Zimbabwe: Struggle, dictatorship and the response of the social movements

"The MDC roots were in the popular challenge to ZANU-PF in the late 1990s and the social movements on which it rested."

By Leo Zeilig

June 28, 2010 – Zimbabwe’s economy has been in free fall. Between 2000 and 2005, the economy contracted by more than 40 per cent. Today GDP per capita is estimated to be the same as it was in 1953. Before the replacement of the Zimbabwe dollar with the US dollar and the South African rand in 2009, the country had the highest inflation rate in the world, soaring to 165,000 per cent in February 2008.

At the start of 2007, the IMF calculated that 80 per cent of Zimbabwe’s population lived below the poverty line. The Consumer Council of Zimbabwe declared in September 2007 that people needed a minimum of Z$22 million per month to survive, far above the income of most Zimbabweans. Schools collapsed, major hospitals suffered from basic shortages and unemployment reached an estimated 80 per cent, a situation that has not been significantly improved following the establishment of the joint Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF)–Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) government in 2009.[i]

While much of the economic crisis was triggered by the land seizures, this explanation, favoured by capitalist media commentators and orthodox economists, gives only a fraction of the picture. Zimbabwe has also been squeezed by the implementation of direct and indirect sanctions by Western countries. An international legislative structure has forced the pace of this strangulation; this has included the US Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act of 2001, which immediately cut access to international credit for the state and Zimbabwe companies. The reduction in aid means that the country now receives less than US$10 aid for every HIV-infected person, compared to the regional average of $100. As international funds have dried up, the state has been largely incapacitated, with welfare provision, often in the form of food aid, now being provided by international agencies and NGOs.[ii]

In the face of economic collapse, the regime has been unable to sustain its attempts to capture support through a limited program of reforms. Early this decade, ZANU-PF introduced price controls on basic commodities but was forced to suspend them as massive shortages hit most shops. Since then the regime has swung wildly backwards and forwards between price controls and market-based approaches. Caught in a global economic vice, the regime resorted to what it had always done. Land and business contracts were distributed to cronies, while President Robert Mugabe mouthed platitudes about “foreign powers”. ZANU-PF relied increasingly on violence, as each reform was snatched back under pressure from the economic crisis. The regime’s authoritarian neoliberalism has continued unabated, albeit chaotically, for years. For the past six years Zimbabwe’s Reserve Bank governor Gideon Gono has pursued a haphazard program of cuts in subsidies, privatisation and debt repayment.[iii]

Though land reform in Zimbabwe was celebrated across much of Africa as a historical blow against the legacy of colonial inequality, this was also a failure. In 2002, ZANU-PF stated that it intended to seize 8.5 million hectares of land before the presidential elections that year, the majority of land owned by white farmers. They succeeded in doing this by 2003, as the pace of land seizures and occupations came to an end.[iv] Although the regime could provoke high-profile land seizures, most of the large farms went not to the Zimbabwean poor, but to leading members of the ZANU-PF regime and its elite supporters. For those Zimbabweans who were granted small parcels of the seized land, the regime did not have the resources to provide them with the training and equipment so that they could profitably cultivate their new smallholdings.

Zimbabwe’s intifada and civil society

There is a tendency to downplay the extent of popular unrest against the Mugabe regime, with political conflict instead portrayed as between the country’s two dominant parties. Yet the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the main opposition party, has its roots in the popular challenge to ZANU-PF in the late 1990s and the social movements on which it rested. Zimbabwe’s biennio rosso of 1996-8 saw a two-year revolt by students and workers. Strikes by nurses, teachers, civil servants and builders rippled across the country. In January 1998 housewives orchestrated a “bread riot” that evolved into an uprising of the poor living in Harare’s township. The protests, strikes and campaigns were often explicitly against the government’s programs of structural adjustment. The first of these, the Economic and Structural Adjustment Program (ESAP), was introduced in 1991and was sponsored and advocated by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The second, known as ESAP II, was introduced in 1996. Factories closed, workers were laid off and state funding to education was slashed. Discontent with the results of ESAP steadily increased throughout the 1990s and was expressed by the labour and student movements, together with a range of other civil society organisations.

An important strike occurred in July 1997 in Zimbabwe’s important clothing industry, which employed 30,000 workers, but the industry was undermined by cheap textile imports resulting from ESAP liberalisation. The end of state support for industry and the removal of tariff barriers signalled a sharp decline for the industry.[v] A pay dispute was used as an opportunity to sack thousands of workers in a range of clothing outlets. A member of the National Union of the Clothing Industry of Zimbabwe (NUCIZ), Steven Maunga, had worked for City Clothing:

We were closed out of the company and forced to go onto the streets. We went to court and the company was ordered to reinstate all employees. Denied by the employer, we have pursued the case until now.[vi]

Despite some defeats, the lesson of the period was clear, as the general secretary of the NUCIZ Joseph Tanyanyiwa explained: “We would really control by means of workers power.”[vii]

Inspired by the initially urban-based movement of anti-ESAP unrest, the rural poor, particularly veterans of the war for independence, started to invade white-owned farms. At first the regime evicted the “squatters” and arrested the movement’s leaders. In 1998, the University of Zimbabwe in Harare was closed for five months and students demanded that opposition forces be organised into a national political party—a workers’ party. Students organised protests, marching with workers. The revolt in Indonesia in 1998 against the dictator Suharto inspired those protesting in the streets. These years of popular mobilisation and political debate were described by one activist as a “sort of revolution”.[viii] Eventually the revolt led to the formation of the MDC in September 1999. The new party was formed by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU). At this point the MDC was resolutely pro-poor, formed by the working class and for them. As Job Sikhala, a founding member, explained, “It was basically a party of the poor with a few middle class”.[ix] For many of those who had been involved in the exuberant protests that had rocked Zimbabwe, and who saw a parallel between the revolution in Indonesia and the protests in Zimbabwe, they thought new party would bring about a radical transformation.

Though the major force behind the formation of the MDC was the activism of students in the Zimbabwe National Students Union (ZINASU) and trade unionists led by the ZCTU, other social movement organisations played a vital role. These were frequently organisations that had been galvanised into action by the depth of the economic crisis, and subsequently the resistance to it. The resistance provoked by structural adjustment saw an increase in poverty and unemployment culminated in 1997 in the formation of the National Constitutional Assembly. The NCA incorporated ZINASU, the ZCTU and women’s organisations and sought to define a new relationship between political power and civil society by campaigning for a democratic and people-driven constitution.

After the food riots in January 1998, a new coalition of human rights organisations came together to form the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum. Initially formed to provide assistance to those who had suffered from government repression following the riots, the forum’s remit quickly widened. As the struggles against the government broadened to include new layers of society, so did the number of organisations that sought to give these groups a more coherent voice. In June 1999, for example, the women’s organisations that were housed under the NCA banner formed the Constitutional Women’s Coalition, which would later become the Women’s Coalition. This initiative spoke of their sense of marginalisation from both the official process of consultation by the government for a new constitution and also the NCA-led popular rejection of the government’s constitution.

Faith-based organisations also became active, or were reenergised. From 1995 churches encouraged and nurtured the rapid development of civil society organisations. So a Jesuit training centre, Silveira House, started to hold critical debates about the failures of ESAP, and possible alternatives to structural adjustment. Other church groups began to stray into the political arena, so the Zimbabwe Council of Churches (ZCC) trained election agents to monitor the 1995 vote. Church groups were, in many respects, the seedbed for the development of civil society organisations. The meetings that led to the creation of the NCA were held at Africa Synod House, home to the ZCC. Similarly, the preparatory meetings of the MDC were in the premises of the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops’ Conference.

After the formation of the MDC in 2000, the ZCC organised meetings that led to the formation of the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN). The ZESN, a coalition of NGOs, would play an important role in training and monitoring the violently contested elections over the next decade. However, many of the relationships between churches and civil society group broke down soon after they were formed. The ZCC, so vital in the formation of the NCA, withdrew in 1999 accusing the organisation of being too political. Nor were church groups intransigent opponents of the government, when ZANU-PF launched its own constitutional commission to challenge the NCA some church leaders decided to join.

But the trajectory was clear. These “mushrooming” demands expressed the explosion of protests in the aftermath of two structural adjustment programs and eventually led to, in the words of a recent study, “the foundation of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) at the ZCTU’s Convention. This was, and still is, seen as an opportune marriage between civil society and political interests.”[x] This uneasy coalition meant that the MDC would remain jostled by competing interests, which sought to influence the opposition’s political evolution and its strategy in confronting ZANU-PF. If the mid-1990s saw the emergence of a vibrant civil society willing to confront the government, once the MDC was formed it too was forced to contend with distinct and critical voices that could claim ownership over the party. In the first year of its foundation the question for the MDC became which of these voices would become hegemonic.[xi]

ZANU-PF strikes back

The period from February 2000, when the government lost a referendum vote on a new constitution and the first general election contested by the MDC were in June that year, was marked by a rapid escalation of state-sponsored violence. Despite this, the MDC almost won the election in 2000, gaining 57 seats against ZANU-PF’s 62. The regime maintained its pressure on the opposition in subsequent years. Along with the regime’s politicisation of the war veterans it launched the National Youth Service (NYS). In 2001 the first NYS camp was opened, named after the government minister who initiated the training, Border Gezi. One graduate described the courses as “a combination of things but mainly Marxism, socialism and business management”.[xii] This expressed ZANU-PF’s schizophrenic mix of state capitalism and neoliberalism, set against a background of economic crisis. By 2006 the NYS had opened eight training centres. In the first five years of the NYS more than 40,000 youths had completed training programs.[xiii]

By 2003, the regime seemed to have gained the upper hand. ZANU-PF increasingly sold itself internationally and at home as the true inheritors of the liberation movement. The MDC, by contrast, seemed cowed and unable to mount a serious resistance, either politically or on the streets. A decisive moment came in June 2003. The so-called “final push” was launched by the MDC and was meant to undermine the regime with a week-long stayaway and a march on State House. However, no serious efforts were made to mobilise the available forces, leaving only students in Harare to organise a protest that was violently crushed. The week gave the MDC neither its international media coup nor mass action. The government scored another victory against the opposition and emerged stronger.

Zimbabwe’s social movements began to suffer from “donor syndrome”, as foreign-funded NGOs increasingly filled the political vacuum that had been left by the failure of the opposition and the collapse in the economy. Zimbabwe-based organisations saw a massive inflow of funds. This distorted grassroots activism, leading to what has been described as the “commodification of resistance” as mobilisation is increasingly “paid for” from NGO funds. In Zimbabwe the “commodification of resistance” is a symptom of the frustrated transition to democracy in Africa, and the decline in the movements that gave birth to the MDC. The general effect is the massive distortion of resistance by the introduction and the distribution of donor money to activist groups and NGOs. The result for the student movement, for example, in Zimbabwe was the “artificial” creation of the Zimbabwe Youth Democracy Trust in 2003 by ex-members of the executive of ZINASU. The money for the trust was provided by the Norwegian NGO – the Students and Academics' International Assistance Fund (SAIH). Student activists were diverted into fighting over positions in the trust and for control of the organisation. Donor money had flowed into the ZINASU as the union is incapable of funding its own activities through student subscriptions.

In parliamentary elections in 2005, also widely believed to have been rigged, the MDC lost 16 seats to ZANU-PF, securing the necessary two-thirds majority needed to unilaterally change the constitution. Though the opposition had faced years of violent intimidation, the MDC was also by this stage hopelessly divided by a regime that had succeeded in outmanoeuvring it. The MDC became a contested space, with voices and groups, many from civil society, criticising the direction of the leadership.

Munyaradzi Gwisai, a Zimbabwe socialist who was a member of the MDC until 2003, criticised the “hijacking of the party by the bourgeoisie, marginalisation of workers, adoption of neoliberal positions and cowardly failure to physically confront the Mugabe regime and bosses. It is … imperative that the party moves much more leftward … in order to realign to its base”.[xiv]

It was not only socialists who criticised the opposition. In 2003 one loyal MP, Job Sikhala, explained how the MDC core had become “really fat and thick … it is almost a party of the rich. You cannot look at a person who was with you during the foundation of the MDC as the person who is there now”.

The disarray in the MDC eventually led to the party splitting in 2005, with one faction now being led by Arthur Mutambara, an important student activist in the late 1980s.

Although important efforts were made to mount opposition to the ruling party after 2003, these did not come mainly from the MDC. New social movement organisations attempted to fill the vacuum.

Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) is an activist organisation that has led some of the most important protests in recent years, linking issues of violence against women to wider themes of economic and social collapse from which women suffered disproportionately. The Zimbabwe Social Forum (ZSF), formed in 2002, became an alternative space for political discussion and a forum that has attempted to bring together those who sought to resist the regime. Both organisations managed – in the context of a decline in MDC-led action – to inspire and train a new layer of activists. Gender issues were an important theme for the ZSF. Tella Barangwe explained how she was politicised through her involvement in WOZA and the ZSF:

I think here in Zimbabwe they have got a different perspective towards women, when it comes to women exercising their rights sometimes men will use mocking words to discourage us from fighting. What we are fighting for as women. I was a WOZA member and I was then recruited into other organisations. From there I managed to become the gender coordinator in the ZSF and I was able to encourage women to join and become active.[xv]

One of the central problems that have faced by civil society – and its efforts to both influence the opposition and confront the government – has been a brain drain. Previously active and leading members of a variety of organisations, who were often founding members of the MDC in the late 1990s, have been forced to leave the country. The consequences of the economic and political collapse were devastating. Two organisations illustrate the trend. ZINASU and the International Socialists of Zimbabwe (ISOZ) were paralysed, at different times, by the exodus of skilled and experienced activists. But other elements were arguably more important. The flood of donor money (and agendas) distorted activists and campaigns, while the political demoralisation and failure to unseat the regime saw many activists fall away.


For much of the decade Zimbabwe’s civil society activists were faced with the question of engagement with the regime. In 2006 the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum posed the dilemma starkly, “to engage or not engage the government of Zimbabwe”. Some argued for engagement as the only way of securing concessions from the regime, while others rejected any cooperation. ZESN, for example, was clear in 2005 that “this was the most appropriate way of securing co-operation and concessions”.[xvi] Yet the radical women’s organisation WOZA made non-engagement their raison d’etre, “Our mandate is to conduct peaceful protests in defiance of unjust law that sanction our fundamental and God-given freedoms of assembly, expression and association.”[xvii]

These divergent positions were challenged when the NGO Bill was almost signed into law in 2005. The proposed law would have made it illegal for civil society organisations to engage in questions of governance and democracy, and prevented them from receiving funding unless permitted by the state. It was widely regarded a piece of legislation that would entirely paralyse the involvement of NGOs.

A Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum study in 2006 highlighted the “constructive involvement” of campaigners against the NGO Bill. Their interviewees from civil society pointed to the success of the campaign against the Bill, which though it passed through parliament in 2005, was never signed into law. But the study’s conclusions about the real benefits of engaging the regime were cautious, to say the least, “Although there may be no immediate tangible benefit to this type of engagement, it remains strategically important for organisations to be able to counter any subsequent claims from government that they `didn’t know’ or `were not informed’”. Asking in 2006 whether there was much point in pursuing further engagement the report’s authors concluded on the basis of “this experience, and in light of the government’s preference to deny or ignore that human rights violations are an issue (let alone a problem), it is highly unlikely that the government would be prepared to engage civil society on these issues in a meaningful way”.[xviii] The attitude of judicial impunity that has spread across Zimbabwe excludes any meaningful engagement. The elections in 2008 were a major moment of “engagement” in the political process, by the MDC and civil society organisations. The repression that followed the results shut down any possibility of “constructive” involvement by civil society. But long before these elections ZANU-PF developed a repressive legislative architecture that worked against the involvement and influence of civil society organisations in government decision making.

The 2008 election

The most serious recent challenge to ZANU-PF came in 2008. The elections illustrated many of the tensions that are present in the MDC’s relationship with allied social movements. The election on March 29, 2008, tantalised Zimbabwe with the possibility of a defeat for ZANU-PF. The opposition MDC, led by Morgan Tsvangirai, made massive gains. According to the MDC’s own calculations, Tsvangirai won 50.3 per cent in the presidential poll compared to Mugabe’s 43.8 per cent.

For a week after voting had ended, Zimbabwe’s ruling party was silent. However, once ZANU-PF had recovered from the surprise defeat, repression against the opposition intensified. More than 70 opposition supporters and members were killed. Thousands more were terrorised and driven from their homes.

Students in ZINASU worked closely with the MDC. Students became election agents and campaigners for the MDC after rural activists had been chased and beaten by ZANU-PF thugs. Tinashe Chisaira was a law student at the University of Zimbabwe,

We would see those who were running away from ZANU-PF – women, children, those with broken limbs, people who had seen their homes burnt and children killed. It was a painful moment.

But instead of a coordinated and systematic defence of the results, the MDC vacillated as ZANU-PF began to unleash its reign of terror. Chisaira remembers one moment,

One night when we were in Harvest House there was this message that some MDC activists had been attacked and then the word came through that able-bodied people must go and defend MDC supporters. But in the end they told us not to go.

The problem, Chisaira suggests, was complex. So while the MDC was unable to provide consistent leadership during the post-election period it was also paralysed by a recent history of retreat from popular mobilisation. Chisaira vividly describes:

The problem the MDC had was that it had distanced itself from those who would have fought in the trenches. We supported the MDC but they didn’t support us. The workers, the populace, supported the MDC but the MDC no longer trusted in the people; no longer fully coordinated with the people. So when people were being beaten, Tsvangirai fled to Botswana. (Interview with author, March 19, 2010).

Zimbabwe since 2008

The MDC refused to contest the second round of the presidential election, an inevitable decision due to both the worsening election violence and the opposition’s inability to lead a popular defence of the March 29 vote. Mugabe was victorious and his fraudulent election confirmed ZANU-PF’s dictatorship. Under Western pressure protracted inter-party negotiations started soon after his inauguration. February 2009 saw the birth of an inclusive Government of National Unity (GNU), with leading members of the MDC assuming significant positions in the new parliament. Tsvangirai became prime minster. Tendai Biti, a longstanding member of the MDC, secured the important finance portfolio. But other vital ministries and real power remained firmly in ZANU-PF hands.

For some social movement activists in the ZSF, ZINASU and the NCA, the GNU signalled a defeat. But within months of the GNU becoming operational, ZANU-PF did begin to reduce the repressive apparatus of the state. By 2010, activists could more easily organise. Mike Sambo, the national coordinator for the International Socialist Organisation of Zimbabwe, sees the GNU as having delivered both limited economic successes and political failure:

The most significant change that has been bought by the GNU is the availability of basic commodities which had been scarce for five years. Right now you can go into any shop and get anything – of course only if you have dollars. So there has been a relative return to economic stabilisation in terms of availability and also prices.

While activists celebrate the ease of organising meetings and opposition events, there is among a narrow layer of social movement activists a sense of political defeat and disorientation with the GNU, says Sambo:

People identify Mugabe as an enemy so seeing him working together with the MDC that people had given their trust somehow has the whiff of betrayal. Everyone wanted Tsvangirai to be president, so his collaboration has led people to feel disappointed.[xix]

In circumstances that marginalised the political activism of the major players in Zimbabwe’s political transition in the early 2000s, several social movements managed to keep the flame of resistance to ZANU-PF alive. Prominent organisations who helped to defend the space for activism were WOZA, the NCA and the ZSF. But in conditions of economic crisis these organisations suffer from a paralysing disease: the “commodification of resistance”.[xx] Complaints have been levelled against WOZA for being heavily “commodified”, receiving funds and paying activists for their attendance at events. The NCA, once the standard bearer of the struggle for democratic rights, was accused of diverting resistance to funded workshops and conferences in regional cities. Recent reductions of donor funding have recently crippled NGOs reliant on such sources of revenue; funds have been withdrawn due to the twin effects of the global recession and the withholding of funds by donors hostile to the GNU.[xxi]

The MDC is also another source of “commodification”, as the party supports particular factions of social movement organisations. Tinashe Chisaira, student coordinator for the ISOZ, claims that one faction was “heavily funded by the MDC: T-shirts, accommodation. For their congress in December [2009] they invited students throughout Zimbabwe and those students were housed in Palm Lodge [a comfortable hotel in Harare]. That funding came from the MDC and other right-wing NGOs like Crisis in Zimbabwe.”[xxii]

The ZSF has been exhausted. Its structures do not meet and it does not organise. Broken on the anvil of ZANU-PF repression and economic hardship, many social movement organisations have had a short lease of life. While the ZSF maintained an important presence from 2002, mirroring the evolution and momentum of the global social forum process, it has ceased to play an active role in civil society.

However, many of the activists who animated the ZSF have shifted their strategic and organisational abilities to the official consultative process for a new constitution, due to start later in 2010. Funded by the German Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, the Democratic United Front for a People-Driven Constitution (DUF) seeks to politicise the consultative process, which is supposed to be a neutral country-wide factfinding exercise part funded by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The DUF includes in its membership several unions, HIV support groups and residents’ associations. Through active intervention in the process, the DUF aims to drive the constitution to the left on issues such as gay rights, land and wealth redistribution and political justice. One area of contention was ZANU-PF’s Indigenisation Bill, conceptualised as a black empowerment initiative, that insisted on at least 51% local Zimbabwean shareholding in foreign companies operating in Zimbabwe. The MDC opposed the legislation as hostile to foreign investment. Though it was liable to become a program of ZANU-PF patronage, the MDC’s stance is indicative of their politics and cast them to the political right. DUF activists aimed to radicialise the “indigenisation” debate, arguing for wealth redistribution to workers and the poor.[xxiii]

The MDC and social movements in perspective

The MDC has long been a curious paradox. As the 2008 election results proved, the party maintained, and has even increased, mass support among poor Zimbabweans in conditions of astonishing hardship. But the MDC has also oriented itself towards the most powerful Western states and has been avowedly neoliberal in its policies. The party is advised by the International Republican Institute and Cato Institute. In April 2008, it was reported that an MDC government would immediately access US$2 billion each year in “aid and development”, which Patrick Bond describes as “top-heavy with foreign debt and chock-full of conditions”.[xxiv]

As with many similar organisations on the African continent, the MDC emerged out of mass popular unrest coordinated on the ground by social movements. These protests were themselves a product of the failures of independence and governments’ implementation of structural adjustment programs. But these protest movements took place in the aftermath of the collapse of the regimes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and with them the ideological moorings for a generation of trade union bureaucrats and activists. To many it seemed that ideas of economic adjustment and good governance – the “Washington Consensus” – were the best, perhaps the only, hope for Africa.

The MDC was and remains an expression of the revolt against structural adjustment programs carried out by ZANU-PF. It was formed directly by the labour movement and supported by students who appealed openly to the trade unions for a party to confront ZANU-PF. The MDC’s core support came from the urban working class in the main cities of Harare, Chitungwiza and Bulawayo. But the MDC also attracted a range of social movement groups, as we have seen, that had helped form the organisation and could claim ownership over the party. Middle classes representing local and international business interests also quickly gathered round the leadership of the party. As early as the parliamentary elections in 2000 workers made up only 15 per cent of candidates.

Why did the party become politically dominated by groups of the middle class that gathered in its ranks? Some of the answer lies in the weakness of an alternative vision that could have argued inside the new party against the reorientation towards neoliberalism. Socialists were active in the MDC, as they were in similar organisations in other countries across the continent, but their voices were marginal. Though the mass struggles of 1996-8 showed the potential power of the working class, the protests, strikes and movements often remained controlled by the trade union bureaucracy. The MDC has broken from its original mould formed in the furnace of the late 1990s, shaped in large part by the radicalism and confidence of the working class.

Joseph Tanyanyiwa, general secretary of the National Union of the Clothing Industry of Zimbabwe, recalls:

It was a rising giant. People are still missing those days... People are always saying why can’t we go back to those good old days where we would really control by means of workers power. It is still a deep conviction that we can deliver workers from the bondage of oppression.[xxv]

Social movements have been unable to influence the government in Zimbabwe, even in the less repressive days of the 1990s. One effect of the social movements that rose to brief prominence in the late 1990s was to drive the regime to develop a host of repressive laws and an extrajudicial organisations (war veterans and youth militias in particular) to shore up their support base; in brief the regime succeeded in constructing its own reactionary social movements from above.

In 1999 Brian Raftopoulos observed how ZANU-PF monopolisation of nationalist history had not been countered by alternative visions of Zimbabwe in the period of democratisation. This points to an important argument, namely the failures of opposition parties and social movements on the continent to develop their own “imagined communities” with successful organising strategies[xxvi] ZANU-PF’s authoritarian nationalism poses particular challenges to those who seek to imagine and construct an alternative future in Zimbabwe[XXVII].

[Leo Zeilig is a researcher and activist. Currently he is working on a study of Frantz Fanon.]


[i] See for overview Leo Zeilig “Zimbabwe: imperialism, hypocrisy and fake nationalism”, in International Socialism 119 (2008). http://www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=458&issue=119#119zeilig_22.

[ii] Zeilig, Zimbabwe: imperialism, hypocrisy and fake nationalism”.

[iii] Zeilig, Zimbabwe: imperialism, hypocrisy and fake nationalism”.

[iv] Zeilig, Zimbabwe: imperialism, hypocrisy and fake nationalism”.

[v] Joseph Tanyanyiwa, “Country report at the ITGLWU’s 10th World Congress 2-4 December”, Frankfurt, Germany.2009.

[vi] Interview, March 19, 2010.

[vii] Interview, March 20, 2010.

[viii] Leo Zeilig, “Crisis in Zimbabwe”, in International Socialism 94 (2002). http://pubs.socialistreviewindex.org.uk/isj94/zeilig.htm.

[ix] Interview, July 30, 2003.

[x] Elinor Sisulu, Pascal Richards and Steve Kibble, “Where to for Zimbabwean Churches and Civil Society?”, in Nuno Vidal and Patrick Chabal (eds) Southern Africa: civil society, politic and donor strategies (Media XXI & Firmamento: 2009), p. 243.

[xi] Though there has been no recent audit of civil society organisations in Zimbabwe, a study in 2006 reported an impressive array of diverse organisations, with a national spread of members and affiliate groups. As a snapshot of the Zimbabwean political scene it remains important today. Despite a shrinking membership, the trade unions also retain a national infrastructure [including] a network of 21 offices with 45 full-time officers... The National Constitutional Assembly (NCA) network of approximately 480 formal and informal committees... The Bulawayo Agenda is made up of 36 active civil society organisations in Bulawayo... The Zimbabwe Civic Education Trust (Zimcet), with its infrastructure of five regional offices has established 57 peace committees across the country. The research concludes that Zimbabwe retains a wealth of community-based organisations [with] more than 50,000 members in 50 districts”, Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, Exploring Transitional Justice Options in Contemporary Zimbabwe 2006. http://www.hrforumzim.com/special_hrru/transitional_justice.pdf.

[xii] Interview, August 15, 2003.

[xiii] Rejoice Shumba, Social Identities in the National Youth Service of Zimbabwe, MA Dissertation, University of Johannesburg 2006. http://ujdigispace.uj.ac.za:8080/dspace/bitstream/10210/657/1/rejoice%20final%20draft%20desk%20top.pdf.

[xiv] Munyaradzi Gwisai, Revolutionaries, Resistance and Crisis in Zimbabwe, Harare: 2002, p.32.

[xv] Interview, March 21, 2010.

[xvi] Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, Exploring Transitional Justice.

[xvii] Sisulu, Richards and Kibble, Where to for Zimbabwean Churches and Civil Society?”, in Nuno Vidal and Patrick Chabal (eds) Southern Africa: civil society, politic and donor strategies (Media XXI & Firmamento: 2009).

pp. 246-7

[xviii] Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum Exploring Transitional Justice Options in Contemporary Zimbabwe 2006.

[xix] Interview, March 14, 2010.

[xx] Interview, John Bomba, May 23, 2003.

[xxi] Interview, Tafadzwa Choto, March 13, 2010.

[xxii] Interview, March 19, 2010.

[xxiii] Interview, Munyaradzi Gwisai, March 20, 2010.

[xxiv] Patick Bond, “Vultures Circle Zimbabwe”, in Counterpunch, April 5-6, 2008, www.counterpunch.org/bond04052008.html.

[xxv] Interview, March 19, 2010.

[xxvi] Sisulu, Richards and Kibble, “Where to for Zimbabwean Churches and Civil Society?” p. 255.

[XXVI] See Brian Raftopoulos’ conclusion on the recent period in Zimbabwean history in Brian Raftopoulos and Alois Mlambo (eds), Becoming Zimbabwe: A history from the pre-colonial period to 2008 (Harare: Weaver Press, 2009).

Thanks for this fair analysis of the situation in Zimbabwe since 2000. We just want to point out however that WOZA does NOT pay activists for attendance at activities - when we have meetings that last for several hours, we provide refreshments and on occasion will reimburse their bus fare if the activity is some distance from their home. If members are detained for a lengthy period of time, we provide support to their families as the member is usually the main breadwinner.


I am big fan of WOZA. Activists I have spoken to over the years in Zimbabwe have complained about how even 'expenses-only’ meetings can have a distorting influence on grass-roots struggles. I am not for a minute denying the huge and valuable role played by social movement organisations like WOZA, only trying to unpick some of the developments, problems and criticism for political activism in Zimbabwe today.