Are Zimbabwe's Emerging Social Movements Overrated?

By Khanyile Mlotshwa

Bulawayo, November 30, 2016 – THE national shutdown on July 6 this year remains an important milestone in Zimbabwean politics.

This is not only because it shocked the ruling Zanu PF party, but because it shocked all political parties involved in Zimbabwean politics.

The failed bond notes demonstration on Friday 18 November and lately November 30, has proven beyond doubt that even groups like Tajamuka and #thisflag, fronted by exiled Pastor Evans Mawarire, were wrongly touted as the leaders of the July 6, 2016 stayaway.

In a context where people, including journalists, are used to the idea that politics is only possible within political parties or civil society circles, it is, in fact the state media that anointed Pastor Mawarire as the demigod of the July 6, 2016 act of civil resistance.

But in the fullness of time, that has been proven a fallacy.

The success of the July 6, 2016 stay away belongs to the articulation of the discontent of the civil servants, public transport operators and other informal workers – in the form of vendors of all kinds.

It marked a day when Zimbabweans, both the so-called middle class and those at the margins, proved that they were capable of organising resistance outside the ambit of party politics and vested interests as represented by civil society organisations that are run from expensive offices in Harare and Bulawayo.

Just as in the Arab Spring of 2011, what has become clear in the short life of Zimbabwe’s new social movements, especially in the failure of the Bond Notes Boycott is that the Revolution will not be televised or twitted. There is still need for old fashioned organising of ‘real’ people on the ground and not phantom characters on social media.

Pastor Mawarire and Tajamuka made their calls using social media platforms, but public transport organisations, vendors’ organisations and civil servants’ unions had already walked the talk, physically mobilising their structures for the stay away.

The need for old fashioned organising to push the people’s struggles forward is one lesson that has come out of the watershed events of July 6, 2016 as understood against the flopped anti-bond notes demonstrations.

There are other important lessons.

The stay away was completely anarchical – not necessarily to say it was violent but to mean it had no central leader – it was civil servants, public transport operators and vendors of all kinds reaching out at each other.

Organising civil disobedience or any act of resistance around a leader has its advantages such as order and manageability. However, the disadvantages are always fatal.

Once a revolution parades its leader, it opens itself to infiltration and becomes an easy target for the establishment. Arrests follow and it becomes easy for the government to spread fear by targeting the leader.

This has been the case with the arrests of Promise Mkhwanazi, Linda Masarira and others believed to have been the leaders of the social movements.

Allegations of the abuse of donor funds around the failed anti-bond demonstration is another example of how the struggle can be commercialised and stolen from the people.

If it is true, it then becomes clear that, by targeting the so-called leaders of the social movements, Western governments and institutions have been able not only to determine the course of action but also the content of the struggle. This is only possible if leaders can be identified and corrupted.

Prosecuting a struggle without a clear leadership structure sometimes protects it from all these side effects because it is not clear who to arrest or who to bribe.

Leaving the struggle to be defined by Western governments and institutions has also served to limit the meaning of social movements in Zimbabwean context. For example, in Matabeleland, there are numerous instances of villagers in Matobo who have organised themselves to fight the government and companies over what they regard as ancestral lands.

These villagers and the struggles that they are involved in have not been defined as social movements, yet they are social movements.

What the expanded definition of social movements portends is a change of politics in the country.

Zimbabwean politics, since independence in 1980, has for a long-time been organised around political parties. The rise of a strong civil society organisation after the 1990s to contest the political space with political parties was a ‘shock moment’.

The rise of social movements, with people taking power into their own hands marks another ‘shock moment’ for Zimbabwean politics. Ultimately it marks growth and further democratisation.