If Mugabe is 'the most British of all British people,' what does that say about Zimbabweanhood?

Sep 11, 2012

 by Chido Makunike
All the effort expended into crafting a new constitution is at a certain level about trying to decide what values are important to us a nation in rapid transition in all sorts of ways.

For instance, which laws from the colonial era are still relevant in the new Zimbabwe we are trying to build, and which need to be discarded? Which social practices need to be protected, and which are considered so abhorrent to the society that they need to be expressly sanctioned in the constitution? How do we best balance majority sentiments, values and practices against the protection of the rights of citizens who may have minority, dissenting values?

Then there are the much-talked about but poorly defined issues of how to ensure that citizens enjoy ‘freedom and democracy.’ Clearly there is no unanimity of opinion on the definition of these values. What is a civil rights issue involving the right to live as one wishes for one person may be a criminal and/or moral, religious issue for another person. In trying to find the best middle ground, do we just copy the relevant constitutional provisions from another society? If so, why? Or do we craft our own?

But if the latter, is it enough for a majority of the population to feel a certain way on a controversial issue for it to carry the day, or should it be a constitutional and social requirement that minority and ‘unpopular’ views and practices are protected from abuse? If so, which ones? On what basis do we decide what minority views and practices are deserving of protection from majority abuse, and which ones are so offensive to majority sensibilities that they must not only remain social-cultural taboos, but must also be constitutionally ‘banned?’

Clearly none of these are easy questions to answer, as the controversy over the new constitution has shown.

Whatever the controversies, there is obviously a general consensus that the prevailing rules of the society, including but not limited to the constitution, no longer reflect where the society is today. We are an African nation, but heavily Western-influenced. At every level, to varying extents, we are a mix of pre-colonial values and practices and those introduced since colonization. Before independence, which between the indigenous and the imported values held sway in any given situation was often by  force of the colonizer. Today the mix of the indigenous and the imported values that is used in various social situations is largely by choice. We see this in the mixed use of languages, the mix of traditional and imported marriage practices and so forth.

Apart from the political issues we focus so much on, the need for a new set of rules for the nation is to try to update the society’s governing code for it to catch up with the huge changes that have taken place in the society in recent decades and years. It is also to try to capture what our overall hopes and aspirations are, and to try to craft new rules that help us achieve those national aspirations.

However, for us to become the society we might wish for, many of the changes that need to take place cannot be codified in a constitution or in any document. Many of those changes need to take place in our thinking. As many have pointed out, if Zimbabwe has been a repressive society for many of its citizens, it is not because the current constitution sanctions it. It is as a result of a combination of a political class that has contempt for the citizens, but also because of citizens that are not sufficiently assertive about exercising their rights. Unless those attitudes change, no matter how pretty the new constitution is, we will not be any more ‘free and democratic’ than we are now.

If a singer is recognized for a particularly thrilling musical performance by the head of state, is it appropriate for that singer to tearfully grovel and debase himself before the politician in gratitude? Why not just shake his hand while standing up straight like a free man and citizen, look him in the eye and simply say, ‘thank you?’ My point is that often-times, citizens invite a contemptuous behaviour towards them by politicians by those citizens acting as if the politicians were not just leaders answerable to the citizens, but as if they were little gods.

We want a Zimbabwe where citizens show each other respect, but do we want a Zimbabwe where citizens, by their words or behaviour, make the politicians begin to believe that they are above the people they are supposed to serve? Subservient behaviour by citizens towards politicians encourages arrogance and fosters contemptuous, repressive attitudes and actions by those politicians against the citizens.

These are the sorts of questions and attitude changes that are necessary to examine for a society wishing to become more ‘free and democratic,’ but they cannot be brought about by a new constitution, an election or a new government. These are changes that need to take place amongst the people themselves, at their own instigation.    

The current minister of finance, Tendai Biti, in a July 2012 newspaper interview, talked around the issue of a Zimbabwean identity. He made the kind of warm, mushy, non-specific, feel-good statements you would expect of about any politician on issues touching on nationhood. Startlingly and in contradiction to his earlier vaguely patriotic-sounding statements about identity, this is what he had to say about the president, Robert Mugabe:

“I have been saying to my British friends that he is the most British of all British people I have come across.”

This shocking statement, which has not been countered by any one on Mugabe’s side, suggests astonishing identity confusion on many levels.

Why would an African president (if Biti’s statement is true), in the post-colonial year 2012, be ‘the most British of all British people,’ rather than perhaps ‘the most Zimbabwean of all Zimbabwean people?’

If Biti was alleging/suggesting that Mugabe was much more colonially indoctrinated than the rest of us, why would he not have recovered somewhat in these past 32 years of being the Zimbabwean head of state? Is that not enough time for him to have become a little less ‘British?’

And since Mugabe has often warned that the British are leading the charge to ‘re-colonize’ Zimbabwe, if Biti’s assessment of Mugabe’s British-ness is correct, why would the British need to re-colonize the country if one of their own is currently the head of state? It means they are already in control, does it not? If so, is this not a terrible security threat for the country?

Apart from what Biti’s allegation, if true, says about Mugabe, it is also very revealing about the identity values that Biti seems to hold dear. The impression this reader got was Biti said what he did about Mugabe’s alleged British-ness in a very admiring way. If Mugabe was left with a particularly heavy dose of a colonial mentality, it may be because of the time and circumstances of particular British colonial indoctrination and repression in which he grew up. That was a time when for an African to be considered ‘sophisticated’ or ‘civilized’ meant trying to copy British-isms as much as possible.

But Biti is a full two generations younger than Mugabe, and so would not be expected to have received or grown up with the same degree of colonial indoctrination as the older gentleman. It may be fine for a Briton to be ‘very British,’ but why would it be something admirable for a Zimbabwean, and Mugabe no less, to be ‘very British?’ Is it therefore not bizarre that Biti refers to Mugabe’s alleged British-ness in such a gushingly admiring tone?

If the two most influential politicians in the country have this attitude about identifying with the former colonial power thirty plus years after uhuru, what hope is there to fashion a new Zimbabwean identity?

Who and what is a Zimbabwean? Many of the changes we need to bring about to create a new, better Zimbabwe need to take place in our minds, individually and collectively. They cannot be brought about by a constitution, a political party or a government.


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