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"The decisive political defeat of several authoritarian regimes in southern Africa in the 1990s has brought increased attention to the growing power and influence of civil society and with it, the emergence of new and revitalized forms of popular democracy in the region." Richard Saunders investigates "civil society" in its Zimbabwean manifestations. (jbv)

vol 10 no 3

Civics in Zimbabwe: Are they making a difference?
Richard Saunders

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 10, No 3, March 1995
Page 21



Richard Saunders is SAR's man in Harare . . . only he lives in Cape Town.

The decisive political defeat of several authoritarian regimes in southern Africa in the 1990s has brought increased attention to the growing power and influence of civil society and with it, the emergence of new and revitalized forms of popular democracy in the region. In the wake of the ANC victory of 1994 and the ousting of corrupt and tired one-party state nationalist regimes in Zambia and Malawi, many have pointed to the pivotal role of community-based organizations in the protracted struggles that won or regained the most basic political democratic rights.

While the initial focal point for this interest in civil society was the South African "civics" movement that emerged in the 1980s, different flagship popular organizations in other countries - like the trade unions and human rights groups in Zambia and Malawi - also have been identified as pillars of new national social movements for democracy. Such organizations clearly played key roles in the fight to reopen the state to popular participation by challenging ruling parties and the state itself.

But what has been the situation regarding the role of civics where the state has been less rigidly autocratic and antagonistic to groups in civil society? More pointedly, what is the role of civics once democracy has been won, and the state stands as the leading popular-democratic institution? These are questions with which the powerful South African civics, along with other parallel organizations elsewhere in the region, are just starting to come to grips.

For indications of the problems facing them on the road ahead such organizations might consider the case of Zimbabwe, where the post-independence experience of civic activism has been generally a sobering one. While civic movements in the region have struggled to win and redirect local unpopular states, Zimbabwe's community organizations increasingly have been battling to hold the ZANU(PF) government of Robert Mugabe - in power since independence in 1980 - to its initial commitments to a popular development programme.

This has been mainly a losing battle so far, particularly since the launching in 1990 of a devastating structural adjustment programme (ESAP) which has led to severe cutbacks in social programmes and deepening poverty. But increasing political and economic hardship, and the failure of new-cast nationalist politics to meet the needs of a complex civil society, is also providing a catalyst for a new cycle of popular activism at community level. What are the limits of this activism, and where will it lead? The coming year should provide some clues in this regard.

Elections . . . and apathy

In early 1995 Zimbabweans go to the polls in the fourth set of national elections since independence in 1980. Barring any surprise developments, President Robert Mugabe's ZANU will win an easy majority across most of the country. Despite occasional flurries of activity among several small opposition parties in the late 1980s and early 1990s, ZANU has not been threatened or seriously challenged in the national political arena. Yet in this year's elections ZANU will likely prevail with less popular support than ever - in the wake of a deepening disaffection with old guard nationalist politics that was already evident in the 1990 elections.

For the fact is that, these days, apathy towards the national political process is the dominant mood among growing numbers of socially and economically disenfranchised Zimbabweans, particularly those who are young, relatively well-educated and unemployed. Years of political corruption and growing high-handedness and intimidation by the ruling party at all levels of the social structure have diminished the nationalists' popular credibility.

More recently, the government's vastly unpopular neo-liberal economic policies have further eroded ZANU's social and political authority. In the wake of ESAP the standard of living of millions of Zimbabweans has plummeted dramatically. Most negatively affected have been those in urban areas, where the cost of living has skyrocketed even as the job market has become ever more shaky. But peasants have also suffered, especially during and after the century's worst drought in 1992. When needed most by the poor and needy, access to faltering key social services like health and education has been undermined by government cutbacks and the introduction of user fees and other regressive austerity measures. Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of dollars have been poured into private sector capital development - with little to show for it so far except a quickly rising foreign debt load!

Political options?

These increasingly bitter political and economic experiences of nationalist rule have left a large constituency alienated from, if not hostile to, the political status quo. Having been deserted by the same "people's" government which in the early 1980s laid the foundations for an impressive social welfare state, the people themselves have turned their backs on ZANU in droves. But the problem is: what is there to turn to?

At a time of worsening social and economic crisis for most Zimbabweans, "national politics" has offered few options. In fact, ZANU stands virtually alone as the one political party with anything approaching a coherent - if unpopular - agenda. Opposition parties are typically very small, poorly organized, and built around leaders, not policies. The one exception in this regard, the Forum Party, has a sketchy agenda, defined mainly to the right of ZANU, and a small constituency rooted in intellectual and business circles. None of the opposition parties has been able to offer - or, indeed, made serious attempts to offer - a platform for focusing popular grievances, or encouraging the mass participation of ordinary Zimbabweans in policy critique and development. So the unprecedented absenteeism that characterized the 1990 national vote, in which barely 50% turned up to cast ballots (as against more than 90% in 1980 and 1985), will likely grow worse this year.

Rather cynically, ZANU is relying as much on popular political inertia as on its all-too-familiar intimidation of any emergent, potentially significant, organized opposition to carry on. This strategy will likely succeed again this time around, even though open splits within and among regional branches of ZANU itself have also undermined the mobilizing capacity and unity of the ruling party. But the increasingly clear inadequacy of national politics and the disappointments spawned by ZANU's cynical manoeuvring have helped to revive and revitalize alternative forms of political activism and engagement, located outside the formal political arena of national party politics.

What about the civics?

In recent years Zimbabwe has seen the mushrooming of a range of civics as ordinary Zimbabweans have sought alternative channels of community and interest group representation, as well as new coping mechanisms in the wake of increasing economic adversity. ESAP's impact on ordinary Zimbabweans, combined with a certain liberalization conceded by ZANU in the political sphere and the emergence of a more active liberal-democratic constituency, have provided fertile terrain for the many new organizations that have sprouted in the 1990s.

The organizers of these civics are as diverse in character as the groups themselves. They include highly motivated individual activists with narrow specific interests, occupationally-defined organizations, and broadly-based community alliances representing a collection of local community leaders and a cross section of interest groups. They even include some progeny created by the state itself when, at times, it has called community organizations into existence by unilaterally carving out a space for them in national and local public structures. Together, these civics - trade unions, income generating groups, saving societies, residents associations, consumer and human rights groups and many other local, regional and national organizations - have opened important spaces for the channelling of political energies in new directions and, typically, away from the current dead-end of national politics.

In one respect, it should be noted, this development represents a return to the colonial past for Zimbabwe's "civil society." For a large number of these new organizations are actually not "new" at all. Many are revived or revitalized versions of earlier organizations that have been dormant or impotent for most of the 1980s as ZANU - using organs of the party and state - sought to dominate the weakened civil society inherited from white Rhodesia. Thus, some of the more politically- focused civics - such as the residents associations which were called back into existence by popular demand in the early 1990s in many towns and cities - originally were forged by disenfranchised blacks as instruments of nationalist struggle during colonial rule in the 1950s. In the 1990s township and city residents, once again sensing their practical disenfranchisement and lack of representation at the most basic level of local government, have merely re-formed a number of these organizations.

At the same time, various popular organizations constructed on the crest of the nationalist victory in the early 1980s also have revised their agendas in the wake of disillusionment with an increasingly antagonistic - if not openly hostile - government. Thus, by the 1990s, trade unions, co-operative unions and other popular initiatives formed in co-operation with or under the patronage of the ruling party, had moved towards the adoption of more autonomous, community-responsive agendas.

In addition to these existing or rehabilitated organizations, political and market "liberalization" under ESAP has set the stage for a swell of new civics. Many of these groups, notably hundreds of savings clubs, burial societies and income generating collectives, were formed as rudimentary bulwarks against the deepening incursion of poverty (and again, signalled a return to tried and tested forms of community coping). In practice, many of these initiatives have very limited agendas, defined by the basic survival needs of the group. However, other bodies, such as human rights organizations, water development action committees and unemployment advocacy groups, have raised issues of accountability and popular participation in policy planning while mobilizing around narrower questions of economic policy and management. The community activism of these types of organizations, when taken together with that of other relatively active organizations like certain trade unions and local development agencies (e.g. Bulawayo-based ORAP), might be taken to indicate the growing strength and potential of a new-cast civic movement.

The reality

Yet the reality since independence, and especially since 1990, is much bleaker than this impression implies. In fact, nearly all civics have faced - and continue to face - severe, often fundamentally disabling problems on a number of fronts. Thus, even the largest and best-organized organizations have struggled to meet their basic aims, in the face of internal weaknesses, considerable external limitations imposed by the state and ruling party, and poor interlinking with kindred groups and potential activist partners.

Zimbabwean civil society is littered with the wreckage of countless failed self-help organizations, training programmes, savings clubs and other schemes which never established a consistent regime of operation, nor attracted a regular membership. Amongst the primary factors accounting for this widespread breakdown are weak organizational skills and chronic lack of financing. Civics typically are dependent on volunteer labour and fund raising in the local community for sustenance. Given the inconsistency and low quality of the contributed skills involved, along with the abject poverty of many of the communities in which civics operate, most organizations are unstable from the outset.

There is, in consequence, a constant fight for basic organizational survival. Under these conditions there is little regular consultation and education of the membership, both of which are required if groups are to be democratic, inclusive and responsive to community needs. Even in better-financed and staffed organizations like the trade unions, the heavy pressures of operating with small budgets undercut the practical communication of ideas, grievances and aims to and amongst the grassroots, thereby severely qualifying the possibility of full- fledged participation from below.

ZANU's response

Alongside these internal problems, however, are those stemming from ZANU's desire to maintain a leading presence in civil society. In the early years of independence ZANU, using organs of the party and state effectively, was the dominant social actor in much of civil society. Though the party's undisputed hegemony has long since vanished, ZANU has unceasingly battled to retain as much organizational control as possible over formally "non-political" social space. This approach has done much to thwart civics' non-partisan, community-based, active participation in national development.

Independent organizations of any stature are generally viewed with suspicion, particularly in recent years as the economy has worsened and World Bank policies have undermined most people's standard of living. Civics' legitimate denials of involvement with opposition political parties have generally been ignored; for government, the potential of social coalescence around issues and institutions beyond the control of the ruling party justifies a narrow suspicion of and interest in civics' activities. And, as a direct result of this approach, the government has tried, variously, to block, frustrate, infiltrate, employ to advantage and otherwise neutralize many civics.

Faced with this situation, most organizations in a position to engage in advocacy (in fact, there are very few) shy away from confronting policy issues; and, certainly, from challenging the state or ZANU directly, even in benign ways like raising debates over policy aims and implementation. Many have found that limited and selective contact with the state and ruling party is the only way to achieve limited goals in the short term, even though this strategy clearly can mean the compromising of such organizations' broader aims in the longer run.

A leading role?

In this context of weak internal organization and pressures from the state and dominant party, any talk of civics' leading role - or indeed, the emergence of a national civics "movement" as in South Africa - seems at very best premature.

Promising signs can be found: there is evidence that certain civics have indeed begun to offer a more direct voice for local community and group concerns than is available through existing ruling party and state structures. For example, locally-based residents associations, which act mainly as citizens advocacy and watchdog groups in some larger towns and cities, have become increasingly important at the level of municipal political activism in the face of ZANU's domination of city councils. In other cases - like the trade unions, and organizations of the unemployed and veterans of the liberation war - civics have tried, albeit with limited success, to serve as nodes around which actors previously silenced by ZANU's domination of a weakened civil society could begin to crystallize as more active political agents.

And yet, overall, enduring organizations with clear, committed and realistic agendas still do not feature among Zimbabwe's civics. Few groups operate practically at a national level, and many working for the same goals in different parts of the country are not aware of each other. When civics do co-operate (usually in a small municipal area or region), it is typically around very specific and narrowly-defined projects. Furthermore, there are no existing structures at the national or regional level designed to bring together and coordinate the activities of civics. Thus, while both ESAP and widespread dissatisfaction with the political status quo have provided plenty of raw material for mobilization and for the emergence of coalitions and joint agendas among a range of civics, little of this type of organizing has taken place.

Perhaps the most that can be said, then, is that Zimbabwean civil society is currently witnessing a slow recombination of its component elements, after years of domination by actors in the national political arena. This process is advancing with difficulty, and yet it is doing so at a steady pace. Importantly, its impetus is rooted in the local communities themselves; and this in itself is sufficient to distinguish the emerging civics as a popular, promising intervention from below. It also seems clear that the learning curve of mass-democratic participation is a gradual one, particularly in places where it is officially held already to exist, and where it has led to disillusionment and distrust of the "democratic" status quo.

But as new options and greater political openness unfold, and as the ruling party struggles to keep its house in order in the face of serious faction-fighting, the space and opportunities for civic activism will expand. Therefore, while there is no real civics movement in Zimbabwe just yet, in the longer term the continuing waves of local activism will surely contribute centrally to the development of a new democratic sensibility. In itself, this will be a victory of sorts. But it could also be a harbinger of better days to come for Zimbabwe.

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