In early March I happened upon a Tweet announcing how people in Zimbabwe were planting small bushes and tuffs of grass in potholes to dramatize the poor condition of the roads. It stirred my interest, so I contacted the group and ended up interviewing Khumbulani Maphosa, team leader of the Better Bulawayo Initiative,1 and several other activists in the city of Bulawayo. The interviews formed the basis of a story published by Waging Nonviolence.
The article focused on how activists in Better Bulawayo were addressing local issues that impacted the everyday lives of people in the city— basic concerns like sanitation services, clean water supplies, refuse collection and safer roads. The blanket term is “service delivery.”
But I had some material left over that didn’t fit in the WNV piece. Maphosa and others had some interesting thoughts about the benefits of nonviolence, the advantages of creative protests, and the stupidity of property destruction. Therefore, I’m including a few fragments of those interviews in this post.
Bulawayo is the second largest city in Zimbabwe. It is in the western part of the country, which has been a cradle of opposition to the ruling party since independence in 1980. Robert Mugabe, the autocrat who had ruled Zimbabwe from the beginning, was replaced in 2017 by Emmerson Mnangagwa, another autocrat.
With politicians in Zimbabwe unaccustomed to being held accountable to their constituents, the 300 or so members of the Better Bulawayo Initiative have made it their mission to pressure the local City Council into being more responsive to their needs. In a repressive environment, this calls for the use of some interesting techniques.
“The idea of the movement is to use creative protest measures to bring the issues to the fore,” Maphosa told me.
Placing plants in potholes is one tactic that got results—some of the dangerous craters were quickly repaired by the city. Better Bulawayo has also used a technique they call “flooding.” To draw attention to what they saw as squandered funds used to lavishly host a South African trade show delegation, the group employed social media to flood city councilors with pictures illustrating where the money could have been better spent: a schoolhouse without a roof, broken windows in a government building, a nonfunctional traffic light.
Considering the lack of resources in Bulawayo, Maphosa finds it especially wasteful when people take out their frustrations by destroying property. Here’s how he explained why he thought spontaneous rioting is so counterproductive:
On the 14th of January there was a mass protest in Zimbabwe. It was a job stay-away by the workers. But it turned violent as the day progressed, and the next two days there was massive destruction of property.
Shops were looted and they were burned, robots [traffic lights] were destroyed, some cars were burned out. The negative effects are that many people have gotten arrested, and they have been charged. Some people were beaten by the army, and the army was now beating people recklessly.
You know, they would just find you in the street, round you up, beat you up. Now the state was retaliating. It became bad.
When the government is talking about the amount of compensation they are giving to the shop owners, we’re talking about money that goes into the millions of dollars. If we did not loot the shops and destroy them, it’s money we could have used for other developmental issues. We could have used it to address other needs we have as a people.
We could have paid school fees for the orphans, we could have taken care of the street kids, the widows, the elderly people. You know, we could have done something that we were proud of as a nation.
And now, like where I am in Bulawayo, the Bulawayo City Council is failing, because of lack of resources, to keep the city running. They are now the ones who are supposed to repair the destroyed signage, the destroyed robots and other things. Where are they getting money from? From us, the taxpayers.
So I think violent agitation comes back to affect us, the people that were doing it.
That’s why I believe in nonviolence, because you are not having the negative repercussions coming back to you.
Maphosa goes on to talk about the consequences to individuals using violence, and the importance of acting responsibly:
Some of the people that were arrested, now they are needing legal representation and all this stuff. But, if you are doing nonviolent action, you get out. You go to court and the magistrate will say no, you were exercising your right as enshrined in the constitution of Zimbabwe. You are not guilty.
When you are being associated with looting and burning, you are now a criminal.
So I think the other advantage is that nonviolence leaves the agitators as responsible citizens, whereas the violence transforms you to be a criminal.
To me, that’s the advantage of nonviolence over violence.
But actions should not just be nonviolent, according to Maphosa. They should also be creative—unique and original.
“Usually here, when people say they are doing a protest, they always do a march,” he told me. “You gather people in the street and you march in the street. But with Better Bulawayo that’s not the only method. There are many methods, so let’s use creative methods of doing this.”
I asked Maphosa to explain the benefits of creative protests as he saw it:
I will look at it from the following angles. Number one, the level of casualties is limited. Not only in terms of the number of people that can die, but even in terms of arrests—the number of arrests is limited. Even if members can be arrested, there is no case…they can be charged with. And so it motivates the team because you don’t want the members to find themselves always being charged, being labeled as criminals and the like.
It motivates the members when they see you are using creative nonviolent methods and then you are winning the issue at the end of the day.
But secondly, we have lost a sense of humor, especially in this world, and from my vantage point—as Africans and Zimbabweans—we are quickly losing our sense of humor.
Our government has violated people so much that people are losing their sense of humor.
Sometimes when you use these creative methods, you find that people will just laugh at first, but eventually people identify with it. It’s something people take lightly when they look at it or participate in it. It’s something you can laugh over, just enjoy creatively, but at the end of the day, it has power. It has an influence.
But also, it has the advantage of bringing the team together. You co-create the action as a team, and apart from co-creating, you get the ideas of the team. And when the team members see they are participating, then the team members want to belong to the movement.
Confronting a Violent State
I also spoke briefly with Zenzele Ndebele,2 a filmmaker and Director of the Centre for Innovation and Technology (CITE)3 in Bulawayo, about using creative nonviolent methods. He viewed them as a way to confront the authorities indirectly, thus avoiding bloodshed:
We’re in a dictatorship, so to speak, and we are mostly ruled by people who understand violence and can use violence well.
I don’t think in our situation violence will solve anything. We don’t believe in violence. We have been fighting violence that is perpetrated by the state.
And we think in using creative ways to communicate your message, you stand a better chance than trying to confront the government by using instruments that they are capable of using better than you.
So you throw them off their plan if you are coming with other means than they would use. They don’t know how to react. But if you were to say you are demonstrating today, they have the machinery, they have the will, they have the zeal, they have the experience, and they will crush you.
Text by James L. VanHise licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. Graphics coutesy of Better Bulawayo Initiative & Khumbulani Maphosa.