CIVIL society and social movements have long been at the centre of pushing back corruption and authoritarian practices. Zimbabwe was no exception in the run-up to the November 2017 coup d’état that ousted the late President Robert Mugabe after four decades of unaccountable rule. This report, based on in-country interviews and focus group discussions, examines the transition that followed the coup to draw broader lessons for how the international community can support, without harming, grassroots non-violent action initiatives in countries undergoing profound political shifts.

By Gladys Kudzaishe Hlatywayo/Charles Mangongera

Zimbabwean lawyers demand justice for people detained in the government’s crackdown on violent protests in January 2019. Zimbabwean lawyers demand justice for people detained in the government’s crackdown on violent protests in January 2019. The November 2017 coup in Zimbabwe that ousted Robert Mugabe was at best a flawed transition. Its complexities included a party-state-military conflation and a change of leadership not concomitant with a change of governance culture.

Non-violent social movements and campaigns played a crucial role in promoting citizen agency immediately before the coup, at a time traditional forms of civil society and the opposition were both weak.

Social movements may appear to dissipate, but can reemerge, reflecting a cycle of ups and downs and boosts of action around trigger events. This pattern began unfolding in early 2019 in Zimbabwe.

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External support helped enable Zimbabwe’s transparency, accountability, and good governance (Tagg) actors to push back authoritarianism and achieve incremental democratic gains.

External actor support effectiveness can be improved by enabling local capacities for collective action, providing alternative flexible funding for non-traditional civil society actors, and encouraging context-driven knowledge that promotes locally-grounded strategies and recognises different situational nuances.

The international community should view engagement with Zimbabwe’s government and Tagg movement as mutually inclusive and reinforcing.

International support should be available throughout Zimbabwe’s electoral cycles given that democracy is not restricted to voting. Intensifying grassroots Tagg activities around elections is also fodder for government propaganda efforts portraying civil society organisations as regime change agents.