A change is not gonna come

Sep 18, 2012

Chido Makunike

Many Zimbabweans hope that there will soon be a fundamental change in how the country's politics are conducted. Whatever change to a more 'free and democratic' dispensation takes place will likely be small and incremental, rather than revolutionary. Here's why.

Three years of a joint government between the two main political parties, have allowed Zimbabweans a rare opportunity to see in what ways ZANU-PF and the MDC are different, and in what ways they are similar. 

Sam Cooke's song 'A change is gonna come' has become an anthem of hope for people in all sorts of difficult circumstances. Unfortunately, Zimbabweans who hoped that a new constitution or a new government will usher in a wonderful new era of 'freedom and democracy' may be ignoring just how long and gradual of a process it is to entrench these values in the society.

Generational, unresolved violence

Zimbabwe has been ruled brutally and violently for several generations now. Since it became a nation state all its periods of relative calm and 'development' have been enforced by state repression of one kind or another. As a result of all this, the country bears deep generational scars amongst and between its various groups; the one between black and white merely being the most obvious.   

At every period of change, there has been no effort for the society to own up to its generational wounds and seek to find a means to draw a line under them in order to put the wounds behind and move forward. The wounds and resentments, old and new, have simply continued to fester.

A culture of violence and brutalization is now embedded in the Zimbabwean fabric, although the society has a misleadingly peaceful, placid veneer. Unless and until the long term brutality in the way the country has been governed for a long time is acknowledged, it is likely to continue the present system of revenge and counter-revenge as new groups come in and out of control.  These are issues that are beyond the purview of the constitution or any edict to redress.

The present rulers insist that their pivotal role in deposing the previous brutally violent controlling group gives them almost a divine right to rule indefinitely. They see no contradiction in exercising the same type of brutality they fought against, this time against Zimbabweans who dare to question or disagree with them. The 'freedom and democracy' campaigners of today, if they come to power, will likely use their present-day battle scars to invoke the same 'right' to rule as today's despots.

Each new group that fights for control invokes values like 'majority rule,' 'freedom and democracy,' 'respect for the rule of law' and so on. But what is clear now is that these competing-for-power groups are much more alike than they are different, whatever their rhetoric.

Politics as livelihood     

Politics is seen as a relatively easy and accessible key to the good life. Anybody can aspire to be a politician, by hook or by crook. It does not require any particular skills for which you must train. Once in, there are all sorts of ways to stay in, regardless of the popular will.

Although people constantly grumble about 'corruption,' they also feed it. It is resented, but also widely expected and to some extent even accepted that political office can and will be used to line one's pockets. There is no essential difference in the political parties in this regard, although there might be a difference in their relative access to the levers of corruption.

So a type of politics that does not serve the ordinary people will likely continue for a good long while, regardless of which party is in power. The impetus for a politics of self-enrichment has been strengthened by a poorly performing economy with few prospects for honestly getting ahead. A certain type of person is attracted to politics for its many opportunities for enrichment. Widespread poverty, poor economic prospects and a weak 'democratic culture' mean the ordinary people who grumble about the politicians' corruption are nevertheless easy prey for exploitation in this system.

The politician as boss

Zimbabwe is a society in transition from its traditional values and practices, to one in which they are now in a state of sometimes uneasy co-existence with a western value system. The exact mix of the two will vary from time to time, and depending on circumstances.

The  version of 'freedom and democracy' that is most often talked about today is that which has evolved in mostly western societies. Zimbabwe may be heavily western-influenced, but is not (and never will be) a western society.

There is a way in which to hope to apply 'freedom and democracy' exactly as it functions in one or another western society is naive and silly. Yet this often seems to be the premise of the discussion about developing a more responsive, accountable form of governance. Because it is such an unreasonable, unrealistic premise, the whole 'change' discussion often seems fantastically out of social and cultural context.

The idea that a politician in power can and should be challenged has yet to fully seep into the society. Traditionally, an authority figure was to very rarely be challenged, and then only in the most reverential, careful way. All too often, reverence, rather than respect, characterizes the relationship of ordinary people to ruling politicians. But if you revere someone, you are going to be too awed by or frightened of them to challenge them when it is necessary (for you or for the larger society) to do so.

As a result, the politician only acts like a 'servant' at election time. Immediately on assuming or retaining power, however, he becomes and is allowed to think of himself as the 'boss.' Naturally, arrogance creeps in by being given too much governing/controlling license. It is not at all surprising that all too often, politicians who start off with a lot of promise as dutiful 'servants of the people' become despots. The whole social and cultural milieu makes it all too easy, even encourages it.   

Citizens/voters are increasingly challenging their leaders, but this is a slow process. Until it is fairly widely and deeply entrenched in the society, politicians will continue to find it easy to intimidate many people simply by the 'authority' of their positions.

The politician's personality cult

All the political parties in Zimbabwe have almost medieval personality cults around their leaders. The mythification of the leader (appending his name to that of the party, hero-worshipping him, not questioning him, etc, etc) is one of the most corrosive ways that anti-democratic behaviour is encouraged and nurtured.

There is little evidence that there is much difference between any of the political parties in this regard. While the leader's followers may gladly encourage such personality cultism, that it so easily takes hold around all the competing political leaders suggests it is an issue at society/culture level, rather than merely a political one. Indeed, we see the same kinds of personality cults not just in the political sphere, but in churches and other institutions as well.

Until the citizens are less prone to be manipulated in this way, it is unlikely that 'free and fair, democratic' governance can take root.

Zimbabweans are at the moment battling to establish the right to change their governments as they see fit. This simple, basic right that even many less 'developed' African nations now take for granted is still to be freely exercised by the Zimbabwean voter, regardless of the facade of 'democracy' being in place.

When a change of government comes, it will be an important milestone in the country's political progression, but it is unlikely to be as big of a change in how the country is actually governed as many hope. That deeper, more lasting kind of 'real' change will be more gradual, with many politicians fighting it every step of the way because of how it will relatively disempower them.

The Zimbabwe Review      


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