Since the late 1990s, the Zimbabwean political landscape has been acutely polarized along political lines. This political polarization became particularly grave after the formation of a strong opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), in 1998. This political polarization heightened political hostilities and violence, especially between the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party and the main opposition, the MDC. At the height of this violence in 2008, Mbare became one of the epicenters of political violence after the emergence of a youth militia group aligned with the ruling ZANU-PF party, named Chipangano. Chipangano created a network of violent political mobilization centered around Mbare’s popular markets such as Mbare Musika, Mupedzanhamo, and Magaba Siyaso, among other spaces in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare. This militia group used threats, intimidation, and violence to grab and govern economically strategic spaces such as markets, public plaza termini, and low-income flats, among other things, as part of its rent-seeking practices. In a context of skyrocketing youth unemployment, dwindling economic and livelihood opportunities, and systemic economic and political marginalization, many young people were compelled to join Chipangano, while others were forcibly conscripted into this militia group and its attendant violent networks of political mobilization and rent-seeking practices.
Although many young people were and are implicated in long-term political violence in Mbare specifically and in the country more generally, some have resisted and denounced conscription into these violent networks in creative ways.1See Rose Jaji, “Youth Masculinities, Marginalization, and Peacebuilding in Zimbabwe,” Kujenga Amani, September 24, 2020; https://kujenga-amani.ssrc.org/2020/09/24/youth-masculinities-marginalization-and-peacebuilding-in-zimbabwe/ (accessed May 6, 2022). This category of youths is the focus of this article. It examines the ways in which young people in Mbare navigated these violent networks and instrumentalized the same market spaces and other grassroots techniques to foster everyday peacebuilding. Scholars have argued that traditional ideas of peace framed around liberal institutionalism pay little attention to the grassroots/local and the actors who inhabit such spaces.2Helen Berents, “An Embodied Everyday Peace in the Midst of Violence,” Peacebuilding, Vol. 3, Issue 2, 2015: 1-14. 2021. For Berents, the concept of “everyday peace” takes seriously the agency and activities of those frequently marginalized or excluded while simultaneously using embodied experiences as the basis for a more responsive way of understanding peace. Following this, I use the concept of “everyday peacebuilding” to argue that, in a context of systematic exclusion and marginalization, young people in Mbare have resorted to informal, creative, and alternative ways of transforming conflicts and peacebuilding. However, in Zimbabwe, community-based and informal peacebuilding is a precarious practice and often places actors in confrontation with the state and its repressive apparatus. Many youth peacebuilders demanding basic rights, transparency, and accountability from the government are framed as unpatriotic dissidents or “sell-outs” and face state brutality, abductions, imprisonment, and death. It is this first-hand experience of political violence and precariousness that mediates the youth’s peacebuilding agency and the adoption of creative everyday peacebuilding beyond the purview of the Zimbabwean state.
Social Media and Peacebuilding
Some young people in Mbare have instrumentalized social media platforms to engender active citizenship and nonviolent activism. For instance, Anthony, a respondent, told me that he was an active member of #ThisFlag, which mobilized supporters through social media and deployed nonviolent messages and methods to engage the brutal state. This movement was born in 2016 and was led by Evan Mawarire, a young and charismatic pastor. Similarly, a number of other young people were part of #Tajamuka/Sesjikile, #OccupyMarketSquare, and #ThisGown, which were all youth-led and coalesced their activities to form a combined force that demanded accountability, transparency, respect for human rights, and decent jobs from the state.3See Simbarashe Gukurume, “|#ThisFlag and#ThisGown cyber protests in Zimbabwe: Reclaiming political space,” African Journalism Studies, 38(2), 49-70, 2017. The influence and rapid growth of these youth-led movements rattled the government and forced the government to respond through a cybercrime bill and brutality against the movement’s activists. In a context marked by authoritarianism, gerontocratic violence, and dwindling civic spaces, many young people asserted that social media was the only accessible discursive space to them where they could freely engage in peace and political issues.
One of the important ways that youths used social media to build peace was through the dissemination of peace messages, countering online violence and online mobilization for violence as well as hate speech and state propaganda. This resonates with the observations made by scholars that social media enables the widespread reach of youth-led peacebuilding initiatives online. Indeed, in Zimbabwe, #ThisFlag and #Tajamuka became transnational movements through the use of social media in their mobilization. Although these movements were born online, they quickly became an offline force through various activities such as handing petitions to parliament and the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe among other places of strategic importance.
Informality and peacebuilding
The informal economy has allowed many young people in Mbare to navigate violence and violent networks in Mbare. Although the informal economy is politicized, many young people have gained economic autonomy that has empowered many of them to resist manipulation by political elites and mobilization into political violence. In an interview with Isaac, a street vendor and resident of Mbare, he asserted that;
Many young people join militias and vigilante groups like Chipangano because they have nothing to do and because they have no source of income and livelihood. So after 2014, we started pooling our resources to support each other to start small trading like selling second-hand clothes or vegetables, and since then we have seen less youth participation in political violence.
Issac’s narrative encapsulates the ways in which the informal economy penetrates the everyday micropolitics of peacebuilding and livelihood construction. In my conversations and interviews, it emerged that participation in the informal economy significantly reduced the willingness of young people to be mobilized into violent political networks. As such, the informal economy and marketplaces allowed youth to claim agency in a politically charged and polarized space.
At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, the government invoked the Public Health Statutory Instrument 77 of 2020 to shut down all Mbare markets as potential hotspots for the spread of the Covid-19 virus. The closure of the markets had a devastating effect on the lives and livelihoods of many youth vendors, but also provided an opportunity to forge convivial relationships that transcended political affiliation as people sought ways of getting by and making ends meet. After the lockdown eased, some markets reopened, but others remained shut. During this time, young people organized sports activities that brought youths from across the political divide together. As one of my interlocutors, Tapiwa, explained;
We organize soccer matches as youths to entertain ourselves and also to cement the solidarity of the community. We deliberately decided that we have teams that mix ruling party and opposition-aligned youths/vendors. In this way, we showed that we are one and that we can be a team regardless of our different political orientations.
During fieldwork, I participated in these football matches at the Mupedzanhamo market, a second-hand clothing market that has remained closed since early 2020. In my team, we had five youth aligned with ZANU-PF and five youth aligned with MDC. Our competitor also had a politically cosmopolitan team. These activities constructed socialities and convivialities that transcend political divisions and helped reduce political hostilities among youth. Young people told me during interviews and informal conversations that they were fed up and tired of the politically polarizing discourse propagated by old politicians. Theirs was a new politics marked by what they called “generational consensus” that was based on nonpartisan civic activism from across a myriad of spaces. Indeed, one of my interlocutors, Tinotenda, told me that for the first time they organized combined youth day celebrations with young people from all political parties. Tatenda stated that;
We have realized that if we are not united as young people, we will continue to be used and marginalized. We need to unite and have a collective voice to make an impact and for our concerns and voices to be heard in society and the corridors of power.
Tawanda’s use of “we” foregrounds the dominant narrative of generational consensus in the demand for inclusion in both economic and political processes. Indeed, through collective voice and agency, young people have compelled the government to consider a youth quota in parliament, a proposal that was being discussed as a bill in parliament during my fieldwork.
Popular Music and Peacebuilding
Some young people have begun to use popular arts and, more particularly, music to promote peacebuilding in Mbare. The community of Mbare is regarded as the manufacturing space of a new and popular musical genre called Zimdancehall. Produced in backyard and semi-professional studios in poor neighborhoods of Harare such as Mbare, Zimdancehall music has taken over the country’s musical landscape by storm, and many young and aspiring artists now spend much of their time making and recording music, as well as performing at community and other functions. Although many scholars underscore that Zimdancehall music promotes violent masculinities and subjectivities among the youth, a fact which is undeniable, that dominant and essentialist framing of Zimdancehall obfuscates the complexity of this genre of music and ignores the role that many other Zimdancehall artists are playing in promoting peace and development, as well as offering an alternative source of income and livelihood to many young people.
Indeed, many scholars have shown how youth instrumentalize popular music as a space through which everyday understandings of peace are performed and articulated.4See Ibrahim Bangura, Young People, Music, and Sociopolitical Change in Postwar Sierra Leone, In, Paul Ugor (ed.), Youth and Popular Culture in Africa: Media, Music and Politics, University of Rochester Press, 2021; See also, C. Baker, “Veteran masculinities and audiovisual popular music in post-conflict Croatia: a feminist aesthetic approach to the contested everyday peace,” Peacebuilding, 7(2), 2019, 226-242. This is in keeping with Ragandang,5P. Rangandang, “Social Media and Youth Peacebuilding Agency: The Case from Muslim Mindanao,” Journal of Peacebuilding and Development, Vol. 15, Issue 3, 2020: 348-261. who asserts that youth exercise their peacebuilding agency within the structures that resonate with their everyday life.
Young Zimdancehall artists use music to reproach old and violent politicians who mobilize young people for violence. In addition, music-making and community performances also provide a space for reconciliation and peacebuilding. Several backyard music producers often organize musical concerts and record songs that promote peaceful co-existence in the community. A meticulous analysis of the songs and lyrics of some Zimdancehall artists reveals how young people are using this genre of music as a space for articulating counter-hegemonic discourses and narratives while simultaneously providing peacebuilding edutainment. For instance, some backyard Zimdancehall producers in Mbare created what they called “One Clan Riddim.” The “riddim” was meant to unite not only young artists from various recording labels but also the Mbare community as a whole. A young artist explained to me that One Clan Riddim was their community anthem, which united the artists and the whole community. For instance, at one of the concerts I attended, artists shared the stage and sang their verses on the One Clan Riddim while urging the crowd to sing along. Some of the symbolic songs on this riddim include “Huya Titangidze” (Come and let us start again), “Ghetto Rese” (The Whole Ghetto), “Clean Up,” and “One Love.” A popular Zimdancehall producer asserted that;
The One Clan Riddim was meant to unite all the Zimdancehall artists and the community of Mbare as a whole, to say Zimdancehall and Mbare are one family.
“One clan” and “One love” were inspired by Bob Marley’s popular song “One Love,” which was performed at Zimbabwe’s independence celebrations in 1980 to foster peace, togetherness, and reconciliation between black and white people.
Interestingly, some of the Chipangano youth who terrorized real and perceived opposition party supporters in Mbare have begun to openly speak out and denounce political violence. For example, Jim Kunaka, the former leader of Chipangano and the provincial youth leader of ZANU-PF, publicly apologized for his role in the political violence in Mbare. Kunaka explained;
The violence that I committed was not my fault, it was the system for which I was working: the ZANU-PF system, because I was working on orders. I used to be Saul, but now I am Paul. In politics, we should not be violent, but we should have dialogue. We no longer want to be used as youth, we have been used and we have committed violence, but enough is enough, we did all that out of ignorance during our ZANU-PF days.
Kunaka’s deployment of biblical figures and his open renunciation of his past violent identity and his previous involvement in political violence in Mbare are fascinating in what they reveal about the configuration of political subjectivities of young people. Although his case is unique, his narrative powerfully resonates with many other former Chipangano members, some of whom regret and seek to make a complete break from their violent past. After leaving ZANU-PF, Kunaka started mobilizing youth in and around Mbare to combat state corruption. For instance, Kunaka actively mobilized youth for the 31 July 2020 protests against skyrocketing rates of corruption. In a video that circulated on social media platforms, Kunaka provided justification for mobilizing the youth to protest;
The problem of corruption has left many of us youth impoverished and the issue of people who are looting state resources has left us in abject poverty. We want all youth to come to the protest tomorrow. We have agreed that no one will loot, no one will damage any property, we will not stone any cars, and we will not destroy anything during the protest. We are fighting corruption by political elites and their cronies. To ZANU-PF youth, I say to you not to be used, I was once used and I have been there and done that, but do not accept being manipulated to do violence against peaceful protestors.
In addition to mobilizing youth in Mbare and Harare, Kunaka also actively participated in and testified at the Motlanthe commission after the killing of several people by state security agents during a protest.6Blessed Mhlanga, “Ex-Zanu PF terror leader spills the beans”. NewsDay, November 22, 2018; https://www.newsday.co.zw/2018/11/ex-zanu-pf-terror-leader-spills-the-beans/ (accessed May 8, 2022). In his submissions at the commission of inquiry into the 2018 post-election violence that led to the fatal shooting of six civilians by the military, Kunaka asserted that the only political party with a military wing is ZANU-PF and they also have a militia wing trained at Border Gezi National Youth Service bases.7https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zRoSSaSM5tU&ab_channel=SABCNews (accessed May 8, 2022). ZimLive “Jim Kunaka on Zanu PF’s history of violence, and complicity of security services”, November 25; 2018https://www.zimlive.com/2018/11/25/jim-kunaka-on-zanu-pfs-history-of-violence-and-complicity-of-security-services/ (accessed May 8, 2022). The transformation of Kunaka from a leader of youth militias and a kingpin of violence in Mbare is fascinating in showing young people’s agency in grassroots peacebuilding.
Engagement in peacebuilding in Zimbabwe is a precarious practice, and young people’s role and agency in peace processes have often been overlooked. Yet many young people devise creative and alternative ways of contributing to everyday peacebuilding in their communities. This reveals the ways in which young people appropriate social media, popular music, and the informal economy to nurture and articulate their peacebuilding agency and navigate violent political networks. However, the configuration of this agency occurs in a constraining context characterized by state surveillance and violence of monumental proportions. Consequently, young people are compelled to resort to subtle and informalized practices of everyday building. On this basis, I assert that peacebuilding initiatives located within the mundane practices of the youth population’s everyday lives are more likely to be sustainable and more effective.
Simbarashe Gukurume holds a PhD from the University of Cape Town (UCT), South Africa and an MSc in Sociology and Social Anthropology, as well as a BSc in Sociology from the University of Zimbabwe, and is a social scientist working at the intersections of Sociology and Social Anthropology. He is a senior lecturer at the Department of Social Sciences, Sol Plaatje University, South Africa. Simbarashe is interested in questions around youth, informality, livelihoods, peacebuilding, religiosity, displacement, social and political movements, and other forms of everyday lives in contexts of protracted socio-economic and political crisis. He has been a recipient of the Matasa Network Fellowship award, IDS (University of Sussex), the Harry Frank Guggenheim Young African Scholars award, the Social Science Research Council’s (SSRC’s) Next Generation Social Science in Africa (NextGen) fellowship award, the SSRC’s African Peacebuilding Network (APN) Individual Research fellowship award and the Academy for African Urban Diversity (AAUD) award among others. Simbarashe is also a Salzburg Global Seminar fellow. His recent publications appear in the International Journal of Transitional Justice, Third World Thematics, African Identities, Journal of Southern African Studies, Political Psychology, and the Extractive Industries and Society, among other peer-reviewed journals.
- 1See Rose Jaji, “Youth Masculinities, Marginalization, and Peacebuilding in Zimbabwe,” Kujenga Amani, September 24, 2020; https://kujenga-amani.ssrc.org/2020/09/24/youth-masculinities-marginalization-and-peacebuilding-in-zimbabwe/ (accessed May 6, 2022).
- 2Helen Berents, “An Embodied Everyday Peace in the Midst of Violence,” Peacebuilding, Vol. 3, Issue 2, 2015: 1-14. 2021.
- 3See Simbarashe Gukurume, “|#ThisFlag and#ThisGown cyber protests in Zimbabwe: Reclaiming political space,” African Journalism Studies, 38(2), 49-70, 2017.
- 4See Ibrahim Bangura, Young People, Music, and Sociopolitical Change in Postwar Sierra Leone, In, Paul Ugor (ed.), Youth and Popular Culture in Africa: Media, Music and Politics, University of Rochester Press, 2021; See also, C. Baker, “Veteran masculinities and audiovisual popular music in post-conflict Croatia: a feminist aesthetic approach to the contested everyday peace,” Peacebuilding, 7(2), 2019, 226-242.
- 5P. Rangandang, “Social Media and Youth Peacebuilding Agency: The Case from Muslim Mindanao,” Journal of Peacebuilding and Development, Vol. 15, Issue 3, 2020: 348-261.
- 6Blessed Mhlanga, “Ex-Zanu PF terror leader spills the beans”. NewsDay, November 22, 2018; https://www.newsday.co.zw/2018/11/ex-zanu-pf-terror-leader-spills-the-beans/ (accessed May 8, 2022).
- 7https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zRoSSaSM5tU&ab_channel=SABCNews (accessed May 8, 2022). ZimLive “Jim Kunaka on Zanu PF’s history of violence, and complicity of security services”, November 25; 2018https://www.zimlive.com/2018/11/25/jim-kunaka-on-zanu-pfs-history-of-violence-and-complicity-of-security-services/ (accessed May 8, 2022).