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Emasculating briefcase activists

By Nhlanhla Mlilo

What really is the Zimbabwean question? Are the Matabeleland development priorities similar to those of Manicaland? Are Harare priorities Zimbabwean priorities? Who holds the rights to determine the engagement agenda? Who holds the patents to speaking to the presidency and the government?

These and more questions ring eerily as I watch activists react on social media to the news of a meeting between the President and the Matabeleland Civil Society organisations under the banner of Matabeleland Collective at the Bulawayo State House on the 21st of March 2019.

The fact that the Matabeleland Collective has been in existence for over 3 years now, meeting regularly and comprised of over 100 civil society organisations scattered in three provinces (Matabeleland North and South and Bulawayo) and yet our national activists are unaware of it is telling.

After all, who are these self-appointed thought leaders anyway, most are washed-up disgruntled politicians, who belong to one man organisations without structures and the occasional guns for hire.

Most will speak authoritatively on such national subjects like devolution, but do they understand what devolution means to the people of Gokwe, contributing to the national forex basket through their cotton production but barely surviving, the people of Kafusi in Gwanda who have to report a criminal case to a police station where all police officers cannot speak the Sotho language or the people of Chiadzwa living in abject poverty surrounded by diamond fields. How can they understand seated in their air-conditioned offices?

One cannot help but wonder if the meeting in Bulawayo is the beginning of regions taking back their voice and power to dictate their agenda and priorities?  After all, civil society has been championing the call for devolution of power by the government and so, maybe it is time for the Civil Society to start walking the talk.

Like any other action, I believe this engagement must also be subjected to constructive criticism. Like any courtship, while there are issues to be discussed, the first engagements’ success is usually judged by a securing of a commitment for continued re-engagement.

The Matabeleland meeting has opened the floodgates for engagement between the government and Civil Society, thus the tension/ stand-off has been diffused. It was very unfortunate that the meeting happened at a time when the nation was faced with a national disaster. On the other hand, the meeting was a win for President Mnangagwa in that he managed to evade his nemesis in Harare.

Some view this engagement as placement of a wedge to divide and conquer by the government. I chose to see it differently, to see it as a wakeup call to the briefcase activists that power, the real power lies with the people from whom you need to get your mandate and serve a real constituency rather than play to the gallery of your twitter, Facebook or Instagram followers. That Harare is not Zimbabwe, the national agenda setting must start from the grassroots.

In my opinion, our political differences should not stand in the path of engagement, we should always engage the government regardless of who is in office. We engage the institution because they are the ones driving policy and decision making and so we need to influence those decisions.

In Zimbabwe, there is no shortage of national organisations whose strength is derived from the grassroots from which many others wishing to operate at the national level can learn from. Such institutions as the Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe (WCOZ) championing the rights of women and girls, the National Association of Non-Governmental Organisations (NANGO) the mother body of Civil Society organisations engaging from grassroots.

Purposeful engagement is painstakingly slow work, employing the law of the farm but always worth it.

Matabeleland Collective did it, every other region can also do it. Let’s get talking Zimbabwe.

Nhlanhla Mlilo can be contacted at nmlilo@hotmail.com or on twitter @mlilon

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