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Some Reflections on Student activism and the Pitfalls of Celebrity politics in Zimbabwe

By Blessing Vava ''Student activism is a highly conflict-filled terrain with very passionate individuals and groups involved&...

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Some Reflections on Student activism and the Pitfalls of Celebrity politics in Zimbabwe

By Blessing Vava

''Student activism is a highly conflict-filled terrain with very passionate individuals and groups involved'' said one scholar (Moyo: 2013) in his journal article as he looked at the relationship between politics and student activism. In many parts of the world students protests have been a catalyst for change and in some instances causing the collapse of unpopular regimes. In his paper (Moyo: 2013) concedes that while student activism has been highly associated with social and political change and as a form of affirmative action it has been demonised by governments.
Glory seeker? #thisflag founder Pastor Evan Mawarire (Image; IB Times)

While students have been able to articulate and fight their struggles, against high tuition fees and in many instances it is the fight for free education there has been a concern of those genuine struggles by the students being hijacked by political figures and parties. It is important to note that the issues driving the student anger and rebellion go far beyond the unaffordability of higher education for the poor and the working class. It is having to slot into an education system that emulates the society we live in – an elite ruling class sending its children to study abroad and the perpetuation of inequality and prejudice against the financially weak.

 In the same vein, politicians should leave students alone and equally students need to be careful on the pitfalls of having their issues drowned by those of politicians.  Whereas students have the right to freedom of association the events at the University of Zimbabwe (UZ) yesterday are surely a cause for concern.

I watched in disbelief on #thisflag leader Evan Mawarire’s Facebook wall streaming live as he addressed the demonstrating students. At that moment I realized that the presence of Mawarire was a tactical blunder.

Mawarire, a non-student, a man currently on bail on ‘trumped’ up charges to subvert a constitutionally elected government (false charges) addressing students already sent a wrong signal.  He had no business at UZ, his actions might have been ‘genuine’ but I wouldn’t want to say here was a man on an attention seeking adventure to revive his waning popularity after a self-inflicted blow when he fled to the US. 

His arrest yesterday is what is now dominating the news, diluting the genuine efforts by the students who were seeking an audience with regards to the fee increase. The clashes at UZ could have been avoided had Mawarire stayed at home to ‘pray’ for the students. We must always look at the bigger picture and avoid individuals with selfish agendas to override a genuine cause of the students.

For him he has 'achieved' to gain mileage, it’s like he was trying to make a ‘re-entry’ after his movement failed to take off. And for the students, they remain to face their challenges.

I am sure those who reacted violently were as a result of Mawarire’s presence which probably was viewed as a #thisflag protest. While it is good for people like Mawarire to offer solidarity, yesterday he was just at the wrong place and at the wrong time. I have nothing personal against the Man of God, but ‘politicians’ and ‘celebrities’ must stay away from campuses, they should fight in the streets.  Let the students fight their struggles on their campuses, they are many ways of offering them solidarity than to hijack their noble cause simply because of his insatiable appetite for newspaper headlines. Students should be wary of associating with figures that will do little in contributing to their struggles. 

As a result, looking back, history is pregnant with numerous examples and lessons which the students can learn from in as far as the relationship between student activism and mainstream politics is concerned. Many will remember ZANU Pf’s hijacking of the Zimbabwe Congress of Students Union (ZICOSU) which was formed by progressive comrades like Gabriel Shumba. ZICOSU eventually slipped away as ZANU PF became directly in control of the student's body in their bid to control the student's community. This they did by sponsoring leaders of the said Union, sponsoring candidates in SRC elections across the country as a rivalry union to ZINASU. The same can also be said for the opposition the MDC which tried in vain to hijack the biggest students’ body, the Zimbabwe National Students Union, and clearly, the agenda was the same, but rather the party eventually failed in its futile attempt years to come by. But however many will recall that before the formation of the MDC, was the turning point in the struggles of the student's movement in Zimbabwe.

While the students were a critical mass at the formation of the MDC in 1999, the students movement failed to maintain its independence and as a result perceived as either an appendage or rather an opposition movement towards the government of the day which then created a host of problems that came to haunt the students movement up until this day.

It would be critical to posit that after the formation of the MDC, the relationship between the students’ movement and the party intensified the ‘cat’ and ‘mouse ‘relationship between the ruling government and the students’ movement. The “association’’ of ZINASU with the MDC gave the state more arsenal and artillery to pounce on the students as perceived the union as agents of regime change. The state became more vicious towards the students, demonstrations were now being responded with brute force, suspensions and expulsions of student leaders became the order of the day. The government no longer viewed the students union as a critical stakeholder but rather in ZINASU they saw the MDC, and to make matters worse, the idea to form the party was consummated in the packed New Lecture Theatre 400 at the University of Zimbabwe.  
The ‘MDC’ tag has caused nightmares for the union and has been difficult to disassociate with thus making life very difficult for the students union in pursuit of their struggle for academic freedoms.

 Consequently, for the political parties, the students’ community is an easy ground to use for their political expediency. Regional experiences presented us with good examples on the need for politicians to stay out and students to avoid being hijacked. As was witnessed during #feesmustfall in South Africa were several political actors tried to seek relevance by joining the student's protests. 

Many will remember the DA leader Mmusi Maimane and EFF's Floyd Shivambu getting the rod of the students after attempts to address the protesting students in Cape Town. It was apparent that the students cannot be politically controlled, bullied or manipulated.  It was clear that these politicians were driven not by the cause of the students but rather their own selfish agendas as they seek relevance in associating themselves with a movement that had shaken the corridors of power in South Africa.

Other national political party leaders could face the same humiliation if they try to exploit the situation. Quite clearly, the students were aware that once they allowed the politicians to come and address them at campuses their cause was going to be diluted and misconstrued and giving ammunition to the ruling government to dismiss their cause as being pushed by the opposition parties. 

In conclusion, I challenge the students to think beyond the tactics that the yesteryear generations employed because the context and the environment has totally changed. They have to come up with new ideas of organising and defining solidarity in pursuit of the struggle for free education in our lifetime. Zvazviri!

Blessing ‘Vuvuzela’ Vava is a blogger based in Chipinge. He can contacted on blessingvava@gmail.com

Friday, 10 February 2017

The Zimbabwe Peoples Charter and the democratic struggle

By Blessing Vava
February 9, 2017, marked the ninth anniversary since the adoption of the Zimbabwe People’s Charter. The Charter, being a product of wide consultations with the masses throughout the country was debated and produced by the more than 3 000 representatives of workers, students, churches, business, women and youth organisations.
Fundamentally, a critical interpretation of the People’s Charter is based on the view that Zimbabwe, since colonialism, has remained a country lacking the rule of law, a country characterised by the militarisation of arms of the state and government.
The People’s Charter, therefore, calls for the establishment of a social democratic Zimbabwe, in which the people are guaranteed safety and security and a lawful environment free from human rights violations and impunity. It still occupies an important role in our politics.
It seems, however, that when the Charter came into existence, there seemed to be a de facto obligation on the civic society and all social movements and struggling to transform Zimbabwe to define at some point their position vis-a-vis the Charter.
The first major meeting of the stakeholders was called for in 2011, only as a means of defining their position with regards to the Charter. It was also a meeting aimed at charting a way forward and that the civil society and social movements would be able to establish ‘our’ identity in the Zimbabwean body politics.
It was also that meeting that the Committee of thePeople’s Charter (CPC) was conceived as a political, economic, social and democratic accountability mechanism established in the interests of the people of Zimbabwe.
Its main aim was to bring the Zimbabwean government of the day to account in relation to the national economy, gender equality, youth empowerment, a democratic political environment, free and fair elections, constitutional reform, media freedom and Zimbabwe’s national value system, as aptly espoused in the Charter.
Moreso, defining a position vis-a-vis the Charter involves more than its simple endorsement or rejection. In a way, the Charter can be interpreted as an ambiguous document, despite its pithiness and simple language.
The range of possible meanings contained within the Charter has resulted in it being interpreted in a variety of ways ‑ though sometimes contradictory. However, such semantic disputes are by no means politically inconsequential, as they involve fundamental theoretical and strategic questions.
It is the meaning of the constitutional reform clauses of the People’s Charter that generated immense dispute to date. These call for a new Constitution of Zimbabwe, which must be produced by a people-driven, participatory process.
The debate on constitutional reform brewed a lot of contradictions in the civil society, as they jostled to be part of the constitutional reform process by the coalition government starting in 2009.
In Article XI of the Global Political Agreement, the rejection of the Charter was imminent, as the civil society movement unashamedly endorsed such clauses in direct contradiction to the dictates of the Charter.
A snapshot of the Charter’s demands on the Constitutional reform are as follows: “The People shall have a constitutional reform process, which is characterised by the following: -Comprehensive consultation with the people of Zimbabwe wherein they are guaranteed freedom of expression and information, association and assembly. The collection of the views of the people and their compilation into a draft constitution that shall be undertaken by an All-Stakeholders' Commission composed of representatives of government, parliament, political parties, civil society, labour, business and the church with a gender and minority balance.”
I would argue that not many civil society organisations accorded the Charter any pertinence to their struggles to date and from the outset never perceived the Charter as relevant to its exigencies.
The signing and adoption of the Charter in 2008 was a realisation from the civic movement that there was a need in our democratic struggle to have a framework of ideals, aspirations to attain the revolutionary struggle. But we reflect on the fact that a few months after the many organisations appended their signatures to the Charter, the struggle veered off the road, as the collective movement faced its biggest test.
Clearly, I should highlight that some of the key components of the People’s Charter were neglected both when the elections came and at the consummation of the coalition government.
While acknowledging the shortfalls on the constitutional reform process, the civic movement and prodemocracy movements capitulated on the electoral framework, as expounded by the Charter.
While the ink in March 2008 had not dried up, the civic movement’s shortcomings were exposed by the 'strategic' move to openly declare allegiance and campaigning for the MDC led by Morgan Tsvangirai in an election that fell short of the demands of the Charter.
Section 2 of the Charter acknowledged that “all elections in Zimbabwe remain illegitimate and without merit until undertaken under a new democratic and people-driven constitution, Equal access to the media. One independent, impartial, accountable and well-resourced electoral management body. A process of delimitation, which is free from political control, which is accurate, fair, transparent and undertaken with full public participation. A continually updated and accurate voters' roll, which is open and accessible to all. Transparent and neutral location of polling stations, agreed to through a national consultative process devoid of undue ruling or opposition party and government influence, which are accessible to all including those with special needs”.
The 2008 election never met an inch of that demand and this partly explains the five-week delay in the announcement of the presidential results.

As Lenin would say, that at all times, the revolutionary organisation must maintain political independence, I posit that it was, therefore, wrong for the civic movement to abandon freshly conceived the principles on the altar of political convenience.
Also key is the debate around the national economy, and the Charter calls for people-centered economic planning that guarantees social and economic rights.
It enunciates the state’s responsibilities to “initiate public programmes to build schools, hospitals, houses, dams and roads and create jobs and above all equitable access to and distribution of national resources for the benefit of all people of Zimbabwe”.
Such demands are non-negotiable until they are realised. The current government’s populist economic framework in guised is guised as centred around a pro-poor initiative while in reality it is pushing oligarchic capitalism, is certainly not attainable and befitting for our people, emerging from the background of an equally skewed colonial legacy.
To this day, the Charter remains the beacon of hope and the clearest statement in the struggle for a better Zimbabwe.
The People’s Charter is, indeed, a revolutionary programme for the masses, which could have gained significant gains for the masses.
Consequently, an admission should be made that key components of the People’s Charter were neglected in the transition to an inclusive government.
The social movements, working class, the youth, the church, the women, whose signatures were appended to the People’s Charter, illustrates its weight and, therefore, it should never be undermined or misinterpreted.
It is a living document, a People’s Manifesto that belongs to the people of Zimbabwe and that will never change anytime soon.
Essentially, what needs to be done going forward is interrogation and robust engagement of the tactics we take towards the total attainment of the People’s Charter objectives until it is envisaged. The current struggles should embrace the Charter as a living manifesto that will transform our society for the better.
Therefore, the civic society should remain independent, and never should we compromise on the aims and aspirations laid out in the People’s Charter. It still remains a revolutionary programme that is rooted in the people with a clear mandate.
The Charter acknowledges that: “All people in Zimbabwe live in a society characterised by the tolerance of divergent views, cultures or religions, honesty, integrity and common concern for the welfare of all. All people in Zimbabwe are guaranteed safety and security, and a lawful environment free from human rights violations and impunity.”
As a result, we must have a conscious strategy. We must be disciplined, mobilise, train and educate the young and new comrades in our social and political movements. It can only be by recruiting and ideological training that will help the movement remain focused.
The work of the civil society and social movements should not be haphazard, but rather systematic and consciously laid out. We cannot run away from the People’s Charter, as it basically provides us adequately with that framework. The task at hand is to reach out to the lowest members of our society and eventually win the broadest masses.
As we celebrate the nine years since the adoption of the Charter, we have not totally failed; despite that yes, there have been detours, breakdowns, and accidents, but never has the ultimate trajectory and the aim of achieving the democratic revolution been lost.
Let us continue to work, intensifying our engagement with the grassroots until we achieve the objectives of the People’s Charter.
Long live the People’s Charter! Long live Zimbabwe!

Blessing VuvuzelaVava is a staunch defender of the Peoples Charter. He is based in Chipinge and can be contacted on blessingvava@gmail.com

Friday, 27 January 2017

2008 election...Gambia-ECOWAS moment for Zimbabwe?

Blessing Vava
On December 1 last year, Yahya Jammeh, the strongman of The Gambia, lost an election to an unheralded opposition leader, Adamma Barrow, to mark an end to 22 years of iron fist rule in the tiny West African country.
Jammeh's defeat is both historic and significant, not only for The Gambia but the whole continent. After celebrating the fall of colonialism and the establishment of the Organisation of African Unity, the continent has found itself with life leaders, who have a disregard for democratic principles and maintain a hold on power in the name of a pan-African and anti-imperialist agenda.
Most of the strong men have been using fear, violence and illegitimate elections, in the process relegating opposition parties to mere spectators as they continue to rule using terror. Controversial electoral outcomes have become rituals across the continent, with regional blocs failing to bring member states to account and encourage losers to uphold democratic norms and values.
In fact, the continent is overburdened by liberation war cults.
Jammeh’s fall brought a sense of hope for democracy in Africa, in that despite the unevenness of the playing field, characterised by fear and violence, dictators can still be defeated by a people united for a cause.
Despite earlier pronouncements accepting the outcome, Jammeh made a summersault, disregarding the electoral outcome to utter amusement from the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), who stood firm in cornering the beleaguered dictator to submit and surrender.
The swiftness and the subsequent intervention of Ecowas as well as the threats to invade The Gambia to flush out Jammeh should rather be commended and it shows how much we are progressing to finding solutions to our own challenges as a continent.
Without a doubt, the Gambian scenario was a test for the upcoming 28th summit of the African Union Head of states to be held in Ethiopia at the end of this month.
Many times the regional bodies have been condemned in failing to call errant dictators to order.
The shortcomings of the African Union, have resulted in western intervention by former colonisers, however, compromising the sovereignty of the African people.
As the rest of the continent celebrated the fall of Jammeh, it was Ecowas which was rather given a gun salute for their firm position in safeguarding the will of the people in The Gambia, as expressed by the December 1 election.
From this background, there are a lot of lessons to learn from The Gambia, which can assist us in understanding the role of Sadc in the context of the 2008 election in Zimbabwe.
That election was quite significant in the sense that it was the first time that President Robert Mugabe was defeated, despite all the State machinery at his disposal.
Now, some quarters are trying to hypothesise The Gambia scenario and comparing it to Zimbabwe, saying that the regional body, SADC, should have gone the Ecowas way after Zanu PF was defeated on March 29, 2008.
In my opinion, I have three points to buttress my argument against such postulations. I would argue that Sadc did all in their capacity, despite the opposition trashing the regional body left, right and centre for what they deem a failure to intervene and drive Mugabe out.
For starters, it is not and it will never be the business of Sadc or any regional body to undermine processes in member states without enough justification and, let alone when the participants of the said elections have failed to win elections.
Firstly, March 29, 2008, election was inconclusive. The votes polled by MDC-T leader Morgan Tsvangirai were not enough for him to be declared winner and subsequently assume the presidency from Mugabe.
The Constitution was clear on the threshold 50% plus one vote for a candidate to be declared duly the winner; however, Tsvangirai had just polled 47.9%, therefore, triggering a presidential election run-off.
Equally, we must not forget that it was the same period that the electoral commission withheld results for five weeks and no-one knows what kept them for that longer period.
Those who still recall will reminisce August 2, 2013, press conference held at Meikles Hotel by the by then MDC-T secretary-general Tendai Biti, who announced that the MDC had won the elections hands down.
He was later to be arrested and charged for contravening the electoral act by announcing the ‘results’ of the elections. Brave chap he was!
This brings me to my second point, on how Tsvangirai shot himself in the foot by encouraging his supporters to remain patient, as the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) was going to announce the results. What a wait it became ‑ five weeks.
The momentum was lost, and still, how could Sadc intervene in that case?
I vividly recall a meeting held one early Sunday in Harare, were Tsvangirai begged with civil society to be patient with ZEC.
Thirdly, as if that was not enough, the MDC-T leader did the most unthinkable political gesture; his rushing to seek refuge at the Netherlands Embassy was a heavy snub on SADC and the rest of the African countries.
In essence, he showed them the middle finger, basically confirming that his party was not seeking African solutions but those from outside our borders.
Hence it would be naïve to blame Sadc for initiating a dialogue to discuss a power-sharing arrangement to break the political impasse after the sham June elections.
In all fairness, The Gambia scenario is different from the Zimbabwe case in 2008, and such an example cannot, therefore, be used to point at the inadequacies of Sadc for allegedly protecting Mugabe. Worse still the opposition in Zimbabwe created conditions that would not have made it possible for SADC to intervene.
However, Sadc’s “inadequacies” should be understood from the background of a shared sense of history rooted in liberation movement solidarity. West Africa has a very differentiated political ruling classes, which do not have very strong links.
At the same time, Mugabe presented somehow of a dilemma to South Africa because he had “successfully” presided over the fast-track land reform programme and in West Africa, the “colonial masters” stayed in the background, unlike in Zimbabwe, where they were very vocal.
Consequently, through the former South African President Thabo Mbeki papers, the African National Congress was actually advising Zanu PF, they blocked the release of the judges’ report on electoral violence.
Ultimately, democracy, democratisation and its consolidation in Africa can never be secured by the threat of water cannons and bullets, but by the self-organising initiatives of its people.
With the 2018 beckoning, the opposition parties seem clueless, with some boycotting by-elections, but hoping to participate in the polls. The Bikita by-election brought with us many lessons, and the MDC-T will pay dearly for that. The biggest lesson learnt is that by boycotting, they strategically demobilise their own structures and even the potential voters.
How does one boycott a dictator?
It will revel in such pitiful actions because a boycott is a moral statement meant to delegitimise the political class. Given our objective concrete balance of forces, what will a boycott serve or achieve in a political project of altering permanently, the balance of forces in favour of the political project?
For Joice Mujuru’s Zimbabwe People First, they may have lost, but now, they know what to do next time. Losing is important. In the United States, the Democrats got used to winning and they went to sleep and got Trumped. 
In the first place, it was wrong for the Tsvangirai group to approach Parliament to have Biti’s group of MPs expelled from the august House.
The talk of reforms is a far-fetched affair and one wonders how the parties are going to achieve something they failed to change during their stint in the inclusive government?
For the opposition, the solution is the people, the people are the last bastion and natural garrison to defend and expand a democratic sort of politics which secures their material transformation. Everything else not rooted in the concrete material reality of our people melts into thin air and the lecherous political calls will entrench its illicit accumulation project unchecked.
From my own assessment, the opposition in Zimbabwe does not have the experience and know-how of building a people’s movement and everyone seems obsessed with rallies.
Rallies are only a public display of social and political power gained, built and galvanised in the everyday lives of people based on their concrete material demands.

Blessing Vava writes from Chipinge and can be contacted on blessingvava@gmail.com. Twitter:@blevava

NB: no part of this article shall be used without prior permission from the author