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Zimbabwe’s Civil Society Vitality in Building a Resilient Republic

By Edknowledge Mandikwaza

Since the inception of President Mnangwagwa’s ‘New Dispensation,’ hopes for a transformed relationship between the government and civil society organisations have failed. The Zimbabwean government, conflated with the ruling party, has escalated its attacks on civil society institutions, ultimately shrinking the existing civic spaces. The government is critical of the civil society, yet it is the space that helps inform the government of critical citizens’ needs, alternative policies and at best takes responsibilities neglected by the government. This conflictual relationship is partially a result of citizens’ loss of trust in the government when it comes to social services delivery, promoting the rule of law, equal treatment and access to resources, and human rights protection. In this piece, I reflect on the Zimbabwean Civil Society’s contribution to social development, examining challenges it faces while exploring opportunities for enhanced collaboration with the state to advance Zimbabwean citizens’ common national interests. The article implores the Government of Zimbabwe to unreservedly protect the civil society and collaborate with it to advance social service delivery, economic development, and social cohesion building.

Civil Society’s Role in Building a Resilient Society

The Civil Society is a crucial institution and public space that catalyses development and social cohesion within and across societies. It is an arena of voluntary collective actions around shared interests, purposes, and values distinct from families, state and profit seeking institutions. It is an arena because it is a space where people or rather citizens meet (a public sphere) to discuss, dialogue and share concerns with a view to influence public policies and the broader society.

Civil society is the embodiment of citizens’ voices and interests which comprises institutions that are not associated with the government, commonly described as non-governmental organisations. They include advocacy groups, professional associations, schools and universities, churches, and cultural institutions. They also refer to a wide range of associations, such as charities, non-governmental organisations, community-based groups, women’s groups, faith-based groups, professional and business associations, or trade unions, but also social movements.

These institutions catalyse relations between citizens and the government, represent the people’s interest to the state, identify and suggest alternative policies, monitor government actions and policies (on behalf of the citizens), and hold the government to account. In spaces where the government fails to account to its citizens, civil society speaks out reminding the government of its responsibilities by defending the people’s rights and upholding social norms and values. In cases where the government completely fails, it is the civil society that chips in to deliver social services especially to the poor and the marginalised.

Unreservedly, for me, civil society is a space to fight for a democratic, just, and equal society. In fragile countries experiencing conflict and violence, poverty, and disasters such as Haiti, Sudan, South Sudan, Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo among others, the Civil society plays a critical role in providing humanitarian and social development services, covering responsibilities ordinarily undertaken by states and their governments. Civil society saves lives and helps communities to recover from socio-economic and political challenges they face daily.

Zimbabwe’s Civil Society Vitality

Zimbabwe is grappling with addressing its socio-economic and political crises arising from political legitimacy contestations. The political rivalry, corruption and natural resources mismanagement has seen social services delivery going at their lowest, especially, in public health and education sectors for example. The economy continues on a downward spiral with many people within the private and public sectors earning wages way below the poverty datum line. The human rights situation is not getting any better with the New Dispensation. Reports from the Zimbabwe Human Rights Association, Zimbabwe Peace Project, Heal Zimbabwe Trust, and Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) among others demonstrate the gross extent of government neglect on human rights and social services delivery. The civil society, henceforth, has played a significant role to ensure that Zimbabwe’s socio-economic and developmental systems do not collapse. CSOs have and continue to address humanitarian, development and social cohesion building needs that Zimbabwe badly needs. They raise public awareness, increase access to information, provide think-tanking research support and they also perform advocacy, case management and monitoring of public actions. Below are some of the key functions that Zimbabwean civil society organisations have played.

Deepening democracy and good governance – civic society organisations in Zimbabwe are the major voice striving to strengthen democratic governance and human rights protection. They raise awareness, monitor, and report human rights violations, and ensure that government agencies are held accountable. Civic society organisations such as the Zimbabwe Peace Project and Heal Zimbabwe Trust, for example, were able to advance human rights protection by fighting misinformation and disinformation, ensuring access to information, and exposing human rights violations during the August 2023 elections. Human rights violations including violence, intimidation, physical attacks, and property destruction dominated the country’s political landscape from the 2019 by-elections through to the 2023 harmonised elections.

Institutions such as the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights and Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum continue to provide legal aid support while Tree of Life and Counselling Services Unit essentially help communities to cope with effects of traumatic experiences from violent conflicts. These civil society institutions have been on high alert exposing violations and assisting human rights defenders in need as well as campaigning for alternative public policies that promote, protect, and defend the rule of law. To deepen democracy, civil society monitors the application of the rule of law, champion electoral reforms and provides checks and balances on the behaviour of elected leaders and the government.

Responding to humanitarian crises – since the ushering in of a New Dispensation, Zimbabwe has gone through deep humanitarian crises, arising from climate change disasters and the COVID-19 pandemic. Using the Humanitarian Development Nexus approach, civil society organisations have responded to these emergencies, helping to build affected communities’ resilience, and advancing inclusive economic development and social justice. For instance, during the COVID-19 outbreak, civil society fought from the frontline, mobilising resources and channelling them to the most deserving. These sacrifices were happening when some government officials were instead profiting from the humanitarian crisis. For example, the former Minister of Health and Child Care, Obediah Moyo, allegedly stole over USD 60 million intended for medical supplies. The corruption scandal only came to light and gained public prominence through civil society, leading to the Minister’s dismissal from government. Arguably, many communities in Zimbabwe have been, for decades, accessing public health and emergency services only through civil society because the government either neglects them or because of corruption.

Economic and social development – besides benefiting from civic society’s agility in humanitarian crises response, the Zimbabwean government has also hugely benefited from the constituency’s anchor support on economic and social development. Zimbabwe has for decades experienced spiralling economic downturns, social injustices, and inequalities. In December 2022, Zimbabwe’s inflation was at 280 percent, one of the highest statistics globally. By August 2023, consumers' purchasing power had fallen by 77.2 percent compared to August 2022 levels. In an unending inflationary environment characterised by high unemployment levels and waning investment, citizens’ livelihoods are obviously impacted. Hence, to cover the government’s deficiencies, civil society has been bridging the country’s financing gap in the critical sectors of the economy such as social protection, education, health, water, and sanitation.

Institutions such as FHI 360, Zimbabwe Health Intervention and Populations Services Zimbabwe work with community-based organisations to provide public health support services in marginalised communities, while institutions such as Mwenezi Development Training Centre, FACT Zimbabwe and ActionAid Zimbabwe, have all played essential roles in strengthening social justice including improving gender equality and equity, and supporting grassroots-based economic development initiatives. Marginalised groups including the youth, women, people with disabilities and minority groups are helped to protect and demand their rights, they are empowered to sustainably represent their interests.

Fighting corruption – civil society has been instrumental in promoting good corporate governance by documenting and exposing corruption to deter would be offenders. One of the most persistent challenges stalling economic development in Zimbabwe is centred on corruption. The country is badly rated in the Corruption Perceptions Index. Corruption prevents citizens from accessing public services, it creates inequalities and ultimately generates violence and conflict, especially when citizens’ trust in the government is eroded.

Zimbabwe has an anti-corruption watchdog, the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commissions, and a National Anti-Corruption Strategy (NACS) but corruption remains high. It is perpetuated by impunity, lack of political will and a captured judicial system. Hence, the media and anti-corruption civil society organisations such as Transparency International have not only documented corruption, but they have also raised awareness and trained citizens on how to detect corruption and report using citizen journalism. The intervention undoubtedly saves taxpayers money thereby reducing public resources mismanagement.

The Assault of Civil Society Organisations

Despite being instrumental in covering the government’s deficiencies in public service provision and safeguarding democracy, human rights and good governance, civil society is constantly under surveillance and attack by government officials and state institutions. Civil society spaces are treated with suspicion and indifference, yet they are critical partners in governance by virtue of being the catalytic voices for the masses who mediate the social contact between the citizens and the government. Since the coming in of the New Dispensation there has been an assault on Civil Society, a complete disregard of the institution’s immense work and achievements in social and economic development.

Following the late former President Robert Mugabe’s military assisted power transfer, there were renewed hopes for a transformed relationship between the government and civil society. However, these hopes were dashed as the government has become more critical and repressive towards civil society. In 2021, the government introduced the Cyber and Data Protection Act which restricts free online expression. In November 2022, the government approved the Patriotic Act through the Criminal Law (Codifications and Reform) Amendment Bill aiming to suppress civil society from performing its oversight role and advocacy work. In the same year, the Private Voluntary Organisation Bill was also introduced to curtail civil society’s ability to monitor elections, and to prevent reporting on violence, intimidation, and electoral fraud among other governance ills. When the ruling party in government failed to completely erase civil society organisations through a reformed law, it began to establish its own civic society organisations including institutions such as the highly militarised and securitised Forever Associates of Zimbabwe and the Heritage Trust. These actions collectively paint a picture of increasing government repression and efforts to stifle the critical role played by civil society in upholding democracy and accountability in Zimbabwe.

During the August 2023 elections a significant number of civic society organisations were prevented from observing elections, a situation that reduced independent election oversight. On election day, 41 election observers from the Zimbabwe Election Support Network and the Election Resource Centre were arrested and their election tabulation equipment were confiscated. Additionally, civic society faced difficulties in accessing the voters’ rolls, this affected their capacity to audit and verify the voters’ register as provided for by the Electoral Act. These interferences did not only impact the civic spaces’ capacities to provide essential services to the neediest, but it has also stifled the protection of human rights and the advancement of democracy in the country.

The Social Contract

The Zimbabwean government holds a social contract with its citizens with the civic space serving as a very important platform to interface, to measure progress and to renew commitments for social progress. The government, therefore, must appreciate the significance of civil society’s intermediary role in supporting the social contract. In order to achieve the social contract, there has to be an established transformative relationship between civic society and the government.

Government agencies must engage in reflective and constructive evaluation of their working relationship with civil society in order to genuinely address Zimbabwe’s deep-seated socio-economic and developmental needs. An unwavering political will is needed from the government and all elected leaders to establish effective working relations with civic society to debunk misconceptions about civil society, which are often propagated by those who thrive on violence and disharmony. Instead of battling civil society, the government should actively listen to it and expand collaborations for the betterment of the Zimbabwean society as a whole.

The Future

A thriving civic space is fundamental for a functioning democracy. Hence civil society in Zimbabwe must persist in safeguarding this space and holding political power accountable through checks and balances. By doing so, civil society can prevent the erosion of democracy and ensure the continued existence of conducive conditions for civil society itself.

The August 2023 elections outcomes’ legitimacy disputations and the continued violence, corruption and impunity will do no good for Zimbabwe. Lack of access to decent public health services, education and social services is likely to continue, hence, the necessity of civil society institutions’ services is likely to increase. To prevent the country’s socio-economic and political collapse, it is imperative to further strengthen and refine the resilience of civil society organisations until genuine political and economic progress is reestablished and harmonised with the needs of the nation.

Edknowledge Mandikwaza is a development practitioner and scholar in peacebuilding and transitional justice policy, practice, and processes. He is a development management consultant and Chairperson of the National Transitional Justice Working Group (NTJWG)’s Knowledge Management Committee.


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