Civil society and social movements have long been at the center of pushing back against corruption and authoritarian practices. Zimbabwe was no exception in the run-up to the November 2017 coup d’état that ousted Robert Mugabe after four decades of unaccountable rule. This report, based on in-country interviews and focus group discussions, examines the transition that followed the coup to draw broader lessons for how the international community can support, without harming, grassroots nonviolent action initiatives in countries undergoing profound political shifts.

Zimbabwean lawyers march to demand justice for people detained in the government’s crackdown on violent protests in January 2019. (Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters)
Zimbabwean lawyers march to demand justice for people detained in the government’s crackdown on violent protests in January 2019. (Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters)

Summary

  • The November 2017 coup in Zimbabwe that ousted Robert Mugabe was at best a flawed transition. Its complexities included a party-state-military conflation and a change of leadership not concomitant with a change of governance culture.
  • Nonviolent social movements and campaigns played a crucial role in promoting citizen agency immediately before the coup, at a time when traditional forms of civil society and the opposition were both weak.
  • Social movements may appear to dissipate but can reemerge, reflecting a cycle of ups and downs and boosts of action around trigger events. This pattern began unfolding in early 2019 in Zimbabwe.
  • External actor support helped enable Zimbabwe’s transparency, accountability, and good governance (TAGG) actors to push back against authoritarianism and achieve incremental democratic gains.
  • External actor support effectiveness can be improved by enabling local capacities for collective action, providing alternative flexible funding for nontraditional civil society actors, and encouraging context-driven knowledge that promotes locally grounded strategies and recognizes different situational nuances.
  • The international community should view engagement with Zimbabwe’s government and TAGG movement actors as mutually inclusive and reinforcing.
  • International support should be available throughout Zimbabwe’s electoral cycles given that democracy is not restricted to voting. Intensifying grassroots TAGG activities around elections is also fodder for government propaganda efforts portraying civil society organizations as regime change agents.

About the Report

This report draws lessons for how the international community can support, without harming, grassroots civic initiatives in Zimbabwe. The report is based on in-country interviews and focus group discussions with social movement and community actors, civil society organizations, international actors, and policy experts, and was supported by USIP’s Program on Nonviolent Action and the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.

About the Authors

Gladys Kudzaishe Hlatywayo is a democracy and governance researcher-practitioner and a former Chevening Scholar at the London School of Economics and Hubert H. Humphrey Fellow at University of Minnesota. Charles Mangongera is an international development expert and a 2014 National Endowment for Democracy Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow.

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