Ministers Shamu and Makandiwa; when religion and politics both encourage citizen subservience

Sep 13, 2012

Chido Makunike 

Webster Shamu, government minister of information and Emmanuel Makandiwa, a minister of religion, have independently made statements that reveal some of the attitudes that are an impediment in Zimbabwe to the idea of leadership that is subservient and answerable to the people. To attain a position of leadership in any situation is so often taken and accepted as a right to lord it over ordinary people. It is going to be a hard and long process to change the attitudes that account for this state of affairs, but there are hopeful signs that this change is taking place at an accelerated pace.

 Even at its most repressive, Zimbabwe has always had a small but vocal, critical and influential privately-owned Press. But they have also always operated  under a great deal of government pressure through means both legal and unofficial.

More critical private newspapers have been allowed to operate in the last few years, but the government remains as sensitive to their criticism as always, and is not beyond threatening them with closure. There is a huge gap between what the government believes to be 'respectful' criticism, and what the private Press considers both its rights and its responsibilities to the public.

Media and information minister Webster Shamu is reported to have said, "There is no need of attacking the President or the leadership for no reason. This is an abuse of the freedom that has been given to them. If the clearly anti-African and anti-Zimbabwe frenzy we have experienced through some media outlets and platforms in this country continues … the gloves may soon be off here as well. We will work...revoke those licences because we cannot watch while the country’s leadership is assaulted."

That some of the private media has become shrill and desperate-sounding in its reporting about the coalition government, especially the ZANU-PF part, is not in doubt. Part of this is an entirely predictable result of the shabby, heavy-handed way the government has dealt with the media over the last 30 years. There are a lot of journalists who have been abused by the police and the judiciary at the behest of the government, so there is little good will towards it even in the more free media environment of today. The government is reaping the media results of its most repressive years.

Who is to define when there is 'need' to 'attack' the leadership? Who is to determine whether there is a 'reason' to do so or not? It certainly can't be the minister whose government is squirming with discomfort at being criticized.   

Even more revealing about how out of touch with a new, less restrictive time (in large part the effect of the internet) the media and governments are interacting in Shamu is, is the way he implies a freedom 'given' to the media as a sort of favour by the government. Shamu is effectively saying, "if you continue criticising us, we may withdraw that 'favour' from you."

It displays an archaic thinking totally out of step with the times. It is simply no longer possible today for governments to restrict information and views in the way they could have done as recently as 10 years ago. Shamu's outburst suggests a person who does not fully realize this.

One wonders how good of a propagandist he can be for the government with this out-dated, old-fashioned attitude. If some of the private media is 'anti-African and anti-Zimbabwe,' it is also true that old-fashioned Shamu, despite his control of the dominant State-owned media, has failed to use the tools at his disposal  to counter this. That failure is no justification for his then resorting to bullying and threats against the government-critical media.    

At the core of Shamu's attitude is a political leadership that expects the people it governs to be obedient and subservient to it. Thankfully that time is passing, in response to technological and other changes that no government can fully control.

Shamu's outburst is useful in showing just how out of touch with governing a new more exposed, more aware and less afraid citizenry he and his colleagues are.

The wave of fundamentalist Christianity that has taken hold in Zimbabwe in recent years is also predicated on a similar type of paternalism by its leadership towards their flock.   

Emmanuel Makandiwa is for the moment the most prominent peddler of this brand of loud, showy religiosity. Many of the 'new' churches look like little more than personality cults for their founders. They talk, act and expect to be treated not merely as 'leaders' in the accountable sense, but seemingly often as little gods in their own right. And astonishingly, many of their flock seem quite willing to comply; happy to be uncritical, almost slavish followers. The religious leaders command an obedience from their followers that makes the politicians green with envy. 

It is not at all surprising that there are strong links between the ruling political class and the leaders of the new fundamentalist churches. They both like and try to propagate to their followers the idea that they have a divine right to their positions of leadership. It is not at all surprising that from that arrogance of claiming to be especially 'anointed' to hold their positions, they consider any critics as being ungrateful, unpatriotic or sinful.

Makandiwa is not just merely a 'reverend' to his followers. He is a so-called 'prophet,' regarded not just as a leader, but as 'papa' by many of them. It is easy to see the appeal of this adulation for the man concerned. A leader can be challenged or changed, but 'prophet' or 'papa' suggests an un-challengebility, an un-changebility. If 'papa' speaks, obviously the 'children' must listen and heed what he says without question. Because he claims to be a 'man of God,' it is suggested that to question him is to question God.

The personality cult around Makandiwa has apparently reached such proportions that some of his followers have taken to kneeling when approaching or greeting him.

But in the more open, more informed and more questioning time in which we live, even some of his devoted followers have found this to be excessively slavish follower-ship of their leader. To their great credit, they begun to grumble about it. So much so that 'prophet/papa' Makandiwa felt pressured to 'ban' those followers from kneeling before him.

At first glance that would seem a very progressive action on his part, a way of telling his followers, 'I am only an imperfect human being, just like you. I am not above you.'

Alas, it was not the humility of a deeply spiritual being that made him declare the kneeling 'ban.'

Makandiwa said that the practice 'had been misinterpreted as a way of worshiping him by some sections of society.' He said kneeling was only done 'to show respect to a man of God.'

'Papa/prophet' Makandiwa then went on to generously declare, "Therefore, from now onwards, no one should kneel (before) me until we are all mature to understand the motive behind kneeling."

According to Makandiwa then, the problem needing to be addressed is not so much the modern absurdity of followers routinely kneeling before their leaders, but instead the lack of  'maturity' and 'understanding' of those followers who are uncomfortable with demeaning themselves before another human being!  

It is frightening and disheartening that so much of the leadership in various spheres of Zimbabwean life sees having the privilege to lead other people as being given the license to look down upon those followers in various ways, as unwittingly shown by so many of their words and actions.

Whatever their faults, the private media in Zimbabwe, under very difficult and restrictive conditions, have done a brave, commendable job of stripping arrogant politicians of any illusion that they will be given a free ride for their misdeeds, or that they will be treated with reverence rather than with just respect.

It is a very encouraging sign of the more open, mature and more free society that Zimbabwe is becoming that even in the fundamentalist churches, people are now increasingly questioning and refusing to agree with any expectation that they behave like servants, instead of as free, equal-to-anybody-else men and women.

The Zimbabwe Review


Post a Comment