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Fighting the temptation to turn to violence in Zimbabwe


Darlington Tshuma is a PhD student in Peacebuilding at Durban University of Technology. His twitter handle is @D_Tshuma1

The temptation to resort to violence in the face of brutal and repressive regimes carries risk without certainty of success. Zimbabweans considering their options, as opposition to the current regime grows, must make choices with important consequences. It is my fervent hope that we can pursue non-violent options that hold the greatest promise of sustained democracy in the future.

“Maybe it’s time to use violence,” my usually peaceable friend concluded recently. After all, Emmerson Mnangagwa’s administration has transformed Zimbabwe into an autocratic state, trampling its way through a humanitarian and health crisis in the wake of Covid-19, runaway inflation, social and political divisions, elite corruption and human rights violations. 

I was almost persuaded: We’re dealing with a regime that has perfected the art of using violence and misinformation to achieve its objectives. 

In the face of brutal and repressive regimes, the temptation to use violent force often seems plausible, and justifiable even though empirical evidence shows that violent and non-violent struggles have equal chances of success or failure. The democratic struggles that collapsed dictatorships in Guatemala and the Philippines in 1986 were essentially non-violent. In India, Mahatma Gandhi employed non-violent struggles against British colonial rule, leading to India’s independence in 1947. Resisting the temptation to use violence gave his movement the moral high-ground. 

Closer to home, although the ANC would in the later stages of the struggle for democracy establish a military wing – Umkhonto weSizwe – South Africans largely employed non-violent mass protests and mass resistance as a means to undermine the apartheid regime. That the response remained non-violent for so long gave the struggle tremendous currency across the globe and helped safeguard the legitimacy of its future governance and transition to power.

Easier said than done, some would argue. Perhaps. But violent interventions to solve the problems of dictatorship, repression and oppression have often proved to be unsustainable in both the short and long term. They can also backfire, giving rogue regimes the excuse to justify brute force in the name of restoring “order and stability”. 

We know that the strength of dictatorships and repressive regimes is completely dependent on sources of power that rely on the co-operation and obedience of citizens and institutions. We also know that such regimes are unlikely to renounce violence and force if this leaves them vulnerable or reduces their power. A non-violent response requires psychological, social, economic and political methods or a combination of these to wage democratic struggles.

Zimbabwe’s crises cover a broad spectrum of political, social and economic issues. These have been ongoing for decades now in spite of previous and current attempts to solve them. The state, under both former president Robert Mugabe and current incumbent Mnangagwa, has responded violently to dissent, leading to the wanton arrest of human rights defenders, activists, civil society and opposition leaders. The decades’ long political stand-off has exacerbated the political and economic challenges, eroding hopes of a return to normality. 

To their credit, those on the frontlines of the democratic struggle in Zimbabwe have restricted themselves to a combination of non-violent methods and sometimes limited violence, though they have not seen victory yet. 

Successful non-violent resistance requires building movement through protests, marches, vigils and campaigning for support. In the digital age, #hashtag movements have begun to gain traction on social media platforms. 

There are numerous hashtags in Zimbabwe at the moment – such as #ZanuPFMustGo, which in the past seven days has received 1.9 million impressions; and #ZanuPFMustFall, which in that same time has received 1.66 million impressions. An online protest over the weekend of 10-12 July 2020 saw the president’s Twitter account lose more than 20,000 followers in under 48 hours. There is also currently a groundswell of support for social media calls for a mass march in Zimbabwe on 31 July 2020. It is expected that there will be a strong response from authorities. 

Other forms of non-violent protest can include the withdrawal of economic, political and social co-operation with the regime, for example, refusing to supply or transport goods and services used by oppressive regimes and refusing to buy products sold by known regime apologists or state-owned companies. 

Non-economic non-co-operation may also see workers going on hunger strikes, massive general strikes or the complete economic shutdown of a town or country. Politically, non-violent protests might encompass the boycotting of rigged elections, rejection of the legitimacy of the incumbent, the withdrawal of opposition parties from parliament, the creation of parallel institutions by citizens and other forms of general civil disobedience. 

While some of these methods may have been attempted before (e.g. threats to boycott future elections in the absence of political reforms, threats of opposition withdrawal from parliament, and/or rejecting the legitimacy of the incumbent), these methods have not been applied consistently or in combination with others. 

While non-violent struggles may look ineffective to some, I argue that they remain a powerful means to effect change, and do not necessarily require a longer period to take effect. Non-violent struggles have successfully overthrown dictatorships and disintegrated repressive systems. 

Economic boycotts have been short-lived and, in some instances, applied inconsistently. The sporadic nature of non-violent resistance has given the government room to breathe and regroup in the face of challenges. However, if applied consistently and in combination with other non-violent methods, these options have the potential to paralyse both the economic and political pillars that sustain repressive regimes. 

Non-violent struggles are not without consequences, however, and in Zimbabwe, state retaliation has been particularly vicious. Unionised workers report arrests, abductions, torture, salary freezes and slander among the responses by the state to silence critical voices. 

In countries where there is a threat of violent retribution for non-violent protest, activists have structured protective measures as part of their planning, preferring, for example, to avoid singling out one person for a leadership role as action against such a person can deflate a protest easily.

Protesters in such places avoid wearing politically identifying material which serves to undermine the objective of harnessing broad-based movements that transcend political, racial, class, ethnic and gender divisions. 

In the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests, activists made use of tools like VPN and encryption technologies in anticipation of information interception and internet restrictions.

Where violence is likely from authorities, activists who embark on peaceful protest also anticipate the need to share information about their whereabouts at all times, and to keep information on how to get help if they should need it. In the case of Zimbabwe, this might include human rights bodies like Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights. 

While non-violent struggles may look ineffective to some, I argue that they remain a powerful means to effect change, and do not necessarily require a longer period to take effect. Non-violent struggles have successfully overthrown dictatorships and disintegrated repressive systems. 

The Philippines under Ferdinand Marcos, and Sudan under Omar al Bashir are a few examples. It’s also a myth that they require a charismatic leader. It is those “micro wins” applied consistently over time that results in big wins. The secret to the success of non-violent struggle lies in the quality of methods used, and the skill, discipline and tenacity of resisters.

It is my fervent hope that as we seek to dismantle an oppressive, abusive and repressive system, we will not be lured into choosing a path of violence, but rather continue to choose the non-violent option that hold the greatest promise of sustained democracy built on justice, fairness and the rule of law, when power eventually does change hands. DM


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