Handling a fledgling democracy

By Alex T Magaisa

EVERY time the summer season approaches, the peasant farmer takes stock of his oxen that provide draught power. He will sometimes pick the young ox from the herd but simply doesn’t expect i

t to be compliant and accept the yoke to perform the task as required. The farmer knows that the young ox must be trained. They call it kupingudza mombe.


It must be prepared over time including cutting the tip of the horns from time to time because when sharp they are dangerous.


When the time comes to harness the young ox the farmer knows that he has to be very careful, patient but very alert and quick to make the right decisions. He knows that if he approaches it from behind the young ox can lash out ferociously with its hind legs.


If he approaches from the front it can charge at him viciously. He has to coax it – sometimes he offers maize cobs as a trick so as to catch it unawares. And even when he has succeeded to put the yoke on the young ox, he has to be careful because it can run amok, taking the plough, the yoke and everything in its way with it. Sometimes it will just stop and fall to its knees, refusing to get up. At that point the farmer knows he might have to give it a few lashes with the whip or coax it again in some other way.


The farmer knows that for all the goodness of the young ox and all that he wishes it to do, there is always a side that he will never know, but he has to be prepared for any outcome and know what to do when something happens that is undesirable. But more importantly, every wise farmer knows that the process of training the young ox is a delicate one that requires care, attention and skill.


Recent developments in the MDC have attracted much interest and comment from many quarters. It represents an interesting and significant episode in the evolution of the MDC and growth of opposition politics in Zimbabwe. Rather than signal the demise of the MDC as a political entity, these are necessary shocks that should prompt a mature and sober approach to the issues arising. It is an important episode that should provide an opportunity for introspection at a crucial time in its life as a political organisation. The “all is well and we are all one” utopian image that for so long the MDC tried to portray was unrealistic and unsustainable. The multiple and different interests and approaches were initially masked by the greater common desire to see off the current regime.


There appeared to be an unwritten rule that everyone was supposed to demonstrate to the world that they shared the same ideas, feelings and goals beyond the removal of the Zanu PF regime. Those who differed, like Munyaradzi Gwisai, were labelled Zanu PF apologists and quickly shown the exit, without sufficiently interrogating their ideas.


When Roy Bennett pointed out that the MDC had been infiltrated and there was a problem of lack of direction his views were quickly shot down on the ground that he had spent too long in prison and lacked a grip on the realities of the outside world.


If anything has emerged more clearly, it is that as a people we have a lot to learn and understand about the concept of democracy, which has been the watchword of the current struggle in Zimbabwe. The MDC will have learnt from this experience that democracy has many characteristics, which go beyond the usual and simple textbook descriptions. It is an animal that can at once be beautiful and ugly depending on the position one occupies. It can be an elusive animal, slippery and hard to catch when you want it. It is unpredictable and does not always produce the outcomes that everyone desires. The key thing is to learn how to deal with the outcomes of the democratic process – not only to celebrate when you get what you like but also to learn to live with what you do not. Failure to handle the outcomes of the democratic process can undermine the whole foundation of democracy.


The simple point is that like the young ox, democracy is unpredictable and requires patience and nurturing over time. The differences of opinion are to be expected in a democracy and if properly handled they are healthy and useful for the growth of tolerance and vibrancy in the body politic. Like a baby it needs to be pampered and nurtured and as she becomes a teenager we need to understand how to deal with her emotions and prepare that she does not do what we prefer. Sometimes democracy can manifest herself as all happy and hopeful. But she can also be sullen, angry and when suppressed she can erupt as she did in Indonesia and more recently the Ukraine.


It is important to gauge her mood because when you least expect it, she produces a certain result as she did in the MDC National Council in relation to the senatorial election.


But democracy can also get very tired, as she probably is now in Zimbabwe. Too many inconsequential elections tire democracy. When people get tired of voting, democracy suffers. Zimbabwe has had three national elections in the last five years and add to that numerous local authority elections.


Next month ushers the 4th national election – this time to select senators.

And these are people who have seen no improvement in their lives. Here are people who have participated in probably more elections than anywhere else in the world yet in the same period their socio-economic conditions have worsened. The country with more elections in Southern Africa has the fastest shrinking economy in the region. What are elections supposed to achieve? people question. Is democracy simply defined by elections? Is it simply a question of numbers or is there something more?


Now this last question is fundamental, particularly in party politics. It is the decision-making process that lies at the heart of the concept of democracy. Often this is represented by the medium of the election – allowing people to decide their choices through a process of voting. It seems to me that decision-making is the crucial point of contest in this case of the MDC in respect of whether or not to participate in the senatorial election.


The key is to understand and accept how decisions are made and respecting the decision-making process. Who makes decisions? How is the decision-making process designed and to what extent does the decision-making process represent the party interest? Is democracy simply about numbers? What about the underlying principles that define the organisation’s goals and aspirations? Who defines those principles anyway? How do, for example, principles sit alongside politics of numbers?


These questions lie at the heart of the current squabbles in the MDC and indeed are crucial at the national level as well. Let us gather the facts of the matter as presented in the media.


The MDC faced the question whether or not to participate in the senatorial election. The party had opposed Constitutional Amendment (No 17) that introduced the senate in September. By virtue of a Zanu PF majority in parliament the amendment was passed and, protests aside, it is now the law of the land. The president of the MDC made it known that he was opposed to the MDC participation in the senatorial election. That was before his party had made a decision on whether or not to participate.


It was then decided that party members be consulted in the various provinces to come up with the party position. This is where the decision-making process kicked in. The MDC is supposed to be open, transparent because it is a democratic movement hence this process of consultation. So far so good.


The national council met and the outcome of the consultation was presented. The result was a stalemate – mangange – with one half saying “yes” and the other half saying “no” to taking part in the election. Then, we are told, the matter was placed before the national council, which in the absence of congress is the supreme decision-making body. The result of that election was 33 saying “yes” to participation and 31 saying “no”, with two spoilt votes! So in its wisdom or folly, by virtue of the majority, the national council decides to participate in the election.


Morgan Tsvangirai is unhappy with the outcome and says it was a stalemate and therefore makes a casting vote against participation in the election. (We also hear new allegations of election-rigging and vote-buying – if they cannot be “free and fair” in the MDC, surely can we expect any better at national level, I wonder.) We have two press statements – one from Tsvangirai saying no participation and one from the Paul Themba Nyathi, the publicity secretary saying the party will participate. Democracy is all over the place – those seeking to bring democracy are now fighting over it!


So what has happened to democracy here? Does Tsvangirai think democracy has run amok requiring some form of discipline? Has it simply collapsed requiring some resuscitation and perhaps a bit of lashing with the whip? Or is Tsvangirai simply obstructing the natural and expected march of democracy? Here we have a leader as part of a minority trying to fight back against the majority.


Again is democracy simply a question of numbers? Tsvangirai’s position seems to challenge this notion. Questions arise in relation to the mechanisms to protect the interests of minorities within the party’s legal and political structures.


We see here a key matter for which a decision must be made. There are those who argue that on the basis of principle the MDC must not participate because it would be tantamount to legitimising Zanu PF policies. Then there are those who say that the numbers game must decide what the party does. So we have those who argue on the basis of principle suggesting that the president can override the numbers game and on the other hand those who argue that such a decision by the president is tantamount to undermining the democratic process and is in effect dictatorial. Interestingly, some of those arguing for non-participation on the basis of principle are members of parliament, enjoying the full perks of their participation in what they have argued was a rigged election in March.


Surely their case for non-participation on the basis of principle would be boosted if they stood before the party and renounced their positions from parliament? It is difficult to reconcile the tacit acceptance of an election that is alleged to have been rigged yet refusing another that has not been held at all, on the basis of principle. If principles apply, surely they ought to apply across the board?


But the key point here centres on the process of making decisions and choices within the democratic movement. If the party has a clear decision-making process in its constitution then it must follow that process and anything else would in itself be a violation of principle. However, if the constitution gives the power to the president to override the national council decisions then what the president has done is legal and legitimate. But if such powers are absent yet the president of the party still thinks democracy defined by numbers has run amok and needs to be checked in order to remain focused on the greater good, then he could use other means – perhaps coax it or quite simply, wait another day and meanwhile seek to change the decision-making process in the constitution. That is where the issue of minority rights arise.


Democracy is not just about the interests of the majorities – properly designed and practised it includes measures to protect minorities’ interests. This is important so as not to expose the minority to the tyranny of the majority. So the question here is in the face of the protests by the minority, instead of relying on the force emanating from office of the president the minority should have structures through which their interests are safeguarded.


The proponents of non-participation argue that if MDC takes part in the election it would be giving in to Zanu PF machinations and legitimising the illegitimate. Those for participation argue that refusing to participate simply means gives up political space to Zanu PF. They argue that it makes no sense to have an MDC MP but giving free space to a Zanu PF senator. It seems to me that at a higher level these two positions represent fundamental differences in the approach and methods of pursuing the general political struggle.


Those advocating non-participation seem to be sticking to the view that the only right way is to participate in an election where the party will be sure of winning power to govern the country. Those for participation seem to have accepted the fate of the MDC in the struggle as the second but challenging a party which must retain its space, no matter how hard conditions are and regardless of how small those spaces are.


This position appears to suggest more patience and the need to remain visible – perhaps an understanding that power will not come soon as expected but that the struggle should continue not simply outside but also within the structures of power in the body politic. This is a difference of strategy, which the senior party officials have probably debated already and is now manifesting itself publicly. If not, then the sooner they define the strategy the better so that the electorate knows well in advance.


There could be some value in what proponents of non-participation argue. To simply ignore the principle advanced by some by virtue of sheer numbers could easily undermine the values for which the organisation stands.

On the other hand to simply dismiss the views of the majority is a failure to gauge the mood in the party and is easily labelled as dictatorial. A leader must be able to argue his case persuasively and show his troops the way forward. The manner in which he pursues that cause is also important but mistakes have evidently been committed in the current episode. It is difficult to understand why the president would want to mobilise people across the country at this late stage, when the party must have known all along that Zanu PF intended to introduce the senate.


The party would have had a plan – that we oppose Zanu PF’s strategy at the amendment stage but they would have known that they would lose anyway by virtue of sheer numbers in favour of Zanu PF. So knowing that it would become law, the party would have made its decision well in advance, therefore reducing confusion among the supporters.


Finally, because democracy entails multiple views, ideas and opinions it requires a large measure of tolerance. A movement that seeks to advance democracy must be prepared to embrace divergent views. The MDC is a vast collection of many interests and not everyone will be pleased by decisions that members of the party make. It means you will have to be ready that some people will celebrate while others will be unhappy at some point.


If divergent views cannot be tolerated and decision-making rules cannot be respected, then the quest for change at national level becomes hollow. The risk that you take for embracing democracy is that your most cherished idea might not be the one that is held by others in the party. In a democracy you have to learn to deal not only with success but also with disappointment.

But above all rules are paramount – it is the rules through which the organisation can tame democracy at those times when it tries to run amok.

Rules also rein in those who try to run riot in defiance of prescribed tenets. In the absence of rules, the will of the individual reigns supreme. It may be that at times that will reflects the interest of the majority at a given time. But if the will of the individual is to be allowed to override rules because it reflects what the people think, what of those times when that individual says his will reflects the majority interests when in fact it does not? The point is, once you allow rules to be overridden at any one time, it may be difficult to stop that practice in future.


Which is why, if rules are there, no matter how unpalatable their results, they ought to be respected. If they are not good enough, wait another time and change them for the future. They say people get the government they deserve – if people condone violation of rules because of majority will, then they should not complain when at other times the “majority” is used against them. Because in politics, the “majority” is malleable, and often it is what those in power say it is.


* Alex T Magaisa can be contacted at wamagaisa@yahoo.co.uk.