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Big Saturday Read: Power concedes nothing without a demand

Some of the greatest changes in the history of humankind have happened not because of carefully and neatly laid out plans, but due to a single act or a set of acts which sparked a domino effect resulting in far-reaching consequences. Sometimes those consequences are local but often they are international.


In some ways, today we are all living through one such “moment’ of history. At the start of this year, no-one envisaged that a hitherto unknown virus could have such a profound effect on the entire world. The entire architecture of global socio-economic life has been turned upside down by a creature whose origins, character and effects remain a source of mystery and speculation. It’s fair to say when future generations look back at moments that changed the course of history, the COVID19 pandemic will certainly feature on the list.

Lighting the powder-keg

For us, the rear-view mirror has plenty of examples of acts of momentous circumstance. A century ago, on 28 June 1914, Archduke Frantz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated by a gunman in the city of Sarajevo and it was that reckless act which sparked the First World War, the first of two Great Wars of the last century. In 1955, the arrest of Rosa Parks for defying racial segregation laws on a public bus in Birmingham, Alabama, generated a series of events that had a profound effect on racial equality in the United States and the rest of the world. It was that single act of defiance on an otherwise normal day that became a catalyst for revolutionary changes in society.

George Floyd

Presently, the world is undergoing great changes following the brutal act of a racist policeman who stuck his knee on George Floyd’s neck leading to his death. The callous murder shocked America and the rest of the world, causing introspection concerning the hideous state of race relations, just over half a century after Rosa Parks' act of defiance. It sparked mass protests in the US and across the world. It took that one callous act for society to seriously reconsider things that it has either dismissed or taken for granted. Movements like BlackLivesMatter have gained more currency and wider acceptance in mainstream society.

Even statues of slave masters that had hitherto been protected by the establishment could no longer be defended. Institutions such as the judiciary, which are usually reluctant to partake in public matters unless they are before judges were compelled to intervene. It all happened because of one shocking act which was recorded and broadcast around the world. It opened the eyes and conscience of the world to things that many had never bothered about because they weren’t their issues. George Floyd has been hugely impactful in ways that even he might never have contemplated in life.

Arab Spring

In Tunisia, back in 2011, it was the act of one man, Mohammed Bouazizi, a market vendor, who was pushed to such desperation that he set himself alight, which in turn sparked an uprising that toppled a long-standing dictatorship. Before that, the regime and the police had arbitrarily seized his vegetable market stall on grounds that he did not have a permit. He set himself alight in protest, an act of sacrifice which ignited a powder keg. The revolution toppled the authoritarian ruler, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who fled to exile in Saudi Arabia.

The success of the Tunisian revolution inspired activists in other Arab countries. They too had their dictators, like the seemingly indestructible dictator Hosni Mubarak, who had held power for 30 years, ruling with an iron fist. History recalls the uprisings in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Mubarak was swept away by the wave which spread across the Arab world and is now recorded in history as the Arab Spring.

The events in North Africa and the Middle East spooked many dictators around the world, fearing the threat of grassroots movements in their countries. In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe’s authoritarian regime arrested members of the International Socialist Organisation who had gathered to watch videos of the Arab Spring. They were charged with treason which, at the time, was punishable by death. The regime said they were planning similar protests. The charges were later reduced to inciting public violence.

Rosa Parks’ act of defiance

When the Civil Rights Movement began in earnest in 1955, in the wake of the act of defiance, Martin Luther King Jr. was just 26 years old. Rosa Parks went all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States, where the judges ruled that segregation on public transport was unlawful. The Supreme Court also ruled in the landmark decision of Brown v Board of Education that segregation in schools was unconstitutional.

After Rosa Parks was arrested, others in the civil rights movement organised a bus boycott, in solidarity and defiance of the racist system. One day grew to more than a year of protests. They organised alternative means of transportation. They knew they had to make sacrifices against a vicious and deeply entrenched system. The racist Governor of Alabama, George Wallace, who would run unsuccessfully for President infamously said, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever”.

Their protests were based on the principle of peace and non-violence. “It is possible to be courageous and yet non-violent,” the leader Martin Luther King Jr said. By 1964, Congress had passed the Civil Rights Act, a landmark piece of law that guaranteed equality. However, it was not enough because African-Americans still did not have an unqualified right to vote. The struggle went on, resulting in the Voting Rights Act in 1965 with President Lyndon Johnson famously echoing the words of the deeply emotional protest song “We shall overcome”, an anthem of the civil rights movement.

There are lessons to be learnt from these events in history.

Internally generated signals

While many people look to organised political parties and the civil society organisations for leadership to generate change, such formal groups are designed to follow the normal paths of engagement which are futile in an authoritarian regime. The great events that have caused far-reaching changes have not begun from carefully laid out plans by formal organisations. I have said before that it is futile to lay hopes on formal political or civil society organisations (CSOs) to lead unconventional processes of change.

By nature, formal political parties operate within conventional rules, even though such rules are determined and enforced by the oppressor. They tend to choose compliance over defiance. They are always trying to negotiate a path through the legal labyrinth created by the oppressor. So they approach the police, which is controlled by the oppressor. They also seek recourse in the courts, which are controlled by the oppressor. It’s as if one is crushing a stone, hoping to extract water.

Formal political parties are also easy targets within an authoritarian regime. Their physical location is easily identifiable. The leaders are known. Their movements and communications are monitored. The parties are heavily infiltrated by a medley of spies and informers of the regime. By the time they finish their planning meeting, the regime will have all the details to the last dot.

The same applies to CSOs. They may start as grassroots organisations with a membership of individuals in communities, but over time they morph into elite formal organisations, whose membership are other formal organisations. They are good at what they do, but there is a disconnect between the CSOs and the grassroots activists, many of whom are orphaned. They do not have the means or capacity to raise resources to support grassroots political activism. Some substitute the government, performing crucial roles where the government has failed. All this is fundamental work, but it is not political activism.

CSOs are also deeply infiltrated by government spies and informers and whatever they do is known by the system long before they have finished their meeting. Also, since they work in a deeply authoritarian environment, they tend to choose compliance over defiance for existential reasons. Defiance leads to arrests, detentions and even threats to limb and life. The result is that where they may have been combative twenty years ago, they now choose to be less confrontational. Sometimes it’s a result of capture, which arises from years of regular engagement with the authoritarian regime which breeds familiarity and even affinity between former adversaries. To expect, confrontational strategies from elite CSOs is futile.

A lesson from these historical events is that when people say they want a “signal” from the formal political party, they are asking for something that will probably never come from that zone. It would make it too easy for the regime to thwart it. These events demonstrate that leadership can emerge from the most unlikely sources. What inspires people to act is something that is least expected. It has an element of surprise. Someone needs to show some chutzpah. Signals are internally generated events - a Bouazizi who sets himself on fire or a Rosa Parks who defies the bus segregation rules.

In Zimbabwe, a defiant pastor and his humble flag nearly became a signal. This was when a then little-known cleric, Pastor Evan Mawarire inspired a ThisFlag movement. The flame did not last long but the moment demonstrated what was possible.

It needs sacrifice

Another point from the US civil rights movement is that challenging a deeply entrenched system requires sacrifice. There has to be a cost to the oppressive system but this calls for huge sacrifices. Oppression must be costly to those who support it. The year-long bus boycott in Birmingham, Alabama after Rosa Parks’ arrest hurt the bus operators, whose majority of customers were African-Americans. This boycott required people to be prepared to forgo the benefits of using the public transport system. They had to do what was uncomfortable but necessary. What the protestors had done was to raise the financial cost of oppression.

Now, the boycott strategy is not popular among Zimbabweans. There is no culture of boycotting undesirable things based on principle. People always find excuses to explain why it’s impossible to boycott. Even among the Diaspora, proposals of boycotting remittances for even a week have been shot down because each claims to have their unique circumstances which prevent such a course of action.

But if people want the coterie of greedy political elites to feel the cost of dictatorship, and this is usually felt in financial terms, they must be ready to make sacrifices and this means foregoing certain things. The success of the oppressors’ businesses and their lifestyles depend on the patronage of the people - their customers, clients and taxpayers. Any reduction in that will result in financial pain for the oppressor class. At present, the people are financing the lifestyles of their oppressors and, ironically, their oppression.

Power of the majority

A common phenomenon in repressive regimes is that the oppressors are always a small minority compared to the oppressed majority. The tragedy is that the majority does not appreciate the potency of their numerical power and the leverage they have over the small minority oppressing them. The moment that people become conscious of the power they have over their oppressors, the days of the oppressors will be numbered.

The key lies in the few convincing the many to believe that they have power. Even Mugabe once described how when they started to challenge the colonial system in the early sixties, older black Rhodesians mocked them, saying the young men were crazy to think they could remove the colonial system. It was simply impossible for the older generation to believe that the entrenched colonial system could ever be changed.

They were not prepared to shoulder the costs of the struggle. The struggle is costly but necessary to achieve change that is desired. In this regard, the words of the great African-American anti-slavery icon, Frederick Douglass are relevant. He wrote,

“Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.”

A former slave, Douglass had become a leading voice in the fight to abolish slavery. He understood the importance of struggle and what it entailed.

Oppressors’ vulnerability

Unbeknown to many people living under oppression, the small minority of oppressors is more vulnerable than they realise. This fear explains why the small minority of oppressors excessively relies on the apparatus of coercion - soldiers, police, unjust laws and guns. Since they do not have the consent of the people, they use force to control them. This is why arrests and detentions of political opponents are rampant in authoritarian regimes. They do this not just because they have power, but also because they are scared of the people. They must continuously flex their muscles to keep the population in submission.

However, reliance on this apparatus of coercion is also costly for oppressors. It makes them beholden to those who control the instruments of coercion - the military elites, soldiers, secret police, etc. The moment that these agents of coercion realise that the regime depends on them, they also begin to make demands for compensation that is commensurate with their contribution. This is costly and unsustainable. Besides, the small minority is very greedy and selfish. They don’t like to share the ill-gotten wealth.

Over time, it dawns upon the agents of coercion that they are being used by the greedy political elites to repress their fellow citizens. Those in junior ranks and the footsoldiers realise that their interests are more aligned with their fellow citizens who are oppressed than with the political and military elites who live in luxury. This is why, when citizens have risen in other countries, the soldiers who formerly protected the regime have stood by and protected the people. It does not make sense for them to suppress their fellow citizens in favour of the elites.

Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s former dictator discovered this in 2019 when he was toppled. The soldiers abandoned him. But he wasn’t the first to be in this predicament. Ivory Coast’s Laurent Gbagbo and his wife found themselves at the mercy of soldiers whom he had formerly commanded. Even Robert Mugabe, former advisers say he did not heed the warnings of an impending coup because he never believed that his generals would ever betray him. But they did. In short, there is no guarantee that the apparatus of coercion will always be on the side of the repressive regime.

This is why the current regime had a bizarre press conference of the National Security Council this week denying what it called "widespread rumours of an imminent coup" when no such "widespread rumour" existed in the public domain. It betrays the fear and paranoid character of the regime while many think it is powerful and impregnable. Authoritarian regimes thrive on these fearsome images that a planted in the public consciousness. Such images are usually more illusionary than real, which is why many collapse at the slightest challenge as happened when Bouazizi lit himself and sparked mass protests.

Power is never given freely

History has taught us that one of the immutable laws of power is that it is never given freely. Oppression never concedes out of the goodness of oppressors' hearts. Dr Shingie Munyeza, a member of Mnangagwa’s Presidential Advisory Council who has been highly critical of the regime in recent weeks has warned that Zimbabwe is definitely headed for a crash. He told Spotlight Zimbabwe that the "so-called new dispensation has been worse than the old one", describing it as "more intolerant to divergent views, more oppressive and more brutal" He has proposed a “soft landing” for the country in light of this envisaged crash.

There has been talk of a National Transitional Authority (NTA), an idea that has been championed by Dr Ibbo Mandaza, Tony Reeler and others since 2016. The clerics have also proposed a “political sabbatical” - a seven-year period in which there is no political contestation. Reverend Mtata has advanced this proposition thoughtfully on behalf of the organisation of church leaders. Former Harare Mayor, Ben Manyenyeni has argued for a variation of a similar proposition in which political contestation along party lines is suspended.

These are all useful ideas which are made genuinely with Zimbabwe’s interests at heart given the toxicity and polarisation in the political environment, where politics is truly a zero-sum game in the extreme sense. These propositions are motivated by a desire to give the country some breathing space; a cooling-off period which will be a bridge to a better and less toxic political future. What is missing, however, is the element of how to get there, because surely it must be clear to everyone that this is about power, and power is not easily given. As lawyer Sipho Malunga, who has experience of working in conflict zones from his time with the United Nations, eloquently pointed out during a SAPES public seminar on 11 June 2020, while an NTA is not a bad idea, it does not happen naturally and must be preceded by something else. In short, Malunga's view is that it is the people who must demand their power back.

I find Malunga’s view persuasive to the extent that it addresses the "how' element, and because it is in sync with the geography of political power. It is located in a small group of elites in government. Any change means it has to be relocated and the principal agents for this process of relocation are the people, who, after all, by our Constitution, are the repositories of all political authority. The incumbent should not be expected to give up power freely, out of the goodness of their heart. Even if it were said to be in the public interest, ZANU PF has never demonstrated an affinity for anything other than its private interests. Professor Jonathan Moyo is credited with having said ZANU PF could not be expected to reform itself out of power. It remains true today as it was when this was said. ZANU PF principal asset is political power and as long as it is in its possession, it will not hand it over without being compelled to do so.

Professor Brian Raftopolous was right concerning the need for convergence of regional and international pressure in efforts to resolve the Zimbabwean crisis as there is no room for internal consensus given the polarisation. However, both in 1979 and 2007, the regional and international actors only got involved because the principal political actors had generated conditions necessitating such intervention. At present, while the multi-faceted crisis in Zimbabwe cannot be doubted, there are no demonstrably acute conditions such as existed in 1979 or 2007/8 justifying the drastic steps of intervention or engagement.

The principle of non-interference in sovereign affairs always stands as a great barrier to any form of intervention or engagement without invitation by the host state. This can only change if the situation changes drastically so that it cannot be ignored. Much, therefore, depends on whether Zimbabweans can create conditions that leave regional and international actors with no choice but to step in to help resolve the crisis as they did on previous occasions. There is a need for a catalyst for this. As Dr Noah Manyika pointed out during the same SAPES event, pressure as to be at the personal level, on relatives, friends and associates who are part of or working within the repressive system. This is about raisin the cost of oppression upon them.

To those calling for an NTA or similar bridging mechanism, it is therefore important to realise that ZANU PF will not give away its power without people making a firm demand. In this regard, the words of Frederick Douglass are apposite, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”

That last line is particularly fundamental: “The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress”. It matters for Zimbabweans because the limits of the regime depend on how much they are prepared to endure the hardships and injustices. As long as the people are prepared to absorb the hardships and carry on, ZANU PF will never concede power and it does not worry about elections because it is in firm control of most of the political referees. The only thing that it cannot control is the economy, but that too is a double-edged sword for the ordinary people. For while the economy hurts ZANU PF, it hurts them, too.


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