Bridging the gap between rich and poor: A strong middle class is key to achieving democratic transformation in Zimbabwe

A woman carrying two children walks past a garbage dump amid the third wave of the Covid-19 pandemic in Harare, Zimbabwe on 21 April 2021. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Aaron Ufumeli)
A woman carrying two children walks past a garbage dump amid the third wave of the Covid-19 pandemic in Harare, Zimbabwe on 21 April 2021. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Aaron Ufumeli)

David Chikwaza and Anotida Chikumbu

It has gradually become apparent that Zimbabwe’s governing party, Zanu-PF, is perpetually endangering democratic processes by not only weakening, but also dismantling the opposition movement ahead of Zimbabwe’s 2023 general elections.

Its constant and alarming actions — recalling members of the Movement for Democratic Change Alliance (MDC Alliance) from parliament; the passing of the Constitutional Amendment Bill (Number 2); and the abductions, wanton arrests and torture of journalists such as Hopewell Chin’ono and opposition politicians such as Joana Mamombe — serve as evidence of this political brinksmanship.

The call for economic and political reforms is almost turning into a cliché. While some believe it is possible to improve the level of confidence people have in the government through reforming certain practices, others are for regime change. However, it is only possible to achieve both ends of this transformation if certain political and economic incentives are in force.

The million-dollar question that faces us is: What should be done, and who should do what? The answer is that the formation, recreation or revival of a strong middle class in Zimbabwe is key to achieving democratic transformation. There is very little that the international community can do as economically and as efficiently as the people of Zimbabwe can do themselves.

There is a prevailing view that, because Zanu-PF assumed power through militant action, it can only be overthrown by violent campaigns. This is misleading. Violent campaigns and armed rebellions are now more challenging to organise and execute because the state almost always has the upper hand when it comes to the use of force.

Studies have shown that nonviolent campaigns are nearly twice as effective as armed rebellions. In their book Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan examined 323 cases of violent and nonviolent movements to assess which were more effective in achieving their stated goal of regime change.

Much to their surprise, Chenoweth and Stephan found that nonviolent movements were nearly twice as effective as armed action. In Zimbabwe, the transition to democracy and economic recovery is hamstrung by the country’s social strata. These were created by the perennial economic malaise that has over the years made the rich richer and the poor poorer.

Most Zimbabweans have become docile and complicit in Zanu PF’s authoritarianism and economic mismanagement. They have completely distanced themselves from mainstream politics.

Although this owes much to the heavy yoke of unemployment and poverty, and the malevolence of President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s rule, the biggest problem is that there is no real middle class in Zimbabwe.

Today, it is either that you are very poor, or very rich. Put bluntly, the poor are too poor to organise for democratisation. They are usually passive politically, their thoughts primarily concentrated on the more immediate and terribly pressing concerns of where the next mouthful of food will come from and where they will find shelter. They are more concerned about their individual and household welfare than national issues.

Historically, the most important group of people in a political system is the middle class or the bourgeoisie, as Barrington Moore puts it in his book The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World. From the French Revolution of 1789 to the Arab Spring of 2010, no revolution has ever occurred without the middle class, the socioeconomic strata that fall between the working class and the upper class.

This group of doctors, lawyers and teachers emerged as educated and prosperous and initiated campaigns and spread awareness among the lower classes about their rights, which ended up being the dictates of a revolution.

In his book entitled The Rise of an African Middle Class in Colonial Zimbabwe Michael O West notes that in colonial Zimbabwe, the rapid industrialisation and urbanisation of the 1940s and 1950s boosted the rise of an African middle class that was critical to the radicalisation of the nationalist movement from the 1950s onwards.

Following the end of World War 2 in 1945, the few emerging African workers in the civil service and industry began to organise protest movements in response to the discriminatory and oppressive laws passed by the white minority government.

African agitation increased, rather than decreased, during this time. A new crop of nationalists who belonged to this middle-class grouping actively joined the struggle. Educated nationalist leaders such as Robert Mugabe, Bernard Chidzero, Enos Nkala, Herbert Chitepo and Enoch Dumbutshena all flung themselves into the struggle.

It is important to note that socioeconomic status, determined by factors like an individual’s level of education, income and occupation, affects political consciousness significantly. Prosperous and better-educated people are highly likely to participate more in political activities and donate more money to causes than poorer or less educated people. They also have better access to the resources that facilitate political activity, including direct contact with government leaders.

In Zimbabwe today, the ordinary cobbler in Harare, domestic worker in Marondera, bartender in Masvingo, gardener in Mutare and toilet cleaner in Kwekwe do not understand enough about the government, the election process, economic policies or constitutional amendments. Without the right political education, poor people do not feel able to engage with politics, a fact that has previously affected and will obviously affect voter turnout in the 2023 general elections.

It is clear that a large proportion of the poor in Zimbabwe have had enough of the “political elite”, whom they neither trust nor relate to. Both Zanu PF and the MDC Alliance have a track record of breaking manifesto pledges. Recent election campaigns have been full of deceit and even sheer lies in local candidates’ leaflets. In this context, it is not surprising that so many of the poorest people in Zimbabwe choose not to vote. Theirs is not an act of despondency or pessimism — for they are often intensely political — but of disgust.

More than ever before, we need to create a socioeconomic and political environment that will give birth to a responsible citizenry that will make it difficult for dictators to rule and tyranny to prevail. Although this is a long-term rather than short-term remedy for our political and economic problems, we really need a strong and established middle class that can bridge the gap between the poor and the rich, and incentivise democratisation.

High-income private players should fund investment in human capital accumulation. Such investments would stimulate growth and empower the people who will emerge as a strong middle class, to nurture political and social stability. Elites in all societies utilise their superior access to the political system to protect their interests, in the absence of a counteracting democratic mobilisation to rectify the status quo, and Zimbabwean elites are no exception to this rule. Democratic mobilisation will not happen if we do not have a middle class that can exert pressure on the government.

Zimbabwe’s current constitution does not only prescribe a particular political system, but also a specific economic one, one characterised by a real middle class and relatively little inequality. A strong middle class inspires a feeling of a common purpose and shared destiny, without which the system of government will disintegrate. DM/MC – Maverick Citizen

  • Anotida Chikumbu is a historian and political economist. He is a PhD candidate and assistant lecturer in the department of history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. David Anodiwanashe Chikwaza is a researcher and scholar of political science and international development studies.


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