We, the people of Zimbabwe

In the past, Zimbabweans have looked to African heads of state to support their struggle for democracy. But in the face of their refusal to act, civil society organisations are considering more direct kinds of action. Mary Ndlovu writes from Zimbabwe

August 4, 2008
7 min read

African governments meeting at the African Union (AU) summit in July acknowledged that Zimbabwe’s presidential run-off election on 27 June was fraudulent. But what have they done about it? Refused to recognise Mugabe’s government? Isolated him regionally? Recognised the winner of the freer and fairer first round in March?

No. Only a few African heads of state were prepared to point out the obvious – that Mugabe’s regime is not legitimate and Morgan Tsvangirai is entitled to be recognised as the president of Zimbabwe.

Instead, President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa has persuaded the majority that the best solution is to negotiate and create a government of national unity. This would put Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in an impossible position, as Mugabe holds all the bargaining chips. It is hardly surprising that the MDC is refusing to participate unless violence ends and Tsvangirai is acknowledged as the winner of the March poll.

Even if the two parties do eventually sit down to ‘talk’, we can be sure that negotiations will drag on for months as Mugabe stalls to keep himself in power for as long as possible. Besides, Mugabe is unlikely to concede anything meaningful in the absence of much more serious pressures either regionally or by the AU as a whole – unless the impact of Zimbabwe’s imploding economy intervenes in some way to terminate his government.

If a government of national unity is created in some form, it is likely to be a clumsy deal made between elites, ignoring the wishes of the people for a government that is accountable to them and committed to delivering social justice.

The EU, the US and other developed countries may intensify sanctions and withdraw their diplomatic missions, but this is likely to make Mugabe even more defiant. Meanwhile, his unworkable economic policies will continue, prolonging the misery of Zimbabweans, whether at home or in exile, and impacting seriously on the economies of the entire region.

The AU summit has helped us in Zimbabwe to see clearly that the governments of Africa, and the Southern Africa Development Community in particular, will provide no early solution to Mugabe’s usurpation of power. A counter-force is now needed within the region to establish governments in each nation that can stand up for both their own people and their neighbours.

This is hardly a new idea; progressive social movements do already exist. But we must recognise that the days of sitting back and expecting governments to do it for us, with a bit of pressure here and there, are gone. We’ve seen over and over again that they will not act.

The fault is with us, the people, as much as with those leaders who join the elite only to betray the people’s ideals. The seduction of wielding power is too great, the temptations of holding office too many for ordinary human beings. The responsibility of holding governments to account must belong with the people. We must build popular organisations with strategies that learn the lessons of these failings and ensure that governments act in the interests of the masses.

This work must be regional, based on the solidarity of peoples whose lives are inextricably linked through history, proximity, migration and economic integration. There is a long struggle ahead – a struggle to build democracy from the bottom and create participatory structures and practices that can hold governments permanently accountable for their actions and assist them to fulfill the promises of social justice on which independence was achieved.

In this broad context, what is the way forward for Zimbabwe?

Some are now calling for armed resistance – but this is the solution that has been tried before and has produced the undemocratic trap in which we are now ensnared. Few desire this road: as a region we have seen the inevitable suffering that it causes without creating popular and accountable government. Those nations that appear to have more responsive governments and are further ahead in developing the practice of democracy are those very nations where nonviolent forms of independence struggles predominated. What we need is strategic and mass action of the type that South Africans developed to complement their own armed struggle to topple apartheid. And we need it both within Zimbabwe and outside.

Within Zimbabwe, progressive individuals and organisations need to recover rapidly from the disappointment and terror of recent events. They will have to peer into the darkness and overcome the temptation to give way to fear, despair and dejection. Hopefully they will respond to the opportunity – and the necessity – to build a new people’s movement that can create the foundation of a future participatory democracy.

It will be difficult. Any such movement will have to operate under repressive conditions. But the aging generation of Zimbabwean grandfathers and grandmothers devised strategies and made sacrifices in order to achieve their own goal of independence. Why should their children and grandchildren not be prepared to do the same now?

As the charade of a negotiated settlement plays itself out at the level of political leadership, Zimbabwean civic organisations and social movements will be restrategising and mapping their way forward. Meanwhile, there is very important work to be done in the region in further developing effective social movements and in making use of existing structures to bring pressure to bear on the Zimbabwean and regional governments. Such cooperation and solidarity activity is already under way and includes:

  • Continuing pressure on regional governments to change their position on Zimbabwe and refuse to recognise Mugabe’s government as legitimate;
  • Lobbying for Mugabe’s government to be replaced by a transitional authority under the auspices of the AU or the UN to move Zimbabwe forward to a new constitution and a new election;
  • Lobbying internationally for boycotts of Zimbabwean government officials when they travel, their exclusion from international bodies and other sanctions against them;
  • Lobbying regionally and internationally for the exclusion of the Zimbabwean military and law enforcement agencies from any co-operative forums;
  • Boycotts of any companies carrying on business with the Zimbabwe government;
  • Arrests and prosecutions of Zimbabwean officials who are known to be perpetrators and promoters of torture under the Convention Against Torture, when they travel in countries that are signatories to the convention;
  • Mass demonstrations at Zimbabwean embassies whenever Zimbabwean officials visit other countries;
  • Direct action by trade unionists and legal activists to prevent any support or services being provided to the Zimbabwean government, especially to prevent any weapons from reaching Zimbabwe; and
  • Sharing experiences and lessons of struggle in the region.

    Trade unions, students, professional groups and other popular movements have already shown that they are capable of taking such actions. One of the most uplifting moments of the past gloomy months was when dockworkers in Durban refused to unload a Chinese ship carrying 77 tonnes of arms and ammunition for the Zimbabwean regime and the Durban high court ruled that the shipment should not have been granted a permit by the national convention’s arms control committee.

    Such solidarity inspires us and gives us hope. Let it continue and multiply throughout the region as together we can not only solve the Zimbabwean problem but build truly democratic societies that can provide decent lives for all southern Africans. Governments will not do it for us, but we the people can. Robert Mugabe’s satisfaction must not be permitted to linger for long.

    Mary Ndlovu is a social justice activist involved in Woza (Women of Zimbabwe Arise). A version of this article was published in Amandla, Red Pepper’s sister paper in South Africa

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