“In Gramsci’s words, ‘the old is dying and the new cannot be born’ as the ‘midwife’ is scarred, weary and under-resourced. The regional and international supporters of democracy and human rights should render timely support (financial, technical, solidarity and otherwise) to the Zimbabwean civil society, help the country deliver a democratic dispensation and counter further democratic regression and possible chaos”
Activists and scholars who have observed transitions around the world, describe civil society as a ‘midwife’ that plays a key role in inducing and delivering democratic dispensations. In Zimbabwe’s prolonged transition, the ‘midwife’, comprising associations, unions, advocacy groups, students, have attained deep, festering scars while fighting off vultures (anti-democracy forces) from the birth scene of a new dispensation. In almost two decades, the civil society has, arguably, delivered babies that got devoured by vicious vultures, instantaneously. The country has thus suffered serious reversals in the democratic transition process, at various intervals.
As the 2018 elections loom on the horizon, ideally another opportunity to influence the direction of the country’s transition, the critical question is whether the civil society is fully equipped to chaperon the transition? This article argues that there are some deep scars that need to be urgently attended to for civil society to play an effective role in the forthcoming elections and beyond.
The question arises against the backdrop of a possible repeat of 2013 elections which rewarded ZANU PF’s resolve to win elections at all cost, retain power and some level of legitimacy while dealing with their internal succession. What should continue to worry the civil society is the fact that ZANU PF’s notion of transition, arguably means solving the internal leadership succession question and continuing the legacy of the party thereafter—possibly same or worse form of governance.
On the other hand, the opposition parties, (MDC formations, PDP, ZAPU, NPP and others) with a somewhat shared notion of transitioning the country from authoritarian form of government to a democratic one, have not yet shown a radical departure from past approaches to attempt to win the elections. This leaves the civil society with a huge task to ensure that the election is held in a free and fair manner and that the winner and loser do not reverse democratic gains thereof.
A combination of factors during the 2009-2013 Inclusive Government years, caused the accelerated weakening of civil society. These were, among others; donor re-engagement with the government which meant some direct financing; the global financial crisis and some complacency from the belief that the country was on course for a democratic transition, resulting in limited and eleventh hour support for the civil society during 2013 elections.
Resource scarcity may generally result in countries and agencies that support human rights and democratization, concentrating where they are likely to achieve change with less. This may make them (have made) to commit less support to Zimbabwe where there are more steps backwards rather than forwards.
Many scholars and activists have written about how the Inclusive Government and subsequent 2013 elections put anti-democracy forces back into the driving seat of the country’s transition. They returned with renewed vigor, sophistication and determination to reverse and stall some democratic gains. However, in the post-2013 period, the civil society managed to protect some gains while others were reversed or neutered.
Students of political science would argue that the 2018 elections are coming at a time when the country’s political shift from an authoritarian rule to a democratic rule has markedly reversed and faces the risk of collapse into chaos. The country’s transition is going through what O’Donnell and Schmitter call ‘transition from certain authoritarian regime toward an uncertain something else’.
While this is happening, the civil society which should reach for the wheel and steer the transition in a positive direction, is not as strong as it was when defied untold odds to challenge undemocratic governance and make a case for the transition of the state into a democratic and open one. It does not command the voice it had when it spoke truth to power, midwifing the country’s sluggish transition, among many other big and small feats.
Many civil society organizations have seen reduced funding and technical support, leadership and staff turnover, burnout, weak organizational systems among other challenges. The midwife (civil society) surely needs new tools, a newer version of the labor inducement manual, renewed energy—their resource bank needs replenishing. The current ebb threatens to negate of the strategic value of the midwife in birthing the new as the old inevitably die in Zimbabwe.
Since the 90s, organized civil society’s growth in Zimbabwe has always been anchored on material and other forms of support from governments that advance human rights, international human rights bodies, international organizations; and individuals that support such work, engaged citizens among other pillars.
While several factors abound such as the uncertainties in parts of the developed world; internal weaknesses of some civil society organizations, supporters of democracy and human rights everywhere have a responsibility of safeguarding democratic gains in Zimbabwe. Friends of Zimbabwe across the world must not give up on the country. Recent developments in countries such as Myanmar, Gambia and elsewhere should keep the hopes of attaining and defending democratic ideals alive.
The democratic gains which remain the legacy of a strong civil society in Zimbabwe include: peaceful creation of conditions for a formidable opposition which has contested and arguably won some of the elections but denied victory; reforming the country’s constitution which started in the late nineties and bore some fruits in 2013 with a new constitution being passed into law; increased electoral competition; improved accessibility of parliament; increased civic awareness; relatively peaceful communities; limited human rights abuses; and improved access to justice.
Achieving these gains took many challenges against the state excesses through actions such as protests, litigation, engaging regional and international bodies among other ways. Civil society groups had to fight off the 2004 NGO Bill, endure harsh legislation such as Public Order and Security Act (POSA) and others, leaders and activists were arrested, abducted, killed and forced to skip the country. The positive changes and retention of some strategic gains have come at high costs to individuals and groups. Despite these achievements, the sector finds itself in a somewhat weak position and failing to defend its legacy.
In Gramsci’s words, ‘the old is dying and the new cannot be born’ as the ‘midwife’ is scarred and weary. The regional and international supporters of democracy and human rights should render timely support (financial, technical, solidarity and otherwise) to the Zimbabwean civil society and help the country deliver a democratic dispensation and counter further democratic regression and chaos.
Mmeli Dube is a human rights activist. He is former Executive Director of Bulawayo Agenda and currently a Humphrey Fellow at the Hubert Humphrey School of Public Policy in Minneapolis, USA. He writes here in his individual capacity.