Global Policy Forum

Civil Society Needs to Build a Social Movement

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All Africa
December 5, 2002


Building a strong pro-democracy social movement is always the task of civil society when operating under an oppressive political environment.

It is now more than just a given that the situation pertaining in Zimbabwe qualifies to be defined as an oppressive political environment and that civic-based organisations have been and still are trying to build an all-embracing social movement.

With this in mind, questions about civic society and the role of the alliance of civic organisations in the last twelve months needs review.

And this also needs to be done within the context of how civic organisations are competing amongst themselves for the shrinking political space in an attempt to remain relevant to the Zimbabwean people and the democratisation processes. A starting point would be to be able to define a social movement. As the name suggests, social movements are inclusive organisations comprised of various interest groups. Social movements will contain the significant strata of society such as workers, women's groups, students, youth and the intellectual component.

These various interest sectors of society will be bound together by one common grievance which in most cases will be the commonly perceived lack of democracy in a specific political setting.

This has been particularly the case within the last two decades of the South African anti-apartheid struggle and more relevantly, in the last fours years in Zimbabwe.

The only significant difference between the Zimbabwean situation and the anti-apartheid social movement in South Africa is that the former tends to be less defined and less focused. In fact, in Zimbabwe people can sometimes be forgiven for thinking that the social movement has been split.

The best manifestation of the social movement in Zimbabwean civil society has been the formation of strategic alliances. The most significant social movement alliance was the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA) alliance that was formed, as its name suggests, to drive for democratic constitutional reform in an increasingly oppressive State environment.

This social movement was then overrun by the shift toward a desire for a less idealistic but pragmatic social movement that began as the National Working People's Convention (NWPC) that sought the formation of a mass-based, non-violent opposition political party to challenge the ruling Zanu PF.

Naturally a lot of civil society leaders left the NCA to become potential Members of Parliament, especially after the February 2000 constitutional referendum. But the NCA did not fall flat on its face because of this; it retained a fair number of civic society organisations that sought to re-engage Zimbabwean civic space with the constitutional agenda.

Simultaneously however, other alliances of non-governmental organisations began to play a greater role and therefore undermine the social movement status that the NCA and the NWPC had acquired.

Alliances such as the Zimbabwe Election Support Network, Civic Alliance for Social and Economic Progress and the Crises in Zimbabwe Coalition emerged to deal with multiple themes and issues that, whilst not undermining the democratisation agenda for civil society, seriously compromised the social movement ethos that had begun to take root.

The idea of alliances between various civic organisations became a prevalent feature of the civic society landscape. And in most of the alliances which emerged, the central factor became that of leaders of various organisations and not members of these organisations.

Ultimately there was a cyclical nature to alliances in which one would sometimes find the same leaders floating in and out of various alliances, thus compromising the formation of a vibrant social movement.

And in the past year the trend has not shifted significantly. But the new characteristic of inter-alliance competition for recognition has become more prevalent. And in all this the pattern of whether social movement can still be constructed in Zimbabwe is dependent upon changing or keeping alliance systems as part of the emphasis toward democratisation by civic society.

It is our respectful view that the alliance system within Zimbabwean civic society is now a fairly impractical option. This is because the period between 1998 and end of 2001 was characterised by an alliance system between various civic organisations that commanded not only public attention but also public support and participation.

After the presidential election there was a shift from public participation to public observation of civic society activities. This attitude from the public is what has resulted in civic society leaders waiting for the economy to collapse and for the ruling party to dig its own grave. This is a disempowering perception of the way forward for a civic society that is in urgent need of a social movement. Moreover, it also disempowers the very people it is meant to serve.

It places no faith in the ability of people to organise themselves and challenge that which they perceive to be wrong.

The way forward in order for there to be a construction of an ostensible social movement that will attempt to bring democracy to citizens' lives and food on their tables, has to be the ability of the various civic society organisations to agree to disagree. There is obvious need for those non-governmental organisations that do not believe in fighting for democracy and enjoy the fine line of engaging the current government to retain their right to do so.

But there should be a distinction between these types of organisations and those that come out clearly as being in search of a clear democratisation process, that will regularly clash with the government line.

The second compelling objective is for various alliances to concentrate on individual membership as opposed to institutional membership.

No civic alliance worth its salt in the last year can safely claim to have long-term prospects of survival in Zimbabwe without organisational restructuring that takes into cognisance the role that can be played by an individual member, as opposed to an institutional member.

A semblance of balance between both must be struck so that there is a direct link of the alliance with an ordinary citizen. This will help boost public participation in the organisation, thus contributing gradually to the focus on establishing a social movement.


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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.