Zimbabwe: Civil Society and Democracy

Tuesday, 12 August, 2008 - 16:08

All states, democratic or authoritarian, exist and govern by exercising political domination and force over citizens.

All states, democratic or authoritarian, exist and govern by exercising political domination and force over citizens. In functioning democracies, however, the state’s political domination and force is ably regulated by strong and inclusive institutional structures and processes, respect for the rule of law, fundamental freedoms and human rights and a vibrant and independent civil society. Constitutionally, Zimbabwe is a democracy.

However, the existing flawed Constitution, which is amenable to manipulation and abuse by the ruling elites, renders Zimbabwe’s democratic status grossly dysfunctional. Thus, political domination has, since 1980, lent itself more towards authoritarian, than democratic rule. It is realised and exercised through personalistic ties or relations that exist between patrons and clients. In their book, Democratic Experiments in Africa, Bratton and van de Walle (1997) describe this political system as:

“The distinctive institutional hallmark of African regimes […where…] relationships of loyalty and dependence pervade a formal political and administrative system and leaders occupy bureaucratic offices less to perform public service than to acquire personal wealth and status. The distinction between private and public interests is blurred. The essence of neopatrimonialism is the award by public officials of personal favours, both within the state (notably public sector jobs) and in society (for instance, licenses, contracts and projects). In return for material rewards, clients mobilise political support and refer all decisions upward as a mark of deference to patrons.”

With regard to the structure of an authoritarian political system this means that power is centralised around the executive president (patron) and his/her coterie of ruling party supporters (clients). All forms of associational life are controlled from the top. To oppose the state, even in a constructive democratic manner is regarded as threat to ‘national security’. Civil society groups that opt for autonomy from state cooptation are labelled ‘enemies of the state’. The state determines and bases the supply and access of national resources on political grounds. State resources are then used to regulate actions of party cadres and citizens for purposes of defending regime security at the expense of human security, fundamental freedoms and human rights. 

In Zimbabwe, patronage and clientele politics has entrenched authoritarianism. The culture of intolerance and bad governance in the wake of the 2008 Harmonised Elections threatens to block the smooth democratic transition. Since 2000, there exists a fractious relationship between the discourses of democracy and sovereignty, espoused by the self-acclaimed democrats (opposition political parties and Civil Society Organisations [CSOs]) and the so-called nationalists (ZANU-PF and war veterans). Thus on one hand, ‘nationalists’ espouse the ‘enemy discourse’ in their political pretentiousness as the sole and legitimate guardian of Zimbabwe’s sovereignty. On the other, ‘democrats’ counter the enemy discourse with their ‘saviour discourse’ in the wake of state repression. The pervasive patronage politics and these competing discourses explain recent raids on civil society in the context of the unfinished 2008 electoral process in Zimbabwe.  

Blocking transition

In 1997, the late Professor Masipula Sithole remarked that “authoritarianism in Zimbabwe is eroding.” However, the new political order that Sithole envisaged and celebrated, perhaps prematurely, has been on hold since 2000. Since then, there has been a systematic militarisation and patronisation of all major and strategic state institutions for purposes of defending the ZANU-PF regime. In turn, this has grossly compromised the jurisdictional provisions of a rational-legal bureaucracy that guarantee efficiency and accountability of the government and is currently the greatest threat to democratic transition in Zimbabwe.

The 2008 elections, coming on the backdrop of 11 years of political and socio-economic crisis, were supposed to herald a new political dispensation, vis-à-vis, restoration and respect for human life and dignity, political and civic rights and associated freedoms and economic recovery. However, the aftermath of the polling process has been marked by an electoral, political and humanitarian crisis following the unprecedented delays in announcing the results; the politically motivated violence in urban and rural areas pitting political party supporters against each other; the arrest of MDC supporters on charges of being ‘suspicious people’; and the raid on CSOs and activists.

The recent crackdown on humanitarian and governance CSOs by the state, on mythical allegations of being ‘pro-neocolonialism’ and Western stooges trying to unconstitutionally overthrow the government amounts to squeezing civil society out of the democratic space. On 25 April 2008, police officers from the Law and Order unit raided offices of the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN), and seized election documents that they claimed were subversive and meant to overthrow the ZANU-PF government. The raid on ZESN offices came a few days before the announcement of the presidential results and perhaps aimed at harassing, intimidating and therefore preventing ZESN from announcing election results that would contradict ZEC’s official results. Other CSOs that have had their staff or supporters harassed and arrested and/or offices raided include Action Aid Zimbabwe, Women and Men of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA/MOZA), Crisis Coalition Zimbabwe, Plan International, the Centre for Research and Development, and Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU).

The raids on civil society are paralleled by arrests of MDC supporters who are escaping violence in rural areas but are also alleged to be perpetrating the same violence on ZANU-PF supporters. According to the UN Country Team Statement of 13 May 2008, the violence in rural areas is disrupting food aid distribution by UN agencies and other humanitarian NGOs. A joint report from the Ecumenical Zimbabwe Network and the Cooperation for International Development Solidarity, for instance, states that “the intimidating presence of security personnel and the physical violence taking place across the country is severely limiting our partners’ ability to fulfill their humanitarian mission. This security situation severely limits access to certain areas of the country.” 

Future policy engagement?

The crackdown on civil society and the opposition reflects the state’s continued aversion to participatory governance and multi-party politics in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe’s patronage politics compromises the independence of various state institutions to institute and promote a culture of tolerance and participatory politics. The unflinching loyalty to ZANU-PF by some senior civil servants negates the power constitutionally ascribed to state institutions to partially carry out their national duties. And as has been argued by many commentators, where Zimbabwe’s state institutions exercise their constitutionally mandated duties, political interference overrides the implementation of policies and/or critical decision are delayed or avoided. In addition, ZANU-PF’s client network - war veterans, youth brigades and some senior civil servants - returns numerous forms of patronage payments by zealously harassing civil society and the opposition, in blind and shallow defence of the sovereign and nationalist discourses against mythical state enemies.

CSOs and the opposition have been proactive in their endeavours to pick up the slack of Zimbabwe’s partisan administrative system, by lobbying for inclusive and democratic politics. In the process, however, the zeal to proffer an alternative ‘saviour discourse’ and for self-defense against state sponsored violence has had the negative effect of recycling and perpetuating the same violence and/or intolerance against ruling party supporters and/or within the civic or opposition sector. In this regard, the National Association of Non-governmental Organizations in Zimbabwe (NANGO) representing over 1000 NGOs has teamed with other non-member NGOs and other civic coalitions to campaign for non-violent social action and protection of people’s authentic voice as expressed through the 2008 Harmonised Elections. NANGO, therefore, views the on-going harassment and intimidation of perceived anti-ZANU-PF civil society (and opposition) as negating their democratic rights and responsibilities to lobby and pressure government to be responsive and accountable to the electorate.

The diminishing democratic space of civil society that these raids entail unnecessarily compounds the already frosty state-civil society relations in crucial policy engagement processes.. The harassment of CSOs is politically calculated to deter civic education in anticipation of what is likely to be a fiercely and violently contested presidential run-off. There is therefore need to slow down the discourse extremisms held by both ZANU-PF (and its supporters) and the opposition forces (political parties and some civil society groups) and to find common ground to facilitate a stable democratic transition through the 2008 Harmonised Elections.

For more information on Zimbabwean civil society: http://www.nango.org.zw

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