Non-violent mass action feasible in Zimbabwe

A FEW weeks ago Reserve Bank Governor Gideon Gono controversially urged the business community in Bulawayo to engage in non-violent protests if ever they wanted to access the Distressed Industries and Marginalised Areas Fund (Dimaf). It is critical to discuss the viability and effectiveness of non-violent mass action as a tool of delivering political and economic change.
Zimbabweans have been reduced to passive spectators in the transformation agenda of their nation. We have delegated the responsibility of bringing about change to Sadc and its facilitator in the Zimbabwe question, South African President Jacob Zuma, the African Union (AU) and the international community.

We have outsourced our problems to others. We seem to have invested a lot of energy and time on regional and international mobilisation and advocacy at the expense of internal engagement. The primacy of external factors over internal action is evident in the approach of mainly the two MDC parties.
This strategy has been effective to an extent, although it is premised on the imperative of influencing the mediation process facilitated by Zuma and Sadc rather than direct engagement with the system. Our hopes seem to be pinned on Zuma, Sadc, the AU and the international community. But the question is whether this hope and belief are justified, and whether we should continue to place all our collective expectations on the shoulders of others without pro-actively playing a direct role in shaping and influencing democratic change and social transformation?
Zimbabweans need to start seriously exploring non-violent mass mobilisation as a strategy of advocating for political, social and economic reform.
I have argued previously that Zimbabweans are too fatigued to engage in non- violent mass action but then no condition is permanent and different contexts require different responses which are relevant to that time, and it all depends on circumstances prevailing at a particular period.  Non-violent mass action cannot therefore be entirely dismissed in the Zimbabwean context. People need to take responsibility for their situation.
The two MDC formations have failed to move Zanu PF on certain issues simply because they do not have enough leverage to do so. The power relations between the negotiating parties determine the outcome.
During the Lancaster House talks in 1979, PF Zapu and Zanu PF were able to push their agendas effectively — although they did not get all they wanted — because of the leverage they had in the form of their gains in the armed struggle and their guerrilla armies, Zipra and Zanla, respectively.
For the record, I am not advocating for an armed resistance. The two MDC parties have good negotiators and arguments in their negotiations with Zanu PF, but that is not what  influences outcomes. It is power relations or leverage.
Non-violent mass action is an option that could be considered to deal with the government’s chronic incompetence and failure to deliver. However, non-violent mass action is a not an end in itself but a means to an end since it is really meant to build pressure and apply leverage in a negotiation process. Poorly-conceived mass action can result in more chaos as we have witnessed in Egypt and Libya where the revolution has become a cycle of violence, anarchy and confusion.
Secondly, it must be understood that non-violent action as articulated by Dr Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi is a philosophy based on solid principles of transformation. Non-violent action seeks to free both the oppressor and the oppressed.
Thirdly, non-violent mass action should not be taken as the only viable action to bring change, but as an action which supports and complements other actions such as advocacy, negotiation, mediation, litigation and arbitration.
Non-violent mass action could bring change but in the Zimbabwean context, non-violent mass action may have the following challenges:
The possibility of apathy and lack of popular support as evidenced in the failed stay away of 2008;
Mass action can be hijacked by sinister political or criminal elements which may play into the hands of military hawks who may declare a state of emergency, suspend all rights, dissolve the inclusive government and arrest  opposition and civic leaders. At worst this may give opportunity for military hawks to take over under the guise of restoring order, and the process could effectively result in an end to civilian government;
Commercialisation of activism which may result in people expecting or wanting to be paid for participating in mass action;
Contraction of the economy has resulted in the decline and emasculation of the labour movement which traditionally has been at the forefront of positive direct action;
Informalisation of the economy may result in people refusing to participate in projects that disrupt their income-generating activities.
Overdependence on donors and the international community. Civil society has come to believe  action is impossible without donor funding. Whilst resources are critical they should be used to support what people are already doing, and not to control their agenda.
Despite all these problems, risks and obstacles, non-violent action is still a viable option because:
It applies pressure directly on government and service providers;
Makes ordinary people part of the solution;
Takes the initiative from the state apparatus;
There are over 200 non-violent methods to choose from and
Non-violent mass action has a contagion effect and multiplies people’s courage.
Timing is however critical in the execution of non-violent mass action as wrong timing, poor planning and fear can result in abysmal failure. Zimbabweans must take charge of their own struggle for democratic change and not outsource it to others. Sulking at home without doing much to shape and influence change is unhelpful and futile.


Nkomo is a political analyst and CEO of Habakkuk Trust. He writes in his personal capacity. Email:

Non-violent mass action feasible in Zim.

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