These are indeed strange times. They could be the worst of times or the best of times depending on your perspective. Our politics, for too long dominated by the public bickering, trading of insults and accusations amongst ZANU (PF) elites is slowly changing due to the entry of other unusual actors – #thisflag. Whilst previously it was easy to dismiss voices of discontent using the foreign sponsorship tag – this time those responsible for mudslinging will have to dig deeper. The new narrative is unusual and it starts off with the acknowledgement that there is a government in place but it has failed to deliver on its electoral promise. The accusation is not coming from an opposition party but from ordinary citizens who keep on making the refrain that they are not interested in entering into politics. They are not foreign sponsored NGOs as well. How do you delegitimize those demands – especially when the economic decline is very apparent to see? The shortages are back, it always starts with cash and you know the rest of the story. We have had since 2015 more companies closing down than opening – unemployment is at its highest since 1980 and preparations for mitigating the effects of the drought are moving at a very small pace. Allegations of corruption amongst the political elite abound-the environment is ripe.
The factional fights within ZANU by the looks of things are only deepening and the divisions within the opposition parties continue. My focus in this blog is on what I choose to a call a new politics – led by citizens who are otherwise not usually involved in the terrain of public discourse on politics. The most prominent being through the #thisflag campaign. Within a space of one month we have seen how an idea of discontent or righteous indignation at the state of affairs can spread, thanks to the power of social media. The issues being raised in the different podcasts of Evan Mawarire and many others speak to the everyday concerns of common citizens. He is also not the only unusual voice, Bishop Bismark’s two podcasts on inequality and corruption have also been trending on social media. Mlilo has written a very insightful article on the significance of the #thisflag campaign.
I will try to summarize the demands that citizens are making as follows:
Others have also criticized this new movement as lacking ideological clarity and others have sought to unfairly attack the person of Evan. To be fair this was expected – these are the classical tactics of any unpopular/ insecure regime. On ideology – this is a cheap shot – the summary of demands clarify what #thisflag is all about. They can be summarized as a demand for a responsive state to citizens’ need. They also tried the foreign sponsored line and it did not stick. Evan Mawarire, has repeatedly mentioned that he does not seek to be seen as the leader of this campaign or even of a movement to take on the government. He has called for peaceful wearing of the Zimbabwe flag everywhere just to show that citizens are concerned and are no-longer afraid.
The wearing of the flag is very symbolic at many levels; firstly – it brings back the question of national interest as a project of all Zimbabwe instead of a clique ruling elites. By wearing the flag Zimbabweans are reaffirming their commitment to the country and also the benefits of nationhood. Secondly, all the other parties including ZANU (PF) have their different party emblems and regalia but #thisflag has appropriated the symbol of the nation thus making it a more legitimate force than the political parties. In other words #thisflag equates to Zimbabwe and not a political party – so it’s a struggle for the nation by all. This partly explains even why the speaker of parliament was struggling with #thisflag. Thirdly and related to the above when #thisflag challenges political elites to perform as according to the electoral promise that they made it is not because of a potential contest for power which can be used to delegitimize these demands but rather it is saying you are failing Zimbabwe. Maybe a football analogy will help us understand this better – recently Memory Mucherahowa former captain of Dynamos reminded the current players that there is something about the blue jersey which demands a certain kind of performance. In the same vein there is something about national office which demands that one’s interests/ appetites decrease in order to serve the greater good – that is the essence of being a public officeholder.
Besides wearing/ holding the flag the common statement that is made on the podcasts is ‘we are no longer afraid’ and this is very significant. One of the tactics of the regime since 1980 has been to instill and create a culture fear and even up to now an activist who tried to initiate a Zimbabwean version of the occupy movement disappeared and no one knows of his fate. Criticizing government/ruling party has at times been seen like committing suicide. So there is a lot driving the speaking out by ordinary citizens in the manner they are doing.
In a previous blog post I discussed the ‘Prospects for Political Mobilization in Zimbabwe’ where I discussed the need to broaden the potential protesting groups beyond the classic labour unions by imagining other sites of protest and also categories of citizens such as informal traders and other various concerned groups. I honestly did not foresee this movement gathering momentum on social media the way it has. However, in the introduction to our book ‘Beyond the Crises: Zimbabwe’s Prospects for Transformation’ we note that the clergy will play a more visible around national issues beyond hosting national days of prayer. It is heartening to note that at the same time when the Evan Mawarire inspired #thisflag campaign, Shingi Munyeza (Pastor and Businessman) has also been making public efforts of engaging with government and in the process throwing in new policy ideas. Bishop Tudor Bismark, who coincidentally has been wearing the Zimbabwe flag since around 2006 on almost every international platform has recently made two poignant statements about the state of affairs. In one of them he starts off by calling Zimbabweans to examine her conscience given the unacceptable levels of inequality. In the second he makes reference to Animal Farm and anyone who has read that book understands the message behind the message. In brief I believe that this can only be the beginning of disruptive innovations and forms of mobilization from the church and other associational platform. These are very necessary interventions in the public debates.
We have invested significant energies in painting the gross failings of the current regime but have not adequately framed what Zimbabwe should look like. We have within our country islands of best practice such as the story of the mayor of Kwekwe who refused an executive car preferring instead for the money to be used to buy a tractor for refuse collection. But sadly and unfortunately the good stories are getting fewer. In his recent book, Think, Bismark (2016) raises an interesting notion of environmental reconstruction. We are in a situation where corruption has radically altered the soul of the nation and it’s now pervasive in every sphere of life. The solution cannot be just a change of government or even a change of laws, we have to address the national mindset. The failure of leadership to nip corruption in the bud way back in the 1980s allowed it to grow and now it has become common practice. The joke amongst my friends is I keep my dirty notes for the cops on the road – but it’s not just cops it’s everywhere including our churches. The idea of environmental reconstruction is compelling and could be the ideology that #thisflag needs.
In conclusion – what should we then make of all these things? So much. There is room to rescue our politics frombeing personality (ego) driven towards a more issues – based approach. I have argued elsewhere about factional fights in ZANU (PF) as having nothing to do with us ordinary citizens but in this case #thisflag has a lot to do with us. But just to be clear #thisflag is short-hand for everything that citizens are doing on their own to protest, expose and demand better from government for a better Zimbabwe. In a chapter we called ‘The Democracy Manifesto’ we argued that one of the most significant challenges to democratization is that the majority of citizens feel powerless or do not see the need to participate in national process’. We proposed a re-assertion of citizenship and strengthening of community based platforms of social interaction. It is heartening to note that #thisflag potentially creates those opportunities for broader citizen led initiatives to improve our democracy. It brings politics closer to home and make us comfortable to discuss issues without having to do with the polarizing labels we have been using against each other. We are in this together.