ChapterPDF Available

Confronting State Authoritarianism:: Civil Society and Community-Based Solidarity in Southern Africa

Pluto Press
Chapter Title: Confronting State Authoritarianism: Civil Society and Community-Based
Solidarity in Southern Africa
Chapter Author(s): Boaventura Monjane
Book Title: Pandemic Solidarity
Book Subtitle: Mutual Aid during the Covid-19 Crisis
Book Editor(s): Marina Sitrin, Colectiva Sembrar
Published by: Pluto Press. (2020)
Stable URL:
JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide
range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and
facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact
Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at
Pluto Press
is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to
This content downloaded from on Mon, 29 Jun 2020 11:42:55 UTC
All use subject to
Southern Africa (Mozambique,
South Africa and Zimbabwe)
This content downloaded from on Mon, 29 Jun 2020 11:42:55 UTC
All use subject to
This content downloaded from on Mon, 29 Jun 2020 11:42:55 UTC
All use subject to
Confronting State
Authoritarianism: Civil Society
and Community-Based
Solidarity in Southern Africa
Boaventura Monjane
In southern Africa, measures taken by states and gov-
ernments to contain or delay the spread of Covid- are
characterized by intensive militarization. Repressive state
apparatus have been activated or intensified in most of the
countries to enforce lockdown or State of Emergency reg-
ulations and monitor the movements of civilians. A critical
aspect here is that the regulations prohibit the exercise
of various economic activities practiced by many people
in the so-called informal sector. The enforcement of the
lockdown regulations has, therefore, been threatening the
livelihoods of millions. The informal sector is predomi-
nant in southern Africa, mainly in the trade sector and is
dominated by women.
In Zimbabwe, there were terrible incidences of police
beating up and arresting street vendors, confiscating and
destroying fresh vegetables and other foods of small-scale
farmers who were selling at an open market. In Mozam-
bique, the abusive behavior of a police officer, who slapped
This content downloaded from on Mon, 29 Jun 2020 11:42:55 UTC
All use subject to
a disabled old man, was exposed through social media plat-
forms by members of the public. In March (), South
African police fired rubber bullets at shoppers queuing for
food outside a supermarket in the city of Johannesburg.
This chapter focuses on Mozambique, South Africa
and Zimbabwe. The Mozambican President Filipe Jacinto
Nyusi declared on March  the State of Emergency for 
days and extended it for another month on April . The
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa announced on
March  that the country would be going into lockdown
for  days, then extended the lockdown to the end of
April. But on April , he announced an easing of the
lockdown through a phased reopening of the economy,
Figure 7.1 A South African policeman points his pump rifle
to disperse a crowd of shoppers in Yeoville, Johannesburg,
on March ,  while trying to enforce a safety distance
outside a supermarket. (Photo by Marco Longari/AFP)
This content downloaded from on Mon, 29 Jun 2020 11:42:55 UTC
All use subject to
which began on May . Zimbabwe announced a -day
national lockdown on March . On May , Zimbabwe’s
President Emmerson Mnangagwa extended the lockdown
by two more weeks.
This chapter looks at responses from “below,” based on
interviews with activist leaders in civil society initiatives
that emerged to articulate solidarity actions and monitor
state actions in implementing the lockdown and State of
Emergency. Paula Assubuji and Kelly Gillespie are both
from C Peoples Coalition in South Africa. The coalition
was born in March , and includes  organizations
from across civil society in all provinces, including com-
munity-based organizations, social movements, NGOs,
research institutions and faith-based organizations – the
broadest grouping of civil society that has come together
to address the current crisis. We developed a Programme
of Action (POA). Erika Mendes is from the Mozambican
C- Civil Society Alliance, a broad collective of organiza-
tions, collectives and individuals who seek, in an articulate
and organized way, to contribute to the construction
of an active and inclusive citizenship, in the face of the
Covid- world pandemic and the State of Emergency
decreed in Mozambique. Erika also works for the NGO
Justiça Ambiental. Jason Brickhill is from the Zimbabwe
Covid- Support Hub, a group of Zimbabwean profes-
sionals and researchers in the diaspora and in Zimbabwe
deeply concerned about the threat of the virus to Zimba-
bweans. Jason is a lawyer and Ph.D student in Oxford, UK.
From my conversation with these activist leaders, the
following topics came to the fore: () anti-repression,
() strengthening of civil society alliances, () diaspora
This content downloaded from on Mon, 29 Jun 2020 11:42:55 UTC
All use subject to
solidarity, and () anti-xenophobic and regional solidarity.
In the following sections, I provide the dialogue with these
activist leaders, letting them speak in the first person. The
last section brings some (un)concluding reflections for
further debates.
The harassment, beating, and rape of township resi-
dents and informal settlement dwellers by police and
the army must stop. (C Peoples Coalition Statement,
April )
When the lockdown was announced on March  in
South Africa, more than , soldiers were deployed to
assist the police with enforcing the lockdown regulations.
In mid-April, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa
announced that he had deployed an additional number
of , members of the military – almost all of the
national army – allegedly to support the people and save
lives: “This is a moment to be supportive to our people.
I, therefore, order you to go out and execute this mission
with great success, he said. Several cases of police (and
army) abuse of power and brutality have been reported
since the lockdown was decreed, especially in densely pop-
ulated poor neighborhoods of South Africa, Zimbabwe
and Mozambique.
As I write these lines, an activist from Botswana told
me that – although not as visible as in South Africa and
Zimbabwe – the police and the defense force are con-
trolling roadblocks and enforcing lockdown regulations,
This content downloaded from on Mon, 29 Jun 2020 11:42:55 UTC
All use subject to
using excessive violence towards people who allegedly
break the law in a manner never seen before.
Mozambique is going through an armed conflict of
alarming proportions, with insurgent groups operating in
the minerals and gas rich northern province of Cabo Del-
gado. The Mozambican state has recently acknowledged
that this is an external terrorist invasion. Mozambican
President Filipe Nyusi has deployed the army to act
“against” the terrorist insurgents. Civil society thinks this
may be a pretext for the army to abuse its power and vio-
late human and democratic rights of citizens.
The increased militarization and consequent rein-
forcement of authoritarianism as a pretext to fight the
pandemic in these countries has triggered the formation
of intersectoral civil society coalitions in several coun-
tries in the region. These coalitions are not only building
alliances between various civil society organizations and
groups in their countries, but also seeking to articulate
with each other across borders.
We were very worried by the measures taken by the
government to enforce the State of Emergency as we
understood that it would further worsen the condi-
tions of the majority of Mozambicans. These are people
that work in the informal sector, most of them have to
work every day to be able to put food on the table. So
the State of Emergency might deteriorate the conditions
of people that are already living in poverty, have been
going hungry and are malnourished. (Erika Mendes,
Mozambique, interview)
This content downloaded from on Mon, 29 Jun 2020 11:42:55 UTC
All use subject to
The state has also been very tough in its approach to the
fight against Covid-. The president of Mozambique
said in an address to the nation that if citizens do not
comply with the regulation the state would use force. In
Zimbabwe the scenario is no different:
The messages from the State are messages of threats.
Threats of enforcement of the law, that you will be
arrested if you break this regulation, rather than
messages of solidarity. Zimbabwe State has normally
been authoritarian. This will be aggravated now in
this Covid- context. (Jason Brickhill, Zimbabwe,
With very few exceptions, civil society groups are not in
the habit of working together on common agendas. This
is true in Mozambique as it is in Zimbabwe and South
Africa. For example, in South Africa, an attempt to articu-
late civil society groups from various sectors – such as the
C Peoples Coalition, with more than  organizations
– was attempted in the period following the abolition of
apartheid. As Kelly G. explains,
There has been post-apartheid attempts at coalition
building. None of them has really worked. Often they fall
apart because there was not something specific to work
on. What is most interesting about this coalition is that
almost organically, out of the program of action, it is the
organic emergence of working groups around particular
This content downloaded from on Mon, 29 Jun 2020 11:42:55 UTC
All use subject to
issues. So there is a whole range of issues and in those
working groups, some people have worked together
before, but a lot of people haven’t worked together
before. And a lot of people haven’t been compelled by a
progressive vision of how this is in services of poor and
working class communities. So there is something about
the time of the crisis and the possibility that the coali-
tion has afforded to have people to sit down and actually
work together regardless of their differences. The kinds
of relationships that have emerged out of that have been
very important. (Interview, Kelly G., South Africa)
It has also been very common to see the segregation of
struggles and movements among Mozambique civil
society groups, which has long contributed to the segre-
gated processes of resistance among social movements
and activists. As Monjane and Bruna show, “historically,
urban-based struggles have had little dialogue with rural-
based struggles. Trade unions have had little dialogue with
peasant/agrarian organizations” and so on. It is therefore
a novelty that in the C- Civil Society Alliance there
are almost  intersectorial organizations, including the
largest – and first formed – trade union in Mozambique,
the Sindicato dos Trabalhadores Moçambicanos (OTM,
Mozambican Workers Union).
According to Elisio Macamo,
Africans have always responded to crises by appealing
to their vibrant social safety nets for protection and
This content downloaded from on Mon, 29 Jun 2020 11:42:55 UTC
All use subject to
action. This is not a romantic view of the continent.
It is a pragmatic acknowledgement of the continent’s
real situation, one to which Africans have responded in
resilient ways, even if at great human cost.
As the author of the above quote rightly argues, lockdowns
in most parts of the African continent “at least theoreti-
cally, weaken [those] safety nets by depriving individuals
both of sources of livelihood as well as of opportunities
for bonding.” This thinker is certainly referring, but not
exclusively, to the practice of Ubuntu, which in various
communities in southern Africa is expressed by individ-
uals and groups providing social and community service
to the others. Ubuntu is a Nguni Bantu term meaning
“humanity.” It is often translated as “I am because we are
or “humanity towards others.
The solidarity actions underway in southern Africa aim
precisely to reinforce this idea, even in situations where
the state criminalizes it. In the Western Cape province of
South Africa, a collective of women were doing commu-
nity kitchen work, distributing hot food to hungry people
in their community. Police intervened and beat them up
for doing an activity that was allegedly prohibited under
the lockdown. The collective approached the C Peoples
Coalition. The coalition approached a social justice lawyer
who helped to organize a meeting with the prevention
police commissioner. As a result of that meeting, not only
was this women’s collective allowed to resume the commu-
nity kitchen, but it was also regulated that this solidarity
activity is allowed throughout the Western Cape province.
This content downloaded from on Mon, 29 Jun 2020 11:42:55 UTC
All use subject to
That is a very grounded example of offering solidar-
ity and resources and skills to a particular community
kitchen and a particular neighborhood and facilitat-
ing a conversation with law enforcement can have an
anti-repressive consequence. And then we as a coalition
began to mobilize for that in other regions. (Interview,
Kelly Gillespie, South Africa)
A large number of community-based solidarity initi-
atives, mainly concerned with the distribution of food,
face masks and other essential items – including solidarity
pricing in community markets – to vulnerable groups and
working class people, are taking place around southern
The Zimbabwean and Mozambican diaspora also mobi-
lized to provide solidarity with communities in their home
countries. The support from citizens of these countries
living abroad to their families is not a new practice. For
instance, it is estimated that between  and  million Zim-
babwean citizens living abroad send, all together, millions
of dollars in remittances per year. But Covid- brings
a different sort of sensitivity. The Zimbabwe Covid-
Support Hug was founded with a pretty new spirit:
We are a group of Zimbabwean professionals and re-
searchers in the diaspora and in Zimbabwe. We created
this project as a way to support efforts of Government,
This content downloaded from on Mon, 29 Jun 2020 11:42:55 UTC
All use subject to
civil society and communities in Zimbabwe to respond
to the virus (Interview, Jason Brickhill)
This “hub” has been mobilizing in solidarity to support
and amplify local initiatives and capacity with medical
equipment, testing kits, food items and other type of
The “hub” has also been holding live Q&A sessions
where doctors (both in Zimbabwe and abroad) respond
to questions. “We have been having hundreds of people
asking questions about how to stay safe, about testing, the
use of masks. It is about bringing together different skills
and energy in the community to work together to respond
to the pandemic,” said Brickhill. Together with medical
students in Zimbabwe the “hub” has been able to translate
Covid- information into Shona, Ndebele and Kalanga
(Bantu languages spoken by millions of Zimbabweans).
Some initiatives by the Mozambican diaspora have also
been promoting fundraising campaigns. Recently a group
of diaspora organizations launched a campaign called
“Food for Rural Mozambique,” mobilizing the diaspora
mainly in Europe and the US to support Mozambique.
There was also a webinar in which prominent Mozam-
bican academics and a congress woman representing the
Mozambican diaspora in Europe and the rest of the world
discussed how the country could overcome the crisis and
what role the Mozambican diaspora could play in the
How are these efforts different to charity? Jason Brick-
hill explains the difference:
This content downloaded from on Mon, 29 Jun 2020 11:42:55 UTC
All use subject to
There are few important principles that, at least for us,
distinguish solidarity from charity. For us, part of it is
just personal that we are all connected with our com-
munities and families. At the political level for us it is
important that we are supporting and not supplanting
[emphasis added] local community efforts. We are pro-
moting the actions of people that are in the front line
in the ground. And [also] building networks, reaching
out to different groups, communities and organizations.
South Africa is “home” for millions of migrant people,
especially from neighboring countries such as Zimbabwe,
Mozambique and Malawi. This is due to its economy,
which is historically dependent on immigrant labor, as
well as the geopolitical position South Africa occupies.
South Africa is the second largest African economy after
Nigeria and has a GDP of . billion. Migrants of
these countries are mostly employed in the food, agri-
culture and mining sectors. A huge number of them are,
however, in the so-called informal sector. These people
have been largely left behind by South African govern-
ment support actions – as they generally are under normal
Not surprisingly, , Mozambicans crossed the
Lebombo/Ressano Garcia border alone the day before
the confinement announced by President Cyril Rama-
phosa came into effect. They knew they would be
victims of social exclusion, so they ran away from star-
vation and xenophobia. The South African government
This content downloaded from on Mon, 29 Jun 2020 11:42:55 UTC
All use subject to
has not set a good example in discouraging xenophobia.
In his public announcements, President Cyril Ramaphosa
insists on addressing the public as fellow “South Africans
in a country with millions of non-national citizens. Very
recently, the South African Minister of Finance, Tito Titus
Mboweni, said on public TV that:
Any new establishment wanting to reopen [after the
lockdown] must have a new labour market policy which
priorities South Africans … That is the new economy we
are talking about. People who want to approach banks
or government for funding and so on must demonstrate
that they have a Labour market and employment policy
that favour South Africans.
Under the pretext of avoiding the importation of coro-
navirus into the country, the South African government
announced the construction of a fence on the Beitbridge
border between South Africa and Zimbabwe, costing
South Africans and migrant workers in the country R
million (about  million). It is in this context that a
regional solidarity working group was created in the South
African C Peoples Coalition.
Paula Assubuji, who also works for the Heinrich Boell
Foundation South Africa, explains more:
When we were creating the coalition we paused to think
of how does one build solidarity that goes beyond the
borders of South Africa. Because it was obvious that
this was a global crisis and it was obvious that the issues
would pretty much be similar, although in different
This content downloaded from on Mon, 29 Jun 2020 11:42:55 UTC
All use subject to
contexts, in other societies and the closing down of
South African borders would have a very strong impact
in the region. So we came up with the idea of building
a regional solidarity network that goes beyond South
Africa geographical boarders. So, the coalition felt that
there was a need to reach out to similar networks and
initiatives, also in terms of linking the struggles because
the struggles are intertwined to each other.
The C-People’s Coalition sent a letter on May  to
South Africa’s president Ramaphosa, who is also the
chairperson of the African Union, reminding him that he
has “committed to deepening unity across the Continent,
mainstreaming the needs of women, and champion-
ing the position of Africa globally. And yet, in all of the
Figure 7.2 Food parcels by the People Against Suffering,
Oppression and Poverty (PASSOP) to LGBT people, disabled
refugees and asylum seekers during the national lockdown in
April, Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by Victor
This content downloaded from on Mon, 29 Jun 2020 11:42:55 UTC
All use subject to
public statements communicating South Africas efforts
to fight Covid- [he has] excluded migrants, refugees,
and asylum seekers living in this country. The consistent
lack of recognition fuels xenophobic attitudes and inten-
sifies the human and economic toll of Covid-. It is also
inconsistent with the crisis of the times; the preamble of
the South African constitution and your role as the AU
chair,” reads the letter.
The civil society networks that are emerging around
Covid- are not only focused on the pandemic. They are
“seizing the opportunity” to radicalize demands and thus
push for a restructuring in the balance of forces between
the state, capital and society. And as Chuma Mgcoyi, a
South African permaculture practitioner, says,
solidarity is a must. We don’t have a choice. No one
knows actually what will happen tomorrow and who
will need whom. So, it is a matter of activating Ubuntu
and care for each other, regardless of proximity, borders
or race. We are all in this. (Interview, Chuma Mgcoyi,
South Africa)
This seems to be exactly the case. The position papers and
various statements published by the civil society coali-
tions, mainly in Mozambique and South Africa, demand
a transformation of society that goes beyond fighting the
This content downloaded from on Mon, 29 Jun 2020 11:42:55 UTC
All use subject to
As soon as possible, it is equally urgent that we rethink
the path we are setting out on, and begin to move
towards sustainable social, economic and human devel-
opment. Civil society must be seen as playing a key role
in building active citizenship, for all. This is the chal-
lenge – and also the opportunity – that the Covid-
pandemic presents us with.
(accessed May , ).
. Ibid.
. https://c
bullets/ (accessed April , ).
additional---soldiers/ (accessed May , ).
emb_title (accessed May , ).
/ (accessed May , ).
 (accessed April , ).
. Elisio Macamo, Mozambican scholar and sociologist:
responses/ (accessed May , ).
. (accessed April , ).
(accessed April , ).
. This is the main and most strategic border between Mozam-
bique and South Africa. It is situated between the city of
Komatipoort in Mpumalanga province (South Africa) and
This content downloaded from on Mon, 29 Jun 2020 11:42:55 UTC
All use subject to
the municipality of Ressano Garcia in Maputo province
..html (accessed
April , ).
. SABC News, “SA Lockdown: Minister Mboweni Briefs the
Media on Economic Measures,” April , ,
fence-coronavirus/ (accessed May , ).
. The letter is available here: https://c
ophobia-now/ (accessed May , ).
. https://aliancac (accessed April , ).
This content downloaded from on Mon, 29 Jun 2020 11:42:55 UTC
All use subject to
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Mozambican scholar and sociologist:
  • Elisio Macamo
Elisio Macamo, Mozambican scholar and sociologist: (accessed May 19, 2020).
SA Lockdown: Minister Mboweni Briefs the Media on Economic Measures
  • Sabc News
SABC News, "SA Lockdown: Minister Mboweni Briefs the Media on Economic Measures, " April 25, 2020,