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Civil Society as a New Paradigm for Democratic Politics in Zimbabwe


David Kaulemu


The idea of civil society has a long history and means different things to different people. I take, from its complex history, the suggestion that it is a realm which makes “synthesis of private and public “good” and of individual and social desiderata”.[1] As Adam B. Seligman points out, the idea “embodies for many an ethical ideal of the social order”.[2] It is a realm that recognises, respects and facilitates the growth and fulfillment of individuals, groups, and associations. It does not seek to annihilate those individuals, groups, communities and solidarities that do not conform to some arbitrary standard given a priori. It is this idea of civil society that could act as a paradigm for democratic politics in Zimbabwe and Africa in general. The good news is that there are signs that this ethical ideal is being realised in some aspects of world politics as is demonstrated by the Obama factor.

New Sensibilities in World Context

Important changes are taking place in the world. With the scientific and technological revolutions taking place in and transforming the world through the spheres of information and communication, there have been fundamental changes in ways of thinking, organising, acting and being in the world. The end of colonialism, the end of liberation struggles coupled with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the really existing socialism, has brought about new conceptual paradigms that encourage new social behaviours and political cultures. Old binary oppositional approaches are being challenged by more inclusive politics informed by more nuanced sense of history and social analysis. The old sharp conflicts between the white world and the black world; between the colonisers and the colonised; men against women; the young and the old, are being transformed into collaborative global fights against racism, exploitation, oppression and poverty. More and more transformative efforts are being made across cultures, religions, economies, and ideologies to establish global standards for the respect of human rights and the environment. As Semu Pathe Gueye points out,

…little by little and through various cultural, intellectual and psychological difficulties of adaptation and adjustment, without the participants necessarily being conscious of that, politics is moving from the paradigm of “exclusion” and “conflict,” to a new paradigm of “communication” and “dialogue.”[3]

It is therefore not surprising that the world can now produce a Barak Obama not only as an American president, but as a world leader bringing in new approaches and sensibilities to world politics. Obama represents the shift from the politics of confrontation to that of engagement; from the politics of the “clash of civilisations” to that of dialogue of civilisations and cultures. Professor George McLean characterises this shift in the following way,

Now, however, the peoples of the world seem to be moving beyond rationalism to a great project of reconstructing democratic practice. This focuses no longer on ideologies and structures, but on people in natural communities and solidarities and their efforts to become increasingly creative and to take responsibility for their life. This, in a way, is the utopian vision of Marx as people seek to realize the conditions of freedom to begin, with others, to shape their common life after the ideals of justice and peace, harmony and cooperation. As a result the focus of attention reaches beyond the political with its focus on power, and the economic with its focus on profit. It focuses upon its people, now no longer as amorphous masses or tools of industry, but as persons informed and responsible, uniting freely in human solidarities, to act responsibly and creatively each in their own field. This is the reality called civil society or civil culture emerging as a newly vibrant reality which promises in contrast to the negative and skeptical critique of modernity to begin positively to shape a more globally sensitive 3rd millennium.[4]

This realm of civil society is the new paradigm that can inform not only world politics and economics but also African social imaginaries and practices. African political leaders, especially those in Zimbabwe shall need to re-discover this paradigm of civil society as it confirms their humanity, morality and agency. The anger and suicidal behavior displayed by Mugabe and members of his regime against white people and western countries is evidence of their slavery to the modernist colonial paradigms of politics and ideologies. Mugabe, as a symbol of African liberation struggles, emerges from and remains a child of the modern, violent colonial project. He is molded and wounded by it and refuses to get out of its conceptual framework. As a symbol of African liberation, Mugabe, like Zimbabwe itself, exhibits all the signs and symptoms of trauma – depression, political headaches, anger, post-traumatic stress disorder, flashbacks and a general feeling of losing control and meaning. As an attempt to find meaning and some sense of control, Mugabe and those sympathetic to his case refuse to change from the rationalist colonial paradigm characterised by divisions, oppression, conflicts, hostility and wars. They refuse to give up their colonial masters and enemies. In many ways they cannot find meaning without their colonial enemies. They re-invent possibilities of re-colonisation in order to re-invent the liberation struggle, for when the liberation struggle ceases to exist, their ideologies, vocabulary, social imaginary and social war skills lose significance. They get lost in the new world of new political sensibilities of dialogue and cooperation.

[1] Seligman Adam, B., The Idea of Civil Society”, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1992:x

[2] Seligman, 1992:x

[3] Semu Pathe Gueye, “Public Sphere and Deliberative Democracy: Rethinking Politics”, Civil Society as Democratic Practice, (eds.) Antonio F. Perez, Semou Pathe Gueye and Fenggang Yang, The Council for Research in Values and Philosophy, Washington D.C. 2005:129.

[4] George F. McLean, “Solidarity and Subsidiarity as the Social Exercise of Human freedom”, ”, Civil Society as Democratic Practice, (eds.) Antonio F. Perez, Semou Pathe Gueye and Fenggang Yang, The Council for Research in Values and Philosophy, Washington D.C. 2005:89


New Political Sensibilities and Catholic Social Teaching

George McLean in the above passage demonstrates the significance of civil society as a realm which re-discovers the importance of human beings as social agents and not merely as tools for religions, ideologies, and economic systems. This re-discovery of human agency and enhanced human moral responsibility strikes a code with the trends in Catholic social teaching. Since Pope Leo’s encyclical Rerum Novarum (On the Conditions of the Working Class), there has been a trend in Catholic thought that has argued that nature provides for all individuals to freely work and live their lives to the full in their natural families and communities. This tradition insists that the growth of human beings to fullness and “in natural communities and solidarities” is so important that the state has no moral right to undermine or disturb that growth unless it conflicts with the growth of others. Pope Leo XIII explained this point as follows,

Although private societies exist within the State and are, as it were, so many parts to it, still it is not within the authority of the State universally and per se to forbid them to exist as such. For people are permitted by a right of nature to form private societies; the State on the other hand, has been instituted to protect and not to destroy the natural right, and if it should forbid its citizens to enter into associations, it would clearly do something contradictory to itself because both the State itself and private associations are begotten of one and the same principle, namely, that people are by nature inclined to associate. Occasionally there are times when it is proper for the laws to oppose associations of this kind, that is, if they professedly seek after any objective which is clearly at variance with good morals, with justice or with the welfare of the State. Indeed, in these cases the public power shall justly prevent such associations from forming and shall also justly dissolve those already formed. Nevertheless, it must use the greatest precaution lest it appear to infringe on the rights of its citizens, and lest, under the pretext of public benefit it enact any measure that sound reason would not support. For laws are to be obeyed only in so far as they conform with right reason and thus with the eternal law of God.[5]

For Catholic social thought, it is in the context of families, the local communities and solidarities that persons are formed and persons take moral responsibility for constructing their lives and those they love and relate to. In religious language, it is in these contexts that the conscience is molded. Thomas Bridges confirms that human beings are first members of families and communities. He points out that, “Ethnic, class, and religious communities shape human desire and self-understanding in accordance with some more or less coherent world view or concept of the good life”.[6] The family and the local communities as loci of moral development require protection, cultivation and support. But they also require to be challenged for they need to relate to the outside world and to new moral challenges demanded by new environments, new technologies and the meeting of various peoples and cultures in the age of globalisation.

The principle of subsidiarity explicates this respect for local conceptions of the good life stating that, “one should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they can accomplish by their own enterprise and industry. So, too, it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and a disturbance of right order, to transfer to the larger and higher collectivity functions which can be performed and provided for by lesser and subordinate bodies. In as much as every social activity should, by its very nature, prove a help to members of the body social, it should never destroy and absorb them”.[7] Applying this principle to the international context, Pope John XXII calls for the respect for individual characteristics of countries and cultures. He insists that economically developed countries who wish to help their less economically developed brothers and sisters, “should take special care lest, in aiding these nations, they seek to impose their own way of life upon them”.[8]

Therefore, in Catholic social thought and in the new political paradigms, we are being encouraged, more and more, to conceptualise local and international social realities with particular focus on people as active, responsible social agents and not merely as cogs in economic machines or pones in power games. As McLean points out, this is the new context of civil society. Civil society, therefore, has come to provide a new vision of a moral order that informs alternative views of politics and economics. This new social imaginary is about the new “ways people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations”.[9] The new paradigm inspired by civil society in the world of globalisation forces us to face the basic question about how we can live with each other. Bernice Reagon points out the brute facts about our contemporary reality.

We’ve pretty much come to the end of a time when you can have a space that is ‘yours only’ – just for people you want to be there … we’ve finished with that kind of isolating. There is no hiding place. There is nowhere you can go and only be with the people who are like you. It’s over. Give it up.[10]

[5] Encyclical Letter of His Holiness Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum (On the Conditions of Workers), Paulines Publications Africa, 2001:32, paragraph #72.

[6] Bridges, Thomas, The Culture of Citizenship: Inventing Post Modern Civic Culture, State University of New York Press, 1994:1

[7] Pope Pius XI, Quadragesino Anno, (On Social Reconstruction) quoted in Mater et Magistra (On Social Progress), Pope John XXIII, Paulines Publications Africa, 2002:16, paragraph 53.

[8] Pope John XXIII, Mater et Magistra (On Social Progress), Paulines Publications Africa, 2002:42, paragraphs 169 & 170.

[9] Taylor, Charles, Modern Social Imaginaries, Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2004:23

[10] Reagon, 1981:357 quoted in Sandercock, Towards Cosmopolis: Planning for Multicultural Cities, John Wiley and Sons, Chichester, 1998 1993:117)


Winds of Change on the African Continent

These changes in the conceptualisation of politics and economics are affecting Africa in general and Zimbabwe in particular. Authoritarian approaches to governance are being challenged from different angles. Most of Africa’s so called “strong men” are either dying or losing power and influence. A few of them who are prepared to reintegrate into society as ordinary citizens are gaining admiration among African citizens.

Zimbabwe and other modern African states emerged first as rationalist modern colonial projects. As such, modern African states were invented as appendages to the European political power and economics. Their visibility and significance were taken from the point of view of the modern Europe. The cultural vitality and social creativity of African local communities and solidarities that should have made up the civil society were denied public legitimacy and official recognition. African social realities were therefore not allowed to officially input into the colonial state structures and market economy. Thus, African civil society and culture were, at best, regarded as private, irrelevant and at worst criminal and evil. African peoples themselves were made invisible as active moral and social agents. They could only redeem themselves by making themselves useful as tools for the slave trade, slavery and colonialism.

However, the colonial project did not succeed in annihilating African civil society in the form of African families, communities and other solidarities. It failed to completely destroy African value systems, ways of organising and relating to others. It, instead, pushed them underground where they reconstructed themselves for struggle and war against colonialism. Yet the orientation of war and violence affected the African local communities and solidarities. They molded African personalities that were traumatised by slavery, slave trade and colonialism. The divide and rule tactics of the colonial system helped to reconstruct, reinvent and intensify existing ethnic and other local conflicts. But in those conflicts, positive solidarities and personalities emerged, although they were limited by the boundaries of struggle. African civil society needed more universalist social imaginaries to expand their solidarities beyond narrow ethnic and racial groups. These began in the processes of the globalisation of African struggles as illustrated by the world-wide Anti-Apartheid Movement. Religion in general and the church in particular were deeply implicated in the universalisation of African struggles. As a universalist institution, the church helped turn African local struggles into human struggles. It provided channels for African local solidarities to escape dangerous exclusivist and violent approaches.

Liberal Views on Conceptions of the Good Life

The argument for regarding African civil society and culture as primitive, irrelevant and therefore to be excluded from political and economic public discourse was different from that used by liberals to exclude religious and cultural conceptions of the good life and their institutional organisations and practices. David Hollenbach S.J. summarises the dominant liberal view as is represented by John Rawls and Richard Rorty.

Rawls accurately points to the deep disputes that exist about the meaning of the good life in our society. For him, there is no way to resolve these disputes. Therefore, he argues that the fact of pluralism demands that in politics we must deal with disagreements about the comprehensive good of human life by what he calls “the method of avoidance.” This method demands that in political life “we try, so far as we can, neither to assert nor to deny any religious, philosophical or moral views, or their associated philosophical accounts of truth and the status of values.” Avoidance of such basic questions is necessary in politics, Rawls thinks, if we are to have a chance of achieving consensus.[11]

The irony is that the strategy of avoidance was never used in the European dealing with African civil society. Europe generally used religion to suppress African local solidarities. The church itself is implicated in this failure to “achieving consensus”. Hollenbach clearly identifies the assumptions and significance of this liberal view in the context of modern western democracy.

This analysis assumes that the presence of religious or comprehensive philosophical views of the good in public life inevitably leads to conflict. It further presupposes that the public sphere is identical with the domain governed by the coercive power of the state. From these presuppositions taken together, it follows that religious influence in public is identified with the coercive enforcement of the religious or philosophical convictions of whatever group is strong enough to gain control of government. Because this is clearly an unacceptable outcome, the alternative proposed is the privatisation of religion.[12]

As Hollenbach rightly points out, the position articulated by modern liberals regards “the state and the market as the principal domains in which social existence unfolds.”[13] “The relation between the private and public spheres is pictured as the relation of isolated individuals to large, anonymous, and impersonal institutional structures. Public activities are those conducted within the spheres of government or the market. The public sphere thus becomes the area of human life ruled either by the power of government or by the constraints of the market. The defense of freedom, therefore, is viewed as the effort to secure a zone of action that is protected from governmental power or market determinism. This zone is private. To use Rawls’s terms, it is the domain in which individuals can live “in accordance with the views they freely affirm.”[14]

In the context of Africa, the dangers of introducing religion to the public sphere were not only as identified above. There was initial skepticism, informed by racism, of the reality of African religions and philosophies. Even as the skepticism waned, the modern governmental and market systems were seen as adequate for democratic practice and therefore, needing no contribution or supplement from African cultures. As Thomas Bridges has pointed out, modern democracy was seen as coming with a countervailing culture that would reconstruct the African into a democratic creature with the relevant tools and sensibilities appropriate to the modern democratic structures. This countervailing democratic culture was a full package encouraged by European bombs, schools, religion and the market. It is countervailing precisely because it is understood to be deconstructing all of African cultural sensibilities in order to reconstruct modern liberal personality. It is supposed to re-build comprehensively the African social conscience through such concepts as human rights, rule of law, and democracy itself. It did not give space or respect for the African cultural experience. The African was supposed to come to the modern world as a tabula rasa. It was assumed that the African had no conscience. Modernity was supposed to introduce the African to the idea of having a conscience, late alone form it.

Yet the African elite bought into the European project even as they fought for African independence. They accepted the public/private distinction and pretended that their own cultural and philosophical experiences were irrelevant to the democratic dispensation. African independence meant the replacement of colonial powers with African authoritarian regimes, one-party states and military regimes which utilised the modernist state structures and systems established by the colonial powers. These economic and political structures which treated human beings as objects necessary for the accumulation of political power and as economic tools for profit were supported and justified by modernist ideologies. Sometimes the African elite disguised their modernist ideologies by pretending to be pro-African, pan-African and authentically African. Many African political and economic leaders have not been patient with local African communities and solidarities as they claim their responsibility to bring development to Africa.

Catholic Tradition and the Liberal Public/Private Distinction

Modern Catholic teaching is concerned about the welfare of the individual. Yet it understands the individual as essentially a social being emanating from the family, and local community. Human dignity and human worth is never achieved in solitude. To protect the dignity of the individual is to protect the quality of the individual’s relationships. In this sense there is no private sphere and that human flourishing is always public and social.

Thus Catholic social thought emphasizes the multiple forms of human relationship and community in which persons are formed and nurtured. Social space is not occupied only by the large institutions of government and market, on the one hand, and individuals on the other. This is evident in the tradition’s stress on the importance of securing the well-being of “intermediary” institutions such as families and voluntary associations, and it is a key to understanding how we can envision a form of political life that is communal without being statist. It also suggests a way of envisioning the public role of religion that avoids the charge that, whenever religion becomes public, religious coercion will be the result.[15]

Here Catholic social teaching clearly challenges the dominant liberal view about the public/private distinction and the role of religion in public space. Where the liberal view sees religion as a force of conflict, Catholic social thought recognises its potential as a resource for molding forms of political life that accommodate all beings. It recognises human beings as responsible and capable of coming into creative engagements that can be empowering.

Society is composed of a rich and overlapping set of human communities such as families, neighborhoods, churches, labor unions, corporations, professional associations, credit unions, cooperatives, universities, and a host of other associations. These communities are not private, but public. Especially when they are small or of intermediate size, they enable persons to come together in ways that can be vividly experienced. The bonds of communal solidarity formed in them enable persons to act together, empowering them to shape some of the contours of public life and its larger social institutions such as the state and the economy. In a democratic society, government does not rule, but rather serves the social “body” animated by the activity of these intermediate communities[16]

Zimbabwe has the potential for realising the fruits of these “bond of human solidarity”. But first the various groups must recover from the trauma they have suffered in order to create healthy social solidarity the cuts across race, ethnic group, gender, age, economic class and political affiliation.

Civil society in Zimbabwe

Zimbabweans have been divided from since before colonialism. Since 1890, Zimbabwe has been a country ruled by a minority of its citizens. Governance has been understood as the maintenance of political and economic power against the rest of the population. The ruling few have always used divide and rule tactics which have exacerbated conflicts in the country. This has been true in the pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial periods. Ethnic, racial, cultural, religious, gender, class and age conflicts have dominated our social imaginary. Each group has sustained itself by building forts, surveillance systems and defensive bahaviours against other groups. Our civil society has been a place of struggles and conflicts. Its history is littered with heroes and heroines of each group who have fought against its perceived enemies. Our ways thinking, our emotional responses and institutional arrangements are all inspired and oriented towards fighting wars. The new conceptualisation of politics must inform and inspire Zimbabweans to boldly, actively and creatively engage each other and build a better society. We must move from the old combative, exclusive and aggressive politics to the politics of engagement, dialogue and peace. Yet the intellectual, emotional and institutional tools we, as a nation, have developed so far are proving to be too narrow, too shallow, and too restrictive. We really need to change our social imaginary to one which can pull people together, rather than divide them, as they search for happiness and fulfillment. The new paradigm inspired by the paradigm of civil society should be able to help us go beyond the contemporary political, economic and social condition.

Politically, Zimbabwe, at this historical juncture, is deeply divided and therefore is not inspired by universal solidarity or the common good. Many people have lost motivation to respect the political institutions, organisations and processes of the country. Many no longer want to associate with national symbols. Some want to physically move away from the country to look for jobs, education, health, or simply for space to experiment with new ideas and to say or write what they like and to associate politically culturally, and economically with others. This is a crisis because these things are supposed to be the very reason for the existence of any nation-state. They are the goods that a nation-state is expected to facilitate for its citizens. How can you have a nation if everyone wants to escape from it? You cannot have a proper nation-state if you do not have a sense of the common good that encourages people in it to be in solidarity with one another.

Socially, most Zimbabweans feel alienated and stressed as basic commodities like fuel, foreign currency, food, water, electricity, shelter, jobs, education and health are either scarce or too expensive. Many Zimbabweans are struggling to have a sense of belonging, a sense of dignity and pride in themselves and their relations with fellow Zimbabweans. It is a crisis when the vision of every young person is to move out of their own country. But of course, the majority do not succeed to go out of the country. What kind of social landscape can we create with frustrated young people – people who are physically in the country but spiritually elsewhere?

Many ordinary Zimbabweans today feel socially harassed. Some were stripped of their Zimbabwean citizenship. Others lost life-savings through world-record inflation. The underlying anthropological view of the human person assumed by many of the laws developed since 1890 to the post-colonial period is that the average Zimbabwean is a criminal, a thief or illegitimate in one way or the other. So the laws are introduced to catch criminals, to punish the illegitimate and to threaten saboteurs. So when ordinary Zimbabweans are treated as if they are guilty until they prove their innocence, it is not surprising that they feel alienated and harassed. This is in contrast to the spirituality which assumes that the human person legitimately desires to be free, to be happy and to be fulfilled.

Culturally, we suffer from a poverty of imagination. Our concept of Zimbabwe is very narrow. Our national emotional capacity is very shallow. This is because of the history of our nation. Zimbabwe as a nation-state has always, since 1890, been monopolised by a few. It has always been, since colonialism, a fort, or laager protecting some against others. Our lives were molded by ways of thinking, institutions and processes of war, surveillance, suspicion. We perfected the language of hatred, strategies for destruction and a culture of humiliating others. We celebrated our independence by humiliating those who lost the elections. The colonial humiliation of black people was very deep. Up to now, many white people who benefited from this system, still want to live in that colonial world. Peter Godwin and Ian Hancock may have captured the gravely unfortunate truth when they suggested that while Rhodesia may have died, Rhodesians themselves never die. There is need for many of the whites in this country, and others who have physically left but are spiritually still here, to culturally get out of the laager mentality. They need to seriously begin to develop a culture of human solidarity with fellow blacks in this country and abroad. The people who call themselves Shona have wounded memories about the Ndebele raids of the pre-colonial era. Those who call themselves Ndebele have deep wounds stemming from Gukurahundi[17]. Black people were traumatised by the atrocities of the successive white regimes. Labour migration, the rural-urban divide, religious, gender, class and age divisions have been sources of cultural conflicts.


These conflicts represent the major fault lines which explain the spiritual/moral crisis of our nation. They represent the major obstacles to human solidarity among Zimbabweans and the possibility of having a sense of the national common good. The Apartheid system that we experienced, prevented blacks and whites from learning how to live with each other as human beings who respect each other. Colonial strategies and the development of various forms of ethnic interests ensured that black people were divided and developed hostilities to each other. The poverty created by colonial exploitation encouraged Africans to hate themselves. Labour migration which took most African men from their families to work on mines and farms deepened the gender divide which already existed even before colonialism.

Our cultural, social and political imagination struggles to deal with the language of love, practices of cooperation, respect and humility. Hence our culture, our emotional responses, and historical sense have been infused with a sense of division, separation and war.

Now, since virtue is always learned through practice, we have never, as a nation, learned the virtues of comprehensive solidarity, of universal love, of genuine respect. It is not part of our social imaginary. This is our crisis. The challenge is to find ways of cultivating those virtues that history has denied us, or what we, in fact, have denied ourselves. A re-conceptualisation of politics, and economics in the light of the paradigm of civil society and in line with the new global sensibility represented by the Obama factor could help us out. We must get inspiration from Catholic social thought where we are reminded that politics, economics, culture and development are about human beings as moral agents and not tools for political ideologies and economic systems.

[11] Hollenbach, D., “The Context of Civil Society and Culture”, The Global Face of Public Faith: Politics, Human Rights, and Christian Ethics, Georgetown University Press, Washington D.C., 2003:149

[12] Ibid, 150.

[13] Ibid,

[14] Ibid, 151.

[15] Hollenbach, 2003:153.

[16] Hallenbach, 2003:153-154

[17] The military campaign waged against the people in Matabeleland and the Midlands by the Mugabe regime in the mid 1980s.