The deep cultural, social and economic impediments to real democracy in Zimbabwe

Jun 3, 2011

Robert Mugabe and ZANU PF have ruled Zimbabwe uninterrupted for 31 years. Once widely popular and respected, it is not surprising that they have had to be increasingly repressive to hold on to power. Elections are faithfully held, but conducted in ways that no longer confer them much credibility.

It is therefore not surprising that many Zimbabweans have equated the coming of 'real' democracy to the defeat of Mugabe and Co, and the coming into power of another group of political actors.

But more Zimbabwean voices are beginning to question this premise. The political parties arrayed against ZANU-PF do not seem to be much more 'democratic' in the conduct of their own affairs than ZANU PF. The many 'civil society' organizations that have sprung up over the years to ostensibly deepen the country's democratic culture likewise are run in ways that are suspiciously reminiscent of ZANU PF.

In the opinion piece How Zanu PF has outwitted opponents by Melusi Nkomo, he says

The most potent reason for the survival of Zanu PF as a ruling party lies not so much in the power of incumbency but within the inherent weaknesses of the civic and the opposition movements in Zimbabwe. Truth be told, a sizeable section of these bodies are comfortable in their perennial struggle or perennial opposition status. This helps explain the incessant power struggles within these movements.

If civil society could be defined as ‘a public space between the state, the market and the ordinary household, in which people can debate and tackle action for common good', the Zimbabwean version of civil society has indeed ceased to be such and shifted from common good to ‘personal aggrandisement.’

Indeed, in a non-performing economy, the civil-society 'industry,' invariably funded by foreign 'donors,' has become a hedge against economic hardship. It's paid officers may well be motivated by high ideals, but they organizations and jobs have also become means of survival like any other in a harsh economic environment. Among other things, this makes the top officials of their organizations often just as reluctant to pass the baton of offices to others as the politicians they often criticize.    

Widely criticized have been the lack of term limits that has allowed Mugabe to be both leader of his party and ruler of the country indefinitely. Yet some of the civil society organizations that are in the forefront of calling for this and other kinds of accountability have awkwardly seen their own rulers violate the letter or spirits of their constitutions to remain in office.

Long serving leader of the National Constitutional Assembly president Lovemore Madhuku is one example, and Lovemore Matombo of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions is another. To much derision, both have chosen to interpret term limit provisions in ways that allow them to stand for elections again, when others maintain they have served their last constitutionally-allowable terms. Like Mugabe, they find ways of justifying hanging on, but do so at the cost of significantly eroded legitimacy to achieve the aims of the office they cling on to so tightly.   

A cultural issue is that the leader is usually socio-culturally accorded powers above and beyond those in the organization's constitution. By and large, it is simply not the done thing to challenge the head of the village/civil society org/political party/church/country. There rarely is a critical mass of members willing to stick their necks out by exercising their constitutional right to challenge the leader in the event of wrong-doing, or just as the normal expression of renewal. Doing so often has real negative consequences which most would rather not incur.

So in many Zimbabwean institutions there is simply not the accepted tradition of challenging the people in charge, even if the paper constitution has provisions for it. This is why a 'better' national constitution alone will not usher in more democracy in Zimbabwe until is also accompanied by widespread change in awareness of the need for ordinary citizens to keep their leaders in check, and a willingness to robustly do so. Bringing about this widespread change in thinking is what a lot of the civil society organisations ostensibly exist for. Given how many of them run their affairs, one can be forgiven for wondering how qualified they are for this role. 

The political parties that promise ill-defined ' democratic change' in their very names have also embarrassed themselves recently by how at odds the behaviour of their top leaders often is with their credos.

When some prominent members of the Movement for Democratic Change-T (MDC-T) failed to be nominated or elected into the national executive of the party, a party structure was created to house them, defeating the whole purpose of having elections.

The small MDC-N recently almost imploded on itself in a nasty, embarrassingly very public fight between two of its leading lights, severely tarnishing their reputations and that of their party.

The personalisation of political power, along with its concentration in the hands of the leader of the organisation, is another facet of the impediment to a genuine democratic tradition in Zimbabwe.

ZANU-PF might as well be called Mugabe and Company, so closely tired have the person of the leader become with the perceived fortunes of the party. The opposition parties have adopted the unfortunate habit of identifying themselves by the names of their current leader. So the MDC-T is that in which Morgan Tsvangirai is leader. The smaller MDC has undergone an awkward, ongoing transition from being the MDC-M led by Arthur Mutambara, to being the MDC-N led by Welshman Ncube. The latter has protested the use of this nomenclature but it partly sticks because two or more separate political entities have clung to the same name. What this naming convention does is to entrench the idea of the party being somehow the 'property' of whoever is leading it.                           
It is becoming apparent that perhaps it will not be simply the change of faces of political parties that will bring about a responsive leadership. Neither will it simply be the adoption of the perfect constitution. An increasing number of Zimbabweans are suggesting that  a more fundamental change in which a heightened sense of what citizenship entails will be what will keep politicians in check, and gradually entrench a real democracy. It will not necessarily be quick or easy.


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