Rights Discourse Neglecting People's Standard of Life

Rights Discourse Neglecting People's Standard of Life

Collectively, civil society activists, the media and pro-democracy political parties have failed to give due regard to the centrality of people's standard of life to the rights discourse. A perusal of the current rights and governance discourse on Zimbabwe would leave one with the mistaken impression that the most pressing issues of today for the majority of the people of Zimbabwe is the crafting of a new constitution, legislative amendments to give full effect to the right to freedom of expression or the implementation of the numerous outstanding issues in terms of the Global Political Agreement that gave rise to the inclusive government in power since February 2009.

A baseline survey of the real issues affecting ordinary Zimbabweans from all walks of life would reveal a different set of priority issues -which unfortunately, because of the framing of the rights discourse, those issues are not receiving adequate attention.

Following hard on the heels of a devastating 2008 cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe which left over 4 000 people dead and some 100 000 infected, earlier this month Harare announced the outbreak of typhoid. These outbreaks are a direct result of bad governance and failure by the local and central government authorities to take clear steps to ensure attainment of the highest standards of physical and mental health by citizens. The crisis in the health sector is more severe and urgent than the otherwise fashionable discussions around civil and political rights. Further, there is little attempt being made to connect the plummeting standards of living to governance failure and gross negligence in meeting people's basic needs.

The city of Harare continues to face severe water shortages largely due to a failure to secure water purification chemicals. Well off residents have resorted to privately drilling boreholes while the majority of Harare residents in the high-density suburbs resort to digging shallow wells for water. These challenges rarely make the headlines as media organizations and rights activists are focusing primarily on the politics of the elite. The same goes for the incessant electricity cuts.

The standard of life for ordinary Zimbabweans has taken a massive plunge since 2000. Today, unemployment levels are above 90% and over 70% of the people live on less than a dollar per day. Statistics on mothers who lose their lives during child birth are horrific. Reviving public service infrastructure to cater for health, education and transportation should be a high priority for allocation of government funds by finance minister Biti. Rights and pro-democracy activists should deliberately focus on highlighting the plight of ordinary Zimbabweans and use the poor living conditions which are clearly as a result of bad governance, as a mobilizing tool to get Zimbabweans to demand better living and governance conditions.

Failure to clearly articulate the direct link between our poor living conditions and bad governance has left a vacuum that ZANU-PF and other supporters of the old regime have filled up with propaganda that wrongly suggests that the so-called 'sanctions' are to blame for the current economic meltdown. At a populist level of rhetoric, defenders of the old regime have at least spoken to the issues that resonate with the majority of Zimbabweans although they have taken no action to improve conditions of life for ordinary Zimbabweans.

The elaborate patronage system that has kept the old regime in place feeds on the principle of individual enrichment (at the expense of the majority) in exchange for continued support. Without a direct link to socio-economic conditions, the gospel of civil and political rights is robbed of its galvanizing and mobilizing power. There is urgent need to re-align the rights and governance discourse to focus on people-centred policies and ways to improvement living conditions for the majority of Zimbabweans presently living in squalor.

The struggle to transform Zimbabwe will largely depend on the ability of activists and political protagonists to focus on those issues that resonate with the majority of ordinary Zimbabweans. Bread and butter issues. For lasting improvements in social conditions and in the quality of life of the largest number of Zimbabweans, it is necessary to ensure that the political matrix is correct. A comprehensive way to address these challenges would be to understand these challenges in the context of a failure of political leadership.

For political protagonists, focus should not merely be on having the necessary administrative mechanisms in place to run elections, but to ensure that there are sufficient mechanisms to guarantee human security and to prevent violence. The yardstick for measurement is not whether political parties feel ready for elections, but whether the security of the people is guaranteed and the people feel confident about the protection mechanisms available. Until political debate completely shifts away from elitist constructions of what our crisis is about, to focus on improvement the lives of ordinary people, mobilizing the masses will remain a singular challenge.

Dewa Mavhinga, Crisis in Zimbabwe Regional Coordinator

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