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Civic Activism
Address to Mbare Stakeholders' Conference
August 2001

Mbare, Harare
Civic society is not a new concept but it is one that is regaining popular support as people realise that they need to take action to arrest the decline in our society on all levels. For too long we have been content to let "leaders" tell us what to do or what is good for us and now that we can see where this has led us, we realise that we have to take responsibility for our lives, our community and our environment.

Each member of a community is a guardian of the rules and values of that society. If we as individuals do not guard the society in which we live, the very fabric of society will erode and disappear. However if these rules are made by people with no concern for our well-being, then how can we respect such rules?

Therefore the first step is to assert ownership of the rules of our society and this is where residents' associations play such an important role - in re-establishing citizens as the primary members of society - not politicians, not officials but ordinary people who pay taxes, rates and charges. These are the people who should determine the future of our city. The officials who treat you with such rudeness when you query your account must be made to realise that they are our employees and are there to serve our needs - you are not a nuisance to be chased away while they sit out the gap between paydays.

However there are major problems trying to confront such officials as an indivdual. When you are out in the country and you sit under a tree to rest, if an ant bites you, you merely crush it between your fingers but if there is a whole ant's nest, you will get up and move. Equally with civic matters, until you have the support of your fellow citizens, you will fight a lonely battle indeed, one you will often lose.

Residents Associations open up a way to communicate with officials that cannot be ignored in the way that an indivdual can be. The official that is brave enough to do so will not last long in his job because he will provke the anger of the community and will no longer be able to carry out his duties.

The first step then is to ensure that your community is in support of the residents association. You cannot do this unless you engage the community, reflecting their wishes, dealing with their problems. Regular, open and democratic public meetings are essential. Find a community project like clean-ups or vegetable gardening that can show the community that you do not only spend time talking.

Your committees must not be a clique of self-serving would-be politicians using the residents association to get ahead or as a starting point to election to council.

A good measure of how democratic an Association might be is to look at how they deal with opposition. Does your committee shout a lot and does the loudest voice win the debate? It is said that an empty drum makes the most noise and those that shout loudest are normally the least helpful members of society, interested only in their own agendas. A democrat listens to criticism and uses it to improve his or her performance.

A residents association must represent a wide range of views since its members are only united by geography - if your residents association allows itself to be used to push a party political agenda, it will not be representing the community and may in fact end up damaging the very community that it is intended to help. This is not to say that you should be afraid of so-called political issues - the very act of levying rates is political because politics is really about who gets what in society and if the Council takes our money to spend, that is itself a political act. The fact that roads are maintained in Borrowdale but not Mbare is a political decision. So do not get side-tracked or disheartened by those who say they won't join your residents association because it's "political" - just reply "yes - so what?".

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