Transforming and Preventing Polarization by Embracing Strategy Dilemmas: An Outsider View on Lessons from Zimbabwe
By Erin McCandless – Erin McCandless consults with the United Nations on a range of peacebuilding, statebuilding and development issues, and teaches part-time at the Graduate Program for International Affairs at the New School, in New York. She is also Co-Executive Editor of the Journal of Peacebuilding and Development.
It is common and understandable for people living in divided or developing countries to tire of international researchers coming to examine their plight, observing their situation from particular disciplinary and/or experiential lenses, often rapidly assessing the situation after a short period in the country and after speaking with a limited number of people. They often don’t share the fruits of their labour with the society that hosted them.
Having lived in Zimbabwe (January 2001-June 2004) where I conducted my doctoral field research, followed by numerous trips back to the region in the years that have followed, I am finally publishing a book. I am guilty of taking a long time in sharing findings; like most doctoral students, I had to make a living in the interim and the book was put on the back burner. But my belief in the importance of these issues that drove my research ensured that I kept coming back to Zimbabwe. In this short paper I want to present some of the findings of my forthcoming book – Polarization and Transformation: Social Movements, Strategy Dilemmas and Change. I also want to share my motives and assumptions that drove the research, and my thoughts on why I think Zimbabwe’s challenges matter greatly to a larger international audience, beyond the powerful forces focused on regime change.
After coming to Zimbabwe to start my fieldwork, my intended research focus changed considerably, often the case with qualitatively oriented researchers. Originally I was planning to examine the Structural Adjustment Participatory Review Initiative (SAPRI), which sought to create a process for civil society to evaluate the impacts of structural adjustment policies. Zimbabwe was one of about seven cases chosen by the global Structural Adjustment Participatory Review Network (SAPRIN). I was an activist minded critic of structural adjustment amidst my peace work at the time. Upon reaching Zimbabwe to start my field research however, I learned that the primary aim of SAPRI – a tri-partite dialogue between the World Bank, the government of Zimbabwe and civil society would not be possible – because government had pulled out, with the effect that the Bank could also not participate. The ZANU-PF government pulled out because one of the themes that Zimbabwean civil society had chosen to look at, among the many economic focused topics, was governance.
As I had wanted to examine social movements and state-society-international relations, my focus shifted to the vibrant constitutional movement – headed up by the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA). But I was not content to only look at governance; the land issue had long resonated for me as something of vital import to large sections of the Zimbabwean polity. I had examined the land issue previously, in 1997, coming from South Africa where I had been doing research on reconciliation and justice, but was concerned that little attention was being paid to the latter, at least in no meaningful way with respect to economic justice. I was convinced that any solution to Zimbabwe’s crisis had to engage with both economic and political issues, and that reconciliation always had to be built upon some sufficiently agreed measure and type of justice.
My research in Zimbabwe for the next three and a half years, where I lived in Harare and taught part-time at the Africa University in Mutare, focused on both the land and the constitutional movement, and the organisations behind them – the NCA and the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association (ZNLWVA). In case study research, I sought to deeply understand the perspectives of both of these organizations and movements, and the politics driving both sides of Zimbabwe’s polarization of which these were apart. This was instinctual given my disciplinary training – long rooted in areas of peacebuilding and development and the nature of my professional work, where I have long sought to identify and strengthen integrative approaches to address structural sources of conflict. These values also underpinned the lens that I brought to my research in Zimbabwe.
Overview of Study and Paper
Polarization and Transformation investigates Zimbabwe’s polarization and prospects for transformation through the lens of two pivotal organizations and the social movements they led. It deeply analyses the nature of these organizations, the strategy dilemmas they have confronted in trying to mobilize change, the choices they made and results that have ensued, and the implications for wider social goals of transformative change and peace. While the book spans the period of 1997-2010, there is a strong focus on the years 1999-2004, on understanding the NCA and ZNLWVA structure and identity, their strategy dilemmas and key strategic actions. The outcomes and impacts of their actions are considered up until the Global Political Agreement was signed in 2008, and then reflections are made on the current, Inclusive Government context for understanding the strategy dilemmas, polarization, and transformation.
Three interlocking aims guide the study:
1. Depolarizing concepts
In Zimbabwe the nature and role of civil society is deeply questioned. Accusations about political and self-serving agendas and motives of different actors, and their alliances and relationships with political parties, the government and donors, I argue, are at the heart of polarization. The study unpacks these issues through in-depth examination of the NCA and ZNLWVA, aiming to contribute to efforts to transcend liberal/Marxist interpretations of civil society that, I argue, contribute to Zimbabwe’s polarization. 
Choosing to examine the ZNLWVA as civil society is no doubt controversial, given the nature of the ZANU-PF government’s role in the process at the time, and the historically close relationship of the war veterans with the party. At the same time, reality, perhaps more often than not, does not fall within neat conceptual categories. This is reflected upon below and in detail in the book.
2. Transcending strategy dilemmas
Secondly, the book seeks to shed light on the nature and operational mechanisms of ‘strategy dilemmas’ and how processes of polarization are effected by and entrench these dilemmas, in an effort to highlight ways to transcend them.
As conceptualized in the study, there are two primary strategy dilemmas confronting Zimbabwean civil society organizations and social movements. The first is whether and how to work with government and/or donors given, in particular, with their political, economic, and social agendas (participation or resistance). Participation here refers to the strategy of partnering with, or working within, processes set up by government or donors, and resistance to the strategy of fomenting change by working outside the system, challenging and transforming existing structures of authority or processes that visibly reinforce the status quo, or creating entirely new, parallel structures and processes. The second strategy dilemma is whether to prioritize political or economic rights and concerns in efforts to foment nation-wide transformative change (rights or redistribution). Rights discourse is often associated with liberal thinking, concerned in particular with civil and political rights and individual liberties. Redistribution, as discussed above, is often associated with Marxist thinking, in particular, with the redistribution of wealth, and often land and other natural resources.
3. Contributing to transformative change and peace
Finally, the book aims to contribute to thinking and practice about how social movements and wider civil society can work to ensure their actions contribute to transformation rather than polarization. As such, the results of key strategic actions of the NCA and the ZNLWVA are assessed and analyzed in depth: the NCA’s “No” vote campaign and ongoing use of “mass action,” and the ZNLWVA-led land occupations. The “social process outcomes” of each are examined, and then a “Transformative Change and Peace Impact Assessment,” developed for this study and drawing heavily on Zimbabwean conceptions, is undertaken. Transformative change and peace are conceptualized as both valuing constructive changes of (rather than in) the system and structure, and of the movement towards constructive inter-group relationships. Both are process- and outcome- oriented. Both are rooted in practices of people-centered democracy and development.
The rest of this short paper aims to give a “taster” of the lessons for civil society that emerged from the analysis of the above three aims. I assume the reader knows something of the history and dynamics of the Zimbabwe situation, and if not, there is plenty of quality literature on this.
Lessons Learned from the Zimbabwean Case
While some of the lessons that follow may appear obvious, they are often ignored, overlooked in planning, and/or not accounted for when weighing the costs and benefits of particular social actions. It is hoped that this analysis will provide insights for those working to transform the deep divisions and to prevent new forms of polarization emerging in the Zimbabwean context and beyond.
A strong social base can come in many forms and is shaped by context: While there is little doubt that a strong social base is needed to build a legitimate, nationally based movement, assumptions are often made about the nature of the social base – constituencies and interests in particular – that fuel polarization. As the study illustrates throughout, generalizations are not helpful for the following reasons. A social base is likely to change in composition as different interests come to the fore. It is likely to change over time, particularly as the organization grows and especially if it operates democratically. Critically, it is heavily shaped by contextual factors, and in social movement discourse the “political opportunity structure.” Both the NCA and ZNLWVA set precedents and effectively raised the bar for civic organizations in achieving organizational forms with strong decentralized structures along the lines of Zimbabwe’s political administrative systems down to the grassroots level. They both developed and led national social movements at particular points in time that had robust and diverse social bases. It is clear that Zimbabweans value both issues the NCA and ZNLWVA have struggled for, a testament to the desire for democratically achieved social change, in both the material and political realms.
Interests and motivations of an organization’s members are not collective and the social identities comprising them are not monolithic: Individuals within a movement are likely to be bound by a collective goal as they hold great diversity in their ranks in motives for wanting to achieve this goal. Thus while concern about financial motives driving many individuals attracted to increasingly “professionalized” civil society organizations is legitimate, this critique should not apply to a movement or organization involving thousands (or even hundreds of thousands) of people who are engaged at different levels, the vast majority of whom are not paid. Also, volunteerism is likely to be deeply challenged where there are exceedingly high levels of poverty or economic insecurity. In Zimbabwe as in other contexts, polarization often occurs when people assign particular motives and interests of others to specific social identity categories, be they real, imagined, or constructed. In addition to race, ethnicity, class, and gender, the use of terms like “politicians,” “intellectuals,” and “activists” are common in Zimbabwe, with associated stereotypes concerning ideological worldviews and political agendas. Examining the NCA and ZNLWVA, generalizations underpinning the identity categories, more often than not, were not sustainable.
Social movements are political: Accusations that an organization is “political” suggest that decisions are made on the basis of interests of status or authority rather than matters of principle; motives and grievances are questioned and conclusions drawn that undermine the organization’s claim to legitimacy, fuel stereotyping and other processes underpinning polarization. In global scholarship and activism it is widely accepted that social movements and civil society more broadly are “political,” and that their action is part of “normal” politics (Meyer and Tarrow 1998), that is, part of the environment that shapes and gives rise to parties, courts, legislatures and elections. At the same time, Africa’s particular history of unifying struggles for decolonization meant that many civic actors joined post-colonial governments or maintained strong relations with governments in the post-colonial era. As well, the redirecting of donor aid since the 1980s from African governments to their civil societies, often towards professionalized NGOs dedicated to rights-oriented issues (Carothers and Ottaway 2000), has not been welcomed by African leaders, particularly as it has occurred alongside economic liberalization reducing the state’s role in development. These trends have arguably served to undermine the development of healthy state-society relations, and must be factored into understandings of state-(civil)society dynamics in Africa that drive strategy and policy development.
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These lessons illustrate the complexities underlying the nature of civil society in particular contexts, suggesting the need for more nuanced approaches to conceptualizing civil society. In the context of Africa’s post-colonial transitions where civil societies did not develop organically and where they now confront myriad processes of globalization, civil societies will reveal hybrid interests and are naturally marked by internal diversity and contradiction, as Zimbabwe scholars have suggested (Sachikonye 1995; Moyo, Helliker, and Murisa 2008, 2). In divided societies, where the stakes are higher and systems and structures for fomenting change are less reliable or available, and where transitional arrangements are in place to accommodate intractable situations, it should also be assumed that the boundaries of social actor categories are likely to be even more blurred. Zimbabwe illustrates the power of Gramscian insights – that civil society can become a battleground for powerful national and international actors to intervene with hegemonic projects, and/or it can be a site for problem-solving in defence of society against the excesses of both the state and the market. A challenge in achieving the latter requires that strategy dilemmas become entry points for transformative change rather than vehicles for destructive processes of polarization.
Transcending Strategy Dilemmas
Participation and resistance are not mutually exclusive, and both are strategic in particular situations: Social movements and civic organizations draw on different strategies in their relationships with governments, political parties, donors, and international actors. It is not surprising that different approaches will result in different outcomes and that there will be risks associated with different strategies. While many Zimbabwean civic organizations tend to draw upon one or the other strategy, the cases examined suggest that both participation and resistance have been relevant and effective for the ZNLWVA and the NCA at different times and in relation to different actors, although both strategies have also had unintended impacts. More systematic consideration needs to be given to the prerequisites for the use of each and the fault lines – the divisive issues that may disrupt the process and lead to destructive polarization and violent confrontation.
History continues: rights and redistribution both matter: Despite Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis in 1992, pronouncing the victory of liberalism globally, economic rights – associated in this study primarily with redistribution of land – remain a powerful element for transformative change, particularly where historical injustices remain unaddressed and undermine broad-based, human sustainable development. Redistribution should not be simply ruled out as a worthless vestige of socialism but upheld as a key ingredient for peace. This fact is increasingly recognized beyond Zimbabwe’s borders. One only needs to take heed of the conflict and efforts to bring peace in Sudan, or the popular uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East. On the other hand, Zimbabweans also fought for democracy in the Liberation War. Thirty years on, Zimbabwe’s democratic credentials are deeply in question. The same popular uprisings also illustrate popular fatigue with multi-decade rulers, who obstruct democracy and whose general pursuits in the name of development for all their citizens are questionable. Both the NCA and the ZNLWVA can be accused of not sufficiently addressing the other “side” of this duality. Rights and redistribution has arguably not been as much of a dilemma as it needed to be for most civic actors in Zimbabwe over the last decade, who have tended to be drawn to one or the other without fully recognizing the value of both.
Contributions to Transformative Change and Peace
Violence always has a context but remains problematic for peacebuilding: Violence has been a key tool for social change around the world, and there is need to understand its role and impact in particular contexts. The land tenure context upon which the land occupations were predicated was one of extreme structural violence. In the absence of serious movement on land redistribution through willing-seller, willing-buyer approaches and numerous efforts to negotiate a way forward with both national actors and the donor community, it was only a matter of time before the situation would erupt into crisis. At the same time, violence has taken a great toll on Zimbabwe, one that is impossible to measure. While many agree that healing and reconciliation cannot be realized without justice, the impact of physical violence on human relationships can take decades to heal, if ever. This is why peace theory and practice tends to value the processes, and not only the outcomes, of making and building peace.
Understanding counter-movements as a force for transformation: Social movements and civil society never act in isolation. One group’s actions must be understood within the wider context of social action. The interaction of various movement and actor strategies, actions and outcomes must also be factored into any analysis of change. Polanyi’s notion of “counter-movements” (1944) is used in the study to examine how the NCA and the ZNLWVA’s interactions. I argue that together, they have been strong forces catalyzing and driving a dialectical process of change that, albeit the evident social costs, arguably has contributed to laying critical foundations for transformation. The dialectical exchange that these two movement organizations have together fuelled in both strategy dilemmas needs to happen not just in Zimbabwe but also globally – though preferably in less polarizing and violent ways.
While the Inclusive Government has created a new operational context for civil society that raises fresh questions and challenges, the same strategy dilemmas are alive and kicking. There are still decisions about when and how to participate and/or resist – though now with the Inclusive Government and its three parties, and with donors and other international actors who take varied positions and push different interests that often block organic processes or force them to adapt. Decisions about rights and/or redistribution – issues that have divided Zimbabweans historically – also remain alive, and taking new forms in the changing context.
While land conflicts continue as legal challenges and policy dilemmas proliferate, the discovery and exploitation of a rich diamond field has unearthed this dilemma for Zimbabweans again. This time, however, there is no former colonial power involved. While the equitable allocation of natural resources presents extreme challenges for effective governance, Zimbabweans have a precious opportunity to apply the lessons of the land reform process and to work together for rights and redistribution to ensure that the diamonds serve as a resource for economic recovery rather than a curse leading the country into deeper turmoil.
In Polarization and Transformation I argue that over the decade (2000-2010), despite exhaustive efforts on the part of civil society to bring change, the two strategy dilemmas have not always been well managed; they have often served as obstacles rather than entry points for transformative change. The empirical research and assessment in the study illustrates how civic actors have at times been drawn into polarization, and how their activities, have even served to fuel polarization. This is unsurprising if one takes the view, as I do, that Zimbabwe has struggled largely because the issues matter to enough of the Zimbabwean polity to form the social base of this polarization. This does not mean to suggest that there is no political manipulation of societal views, that popular uprisings against Mugabe’s rule would not occur if there was greater operating space for social action and less fear on the part of society to rise up, or that the Movement for Democratic Change would not be in power had there been free and fair elections – to the contrary. These are all likely true.
I am simply arguing that the issues underlying Zimbabwe’s polarization and driving the strategy dilemmas I have described represent poignant and legitimate grievances that need to be properly valued and fairly addressed for genuine peace to emerge in Zimbabwe. International actors have a role to play here – to back their rhetoric with reality, employing principles they have associated themselves with – i.e. taking context as a starting point and doing no harm. Too often a clear understanding of Zimbabwe’s historical and present social context is totally absent from proposed action. Blame is too easily placed entirely on the shoulders of the three-decade ruler, without due recognition of the role of political-economy factors often beyond Mugabe’s control, notably the peace agreement preventing desperately needed non-voluntary land distribution at Independence, and the destructive effects that structural adjustment had on the economy in the 1990s. Over time, international donors have overwhelmingly focused their support towards the rights agenda without due recognition of the redistribution and basic human development needs in the country. Both sets of issues are vitally important – both are reasons Zimbabweans went to war in the first place. Recognizing one and devaluing the other however, has arguably played a role in deepening Zimbabwe’s polarization, with implications for deepening the chasm of understanding and trust, broadly speaking, between the North and South.
There is certainly no easy route to transformative change and peace in Zimbabwe. As I try to illustrate in my book, ignoring issues of vital concern to large portions of Zimbabwean polity does not produce constructive results – something both the NCA and ZNLWVA, amongst many others, have been guilty of thereby undermining their potential transformative power. These are not simply issues of import to Zimbabwe, and thus it is my hope that Zimbabweans will work to embrace the issues holistically and build a sustainable peace. Zimbabwe has profound lessons to share if the world listens, and hopefully acts, without violence, to actually learn from them.
Rights reserved: Please credit the author, and Solidarity Peace Trust, as the original source for all material republished on other websites unless otherwise specified. Please provide a link back to http://www.solidaritypeacetrust.org
This article can be cited in other publications as follows: McCandless, E. (2011) ‘Transforming and Preventing Polarization by Embracing Strategy Dilemmas: An Outsider View on Lessons from Zimbabwe’, 20 April, Solidarity Peace Trust: http://www.solidaritypeacetrust.org/1042/transforming-and-preventing-polarization/
 The book draws on four years of sustained fieldwork (2001-2004) conducted during the years when Zimbabwe’s crisis was pivotally unfolding and shorter visits to the region in 2007 and 2010.
 Liberal views tend to view civil society as autonomous from the state and market, protecting individual rights and liberties, while Marxist tend to see it as an executive arm of the bourgeoisie, upholding the socio-economic base of the state. Efforts to articulate more Gramsican notions of civil society are not new to Zimbabwe scholars, i.e. Raftopolous 2010; Rich Dorman 2001.
 See in particular: Raftopoulos, Brian and Alois Mlambo (eds.) Becoming Zimbabwe, Harare: Weaver
 For Polyani the “movement” was for economic liberalization and integration and the “counter-movement” was led by “enlightened reactionaries” who were rallying to mitigate the social disruptions of market-led liberalization in the early part of the twentieth century.
Carothers, Thomas, and Marina Ottaway, eds. 2000. Funding Virtue: Civil Society and Democracy Promotion. Washington D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Meyer, David S., and Sidney Tarrow, eds. The Social Movement Society: Contentious Politics for a New Century. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998.
Moyo, Sam, Kirk Helliker, and Tendai Murisa eds. Contested Terrain: Land Reform and Civil Society in Contemporary Zimbabwe. Pietermaritzburg: S&S Publishers, 2008.
Raftopoulos, Brian. “The Global Political Agreement as a ‘Passive Revolution’: Notes on Contemporary Politics in Zimbabwe.” The Round Table 99 no. 411 (December 14, 2010): 705-718.
Raftopoulos, Brian and Alois Mlambo, eds. Becoming Zimbabwe, Harare: Weaver Press, 2009.
Rich Dorman, Sara. “NGOs and the State in Zimbabwe: Implications for Civil Society Theory.” In NGOs and State in Zimbabwe: Implications for Civil Society Theory, in Civil Society and Authoritarianism in the Third World – A Conference Book, edited by Bjorn Beckman, Eva Hansson and Anders Sjogren, Stockholm University: PODSU, Stockholm University, 2001.
Sachikonye, Lloyd, ed. Democracy, Civil Society and the State: Social Movements in Southern Africa. Harare: Sapes Books, 1995a.
Polanyi, Karl. The Great Transformation. Boston: Beacon Press, 1944.