Zimbabwe’s citizens have mostly relied on political parties and elections to make their preferences known, but there has been an upsurge in protests, demonstrations, petitions, campaigns, marches, and organizations that pursue demands for both social justice and political change, an analyst recently observed, adding that the country’s “formidable social movements have not coalesced into a sustained force for social and political change.”
But there is cause for a degree of optimism about Zimbabwe’s prospects for democratic transition, according to a prominent democracy assistance official.
Zimbabwe matters. It is a strategic country in the human quest for freedom, argues Dave Peterson, the Senior Director of the Africa Program of the National Endowment for Democracy.
Zimbabwe has known many struggles over the past few decades. Politically and economically, it has suffered, and survived. I am convinced democracy will ultimately prevail, and that it will mark a turning of the tide, and not only in Africa. How can I be so optimistic?
Zimbabwe is not starting from scratch. The American think-tank Freedom House upgraded Zimbabwe from its “Not Free” category, to “Partly Free” just a couple years ago. It is one of the few countries to have accomplished this in recent years. Zimbabwe may have warranted this sooner, and is still far from a full-blown “Free” status, but something is happening here that must be acknowledged and encouraged.
- First, I would note the existence of a viable political opposition here. Democracy gains strength with the peaceful alternation of power, but it easily vanishes in the absence of a functioning multi-party system. The debate, the choice, the competition, the watchdog role, and the experimentation that accompanies a multiplicity of parties not only strengthens the political system, but it increases the legitimacy and popular support for the government. Zimbabwe has a viable political opposition, something to be proud of and to protect fiercely. Although there has yet to be an alternation of power, I would entreat the government to have no fear of it. Politics need not be a zero-sum game. Whatever grievances the opposition may bear, a spirit of dialogue and respect, which has been manifest at today’s conference and should be further cultivated, is a dependable safeguard. Last year I was privileged to observe the elections in Ghana, along with Alex here, and I recommend some attention to that process, which resulted in an alternation of power, as an example of political maturity and the economic and social benefits that come with it.
- Second, I would praise Zimbabwe’s freedom of speech. This has been particularly impressive in the case of social media, which is the wave of the future. The printed press can also claim some independence, despite the economic challenges with which it must contend. Broadcast media, the radio and television, need to be opened up more, but I note the alternative broadcast outlets that have nevertheless grown in number and accessibility. Even more important is the lively debate and discussion that occurs, not only in forums such as this, but in everyday encounters wherever Zimbabweans gather. That freedom from fear, that eagerness to express an opinion, that readiness to dissent, is precious. Surely it has not come without sacrifice, and must be extended, but it is here. Freedom of information is enshrined in Zimbabwe’s constitution, and you have abolished the pernicious criminal defamation laws, but I would also urge the scrapping of other such laws that do not align with the constitution. An independent press is an essential pillar of democracy, and must also be vigorously protected.
Third, I must commend Zimbabwe’s civil society, so well represented at this conference. You are too hard on yourselves, but that is good. The self-criticism, innovation, and constant challenges will surely make you stronger. Over the years, you have grown in power and sophistication. You have learned hard lessons, and you have not given up. You know freedom does not come on a silver platter. Civil society is the mother of democracy, it nurtures the leadership, it generates the ideas, it gives voice to the grassroots, empowers the masses, and guards against error. Civil society in Zimbabwe is alive and well. When it thrives, democracy will find fertile soil.
- Fourth, you have a new constitution, a document achieved only after a long process of debate and compromise, just like our American constitution. It upholds human rights, and establishes the checks and balances that are essential to a democratic system. It must be taught and promoted and respected, and it will serve you well.
- Fifth, I will give credit to the Zimbabwean government, to those officials who have attended this conference to engage, share, and learn. To those who are proud of their country, and pursue the vision of a free and prosperous nation. I would encourage the growing strength and independence of the legislature and the judiciary as well, these two fundamental institutions of democracy. I have heard how MPs are speaking for the people they represent, and the courts are defending the peoples’ rights. I have also heard of the growing accountability of local government, and of local officials are who making sincere efforts to serve the needs of communities around the country.
- Finally, I will point to the Zimbabwean people for my conviction. To their remarkable courage, resilience, intelligence, and faith. They must make the Zimbabwe they want. And from what the polls say, what they want is democracy.
This is an abridged version of a speech at the recent Zimbabwe in Transition conference, sponsored by NED, the Southern African Political Economic Series (SAPES), the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, and Chatham House, the London-based foreign policy think-tank.