AS Zimbabwe’s parties brace for mortal electoral combat, it is worth reminding ourselves of an earlier struggle that took place in the region where there was also an American presence inspiring and driving the process of change.
Editor’s Memo by Iden Wetherell
President Barack Obama recalled this recent history as he couched his address at the University of Cape Town two weeks ago in the language of the struggle in which he was raised. Obama quoted at length Bobby Kennedy’s 1966 address on the same platform and in the teeth of similar reactionary repression.
Kennedy, brother of a slain president, was the guest of Nusas, the South African national students union, and his soaring rhetoric had as its framework the movement for racial equality in the segregationist south.
This would not have been lost on supporters of the anti-apartheid movement of the 1960s, especially student activists on the country’s campuses. But 47 years on, it also served to connect Obama to the students of today and to the struggle for democracy in those African regimes that, like Zimbabwe, deny their people elementary freedoms of assembly, association and expression.
Kennedy’s speech, of which a recording survives, inspired a generation of student radicals and saw their leaders severely punished for inviting the former US attorney-general to South Africa.
They were banned from having any contact with other students.
Kennedy’s theme, as relevant now as then, has remained a powerful statement of commitment to freedom. All small things amount to something big if given the chance, he argued. He was assassinated in 1968 while on the campaign trail and was thought likely to win the 1968 election.
Obama quoted him at length but this is the central point.
“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centres of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
Tony Leon in his Business Day column quoted Obama as providing this warning: “There are some who advocate for democracy only when they are out of power. Once in power they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others… Government of the people by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party.”
In that statement Obama had a message for us all, and it is one that cascades down the passage of time rippling out in different directions. It is very simply that democratic change cannot be resisted indefinitely and, as in Egypt which erupted as Obama gave his address at UCT, it becomes part of the inspirational process that speaks truth to power.
As our election approaches we should remember that. Already there are signs that the electoral process faces formidable challenges. Of particular concern to those of us in the media is the way in which the public media has been unashamedly abused by the former ruling party to advance its exclusivist agenda. Radio and television transmission have been usurped to serve Zanu PF’s narrow electoral needs. Daily, a torrent of poisonous propaganda emanates from Pockets Hill which offers no space to other contending parties and views.
This is not only unprofessional, it runs contrary to the agreement between the parties signed in 2008. If Zimbabwe is to have a resemblance of democratic order it needs to have media diversity so voters can make an informed choice at the polls. At present the only voice heard across the land is that of President Mugabe’s party.
While the new constitution outlaws hate speech, Zimpapers’ publications promote Zanu PF’s sclerotic cause while relentlessly excoriating the MDC-T.
Obama’s warnings on the need for incumbent regimes to maintain power through consent, not coercion came at exactly the right moment. That is a message all should hear.