Beyond hope to action

The Zimbabwean opposition MDC party, in its original form, once attempted a “savanna spring” way before the much more popular and effective Arab spring.  I showed up at Africa Unity Square with a human rights lawyer who was involved with transparency international, his wife a human rights activist in her own right and a friend of theirs, a lawyer, who had flown in from the US, to take part in this historic people power mission. It didn’t take off.

Zimbabweans are good at analysing what went wrong and  the Zimbabwe Independent’s Dumisani Muleya reported that in “In a report titled Reflections on the Final Push: Defiance versus Repression, Crisis in Zimbabwe says the MDC’s preparedness for an effective campaign of resistance was inadequate to match the situation.”

Every single Arab spring event met with initial repression by the local authorities in each of the countries where it succeeded, so we can quickly dispense with the well-known brutality of the Zimbabwe regime when it comes to cracking down on any form of dissent as a reason for the failure of the push. In fact, we can go further and say Ben Ali, Gaddaafi and Mubarak’s reactions were far more brutal compared to anything the Zimbabwean regime mustered over the few days of the aborted push.

Let’s turn back to the Crisis in Zimbabwe report. “There is a further need to reflect on four critical factors (from civil society’s perspective) that might also serve to explain the shortcomings of “the final push”, it says.

  1. “The end game of the ‘final push’ was blurred in the messaging. While repeated advertisements in the private press, flyers and posters informed Zimbabweans that some action was imminent, communication of the specific objectives of this action was less consistent.” The report states adverts inserted by the MDC before the action featured a cartoon of an individual resembling President Robert Mugabe being chased by a crowd led by MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai, which was accompanied by messages about the “countdown to the final push”. “This could have led many readers to believe that the ‘final push’ was about chasing Mugabe out of State House, or forcing him out of office,” the report observes.
  2. It says as the mass action drew closer, the MDC changed the tone of its messages and started urging Zimbabweans to “stay calm and peaceful as we engage in the on-going campaign to encourage Zanu PF to come to a serious negotiating table and resolve the national crisis”. It exhorted the public to “protest peacefully – march for your freedom” and announced that there would be marches in all major city centres.
  3. But the report says the road map and finer details for the mass action were not clear. It says the MDC was “vague about the specific form, content and timing of the action”. “It was unclear, however, how such marches would proceed, in what way these demonstrations would yield dialogue, and what demands the MDC was making on such dialogue,” it says. “Adverts and messages before the ‘D-Day’ demonstrations scheduled for June 6 were more clear (sic) about the venue, but did not specify the time people were to gather.” The report says this “contributed to some frustration among activists who wanted to participate in demonstrations but who were not sure what was expected of them”. “While everyone was looking for something beyond the stayaway, many were not sure exactly what that would be,” it states.
  4. The report points out that Tsvangirai fuelled confusion days before the protests when he said the MDC wanted a three-month transition arrangement before fresh elections. “A few days before the commencement of the ‘final push’,” the MDC released a statement which indicated that transition should occur in terms of the current defective Constitution of Zimbabwe,” it says. “In other words, it recommended that Mugabe should step down from office and allow new elections to be held within 90 days of his resignation. This sent mixed messages to civil society, as it smacked of “power first, principle later.” The fact that this was announced only days before the action, the reports notes, made it difficult for civil society to “remind the MDC of its previous commitments to a transitional phase”. “Ultimately, because both the MDC and civil society continued to announce their different positions through the press, an honest discussion about the differences of their perspective on the way forward was compromised.” Tsvangirai has defended his position claiming the transitional period should be short because people are starving. This has given the impression that he wants to exploit the situation to fast-track himself into power without ushering in fundamental democratic reforms. However, the report concludes that despite these glaring limitations, “the final push was not a failure nor did it represent a step backwards”.

I do not know why the report concludes that the push was not a failure because it clearly was and after 2008 the exodus of Zimbabweans continued apace depriving future mass movements of oxygen. American author Rebecca Sonit published her book, Hope in the dark in 2004. In the 2016 edition and with reference to Edward Snowden, Marriage Equality and Black Lives Matter she writes “this has been a truly remarkable decade for movement-building, social change, and deep, profound shifts in ideas, perspective, and frameworks for broad parts of the population (and, of course, backlashes against all those things).”

I believe that movement building in Zimbabwe took a back seat after 2008 and that now is the time to rekindle it. But unlike the final push, this movement must not be about the eviction of one man from power, something that has consumed Zimbabwean opposition and rebels within ZanuPF, both because they were impatient for power rather than delivering a lasting and sustainable society for the future. They are driven by their feeling that it is their turn to rule. We need a new movement. A different one, even if at the moment it would appear that all hope is lost.

So let’s first deal with the hope bit. Rebecca Solnit offers us a definition of hope writing, “It’s important to say what hope is not: it is not the belief that everything was, is, or will be fine. The evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and tremendous destruction. The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act. It’s also not a sunny everything-is-getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting-worse narrative. You could call it an account of complexities and uncertainties, with openings.”

My sense of hope, therefore, is a call to action. This next bit is important:

“Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes — you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterward either, but they matter all the same, and history is full of people whose influence was most powerful after they were gone.”

Nobody in their wildest dreams thought ZanuPF would begin to implode in the manner that it has. More than being defeated by the economy, ZanuPF is eating itself from the innards. This alone is cause for hope. But we are not driven by ZanuPF’s impending demise or the MDC’s incompetence. Those are merely strategic opportunities. We are driven by the vision of the Zimbabwe we want and the knowledge that “we are the ones we have been waiting for” to implement and drive this vision.

Again Rebecca Solnit offers a solution, “You can tell the genesis story of the Arab Spring other ways. The quiet organizing going on in the shadows beforehand matters. So does the comic book about Martin Luther King and civil disobedience that was translated into Arabic and widely distributed in Egypt shortly before the Arab Spring. You can tell of King’s civil disobedience tactics being inspired by Gandhi’s tactics, and Gandhi’s inspired by Tolstoy and the radical acts of noncooperation and sabotage of British women suffragists. So the threads of ideas weave around the world and through the decades and centuries.”

We know what we need to do beyond rallies where mind numbing slogans are repeated and factional fights are played out. Rallies in both ZanuPF and the MDCs have been about “who is out to get me” within their own parties!

So what must we do Zimbabwe? A final quote from Rebecca Solnit is helpful and then my idea on how we might progress.

“After a rain, mushrooms appear on the surface of the earth as if from nowhere. Many do so from a sometimes vast underground fungus that remains invisible and largely unknown. What we call mushrooms mycologists call the fruiting body of the larger, less visible fungus. Uprisings and revolutions are often considered to be spontaneous, but less visible long-term organizing and groundwork — or underground work — often laid the foundation. Changes in ideas and values also result from work done by writers, scholars, public intellectuals, social activists, and participants in social media. It seems insignificant or peripheral until very different outcomes emerge from transformed assumptions about who and what matters, who should be heard and believed, who has rights. Ideas at first considered outrageous or ridiculous or extreme gradually become what people think they’ve always believed. How the transformation happened is rarely remembered, in part because it’s compromising: it recalls the mainstream when the mainstream was, say, rabidly homophobic or racist in a way it no longer is; and it recalls that power comes from the shadows and the margins, that our hope is in the dark around the edges, not the limelight of center stage. Our hope and often our power. Change is rarely straightforward… Sometimes it’s as complex as chaos theory and as slow as evolution. Even things that seem to happen suddenly arise from deep roots in the past or from long-dormant seeds.”

My idea is, with 2008 firmly in mind, that we need to remind the people of what they once believed, way back in 1980 for it is true that we grew complacent, indifferent, alarmed, cynical before finally despairing and leaving it all to fate. Well, fate does not feed itself. We have to help it along and next week, I will be publishing my thoughts about the leadership we seek. Let’s dream again, Zimbabwe and let hope rise again, but a hope of action not merely desire. We must again begin to light our candles instead of cursing the darkness of what Zimbabwe has become. I know that there are like-minded Zimbabweans thinking the same thoughts, looking for expression and an outlet. Whatever we do, we must not change because we have had enough. It is not sustainable. Above all, we must avoid the temptation of going for “anything but ZanuPF”.

A final word on hope from Stolnit: “It’s important to emphasize that hope is only a beginning; it’s not a substitute for action, only a basis for it. There’s a public equivalent to private depression, a sense that the nation or the society rather than the individual is stuck. Things don’t always change for the better, but they change, and we can play a role in that change if we act. Which is where hope comes in, and memory, the collective memory we call history. You row forward looking back, and telling this history is part of helping people navigate toward the future. We need a litany, a rosary, a sutra, a mantra, a war chant for our victories. The past is set in daylight, and it can become a torch we can carry into the night that is the future.”

We must have a vision for the Zimbabwe that we want, find the people able and willing to bring it to pass, and we must be ready to step up. I am ready. Are you?

Albert Gumbo

Twitter handle @albertgumbo








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