neo-liberal ESAP crisis resulted in an ever-increasing cost of living with the prices of basic commodities becoming increasing exorbitantly. The state also sought to make further reforms with programs like ZIMPREST and the later Millennium Recovery plan being mooted. These were swallowed as the movement became bigger and more demanding and a real threat to ZANU-PF power as shown in the results of the referendum and later the parliamentary and the presidential elections. The government lost the referendum on the new constitution and narrowly won in the parliamentary and presidential elections. Expectations from the entire civil society movement on the outcome of the elections had become very high as the elections seemed to provide real hope for change. People who had been mobilized under the National Working People’s Convention, later to be the Movement for Democratic Change, saw the parliamentary route to power as an effective strategy for resolving the Zimbabwean crisis.

The MDC assumed the political legitimacy to lead civil society after the national Working People’s Convention. It carried the people’s hopes. But hopes for political change through elections sank after the Presidential elections. The result of the 2002 presidential election posses a litmus test for civil society in Zimbabwe. Civil society must now decided where it stands and asses its strength and weaknesses, and its future.

The three main players at the moment in the civic environment are the activists who provide the numbers, the think tanks that provide both the leadership and ideological barometer of the movements in the form of academic contributions, and that many victims of the crisis who provide the courage to say ‘no further!’ The other major player is the donor community, mainly foreign, who provide most if not all of the financial “support.” At times donors play a major role in determining the activities of civil society activity. Of course the government is also a critical player as quiet often, civil society finds itself having to bash against the many arms of the state machinery.

The evolution of the civic movement has been accompanied by developments in the mass support base. There was a significant rise in the number of people participating in civic matters as the last century drew to an end. This pattern was repeated in all the sectors of civil society. The most significant sector was one that grouped masses in struggles for bread and butter issues, which later became political demands. But their growth was not just a mere coincidence. Massive funding was poured in to the civic movement, mainly from the West. This was for various mobilization work particularly towards and after the constitutional referendum of 2000. Massive funding meant availability of resources that could be used by the administrators in any way to build the numbers. This meant that, at times, people were paid for transporting themselves to mass meetings and other activities. This development did not generate noble results. While the numbers of activists grew very quickly the ideological growth of the movements did not match their numerical growth. Massive discrepancies could be seen. On various occasions youths and women could be heard discussing how lucrative belonging to one organization was as opposed to the other.

The Daily News of 30 April 2002 reported that: Man Cooked up Story on Beheading. The MDC believed the man cooked up the story to extract money from the party, which had helped others in the same boat. This is just one example of how the flood of money corrupted the civic movement. The money also ensured that at times people of various ideological backgrounds mingled for the sole aim of creating the numbers that would win rewards from donors. This is not to undermine the understanding of the issues by the activists. “Wars” would normally break out at election times when leadership would be viewed as a vehicle for the control of the financial resources of organisations. This was contrary to the low volume of debate and effort put into building the movement. All the ideological work was left to intellectuals and this brought its own problems. These are very evident in the current MDC where the intellectuals now largely subscribe to the neo-liberal agenda and grass roots activists, many of whom have suffered as a direct consequence of neo-liberalism, are just bought in to toyi-toyi when numbers and credibility are needed. The middle class MDC leadership, together with the labour bureaucrats and big white bosses believe that giving actual power to grass roots activists would bring ‘instability’ in to the movement.

It is important to note that the MDC is inseparable from the more vibrant groups whose more direct challenges to both neo-liberalism and authoritarianism are strongly related to the hovering nature of the MDC. The MDC is seen as a “child” of civil society in the eyes of the majority of its membership. But with the total subordination of the civil society leadership to the MDC the majority, who provide numbers but not leadership in return for resources, have actually been made the children of the MDC parent.

This is compounded by the newly flamboyant living style of the civil society leadership. They must always have the latest cars etc. One woman at a meeting said Nhasi tinoisa wedu. Tigopota tichikwira maPajero iwayavo.(This Shona expression means, that today we will elect our own so that we can also enjoy these Pajeros) These contradictions will continue to hound the movement for now and the future. The numbers will continue to swell but only on paid up rentals. If a better pay master arises we may then have a massive exodus of activists from the movement, at the cost of a decade of dangerous work.

Nevertheless it is important to note that, in the past 100 years, the MDC is the only party to emerge from civil society with the ability to mount meaningful challenge to dictatorship – be it the Smith regime or the tyranny of Robert Mugabe. This achievement has, paradoxically, resulted in inertia in the rest of civil society as many still hope for change through the party. But the civic movement has to break this bond to the MDC if any meaningful challenge to the Mugabe dictatorship and neo-liberalism is to result. The MDC’s ideological “spagetti”, to use Morgan Tsvangirai’s words, abrogates the necessary ingredients for a vibrant, independent and effective civic society. The civic movement graduated into the political playing field at the cost of its independence. But there are some grounds for hope. MDC youth chairman Nelson Chamisa recently remarked that civil society now suffers from a crisis of leadership. And Matombo, the President of the ZCTU said recently at meeting that the MDC agenda had become neo-liberal and that independent mass action was the only way-forward for the country, “we can not continue to be used by these men (MDC). The workers will kill us.” This comment was received with loud applause. Many are encourage by ideas like these. But the challenges to civil society in Zimbabwe grow more demanding every day and we could just beat the beginning of our struggle.

To have any chance of meeting these challenges the civic movement must disengage itself from the MDC and seek to rebuild its own base. The funding that now pours into the country from various donors, mainly from the West, is not that free. Many of the organisations that are pouring in the money have motives behind their apparent generosity. Most have openly stated that they can only fund certain programmess forcing money seeking groups to alter their programs to accommodate the needs and demands of the funders. This can be seen from how the MDC, a party that arose from massive anti-IMF struggles, plunged into a neo-liberal program as a campaign strategy and developed a neo-liberal ‘future recovery plan’, the BRIGE. Those that fund the party now call the tunes. This applies to many groups that have sacrificed the agendas of their membership for access to financial resources. Leaders have fallen prey to the resources on offer while seeking to sustain their movements. The challenges presented by the need for resources are enormous in a third world country where most of population live well below the poverty datum line. Ordinary people find it very difficult to fundraise for their activities with the minimum wage for an ordinary worker pegged at around $8000 Zimbabwean dollars. This will continue to be a nightmare. But self-funding is the ultimate solution the current jinx. It is the only way for civil society to develop programmes that are owned by their grassroots supports rather than foreign donors or local elites.

The government has presented the civic movement with a lot of challenges. We need to call it what it is - a paranoid and fascist dictatorship. It will do everything in its power to retain political power and to contain the civic movement. Recently law such as the Public order and Security Act (POSA) and the Access to Information and Privacy Act radically restrict and hinder progressive work from the civic society. Despite the determination of the people the civic movement remains under the eagle’s eye of a barbaric and despotic regime. Massive funds have been channeled to the building of legal defense funds. Of late a number of activists have been arraigned before the courts and others have been imprisonment for taking part in civic activities. Recently more than eighty people were arrested and beaten at a peaceful commemoration of the Soweto uprising in 1976. The socialist MP Munyaradzi Gwisai was singled out for special treatment by the riot police, he was severely beaten and needs medical treatment. The seventy are being held in appalling conditions, in cramped and overcrowded cells without food or water. It is imperative that we provide support and pressurise the authorities to release them immediately. (http://www.zimbabwe.indymedia) Even organisations like World Vision have been banned from operating in certain places. Even the AIDS activists will soon be under attack.

The nature of the civil society response to dictatorship is a matter of massive debate in many organisations at the moment. The MDC MP for Highfields in Harare, one of the working class suburbs, has suggested that breaking oppression will require illegal mass-action. He added that freedom is always taken and never handed out on a silver platter. The urgency priority is to group civil society around a common agenda in order to develop a united front. This could be the only visible solution for now although it will be difficult in the rural areas where long distances inhibit the fluent mobility required for effective organizing.

It is important to reemphasize that the lack of ideological discipline in the civic movement at the moment subjects it to manipulation in many ways. It allows domination by foreign funding. It also paralyses internal discourse to counter ideological offences by enemies. It creates a base for manipulation for individual pursuits. It remains one of the reasons why penetration of the grassroots has been difficult. In rural areas for example, villagers have often dismissed civic organisations as opportunists bent on using their misery for their own benefit. Extensive capacity building is needed. Though it may be difficult and even undesireable to build ideologically uniform organisations the existence of individual yardsticks should work as a basis for a vibrant civic society.

Many academics and middleclass activists also need to be challenged to move away from continuous power broking politics and to give civic society its deserved legitimacy by making space available in all instances for debates to open up and activities to include the masses. The most welcome developments however are the emerging debates given the current MDC ZANU PF impasse. The interrogation of the forces at play in looking for a way forward has helped to give perspectives that put civil society at the center with a strong awareness of the great need for a united front of purpose and coherent. This has, surprisingly, resulted in strongly anti-NEPAD views coming from pro MDC organizations. This encouraging development does signal the possibility of a revived civic movement.

The civic movement has an uphill task in this difficult post-election period. It needs to move in a direction that will bring back autonomy and legitimacy by refusing co-option by donors and by acting against the Mugabe dictatorship. Zimbabwe is sitting on a time bomb that can only be diffused by an independent and effective civil society. The economic crisis will lead to more social and political problems and given the impasse created by the current political set-up independent organizing is the answer. Only a coherent and vibrant civic movement can capture this mood and take Zimbabwe to a better place. The Zimbabwean 'eclipse' can not be allowed to continue.

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