Learning from crises: state-citizen relations in the time of cholera

The cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe in 2008 was the worst ever recorded in Africa. There were nearly 100,000 infections and some 4,300 deaths. The disease swept through the crowded urban areas in particular, and spilled across the borders to neighbouring countries. The deadly bacterium caused illness and death, but also new forms of politics in its wake.

A fascinating new paper by Simukai Chigudu has recently been published in African Affairs, entitled The Politics of Cholera, Crisis and Citizenship in Urban Zimbabwe. Based on recall interviews 7-8 years on, the paper reflects on how the spread of cholera was not a ‘natural’ disaster, but one that was created by the fundamental failures of the state. It was, in the words of Paul Farmer, a form of ‘structural violence’, where poor and marginalised people living in townships where the housing, water and sanitation infrastructure had decayed were exposed to the disease, and ‘died like flies’, to quote one of the paper’s informants.

The cholera outbreak was unquestionably a major health crisis, but it was also a significant political moment, coming as it did on the back of accelerating economic chaos, hyperinflation and infrastructural collapse. I remember the period well. This was the moment when things really did seem to be falling apart. A friend of mine, working then in Beitbridge, was hospitalised, and nearly died. Luckily for him, South African doctors came across the border bringing rehydration medicines. Others were less lucky.

Forging new political subjectivities

The paper makes the case that the response to the crisis was not post-political coping and adaptation (as suggested by much of the ‘resilience’ literature), but one that forged new political subjectivities (relationships between citizens and the state, and other sources of authority). The failure of the state to provide safety and security – part of the modernising, developmental project of the post-Independence years – was laid bare. A politics of ‘disposability’ was generated. The state did not care; people were disposable.

The paper shines a light on the changing relationships between the state and (poor, urban) citizens in this period. The paper is rather vague about the sampling of informants, but a mix of cholera survivors, government officials, local activists and others are interviewed. The paper admits that most were positioned as against the ZANU-PF government when the research took place in 2015-16, but not all were signed-up members of the opposition. Given the locations of the research, this is of course not surprising, but the narratives inevitably offer a particular position, particularly as honed by the intervening years.

The paper argues that “despite their sense of abandonment by the state—a politics of disposability—and despite their claims to substantive citizenship from the state—a politics of expectation—townships residents also exhibit a remarkable politics of adaptation in how they negotiated and survived the cholera crisis”.

These politics, the paper suggests, were generative of a new form of citizenship emerging from the crisis that rejects a corrupt and ineffective state and creates new forms of social and political belonging.

Drought, hunger and crisis in rural areas: comparative reflections

In reading the paper, I was struck both by the parallels and contrasts with how crises of drought and hunger are faced in rural settings. Clearly, a cholera outbreak is far more dramatic. Mortality rates without treatment can be up to 50 percent. A drought is more of a slow-onset disaster, where direct threats to life, at least in Zimbabwe, are much lower. This year another El  Niño event is unfolding, with predictions of food deficits in certain parts of the country.

Yet vulnerabilities to drought-induced food insecurity are not ‘natural’ either. Those without access to food are often the structurally vulnerable, those without ‘entitlements’ (to use Amartya Sen’s term). It is not absolute lack of food that causes famine but its distribution and the politics of access. This is why the annual numbers game around the people likely to face food insecurity is so problematic.

Drought crises too produce new forms of political subjectivity. Since Independence, the Zimbabwean state has always provided the guarantee that no one will starve. Food aid will be provided in some form. This was the social-political contract with the communal area population offered by the ZANU-PF government. But, just as in the urban areas where the party state has abandoned people, new political relations are being forged in the rural areas. Those in the communal areas are frequently reliant on projects from donors, with the state almost completely absent, while those in resettlement areas, where donors choose not to operate, often feel that the offer of land reform has not been followed up with support and investment.

In the context of drought crises, food aid, it seems, is increasingly politicised and selective. This is not a contract with all citizens, but is reliant on conditions. This might be showing party membership and allegiance, for example, in areas where the government delivers food aid, or participating in certain projects, where it is NGOs who are in the lead. Crises always provide moments to exert control, generate patronage relations and create new forms of citizenship.

In the narratives of people, drought – or El  Niño, which entered popular discourse particularly during the 1997-98 event – is related to politics very explicitly. In interviews we did in Chivi in 1997-98 (draft report here), El  Niño was described as a ‘wind that brought bad things’. Fingers were variously pointed at South Africa, Britain, local ‘witches’, failure to appease certain spirts and the state. Drought was not just a climatic phenomenon, but one that reflected political relations; just as was the case for cholera.

Things (don’t quite) fall apart

The overriding narrative of Chigudu’s paper is one of despair, neglect and anger. People feel abandoned, neglected and disposable. More than ten years on, the riots last month are witness to how these feelings have festered and grown. The failure of the state and the political system more broadly is the central storyline.

For sure, this is certainly part of the story of the last decade or more. However, the paper, perhaps surprisingly, doesn’t nuance this with any analysis of what – despite everything – was working. The mortalities from cholera were shocking, but were in the end 5 percent not 50. This was in large part due to deeply committed and massively underpaid state health professionals who were able to treat people, and encourage more effective hygiene and preventive measures. There were of course outsiders – including finance via NGOs and the South African doctors who saved the life of my friend – but there were also government doctors, nurses and health assistants, operating in decrepit hospitals and clinics with limited medicines across the country.

Chigudu’s paper emphasises a common refrain about how the Zimbabwean state has been captured by a military-security elite, and how the modernising bureaucracy no longer functions. Research on the prisons service and the Attorney General’s office, for example, shows just how politicised (and sometimes militarised) some parts of the bureaucracy have become.

Yet, as Chigudu argued in an appearance in the UK parliament a few weeks back, assuming the state – and government agencies – are all the same is deeply problematic. Sectors such as health (and also in some parts of the system, agriculture) retain committed professionals who, under extremely difficult situations, are continuing to operate (indeed the same goes for those areas of the bureaucracy that are highly politicised, as discussed in an earlier blog). Technocrats and service professionals are frequently deeply committed to their jobs, and in the case of disease outbreaks and severe droughts, saving lives.

As discussed in the parliamentary evidence session, sanctions in 2008 (which are still in place and according to the UK Africa minister may be extended) meant that support to confront cholera was fragmented, as sanctions prevented international aid – from DfID and others – being channelled through the state. NGOs had to deliver, with funds disbursed by UN agencies. External aid was unquestionably significant, but as Chigudu argued in his evidence, it could probably have saved more lives if a more coordinated approach was allowed, involving committed government officials in the ministry of health.

As the paper shows, crises are always political. And, in Zimbabwe’s fraught context, this applies not only to the reframing of political subjectivities of township dwellers confronting cholera or rural people facing drought, but also the relationships between the state, civil society and external players, including donors. The current crisis – including a recent, but thankfully more contained, cholera outbreak starting in September last year – is of course generating new state-citizen political dynamics, with uncertain consequences.

This is the second of a short series of blogs profiling recent papers on Zimbabwe. This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland. Photo credit: WHO/Paul Garwood

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