Following the change of leadership in Zimbabwe in November 2017, it may be useful to understand the implications of those changes; and to establish and analyse the context in which ordinary citizens exercise their agency[1] to navigate the various social, economic and political challenges that they faced on a day-to-day basis.

It seems clear that in the current climate Zimbabwean citizens have something that the new leadership wants and needs quite badly: political legitimacy for the changes which have taken place.  Work – now – to support the voices of ordinary people in the decision-making processes that affect them might help to guide the new government towards a more inclusive, responsive and accountable future.  Zimbabwean civil society has the potential to harness citizen agency both to support more inclusive governance; and to work around any government actors which appear to be stuck in the past.

Zimbabweans have nearly all the tools they need to advocate for and secure positive change at a local level.  What they need now, is the opportunity to employ them; and to re-discover the necessary solidarity to do so.  Zimbabweans need to exercise their own voice to articulate their ambitions and needs; and to advocate for contextually appropriate solutions.  This will take place in numerous local level fora centred on issues of common concern but populated by constituencies of divergent views; and will be a valuable contribution to negotiating and securing local level positive change.  The challenge here is most likely to be overcoming fear driven by years of experience which has taught people the risks of speaking out in public.  Helping to ensure that these fora are safe spaces will be key.  Development actors will need to understand the local context better before they attempt to change it; and will be able to use the ensuing learning in their political and technical dialogues with government.

The resilience which grows from an increasing number of positive, problem-solving encounters will be a considerable advantage to ordinary people in the face of change, good or bad.  And it will be a contribution towards a new political culture, which sees citizen-state engagement not as an adversarial activity, but as a positive and constructive engagement in which both problem and solution are shared.  This, in turn, will contribute towards long term stability, where people and government are able to develop, and can manage change (and potential conflict) peacefully.

The Nature of Change

Recent changes in Zimbabwe appear seismic.  The previously unassailable and unquestioned power of Robert Mugabe has been replaced by a set of actors who may equally be unaccountable and extractive, but who have had to make public commitments to change which were previously unthinkable.  These commitments, necessary and essential as they may have been, do not alone amount to a deep and enduring change in the culture of governance in Zimbabwe.  The ruling elite are very broadly all the same people who served the former President, with a matching history of self-interest and self-enrichment.  But there is probably an element of pragmatism too.  Some form of more inclusive governance, with tangible and timely benefits for ordinary citizens, is probably understood amongst the new elite to be essential to their own survival. 

Many of the changes going on in Zimbabwe now are the result of a desire for survival on the part of what remains a centralised autocracy.  Alongside this desire for survival, the government recognises that it also needs to develop a new legitimacy with both citizens and the international community.  But the range of conceivable “modes” for governance – now and in the future – is currently limited, with the tensions being between a form of nationalist authoritarianism and a securocracy. 

In parallel and as a result of the pre-occupation of the elite in recent times, local government has drifted away from central control and has become increasingly semi-autonomous, albeit with insufficient resources.   This raises the possibility that local governance might be able to move away from resembling a form of party-inspired fiefdom and take on, over time, the characteristics of a more accountable, representative and people-centred local democracy based on fairer (if not yet formalised) rules of the game.

Securing these changes for ordinary people will not be straightforward; and will be dependent on a wide range of other actors and actions. Understanding the extent to which citizens can navigate change – good or bad – on an individual and/or collective basis will be key to influencing Zimbabwe’s culture of governance into the future.

Citizen Assets

Ordinary people in Zimbabwe feel that they are essentially powerless in the face of “grand” politics in their country.  Although the citizen-state relationship is often described in terms of what a government will (or won’t) offer to citizens, in the current climate Zimbabwean citizens have something that the new leadership wants and needs quite badly: political legitimacy for the changes which have taken place.  In conventional terms, an election would confer the legitimacy that the new ruling elite wants.  But the necessary conducive environment for sufficiently free and fair elections cannot currently be taken for granted. The key challenge, therefore, for the government is to deliver enough positive change between the transition (November 2017) and the next election (thought likely to be between June and August 2018) for citizens to believe that their interests and those of the government are aligned.  Helping citizens to lever their power during this time will be key to the nature of governance in the future in Zimbabwe; and to the extent to which the new regime is able to earn credibility.

Citizens also have other assets that they may not appreciate or fully understand.  They have been coping with the stresses and strains of life in Zimbabwe for some time now.  The mechanisms that have served them adequately to date are still required. Understanding how people have coped, and ensuring that near term change does not undermine this capacity, will be essential to the navigation of change in Zimbabwe for the foreseeable future.


The agricultural main stay of Zimbabwe’s economy has been failing for some time.  Land reform, which has brought real benefits to some people, remains unfinished business.  Chief amongst the outstanding issues is the question of security of tenure. Land has been re-distributed to a significant population which had not previously had access to it. However, the failure to address the exchange value of land has driven difficulties accessing credit across the sector.    This has trapped farmers, farmworkers and peasants in a patronage network governed by the ruling party.

Zimbabwe’s economy and industry are intrinsically linked to agriculture. Agriculture produced inputs for industry; and industry produced inputs and equipment for the agricultural sector. This means that reviving the formal economy will in large part be contingent on re-starting the agricultural economy whilst at the same time exploring new avenues for development.  National policy in this area appears to lag far behind the potential and realities for broader based economic development in Zimbabwe.

As a result, more and more Zimbabweans have turned to the informal economy as the means by which they can survive.  Micro scale businesses, informal traders, hawking and – more significantly than at first apparent – trading in mobile phone credit have allowed people to step out of the formal sector and to eke out a precarious living.  In so doing, they have – inadvertently – become an identifiable social class with interests and a political force which cannot be ignored.  But the informal economy is not all positive.  Many vulnerable people – women; young people; the elderly; the disabled – have suffered the adverse effects of an informal economy characterised by both corruption and violence. 

The political economy, previously defined by formal industry and labour movement structures, is now very informal.   It has been replaced by a “vendor economy” in the urban areas and a “new farmer” economy in the farming areas. Harnessing and regulating this new, large informal economy without damaging either it or the livelihoods that it sustains will be a significant technical and political challenge for the new government.

Social organisation

Although the challenges of day-to-day survival in Zimbabwe have often led people to fall back on their own or their immediate family’s resources, it has recently led to a resurgence of community level organisation – albeit sometimes mobilised through social media more than in geographically defined locations.  As the former regime became more concerned with its own internal politicking, they left the community space largely uncontrolled.  This has allowed new alliances to form which seek to lever the power of citizen voice.  From 2016, Zimbabwe has witnessed the emergence of a vibrant community of citizens and activists who mobilise their constituencies and air their discontent with the authorities, including increasingly on a variety of social media platforms. 

The challenge now is to harness this– offline and online – capacity for the promotion of mutually beneficial positive change, rather than merely as a focus for opposition.

State (self-) capture

The generally corrupt nature of government decision-making in the recent past has begun to show some signs of turning inwards on itself.  The corrosive effect of corruption has been to hollow out state capacity, leaving institutions unable even to seek rent from citizens.  Populist gestures towards solving this problem – such as the writing off of utility debts – have often served to compound them, leaving local councils either unable or unwilling to deliver services.  Re-starting state service delivery will not, therefore, be a question of simply turning on the money taps again, but of re-introducing and embedding a culture of mutual transparency and accountability.

In the meantime, creating fora within which both citizens and state can work together to identify and re-start essential services will serve both to prioritise local government action and to keep it accountable. Strengthening citizen voice, agency and demands for transparency and accountability in a collaborative manner will therefore contribute towards more effective governance at the local level. A key element of this will be separating the functions of the state from the structures of the ruling political party. This would help to ensure that social service delivery is equitable and not based on patronage politics.

Traditional leadership

A well-known aspect of Zimbabwe’s local governance structure is the role of traditional leadership.  Even more conservative than central government, it has unfortunately drifted away from the interests of ordinary people – often in response to political pressures.  But it still retains sufficient insight into how communities function to be a useful means to convene and address community interests.  Traditional leadership embodies a set of accepted norms and approaches with which interventions can combine to understand and ‘work with the grain’ of locally driven governance reform.  But traditional leadership is at risk of being tainted by enduring perceptions of political capture and patronage. For example, the recent acquisition of expensive utility vehicles for Chiefs by the state risks entrenching a sense amongst the population that traditional leaders owe their allegiance to the national government and not to ordinary people.  This hampers their ability to be perceived as neutral local level mediators and advocates.

Access to justice and security

Whether through the formal legal and judicial systems, or through traditional leadership, Zimbabweans enjoy a basic level of dispute resolution, which – despite flaws – is generally accepted.  The system has fallen prey over recent years to corruption and malpractice; and the costs of accessing the formal systems have become prohibitive for many.  But there is probably sufficient credibility left in the local systems to be of value to attempts to promote stability during a transitional period.   However, as citizen access to formal legal protection has fallen away, there is a reduced knowledge about rights and protections. 

Restoring the credibility of, and popular confidence in, the formal systems of justice (including ensuring that legislation serves the interests of citizens and is seen to do so) whilst at the same time making sure that traditional justice is dispensed fairly will be essential to a successful transition in Zimbabwe.


Since November 2017, the discourse about Zimbabwe’s future has understandably focussed on the grand politics of change in the country. This has created a situation where the search for solutions in Zimbabwe has remained at a high level and risks losing sight of the views and aspirations of ordinary people.  But the mortar that will hold together the building blocks of long term stability in Zimbabwe will be the extent to which any new settlement reflects the views and aspirations of citizens.

There is now a unique, time-limited window of opportunity for aligning political leadership and citizen aspirations for a better Zimbabwe. To do so will involve harnessing and enabling citizen voice and agency to help them navigate the changes now underway. Whilst high level politics focusses on a new political dispensation and the wider economy, citizen interest centres on:

  • ·      Reliable livelihoods
  • ·      Fair and equitable service delivery
  • ·      Security and justice in their communities
  • ·      Reasonable and responsive relations with local administration

Sustainable change in Zimbabwe will likely rest on numerous examples of positive citizen-state engagement at the local level as the country negotiates its future. Giving ordinary people the opportunity and the means to exercise their voice and agency in a collaborative effort to promote accountable, adequate, affordable and appropriate services would be a significant contribution towards a new Zimbabwe.