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The need for a New Politics: Substantive Democratic Action (Part 1)

An important event occurred last week in Zimbabwe’s political landscape. Makomborero Haruzivishe was convicted of the crime of “inciting public violence”. As I sat down by my verandah taking in these shocking events, I could hear the words of my former lecturer Dr. Kurebwa echoing in my head, “always remember that politics is ubiquitous. Like water it’s ever moving, changing shape based on the happenings in society, economics, in your very home.” What did this all mean?

To be clear, this was not the first time Mako had been arrested by the ZANU PF government. Since his university days at the University of Zimbabwe where I was fortunate enough to meet him, Mako has regularly caught the ire of the state. I have even joked once with him before that his file at the Central Police Station is bigger than all the class notes he wrote in University! What was shocking, as noted by academia, activists and commentators were that this was the first instance by which through the captured judiciary, the state had taken the step of actually convicting an activist. Slapped with the offense of “inciting public violence”, this was the ZANU government showing its growing confidence against its opposition.

But where is this confidence coming from? To most outsiders, one would rightfully say the economy is still in a perilous state, the global pandemic is still hovering and the corruption by ZANU PF has not abated. If anything, it has increased! However, that is not the full picture anymore. The economy is still in a hole but importantly for ZANU PF, they have stopped digging that hole as quickly as they had been doing in the past. Evidence of this is that inflation although still high has slowed down. The pandemic has also given them licence to stretch their dictatorial powers without as much backlash from the international community. Major industrial and service conglomerates in the nation have managed to skirt through the pandemic to the point that capacity utilization has increased. Also, importantly, Zimbabwe had very good rains this year. These rains have meant that the general mood in the rural areas and also in the city to an extent is more optimistic about the future. In a nutshell, Zimbabweans may not be happy, but they are less angry, and that is a critical difference.

A less angry citizenship has been coupled with ZANU PF’s reinvigorated tireless mission to weaken opposition over the last two years. The persistent arrests of leading opposition figures such as Mako, Joanna Mamombe, Hopewell Chinon’o through lawfare, the support they have received from Sen Mwonzora and co has debilitated the strength of the opposition to the extent that a growing number of citizens have become apathetic to the political sphere. ZANU PF has increasingly worked on limiting the power and virility of social media platforms which over the last four years have provided the platform for genuine mobilization against the state. The upcoming Cyber Crimes Bill, an avalanche of ‘ZANU Twitter fighters’ on the platforms defending the government are examples of this. What ZANU PF has figured out is that social media outcries without tangible, organic action on the ground morph into huffs and puffs that do not blow the house down. Returning to my borrowed analogy, ZANU PF is firmly holding the water, cupping it in its hands. Although there are drops escaping their clutches here and there, they are managing.

However, as politics is water, it will consistently aim to flow which is to say nothing is ever permanent, especially in politics. How then, can that change come about? Alex Magaisa recently argued that there was a need for progressive forces to establish the intersectionality approach so as to garner impetus for the democratic struggle. I’d like to take this further by stating that more than intersectionality, there is a critical need to change the form of the democratic struggle from one of protest action to one of substance.

Protest actions have been the modus operandi/bread and butter of MDC and progressives since its formation. This is a result of its trade union and civil society roots. Although there will always be the need for protest action, the current government has zoned in on that form of activism and it is becoming better and more willing to flush it out. There is therefore a need to change strategy to one which ZANU PF is not prepared for, is more difficult to neutralize, and can still garner sympathy and support from the general masses. This change of strategy is moving to “substantive democratic action.”

Substantive democratic action is activities in which a political body establishes policies and programs while not in government that speak and respond to the socio-economic needs of the masses. Examples of these include:

· Actively supporting economic groups such as kombi drivers to unionize,

· Providing women healthcare education,

· Creating community schemes to fundraise and fix potholes,

· Microfinancing (maround) schemes,

· Leveraging on the well-educated in the party to provide education extra lessons to exam writing students, SMEs.

· Running and managing food and clothing charities in communities that need it most.

This list is not exhaustive at all and it is not new. Civil society and NGOs are in these spaces already. However, there has been a reluctance on opposition political parties to take such initiatives and run them using the party apparatus where they can have national impetus. The idea that once we take over the state, we can provide these things seems to have a stronger hold. Other schools consider such schemes with a derogatory eye, seeing them as vote-buying schemes. I argue against this stating that, it is the politics of livelihoods. If a progressive change of livelihoods at the present moment cannot come through protesting, elections, parliament, or judiciary, new avenues such as substantive democratic activities need to be adopted.

In the 60s and 70s, the progressive forces of that time, namely ZAPU and ZANU when faced with increasing pressure, arrests, and killings, changed tactics and used the military avenue to take over the state. However, 41 years of independence have shown us that violence begets violence and the gun that ushered in independence is today used to limit those hard-won freedoms. Substantive democratic actions are not only rooted in people's power which allows them to be democratically designed. These activities have the power to shift the power matrix in the country. As Dr. Kurebwa said, politics like water is constantly in motion. Substantive democratic actions have the power to shift the political landscape back to one in which progressives have a larger say in how this country is running. More importantly, instead of relying on the brave efforts of change coming from the protest action of Mako and company, there are other avenues that can increase the progressive agenda in Zimbabwe.

In the next blog {part}, I will go deeper into what exactly substantive democratic actions entail, their history, success and challenges.

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