via Repositioning civil society | The Financial Gazette 31 Oct 2013 with Trevor Maisiri
AS human needs do not remain in a conformist state, and evolve depending on how they are shaped by new socio-economic, political and spiritual realities, so too must be the role and definition of institutions meant to address these needs.
Civil society is one such institution.
The definition of what civil society is and what it encompasses is changing. This change is in response to such evolutions as; the shifting geo-political power from the traditional global powers to emerging ones; the advanced and central role being played by technology; the growing criticality of social engagement as a source of sustainable development; depleted and streamlined funding models; and restricted operational space due to political pressure.
All these changes pose new challenges for civil society while also creating new opportunities (World Economic Forum, 2013).
Civil society, the world over, must urgently transform to adapt to this new reality and therefore remain relevant.
For Zimbabwe, this adaptation is even more urgent, given how the country’s politics has attempted to construct near orthodoxy that excludes or rescinds parallel processes meant to enhance governance accountability.
The post 2013 election period is defining, as it has wilted the semblance of intra-accountability within the political party sector, which to some extent existed in the period of the government of national unity and over the lifetime of the Global Political Agreement (GPA).
The ZANU-PF majority in Parliament and the return to a single-party government creates gaps which civil society must seriously consider not only filling, but doing so effectively.
The major issues of focus for Zimbabwean civil society must be based on reclaiming or rebuilding its constituency and mandate, which will enhance institutional and sectoral credibility, as well as developing strategic engagement focus.
Constituency and mandate through a citizenry-focussed civil society
Various definitions, meant to capture the embryonic nature of civil society have been posited. Foley and Edwards (1996) define civil society as primarily to promote establishment of democratic polity through citizen mobilisation based on the association of this citizenry component.
Alexander (2006) outlines civil society as the realm within which social interactions, at both individual and group levels, are construed into a resultant action on issues of concern.
Civil society construction is also measured by its capacity to compose associational life, as the basis for its down-stream and up-stream actions (Keane, 2009).
The common strand in the definitions outlined above invest their emphasis on the citizenry as the basis and justification for civil society existence.
These definitions premise their derivative understanding of civil society on its representativeness of the citizenry and mandate derived from the same.
Civil society is no longer seen as an instrument but rather as existential lifeblood of what the citizens are and what they are about.
It is no longer simply a channel for grievance transmission but a principal platform for resolving community and national challenges (Canadian Foundation for the Americas, 2006).
For Zimbabwean civil society, one of its historical “Achilles’ tendon” has been issues of mandate and constituency.
The post-independence political ensemble, which was inherited from the colonial period, has exclusively divided the citizenry into political segments. In the colonial period, citizens were merely identified as being in support of the Rhodesian regime or against it.
Further on after independence, citizens are defined as merely for or against ZANU-PF.
This has totally distorted the citizenry characterisation by assuming it must only exist within defined political party space, thereby heavily politicising society (Machakanja, 2010).
This assumes the citizenry cannot exist out-side of political party confines, doing so is seen as misnomer or at worst a declaration of war against political parties.
Civil society is space within which citizens must face no such discrimination. One of the temptations that has befallen many of Zimbabwe’s civil society organisations has been the unwise surrendering of their leveraged societal positions for preference of being contained in this contentious political space, and therefore be proxies of political parties.
That is a reductionist approach to what civil society is all about and what it must be (Act Alliance, 2011). In order to recreate and realign itself, civil society must redesign its constituency and also depoliticize its functional identity.
The foremost consideration for civil society in Zimbabwe must be to begin by “reaching out” to the citizenry.
The disconnect between many of the civil society organisations and the citizenry, which can be blamed on a conflation of reasons including the nature of the country’s politics and surrendered ground by civil society, must be addressed.
There is need to bridge the mislaid relationship between citizens and civil society, and others like Sogge et al (2011) have also raised concerns around the socio-cultural link between the two domains. This can be initiated through civil society’s concerted efforts to re-establish its structures to include baseline grassroots community pillars.
Even if it’s not about such structural redesign, there must be efforts to prioritise the community-based approach in civil society functions and operations. There are some civil society organisations that have already been operating through effective and functional community-based approaches and structures, these models must be utilised as the prototype able to recapture civil society back to where it belongs; among the citizenry. The pragmatism of a community-based approach will always attract resistance and disdain from the politics that has always fed its felony appetite from civil society’s broad disconnect with the citizens. That must be expected, and is the reason behind some of ZANU-PF’s Ministers of State for Provincial Affairs’ insistence that civil society and non-governmental organisations must work through their offices in reaching out to citizens, rather than do it independently.
The battle will be for the “heart and soul” of the citizen between politicians and civil society. It is a battle civil society must be ready to engage in. In doing so, the credibility of civil society must rest on identifying more with the citizenry than any political entity or party, a feat that has been elusive in the past.
Once civil society is focussed on re-establishing its nexus with the citizenry, there must be broad consideration for the strategic framework through which intended outputs can be pursued.
Civil society must establish a three-pronged strategy that focuses on citizenry engagement, domestic institutional engagement and regional/international engagement.
These three strands must be effectively knit into co-ordinated approaches.
(To be continued next week)