What is Citizen Activism?  Part 2

This is combining with digitally-based activism whereby citizens are making use of social media platforms such as Facebook, Whatsapp and Twitter to protest and share content relating to the protests.

A scrutiny of these angry interventions shows that the citizen movement is rising and spreading. The rumour mill says it will extend to many parts of the country, particularly urban zones, towards the general elections in 2018.

The protesters are, in essence, riding on the Constitution. This helpful document does two basic things: providing for citizens’ social, political and economic rights and empowering them to protest or petition in peace (as laid out in Sections 48 to 78 under Fundamental Human Rights and Freedoms).

Even though State agencies have tried to stop or undermine the protests, the activists know they are well covered. Any abuse of their right to demonstrate or petition will end up at the Constitutional Court, with high chances of success for the citizens. The Zanu PF government is, of course, livid with the democratic space that the document it co-authored is providing the citizens because that threatens its political stranglehold.

This particular form of empowerment is good reason to hope that citizen activism will play a crucial part in arresting the current social, political and economic crisis or, better still, bring about a change in regime. There is no denying the fact that the civil activists have kept debate on our complex crisis afloat.

Almost on a daily basis, they are reminding us of how impotent the government has become. They are whipping up emotion against the ominous bond notes that government wants us to believe will be handy only in boosting exports even though we know too well that they are an attempt to return the much-loathed Zimdollar. They are putting pressure on President Mugabe to act on his deputy, Phelekezela Mphoko who has clocked more than 550 days in a hotel and used millions of taxpayers’ dollars.

More crucially, the citizen activists are apparently building a culture of resistance against an arrogant government. By and large, Zimbabweans are a docile lot. In the words of the Research and Advocacy Unit (RAU), they are risk averse.

That needs to change, and an increment in street protests is likely to produce that cultural transformation. There is a possibility that a significant mass of the citizenry will get bolder with time and see the opportunity that is offered by citizen activism in the demand for better governance and democracy.

There is reasonable hope that civil protestantism can still work well to shake up an ineffective regime. We saw that between 1998 and early 2000. Citizens teamed with up with civil society organisations such the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), ZINASU and the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA) to voice dissent against the Zanu PF government. They staged mass protests, mobilised people against worsening misrule and handed President Mugabe his first electoral defeat in 2000 when Zimbabweans rejected an imposed constitution.

Sadly, this is where the good dream ends. Outside the perception that citizen activism will help generate a culture of resistance and keep debate on the current crisis alive, there is nothing to demonstrate that the protests will lead to desired practical change. In fact, nothing might change till we get to elections or, worse still, beyond. This is probably because the activists are too lofty in their agendas. Naïve even.

For instance, the two alliances that started camping in Africa Unity Square on 1 June have been demanding that Mugabe must leave office “immediately”. The hard reality is that Mugabe cannot just wake and announce on national television that he is going simply because a dozen youths said he must step down.

He and his party will argue that there are elections coming and their purpose is to remove or retain politicians. Similarly, the protesters who besieged Rainbow Towers calling for Mphoko’s evacuation don’t seem to have a strategy to ensure that the vice president gets out of the hotel.

While they may be making those calls in order to merely keep the debate alive, there would always be unintended side effects t these campaigns. If nothing tangible happens, this is likely to dampen the spirits of would-be citizen activists who would query the prudence of protesting when no results are manifesting.

Further, local citizen activism, in form and intent, tends to lack sustainable objectives. Most of the time, the activists are just too anxious to see the current regime out, but do not have a post-regime plan.

Almost all the activists mentioned above have invariably called on the sitting regime to go, but they never said who should come in instead. That presents a big problem. The 2011 Arab Springs that swept through Egypt, Tunisia and Libya bear testimony to this. No sooner had the unpopular regimes gone than people saw themselves in new governance crises marked by acute divergence of approaches, uncertainty and anarchy.

In this regard, citizen activists easily fall prey to opportunistic politicians. Politicians differ from citizen activists in that, besides changing the unpopular status quo, they also want to supplant the unpopular regime by becoming the next rulers. That makes them more focused than the amorphous civil activists.

We have already seen the telltale signs. Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC-T swooped on Dzamara’s abduction and walked to the bank on that. This is despite the fact that the party had never sent its own supporters to occupy Africa Unity Square. Similarly, we recently saw Tendai Biti, the president of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) rushing to offer legal assistance to jailed activists from the square. His party has never occupied Africa Unity Square and does not seem in a rush to do so.

The tendency for politicians to take over from and even divert the citizen activist agenda dates back to the 1990s. Participation of the NCA, ZCTU and ZINASU in civil protests provided the opportunity to some from all these organisations who went ahead and formed the MDC. The civil society institutions were left behind and gradually weakened out.

All this is not to say citizen activism is of no consequence. If protests will provide the platform for progressive change, so be it. Civil protesters can supplement interventions by the opposition in bringing pressure on the incumbent government and possibly leading to its removal.  Similarly, by focusing on topical and pertinent issues such as the crisis, corruption and neglect of social services, citizen activists will certainly keep the torch alight

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