Author: Anele Herbet Dube, on April 25 2017 - Over the past years I have observed that civil society organisations in Zimbabwe succumbed to the political and economic crisis that characterises this once great country. The once active and people-driven entities have become personalised institutions, distant from the realities of the ordinary citizens. Spaces created by civil society organisations as arenas for engagement, debate, dialogue and information zones have become ‘therapy zones’ where emotions, anger and frustrations are deposited. The spaces have further lost their value as they have been privatised and accessible mostly to civil society organisations leaders who engage and speak to themselves. Today there exists a commercialised civil society dominated by greedy opportunists prioritising personal wealth at the expense of the suffering citizens. Unfortunately, most of these organisations in this category (mind you, not everyone) are led by founders or appointees who have become mini dictators and retrogressive centres of power ready to die in power.
Within the civil society in Zimbabwe exist many groups, but I am interested in only two which I have identified as the Elites and the Survivors. The Elites command a sizeable following in the civil society circles as they are perceived as heroes of the struggle. On the other hand, the Survivors leader small briefcase organisations of no fixed aboard, characterised by a ‘hunters and gatherers’ mentality.
The challenge with these two groups is that their struggle is personalised and distant from the people (civil society) as they seek personal gains first. To them, the civil society space is a commercial avenue to a better life for them, their children, friends and relatives. They have invaded the civil society space, diluted and redefined it as an arena where opportunities for self-development lie. The two groups’ struggle is atomised, and reflects individual demands, distant from the rest, as their ideology is opulence.
It is unfortunate that the Elite are a creation of the civil society itself and possess a big brother mentality that has, over the years, led to the fragmentation of the civil society to that of the haves and have-nots. I was shocked last year when a friend of mine from a certain organisation in Matabeleland South informed me that the organisation has been denied an opportunity to be part of a certain consortium.”When they want to implement their activities at a community level they look for us, as they do not have structures or even operate in the district. But come fundraising time, they shun us, yet tell donors that they national and present in every district in Zimbabwe”, she narrated.
This has been an ongoing challenge for a long time now, and I am not sure if failure to take remedial actions on such misrepresentation by donors is deliberate, mere ignorance, or just lack of interest. Well, on the other-hand, the Survivors are an offspring of the broader economic situation. Most of these individuals have a traceable public service history where they were once engaged.
One observation I have noted with the Survivors is that their struggle is very clear - feed the belly. I have come to know some organisations that are more than 5 years old, and the only person I have ever met is the Executive Director. It does not matter whether it is a ‘high’ level or ‘low’ level meeting, they are the ones who attend. They are basically the organisation themselves and more often argue that they represent the voiceless. Their events of interest are the conferences, symposiums, workshops, trainings - you name it. Their bravery is unmatched as they can call you to find out why you did not invite them to a particular activity, and, in some dramatic instances, they simply pitch up, of course uninvited, with a chain of other people they invited themselves.
This commercialisation has brought with it various challenges, the chief among them being the commodification of ordinary citizens in exchange for funds. Although the donor community conditions have become tighter in a bid to foster citizen involvement in the whole proposal development, the Elite have found fissures through which they exploit community organisations, coercing them in to pseudo partnerships. Being the major beneficiaries and custodians of funds, these pseudo partnerships have resulted in centralisation of funds that rarely reach the intended communities, especially those in remote rural areas.
Fragmentation, a product of a commercialised civil society has further promoted a culture of competition for resources leading to loss of ‘opportunities for sharing innovations and learning from one another, coordinating programs to make scarce resources go further, or joining forces to expand impacts and influence other actors’ (Brown & Kalegaonkar, 1999). It has given birth to disjointed networks due to big brother-infant dualism. Some months back, I was invited to three meetings organised by three different organisations focusing on the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission Bill in Bulawayo. The agenda was the same. I wondered why not partner and hold one big meeting and probably other meetings at the community halls for citizen involvement.
There has been a rise of commodification of information and knowledge leading to duplication of interventions. Organisations are very much reluctant to share information, success stories or research findings on a particular issue. This is largely because of a competition rather than complimentary mentality.
Citizens have been one of the casualties of this commercialised space as they occupy the peripheries of debates that inform and shape the struggle for a better Zimbabwe. The spaces for dialogue and engagement have become strictly controlled and managed simply because they are ‘invited spaces’. Have you noticed that when you hear or receive an invite for a certain meeting you can literally list down all those who were also invited and will attend? - same old tired faces with nothing new to offer.
Exacerbated by the chilling economic situations, even community members have realised that NGOs/CSO have financial value as certain organisations ‘pay them’ to attend ‘their’ meetings. Such a culture is currently haunting citizen participation, as the amount and type of incentives determine which meeting will be ‘well attended’.
Commercialising civil society is tantamount to trading the struggle with individual interest. We need new people, new thinkers and new ideas on how best to solve the challenges facing this country. It is no secret that those who have been and are still there have failed. Watch closely their activities nowadays - typical pensioners.
Image caption: Villages feeding a drought stricken cow in Matobo District, Matabeleland South
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