Zimbabwe: Ordinary Citizens Can and Will Now Transform Zimbabwe

January 24th, 2023

By Briggs Bomba

Some have questioned whether Zimbabweans have any reason to celebrate the fall of President Robert Mugabe, and sentiments are divided over the meaning of this change to the struggle for democracy and their aspirations for a better future.

I argue that Zimbabweans have every reason to celebrate Mugabe’s fall but that the bigger task is to use this opportunity to organize with more vigor for a more democratic and just Zimbabwe.

Further, I assert that Mugabe’s fall creates a new cultural climate of which Zimbabweans must take advantage to launch a new era of invigorated civic organizing and citizen agency in the country.

While this new cultural climate may be imperceptible to an observer removed from the scene, the change in the atmosphere for civic organizing in the country is palpable. It is marked, among other things, by the facts:

  •     That Zimbabweans have for the first time in 37 years experienced that change is possible;
  •     That the people’s will, as expressed in the slogan “Mugabe must go!”, was finally affirmed; and
  •     Furthermore, the fact that Zimbabweans of all races, all generations, all social classes and all political affiliations had the unique unifying experience of speaking in one voice in the country’s biggest-ever mass action.

Coming from this experience, the people’s mood is upbeat and there is a more earnest conversation than before about people’s dreams and aspirations and the substance of the change that people want.

As Zimbabwe experiences this improbable resurgence of hope after decades of darkness, the biggest tragedy in my view would be to allow the blindfold of cynicism to preclude people from seeing the new opportunities to strengthen citizen agency and organize more vigorously for a better Zimbabwe.

Zimbabweans have a unique opportunity to harness the new mood among most citizens in mobilizing for democratic and social economic reforms in the country, underpinned by genuine people’s participation.

Why Zimbabweans are celebrating Mugabe’s fall

First, Mugabe’s fall needs to be placed in its proper historical context. To focus only on the army’s role is to see events from too limited a perspective.

For most Zimbabweans, Mugabe presided over the total destruction of their lives. Many have been organizing for more than two decades, without a pause, to get him out of power. In their eyes, his mandate was long exhausted.

Thus, seen through a wider historical lens, Mugabe’s fall is a culmination of this protracted struggle by Zimbabwean masses and its convergence with Mugabe’s loss of support from his own army and the ruling party. The people were there – on the streets – for the final push that culminated in Mugabe’s resignation. Without this wider scope one would be totally confounded by the massive participation of Zimbabweans from all walks of life, including opposition political leaders and social movements, at home and in the diaspora, in the final push against Mugabe’s rule and in the wild celebrations that followed his downfall. 

Furthermore, Mugabe’s fall was not the demise of a mere mortal: he had arrogated to himself the place of a god in Zimbabwean politics, on a par with the Kim family in North Korea. He was said to be irreplaceable and was set to run in next year’s elections at 94 years.

The full might of the state’s propaganda machinery, traditional structures and religious institutions was mobilized to dress Mugabe in this mythical garb and to persuade Zimbabwean society that he was above human. His wife went further and proclaimed that he would continue to rule from the grave. This project to deify Mugabe for all time was epitomized by Grace Mugabe’s ill-fated attempt to create a Mugabe dynasty by imposing herself as his successor.

Further, Zimbabwe was festering like a septic sore under Mugabe’s rule and he had mastered the art of indifference to people’s suffering. Whether it was a cholera epidemic, a typhoid outbreak, a crippling liquidity crisis, cases of grand corruption or an acute public services crisis, Mugabe was never compelled to address the nation or to act. This while Grace bought a million-dollar diamond ring, purchased mansions in other countries and grabbed farms and the iconic Mazowe dam, and their sons became global poster boys for entitlement, delinquency and depraved conspicuous spending.

Now Zimbabweans have an opportunity to steer the country in a different direction and to ensure that never again shall a political leader be elevated to the pedestal of a god and given unchecked power.

What is the implication of Mugabe’s fall for democracy in Zimbabwe?

Some have argued that the succession of Emmerson Mnangagwa means that nothing has changed in Zimbabwe. They are missing the key factor of the subjective change in mindset taking place among people, one which creates a favorable cultural climate for citizen participation.

Because ordinary Zimbabweans participated in the final push to force Mugabe’s resignation, there is a sense among those who were involved of “owning the victory”. People experienced a new sense of citizen power, solidarity and freedom of expression and it will be very difficult for any leader to try to push back the tide to where it was before November 18.

Father Fidelis Mukonori, the Catholic priest who mediated the negotiations for Mugabe’s resignation would later confirm that seeing those masses of Zimbabweans protesting on the streets influenced Mugabe’s decision to resign in the end. Beyond that, the people’s participation was pivotal in influencing the decisions by the Southern African Development Community, the African Union and the wider international community to accept that Mugabe’s continued rule was no longer viable.

Already there is a qualitative shift in people’s psyche, one in which they are reorienting themselves towards new possibilities. This shift extends beyond the political sphere to include people in business, community development and other arenas. It provides an important resource into which we can tap to strengthen civic engagement.

Several initiatives have emerged, from churches, labour, civil society and social movements, all discussing the substance of the change that Zimbabweans want. Notably, churches and a “citizens’ manifesto” movement have created wash-line installations asking people to pin up their dreams for the Zimbabwe they want. Hundreds have responded with messages for the future they want to see.

Perhaps the most dramatic symbol of this is a “wall of hope” in one of the leading coffee shops in Harare, on which people can share their dreams for a better Zimbabwe.

A new administration under pressure to reengage and deliver

The opposition, civil society and the international community have real leverage on the new administration of Emmerson Mnangagwa to secure political space and more enabling conditions for citizens’ participation. The administration has come into office under the immense pressure of expectations from Zimbabweans, who in eight months’ time will have an opportunity to pass a verdict on his performance in general elections.

In his inauguration speech, Mnangagwa departed from his predecessor’s tone and content, and made bold commitments to attend to pressing issues affecting Zimbabweans – including job creation and opportunities for youth, dealing with corruption, the security of international investments, compensation to white farmers, reviving agriculture, resolving the liquidity crisis and improving the performance of the public service.

To drive this ambitious agenda, Mnangagwa will need to reengage with key international bilateral and multi-lateral actors as well as secure the cooperation of domestic actors to help rebuild confidence in the Zimbabwean economy. This need presents both the international community as well as domestic stakeholders with leverage to discuss reforms that open the space for greater citizen participation, including guaranteeing freedom of expression, freedom of the press and creating enabling conditions for free and fair elections next year.

In conclusion: The answer lies in citizen agency

It is incontestable that although Mugabe’s fall brought down an individual, the structures of oppression that sustained his authoritarian rule remain in place. The slogan “The struggle continues/Aluta Continua” has never been more relevant.

At the same time, it is indisputable that with Mugabe’s fall, Zimbabweans have a unique window of opportunity to redefine the country’s politics in a democratic direction based on genuine citizen participation. In the final analysis, it is ordinary citizens who carry out the practical tasks of social transformation in any society.

Briggs Bomba works for TrustAfrica as Project Director for the Zimbabwe Alliance initiative. He can be contacted on bomba@trustafrica.org

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