Zimbabwe Beautiful Rising: A recap
In early June 2015, members of the Beautiful Rising team assembled in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, to work with a group of 20 experienced human rights activists, feminists and writers over four days of knowledge exchange, discussion, collaboration and writing — lots of writing!
The timing could not have been better: activists in Zimbabwe are struggling with a wide range of issues, from growing civil society and donor fatigue, to increasingly shrinking democratic spaces, yet are able to draw on an incredible legacy of struggle in terms of thinking through approaches for building a better future. Expectations of participants ranged from the desire to “Africanise” Beautiful Rising, to wanting to learn new tactics and finding ways of rejuvenating social movements or addressing the burnout many activists are feeling.
Many of the participants were excited to be in the same space with other activists, and wanted to explore ways of building collaborative networks that would enable the strengthening of each other’s work; or, in the words of one the facilitators, Francis Rwodzi, to “find ways of using the right tactics, at the right time, for the right reasons.” The participants also spent time discussing ways of building meaningful relationships while reflecting on the commonalities and differences among their various political struggles.
The main endeavor of the workshop was to document some of the successful and inspiring local action stories, tactics and principles of nonviolent collective activism and organizing, with the ultimate goal of contributing to the global Beautiful Rising creative activism toolbox. Participants felt that by creating a contextualised toolbox of stories and tactics for Zimbabwe, this would go a long way in strengthening the ability to organise by articulating effective approaches through documenting old and new tactics. Such a toolbox would also seek to strengthen the capacity of frontline activists to facilitate effective change.
The dynamic facilitation team guided the group through processes of reflection on their different activist experiences, identifying successes (and failures!) from specific campaigns and actions that would then kickstart the participants on writing stories for possible inclusion in the Beautiful Rising toolbox. The group identified a number of successful local case studies, ranging from the women’s sewage campaign targeted at policy makers, to case studies of both the “no” and “yes” campaigns for the referendum to ratify a new constitution. It emerged that a lot of successful and well-executed campaigns and actions, particularly those undertaken by the women’s movement, have gone undocumented, and the Beautiful Rising experience in Zimbabwe presented a heartening opportunity to coherently document important pieces of history related to citizen nonviolent activism and organizing.
On the second evening, we were also joined by two well-known and brilliant local activists, Jestina Mukoko of the Zimbabwe Peace Project and McDonald Lewanika of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, who both discussed their experiences in confronting the regime. Both activists has some invaluable lessons to share about movement building and organising.
A key concern that emerged from discussions around civil society collaboration was the issue of trust, or lack thereof, wherein participants highlighted the challenges of organizing in a highly polarized sector that the state has permeated through strategically placed informants.
There were a lot of interactive breakout sessions where participants held discussions around the political context and the need to identify — in a country where a simple act like watching a video of the Arab Spring got people incarcerated — specific actions that would not potentially endanger people’s lives,but that could create more space for democratic engagement.
Participants found particularly useful the practical, hands-on session of planning a campaign using a prototype of a Beautiful Rising card game. First they identified real-life pertinent issues in Zimbabwe and formed groups that then strategised and visualised possible actions to undertake, following the strategic steps laid out in the game. Participants also identified and discussed the challenges of organising in the current political environment. Such challenges included the “NGOization” of social movements — which is seen to have the ultimate effect of alienating and demobilizing supporters of causes, leaving the struggle in the hands of technocrats who are often at the mercy of donor dictates.
At the end of the workshop, participants creatively strategised about future collaborations with each other and left with a sense of community, having also committed to writing and contributing their varied experiences to the development of a Zimbabwean toolbox.
Natasha Msonza is a human rights activist and digital security trainer currently managing operations at Her Zimbabwe — a non profit organisation that brings important commentary to women’s issues using digital and offline spaces.