On the outskirts of town a young man uses a shovel to scoop up a clod of tall grass from the side of the highway. Hastily, he dumps it into one of the huge potholes that dot the road. Glancing around warily, he jumps back in his vehicle and takes off.
This scene was recently repeated several times across Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city. Part of a project to draw attention to the dangerous condition of local streets, the tactic was instigated by a loose confederation of citizens called the Better Bulawayo Initiative.
Formed in November 2018, the group of 200-300 citizens is using creative, low-risk protest measures to agitate for better city services. Their goal is to address the kinds of simple but important issues that affect the lives of residents every day, like access to clean water, better sanitation services, regular garbage collection and safer roads.
While traditional public protests may be considered too dangerous, using unconventional, low-risk methods is more appealing.
The modest nature of Better Bulawayo’s objectives is understandable considering the potentially threatening conditions under which it operates. Matabeleland, the region of western Zimbabwe where Bulawayo is located, has been a center of opposition since the country’s independence, and as a result has seen a history of violent repression perpetrated by former President Robert Mugabe and his ruling ZANU-PF party.
After independence in 1980, the main obstacle to Mugabe’s ambitions of a one-party state was the ZAPU party, which enjoyed broad support from the Ndebele people in Matabeleland. To eliminate the threat, the government initiated a terror campaign in 1983 that resulted in the murder of over 20,000 Ndebele.
“Then, in 1999, when [the opposition party] Movement for Democratic Change was formed, its support base was in Matabeleland,” explained Khumbulani Maphosa, team leader of the Better Bulawayo Initiative. “Most people were arrested, most were beaten, many were killed. For that reason, most people from here don’t want to be seen actively participating in politics.”
But people are more willing to advocate for local social issues, which they don’t perceive as political. And while they may consider traditional public protests too dangerous, using unconventional, low-risk methods that don’t directly confront the authorities is more appealing. Planting tufts of grass in potholes and quickly escaping before the police arrive is an example of a tactic that — while it may embarrass city officials — can be carried out with little fear of retaliation.
Better Bulawayo has also employed a perfectly legal technique they call “flooding.” To protest a large expenditure of scarce city funds to host some South African dignitaries, citizens used WhatsApp to deluge their city council members with photos showing how the money could be better spent. For example, they have sent pictures of a traffic light that isn’t working, a school house that needs a new roof, and broken windows in an abandoned government building.
In contrast to marches or other “top-down” organized protests, these creative nonviolent tactics have the potential to harness the imaginations and dynamism of more people in the community as they take ownership and become co-creators of their actions.
Successfully contesting seemingly minor quality of life issues can help reshape the expectations of the citizenry.
“We believe these are strategic actions … that build community confidence and involve different people,” said Matabeleland Institute for Human Rights general secretary Benedict Sibasa. “They build the capacity of communities to be creative and use community energy.”
Motivating people, however, is a huge challenge, especially in a country where democratic institutions are weak. Politicians who don’t think they should be answerable to their constituents are a major problem. “In Zimbabwe, the culture of accountability is not there,” Maphosa said. “Our leaders are not used to being held accountable by their citizens. And the citizens are afraid to hold their leaders to account.”
Zenzele Ndebele, director of the Centre for Innovation and Technology in Bulawayo, agrees, but thinks successfully contesting seemingly minor quality of life issues can help reshape the expectations of the citizenry. “Governance starts at the local level,” he said. “If you can hold your city councilors to account … then that means the leaders you send to the national level, or to the parliament, will be leaders who are accountable.”
Maphosa hopes that working on the local level to develop the confidence and skills to demand accountability is an idea that will eventually impact national politics in Zimbabwe. But for now the group is focusing on extending its reach within Bulawayo. So far, they have trained organizers in eight of the city’s 29 wards, with more in the works.
Although the nascent organization continues to grow, organizers have learned that simply reacting to the City Council’s policies tends to kill their momentum. To counter that problem, they are holding strategy meetings at the end of April to choose three key issues they can proactively address. Campaign issues under consideration include keeping medical clinics open 24/7 and reinstating children’s public play centers throughout the city.
The willingness of citizens to take advantage of the small space of freedom available to them is a positive sign for the future of civil society in Zimbabwe. Already the success of Better Bulawayo has caught the attention of nearby cities that want to start similar organizations.
“Together these movements one day maybe will demand a better Zimbabwe, but we need to start in our localities,” Maphosa said. “In my culture there is a proverb which says, loosely translated, that you should chew what is enough for you to swallow. So that’s the strategy that we are using currently — to say let’s chew what is enough for us to swallow, and then we will be swallowing as we go.”
As the left increasingly focuses on electoral politics, a new framework is emerging for how candidates who win should partner with social movements.
As autocrats become savvier in using technology to repress dissent, activists are striving to preserve the benefits of digital activism and mitigate the risks.
Environmental activist Evgeniya Chirikova once helped save a forest in Moscow. Now she’s trying to give voice to Russian activists and journalists resisting Putin’s regime.