Perhaps Zimbabwe’s real problem is of dysfunctional values needing change, not just bad politics

Dec 1, 2011

by Chido Makunike

It is understandable that many Zimbabweans look to the political arena for the big answers to the many problems that plague their country. Many hope a pivotal election in the next year or so will be clean and decisive enough to set a clear direction and provide certainty for the country in a way it seems to lack now. Could this reposing of trust in the political process be misplaced?

Perhaps the country’s deeper problem is of a deeply distorted value system that needs to be corrected before the political or any one other system can work for the benefit of the country.

You would find very few Zimbabweans who would claim to be satisfied about the state of their country. In almost every sphere of life, there has been a marked deterioration, especially in recent years. Some argue this was a necessary, painful but temporary result of ‘revolutionary change’ that the government had no choice but to force to happen, starting with land holding patterns but affecting almost everything else. However, in 2011, projecting forward from the state of the nation today does not necessarily give one confidence that the country is generally headed in the right direction, even if it is currently experiencing many problems.

Despite the many difficulties of life in Zimbabwe today, the now almost three years since the MDC/ZANU-PF coalition government was formed in early 2009 have actually seen many continuing improvements in many areas. Notably, hyperinflation was wiped out almost overnight by abolishing the notorious Zim dollar and allowing the use of hard currencies instead. Many other economic improvements followed from that. There is at least a sense of relative normality and predictability, hard as life may be for most people.

The coalition government may not work particularly well, but it represents a big improvement over the days when the two main political parties were in almost open warfare. Even if the next election gives a decisive win to one of the political parties, it is a good thing for the country to have gone through a phase of shared political power like the present one. It is no small achievement for political parties with such vast ideological differences to have held together in government, even if only barely and with much continuing suspicion and tension.

So in many objective ways, Zimbabwe at the end of 2011 is much better off than it was at the end of 2008. It has been a long time since Zimbabweans have been able to say one year was generally better than the previous one.

But the ‘improvement’ being experienced is from a very low base; much lower than it was at Zimbabwe’s heyday in the late 1980s and early 1990s, even though cracks had begun to appear in the façade of prosperity even then. The ‘improving’ Zimbabwe of today is a mere shadow of its former self.

Is it perhaps a grave error to critique the things that are not right in Zimbabwe in strictly political and economic terms, like most do?

ZANU-PF claims to be eager for an election because it says it believes it will win it and then be able to continue with its various ‘people empowerment’ programmes, unimpeded by the ‘machinations’ of the MDC and its Western backers. The MDC in turn says while it wants an election delayed until the currently uneven electoral playing field is truly ‘free and fair,’ it too is confident of outright victory. It claims it will usher in a new era of freedom, democracy, human rights, transparency and prosperity.

Yet Zimbabweans have seen both parties in action long enough to be justify being deeply skeptical about their promises and their claims. While ZANU-PF still controls all the effective reins of power in the coalition government, there are signs from the actions of the MDC members of that government that suggest that they would not necessarily bring anything fundamentally new to governance if they were the dominant party.

ZANU-PF may be associated much more with violent repression, corruption and dirty tricks, but they have had 31 uninterrupted years of practice. If a ruling MDC will be any different, it will not be because they are ‘good’ people to ZANU-PF’s ‘bad’ people. If the citizens are not any more watchful of an MDC government than they were of the ZANU-PF government when it was still popular, the same repression and corruption of today will flower and continue even under that MDC government. Most of the new MDC ministers have not been any more confidence-inspiring than ZANU-PF’s ancient ones.

The ‘value’ that will have to change is not just the replacement of one ruling party by another, but for the citizens to insist on a fundamentally different relationship with the politicians than exists now. Too initially trusting, too initially adoring Zimbabweans created the unpopular, repressive but un-removable monsters that Mugabe and ZANU-PF have become today. But one sees the same kind of naïve, irresponsible over-adoration and over-trusting of Tsvangirai and his MDC by many Zimbabweans.

Regardless of which group of politicians is in power, if the citizens are not more vigilant and demanding than Zimbabweans currently are of their leaders, the deep problems of governance the country faces will remain. It is not merely an issue of cynical, greedy, shallow politicians. It is instead the deeper problem of a society which makes it all too easy for such politicians to come to prominence and power.

The results of this basic dysfunction are everywhere. The country is set to enjoy possibly billions of dollars every year in new diamond revenue. But no one can precisely say who is doing what in the new Marange diamond fields, how many carats are being mined there every month, how much revenue is being raised, how much is going to the State. The impression is of a murky, corrupt affair in which the few big fish whose names are whispered in connection with every big deal are prominently featured, at the cost of benefits to the nation.

This is but one example of what should be a fantastically beneficial new resource for the country at a particularly difficult time of continuing international financial isolation. Instead, it is possible, even likely that what revenue ends up trickling to the State may be small portion of the total generated.

This is not going to be necessarily solved by merely exchanging one group of politicians with another. A more fundamental change to the system that causes such abuses to be widely suspected but still take place needs to come about first. It is not even about just changing laws or creating new watchdog institutions. It is even more basic than that. It is to change the whole mindset in which the citizens regard and allow politicians to imagine themselves as messiahs, as ‘patrons,’ as bosses; rather than as servants who must always be on their toes in doing the wishes of their masters, the voters.

Instead we have a system in which politicians scramble for votes the first time. But after they get into power, above a certain level they become untouchable. They can manipulate and fix subsequent elections. Even if they lose, if they are part of the network of power enough, they can comfortably hold on to their privileges.

All these things can continue under an MDC government as much as under the current ZANU-PF controlled government. When politicians run away with more power and privileges than they are entitled to, it is not because of the party they belong to or because the constitution and laws allow it. It is instead because they see an operating environment where it is easy to get away with doing so.

The much publicly talked-about corruption and lack of accountability around Marange diamonds is just one particularly glaring example. So many serious allegations of all kinds of corruption have been leveled against prominent government personalities one would think the government itself would be eager to insttitute an open inquiry to clear the air, and to calm an angry populace. But far from it. The accused are not at all bothered by the public rumors of their misdeeds, and business goes on as usual. They show no sign at all of being in fear of being held to account, whether by the police, the courts, the government or even the electorate. They show all the signs of operating with complete impunity.

This is an example of a problem that has gone beyond being fixable by elections. It is a deeper rot than can be cured only by changing politicians. If the conditions that allow that problem to arise today are not changed, it will arise tomorrow under a different set of ruling politicians.

Much of Europe is today also undergoing a crisis of values that is disguised as a problem of politics and economics. As economic crisis engulfs much of Europe, many of the people put the blame on their politicians and businesspeople, particularly bankers, for getting their countries into unsustainable debt that is now causing huge problems that threatens the ‘good life’ those countries have known for decades.

Yet Europe’s problem is much deeper than merely ‘bad loans.’ It is of a standard of living and life expectation that can simply no longer be supported by most of Europe’s economies. The voters can change one set of politicians for another all they like, but until the basic dysfunction is identified and painfully addressed, the great social upheavals being experienced will not go away.

Much of Europe (increasingly Britain and the US as well) are simply having to accept that many of the social benefits and the astonishingly high standard of life they have long taken for granted is rapidly coming to an end. This will require significant changes in ways of looking at things and of living. In other words, a significant change in values will have to precede and accompany changes in politics and economics as the Western world adjusts to a more modest lifestyle.

That is just one, current example of change that needs to be societal, and deeper than merely political and economic.

Zimbabwe’s rot is not confined to the political or economic spheres

Many peoples’ sense of values is anchored by their religion. One would expect that since Zimbabwe is such an outwardly, showily religious society, it would also be a country ruled by values, in addition to and perhaps even over and above being a nation of laws.

Yet the values corruption that plagues the political and economic spheres exists every bit as much in the religious one. Mugabe likes to call attention to his Catholicism, Tsvangirai to his Methodism. Both have shown examples of conduct shockingly at odds with what they claim are beliefs they would want the public to believe give grounding to their world views and lives.

The Anglican Church in Zimbabwe is engaged in a self destructive civil war that looks more like a bloody Mafia gang fight than a disagreement between two groups of believers in the same God.

Amidst the bewildering proliferation of ‘new churches’ in Zimbabwe are many clear charlatans out to make a fast buck from being little more than Bible-quoting show business clowns and crooks. Like many politicians, many of these charlatans must be surprised that amongst their countrymen and women are so many people who are ready, eager to be taken advantage of; who don’t ask hard questions; who expect ‘the leader’ to be a performer of magic tricks and ‘miracles.’

Of course politics and the quality of leaders are vitally important. But all the signs point to the need in Zimbabwe first for a re-examination and change of basic values before conditions are conducive for the selection of good leaders and the conduct of a type of politics that is beneficial to the citizens, rather than repressive and exploitative of them.

If this is correct, that is huge challenge because there is almost no focus on this, with all the attention and effort being on pretty much traditional politics. The hope is that one group of politicians will somehow be intrinsically better than another, even if they all come from the same deeply corrupt pool.

How does a country change its value system, rather than just its politicians? That is a difficult question no one in Zimbabwe is asking or much interested in, but its answers arguably offer far more hope of eventual beneficial change than whether it is ZANU-PF or MDC politicians that wield the reins of political power.

The Zimbabwe Review


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