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Mutsa Murenje, PhD
Affiliation: Northern Territory Government, Department of Education, Australia

Politics and social work: Building a case for radical social work approaches in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe has been politically independent for over four decades, having gained independence from Great Britain in April 1980 (Government of Zimbabwe, 2022; National Archives of Australia, 2020). Despite its independence, the country struggles on several fronts, largely socio-politically and economically. For almost 40 years, the late Robert Mugabe dominated Zimbabwean politics as the country’s political leader. It was only in November 2017 that Mugabe’s rule was brought to an abrupt end through a military coup. He was replaced by his faithful political supporter, Emmerson Mnangagwa of the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU – PF) (Fabricius, 2017). Since then, Mnangagwa has proven to be far worse than Mugabe and is notorious for his excessive human rights violations. Mugabe contributed to the destruction of a once adored country and Mnangagwa is continuing the destruction (Burke, 2019; Chacha & Powell, 2018; Moyo, 2018).

More surprising is the deafening silence from Zimbabwean social workers who, admittedly, are operating in especially difficult circumstances (Muchanyerei, 2017). This article will highlight the destructive nature of Zimbabwean politics by focusing on its venomous effects on human lives and livelihoods. The author argues that the horrendous life circumstances in Zimbabwe are unnecessary and quite preventable. A case is made for radical social work practice by challenging Zimbabwean social workers to find their voice and reverse current conditions and trends.

Zimbabwe since 1980

At independence in 1980, Zimbabwe held promise for its citizenry, and many had hoped to live in peace, quiet, and prosperity. It is not an unusual expectation for people who have realised political freedom to have all their basic needs met and to live in a national environment in which their rights and preferences are respected and legally protected. One would assume that Zimbabwe would have by now, achieved its autarky or economic independence especially given the duration of its political independence. The need for economic freedom cannot be overemphasised. Empirical studies point to a very strong correlation between economic freedom and such issues as democracy, poverty alleviation, greater per capita wealth, cleaner environments, and healthier societies. This is particularly true for people who have been condemned to the ravages of poverty and deprivation for decades (The Heritage Foundation, 2022).

Good governance and democratic ideals remain a Herculean challenge in Zimbabwe. The ruling party, ZANU – PF does not tolerate political competition and dissent. This has been evident from the so-called Gukurahundi atrocities that saw the murder of more than 20,000 Ndebele minority by the Zimbabwean government between 1982 and 1987. Alexander (2021) described Gukurahundi as ‘[a] period of terrible state repression’ (p. 763) which characterised the early years of the Zimbabwean nation. For Alexander, what is even more disturbing is the noisy silence surrounding the Gukurahundi atrocities at a time when the perpetrators are still in power, without having been held accountable for such cowardly and dastardly acts.

Even now, ZANU – PF appears to be determined to make the struggle for a free, just, and democratic Zimbabwe infinitely longer, with serious negative ramifications on the lives of ordinary Zimbabweans. Authoritarian tendencies and repression have worsened in Zimbabwe as Mnangagwa continues to maintain militaristic kind of rule (Freedom House, 2021). As Murenje and Porter (2021) observed, Mugabe might have been heavily criticised for flagrant human rights violations but Mnangagwa ‘has taken the country in a very retrogressive, oppressive, and anfractuous direction that threatens not only the people’s fundamental freedoms but also their very lives. … it is becoming increasingly evident that the post-Mugabe situation in Zimbabwe has worsened’ (p. 43).

The observations by Human Rights Watch (2021) were strikingly similar as they reported about the abduction and torture of at least 70 government critics in 2020. Despite all these violations, the voice of Zimbabwean social workers remained unheard. This is quite unacceptable, particularly in the face of these ugly realities that people are forced to experience in Zimbabwe. Surely, social workers have a legitimate role to play in saving lives, reducing suffering, maintaining the inherent dignity of human beings, and improving living conditions.

In 2000, the Zimbabwean government embarked on a chaotic and extremely violent land reform program that purported to reverse historical imbalances and injustices associated with land ownership in Zimbabwe. The effects of this noble but ill-conceived program were felt throughout the country as the Zimbabwean economy collapsed, leaving millions of people unemployed and battling against famine and starvation as total agricultural output dropped to its lowest levels (Hammond & Tupy, 2018). The Centre for Public Impact (2017), for instance, noted that the land reform program in Zimbabwe failed to meet its intended outcomes as it ‘resulted instead in violence, a lack of legitimacy in land ownership, and a chronic weakening of the country’s agricultural infrastructure, all of which have contributed to Zimbabwe’s deteriorating social and economic conditions’ (para. 2). Gumede (2018) made similar observations suggesting that Zimbabwe was agriculturally self-sufficient before the land reform program. Conversely, Zimbabwe now imports virtually most products due to disrupted food production. Gumede (2018) concluded that the land reform program in Zimbabwe failed remarkably in that it:did not empower the genuine subsistence, small and medium and emerging commercial black farmers. It did not upscale them, give them access to finance, help them to adopt new production methods and diversify their products, or secure markets for them (para. 19).

Likewise, Murenje (2020) noted that a declining Zimbabwean economy had left millions of Zimbabweans poverty-stricken as its economy struggled to provide the much-needed employment opportunities and remuneration. Condemned to a life of endless suffering, many Zimbabweans scarcely had access to food and their savings in financial institutions. Consequently, acute poverty and deprivation contributed to unprecedented emigration patterns from Zimbabwe as citizens sought economic refuge in places they believed could forfend them from the poverty and destitution they experienced in Zimbabwe (Aljazeera, 2019; Famine Early Warning Systems Network, 2018; Murenje, 2020).

Several scholars have attributed Zimbabwean migration to South Africa to poor salaries (e.g., de Jager & Musuva, 2016; Madziyire, 2017; Mapepa & Adekoye, 2019; Serumaga-Zake, 2017). It is also estimated that more than three million Zimbabweans have emigrated (Murenje, 2020). Without a doubt, economic instability in Zimbabwe makes it increasingly difficult for needy families to meet their quotidian needs. World Vision (2018) reported that 72 percent of the Zimbabwean population lived in consumption poverty. Further, Zimbabwean workers were reportedly inadequately compensated, going for months without any form of pay due to an ongoing economic crisis. In late 2019, for example, inflation reportedly reached 300 percent, making Zimbabwe notorious for being the worst place to work (Freedom House, 2021). In 2017, a measly 15.5 percent of the workforce had formal employment contracts, and this exposed many workers to abuse and exploitation (Freedom House, 2021). This created high levels of desperation particularly for the 1.6 million orphaned and vulnerable children that World Vision (2018) described as being in dire need of care and protection. Without a doubt, the Zimbabwean situation was so tragic that men, women, and children all engaged in forced begging, agricultural labour, and domestic work in conditions that placed women and girls at risk of sex trafficking (Freedom House, 2021).

Opportunities for radical social work in Zimbabwe

In view of the foregoing, there appears to be overwhelming circumstantial evidence to suggest that Zimbabwe is socio-politically and economically a nation in distress. In other words, Zimbabwe fits the definitional criteria of a nation-state that is dangerously ill and requiring constant attention and supervision. This calls for radical social work approaches. As Rogowski (2020) noted, radical social work ‘seeks social justice and social change and has an emancipatory potential’ (para. 4). For instance, given social work’s roots in human rights and social justice, this author views social and political action as a functional prerequisite needed of social workers to reverse and/or meliorate the hazardous conditions in which Zimbabweans live and work.

The current Zimbabwean situation demands, as it were, the use of hazmat suits due to the level of risk that the current government poses. Through social and political action, Zimbabwean social workers will be demonstrating their commitment to respecting human rights and promoting social justice, all of which is consonant with cardinal social work values (British Association of Social Workers, 2014). Such action is likely to facilitate the meeting of human needs and development of human potential. This might as well result in the empowerment and liberation of the oppressed masses in Zimbabwe. Perchance this explains why Muchanyerei (2017) was quite vociferous in his advocating for more social work visibility in Zimbabwe. He called for vehemence and public denunciations and condemnations of social injustices by Zimbabwean social workers, without fear or favour and regardless of who the perpetrators of rights violations might be. That is a desirable position in modern-day Zimbabwe.

The education and training of social workers remains paramount. Research on strategies that effectively confront unjust leaders is needed. For radical social work approaches to be effective, social workers in Zimbabwe ought to be skilled advocates who are knowledgeable about policy and political systems that have negative effects on their practice. In this sense, social group work could also be expanded as social workers need to work cooperatively and collaboratively with government and nongovernment agencies for advocacy and problem-solving purposes (Muchanyerei, 2017; Palmer, 2010).


The Zimbabwean condition remains tragic. There is sufficient fertility to embrace radical social work approaches to facilitate equal access to essential resources and opportunities meant to meet basic human needs. The role of social workers in this regard cannot be overstated. Nonetheless, sustainable change and development in Zimbabwe calls for articulate and knowledgeable social work advocates who work cooperatively and collaboratively with others and who pay close attention to the importance of education and training and research in their practice. Without Zimbabwean social workers taking the suggested actions, social workers will be mere instruments of the presiding government who will perpetuate the injustice.


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