Challenging Zanu PF’s structures of power

By Alex T Magaisa

FUNDAMENTAL questions that occupy the minds of most people in Zimbabwe and beyond who have been frustrated by the economic decline and increasing pover

ty are whether it is possible to replace the ruling Zanu PF and, if so, how that is possible in the face of failures of the commonly employed methods.

Such approaches, ranging from participation in elections to mass stayaways and street demonstrations have largely proved ineffectual in recent years. Despite the visible decline, Zanu PF appears more entrenched and despair has taken over where once there was hope and expectation.

It appears to me that one of the weaknesses in approaching the challenge has been a generalisation of the issues at hand, which has led to the adoption of general and predictable methods and a failure to explore alternatives. The challenge has been framed as one of taking political power from Zanu PF without however posing to explore and understand the nature of Zanu PF’s power. “Political power” has been defined generally and taken for granted yet in reality the nature of political power is multifaceted and more complex.

Understanding the nature of Zanu PF’s power is critical because it allows an avenue to see its strengths and weaknesses and also open up space for new alternatives. The question therefore is: from which sources does Zanu PF draw its power?

Having applied my mind to these questions, I have resorted to the work of Susan Strange, one of the major voices in international political economy. Almost 20 years ago, Strange brought great insight, in a book titled States and Markets, into the nature of power within the international system.

Power itself is defined simply as one’s ability to impose his/her will on others regardless of their wishes/interests. Strange identified two kinds of power: first, relational power, which is the power that one wields to get another person to do something that they would not otherwise do, and second, structural power, which is the power to shape and determine the structures within which others operate; the power to set the agenda and decide how things are done.

It is important within this context to understand how Zanu PF uses structural power in the way it sets up the framework in which individuals and entities including political parties and corporate enterprises operate and relate to each other within the political and economic landscape. It is understanding the nature of Zanu PF’s structural power that is the focus of this article.

According to Strange, there are four key sources of structural power, namely production, finance, security and knowledge. Put simply, the proposition is that structural power reposes in those that are able to: exercise control of people’s security; make decisions and control the manner of production for survival; control the financial architecture, ie supply and distribution of finance; and, control the definition, development, dissemination, storage of and access to knowledge broadly defined to include information, ideas and beliefs.

Production is probably the most commonly known source of structural power. Marxists having long argued that power reposes in those in control of the means of production. The ones that decide the mode of production and control production levels necessarily have the power over those with an interest in accessing the means and items of production. They seek to strengthen and defend their position and establish rules and institutions to create enclosures that others cannot challenge.

It is within this context that we can see Zanu PF’s strategy in relation to land reform and lately other areas of production such as industry and the mining sector. Zanu PF knew that in an agro-based economy, it lacked sufficient control of the production structure.

Instead, the commercial farmers with greater control of the production structure appeared to favour the new opposition party, the MDC. It therefore became necessary to break this pattern to avoid having the power from the production structure residing with the MDC. To be fair, Zanu PF probably had illusions that the transition from the old to the new farmers would be smooth but as we now know, these illusions were without foundation.

Zanu PF’s power arising from the production structure would have been greater today had agricultural productivity been maintained at the pre-2000 levels. But this did not materialise and while it controls the means of production, its power from this structure is actually weak because of low productivity. The only reason why it is important is that it has managed to deprive others of the opportunity to draw power from this structure because of its monopoly that is supported by a strong security structure.

I would also point out that it is within this context that we can understand Zanu PF’s desire to assume greater control of the mines and is hard on the local industry, setting the prices of essential goods and therefore levels of production and also its active participation as a shareholder in local industries.

But it is also important to realise that people are not without power. For example, while an employer draws power from his control of the production system on which employees depend for employment and livelihood, employees can whenever they feel the employer has abused his power, withdraw their labour or engage in other action that forces the employer to meet their demands. We have seen however that mass stayaways, strikes or similar action do not seem to have had the desired effect on Zanu PF power.

This is probably because power from this structure is already weak anyway as there is no real production to talk about and so Zanu PF couldn’t care less. Withdrawing labour does no more harm to the power from the production structure, which is already weak. Zanu PF has nothing to lose in this respect. It would be different however if people engaged in other parallel forms of production, hereby creating a parallel structure from which they draw power but Zanu PF has no control. However positive action such as this is difficult where Zanu PF can deploy power from the security structure.

The finance structure consists of control over finance, generally defined. This involves the control and availability of credit and other financial facilities. Its influence is more defined in advanced economies but is generally important because it affects the power arising from other structures — production, knowledge development and security. The old adage that he who has wealth has power applies with equal force in this case.

In Zimbabwe we can see the manifestation of Zanu PF’s power from this structure in its tentacles spread across the financial sector, especially major local banks. It can also be seen in the Reserve Bank’s forays into retail banking (under the cloak of temporary “operations”) — becoming a principal source of finance for industry and agriculture and a key player via institutions like ZABG. Private institutions have been forcibly taken over or sidelined by the all-powerful RBZ and in the process Zanu PF is effectively assuming control of the key sites of the finance structure thereby seeking to enhance its power.

A question is not often asked — why are there people who appear to support Zanu PF despite its failings? They are often dismissed as ignorant and mostly rural folk. People or entities that toe Zanu PF’s line do so not necessarily because they believe in its ideals but only because by doing so they secure access to facilities within Zanu PF-controlled financial architecture. They do so because they depend on it — if they had an alternative they probably would not toe the line. But looked at another way, if they chose to reject it they would be creating their own parallel source of power. In this context, the parallel market is no more than a refusal to succumb to the power of the Zanu PF-controlled financial system. If all the funds circulating in the parallel market were in the formal system, it would greatly enhance the power of those in control of the finance structure.

Then there is the old saying that knowledge is power. It simply means that those who are able to define and control the development, use, dissemination and access to knowledge have important structural power. The control of knowledge involves withholding certain kinds of knowledge from people thereby keeping them ignorant or feeding them certain kinds of knowledge that favour the controller.

Knowledge also affects the other three structures — in terms of enhancing or decreasing security, technology for finance and also for production. By 1990 Zanu PF had already increased attempts to control the knowledge structure by enhancing control and interference with academic freedom at universities via the notoriously controversial University of Zimbabwe Amendment Act. The same efforts can be seen in the control of syllabi of key subjects that teach liberation history and also increasing attempts to take control of the private education sector.

Similarly, re-education programmes and the national youth service constitute attempts to control knowledge – the spread of ideas that support a certain position.

More importantly, Zanu PF has maintained control of power arising from the knowledge structure through a system of closure or withdrawal of knowledge. This is the context in which we can understand the media monopoly of the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Holdings, the threats and actual acts of violence against the Daily News culminating in the continued refusal to issue a licence, the dominance of Zimpapers.

The question therefore is whether those that oppose Zanu PF’s ways have any strategy aimed at breaking this source of power? The question knows what sustains the vehicles through which knowledge is developed and transmitted. The party mouthpieces need revenue from advertisers and subscribers but how many among these potential advertisers and subscribers are unwittingly keeping it afloat?

The security structure is probably the most important of all structures from which Zanu PF draws power. The fact that this is a strong structure of power for Zanu PF should not take away attention from the other structures which have their own weaknesses that can be exploited. The security structure cannot operate on its own, it requires the other structures and hence it is often deployed to ensure that the other structures of power remain in existence.

As we have seen, power derived from the security structure can also be used to support other structures, for example using coercion of the youth militia to promote certain ideas and beliefs, using the police force or army to confiscate funds held by individuals, and failing to provide security to farmers when threatened with violence during the land invasions. The most brutal use of power from the security structure to coerce
obedience and compliance was the deployment of the notorious Fifth Brigade in Matabeleland under the guise of suppressing dissident activity.

It stands to reason therefore that securing power does not lie in the realm of elections or mere demonstrations but measures that neutralise the power drawn from the security structure. Given the nature of the Zimbabwe state and the historical circumstances of its birth it is no surprise that the centre of power lies in the security structure. Any attempt therefore to win power requires ways of getting some of that power.

An opposition movement needs some measure of support emanating from within this structure, in order to draw the necessary power. Penetrating the security structure could involve making oneself relevant to the agenda and interests of those that form part of the security structure. This is not easy but also not impossible. The MDC tried it when some legislators allegedly tried to woo top military personnel a few years ago, though their attempt was probably awkwardly executed and therefore failed.

What emerges from the above is that instead of talking of Zanu PF’s power in general terms, it helps to dissect its structures in order to understand more precisely its strengths and weaknesses, by understanding its sources of power. Conversely, this helps to unravel the various options and avenues available to those that seek to challenge its power.

When people have talked about its superior power, they have largely referred to its power arising principally from the security structure. They have not specifically considered its power arising from other structures and the weaknesses that lie therein. When considered in total, it is easy to see that because of the weaknesses in other power structures, they have had to be propped up by the security structure.

Notwithstanding the immense power from the security structure, it is also important to realise that power is reciprocal. It may not be equal reciprocity but the fact remains that one’s power is relevant only to the extent that he controls things that are required by other people.

In return for their desire for security the people cede power to those that are able to offer security. Conversely, once that security becomes a threat or is no longer available, people no longer require it and may therefore seek alternatives.

The history of Zimbabwe itself is testament to this fact. When the liberation parties realised that the security offered by the Rhodesian Front was not in their best interests but had instead become a threat to their freedoms, they decided to reject that form of security and create an alternative source of their own.

* Alex T Magaisa is a lawyer based in the UK.