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Zimbabweans: Subjects or citizens?

Violence was the way in which the country came into being, the propensity for and actual deployment of violence was what kept the Rhodesian state intact. Violence was the only way that political change could happen in Rhodesia, and, since Independence, violence has been a significant way in which Zanu PF has dealt with political threat.

THIS article is the first in a series under a collaboration between the Mass Public Opinion Institute (MPOI) and the Research and Advocacy Unit (RAU). The two research organisations are looking at the Zimbabwean citizenry, their attitudes to political participation and the problems they experience in participation. The first articles will look at what Zimbabweans see as risky in political participation.

MPOI & RAU RESEARCH organisations

Since 2000, one of the enduring questions posed to Zimbabweans by people in the region and the international community is why, given all the problems they face, do Zimbabweans not protest more strongly?

Is it because they are “risk averse” as Eldred Masunungure has surmised, and the only political act that they can contemplate is to vote? Is it because of the fear generated by the perpetrators of political violence? Could it even be that 36 years of having the same government in power means Zimbabweans have simply accepted that Zanu PF will always be in power, which of course is what the party continually tells the nation? Or, could it be that Zimbabweans have an unusually large reservoir of political patience?

There is probably an element of truth in each of the views. Certainly, Zimbabweans place enormous importance on voting, just as they do on the value of democracy. Zimbabweans value democracy very highly and consistently repudiate one-man rule, one-party rule and military rule.

However, they do feel anxious about talking about politics in public, do not generally protest, and do not even seem to belong to community organisations apart from churches.

This lack of agency is most frequently attributed to the violent nature of Zimbabwean politics, now and historically. As Lloyd Sachikonye argues in his excellent book When a State Turns on its Citizens, violent problem-solving is, and has been, the basic strategy for dealing with political difference. This is not a new phenomenon and certainly not peculiar to the post-independence period.

Violence was the way in which the country came into being, the propensity for and actual deployment of violence was what kept the Rhodesian state intact. Violence was the only way that political change could happen in Rhodesia, and, since Independence, violence has been a significant way in which Zanu PF has dealt with political threat. So we do well not to easily dismiss fear as an important reason behind Zimbabweans being “risk averse”.

But what about the accommodation thesis? For 20 of the 36 years that Zanu PF has been in power, there was no credible opposition, and to all intents and purposes, Zimbabweans lived in a one-party state. Remember the 1995 general election where Zanu PF won every single seat in Mashonaland Central, East and West: most were won unopposed, and the remainder by massive majorities. Anyone growing up since 1980 would have the very distinct impression that there was no other party than Zanu PF, that the government was always Zanu PF, and that this was how it was and always would be.

While one would not want to discount the violence thesis, it does seem that there is a strong feeling in Zimbabwe, as in many other African countries, for citizens to defer to the “father-figure”.

As Carolyn Logan pointed out in an African-wide analysis of public trust, deference seems to be the most significant factor in determining why political alternation does not occur more regularly in Africa.

But what then underpins this deference?

It might be argued, as has Mahmood Mamdani, that Africans are perennial “subjects”, and, for Zimbabweans, this may well have been the case for more than 100 years. Certainly, all settler governments were happy with the bifurcated state and black people as subjects, reluctant even to create more than a handful of voters under qualified franchises. Little seemed to change after independence apart from Zimbabweans getting the vote. Why else would a vice-president, Simon Muzenda, be quoted as making this demeaning statement: “Even if we put a baboon in Chivi, if you are Zanu PF, you vote for that baboon.”

Table 1: “How much do you trust each of the following, or haven’t you heard enough about them to say? Traditional leaders”
Table 1: “How much do you trust each of the following, or haven’t you heard enough about them to say? Traditional leaders”

However, the more serious side to the deference thesis is the demonstration that Zimbabweans have markedly different views on trust, and rural Zimbabweans still retain a high degree of trust in traditional leaders, and so do reasonable numbers of urban Zimbabweans, even though for many this is obviously based on an indirect link through family connections in the rural areas (See Table 1 above).


Contrasting these views on trust with views on trusting local government officials, the differences between rural and urban citizens is less, but there is still significantly higher trust in local officials in rural as opposed to urban folk. Interestingly, urban folk seem to have similar levels of trust for both sets of officials and most do not trust either (See Table 2 above).

Of course, trust in elected officials is somewhat different to trust in those appointed, and there is the advantage that elected officials can be got rid of through the vote as opposed to traditional leaders. In Zimbabwe it is important to remember that traditional leaders are in the final analysis appointed by the President Robert Mugabe (Matyszak, 2011), which suggests a complex chain of deference from the chief to the Minister of Local Government and finally to the president.

So, does this suggest that urban Zimbabweans are less deferential and hence less “subject-like” than their rural counterparts, that might imply that urban folk were more “citizen-like”, and perhaps less “risk averse”? Here, and as in the case of so many other ways, Zimbabwe seems a case apart from other African countries.

Carolyn Logan, in her analysis of political trust (and deference) pointed out that in countries where the political trust gap between the ruling party and the opposition was greater than 20 percentage points, no opposition party ever changed the status quo and came to power. Well, in Zimbabwe, we have the case where, in 2005-2006 the MDC-T was 16 percentage points greater than Zanu PF, have beaten Zanu PF in an election (2008), but have never attained independent political power.

It may mean that what explains risk aversion is actually a complex number of interacting variables.

Firstly, there is the fear factor. This is not trivial for which a multiplicity of human rights reports support: there are serious consequences for political activity if you choose a position in competition with Zanu PF.

Secondly, there may well be the deference factor, operating in tandem with the fear factor, and especially in the rural areas.

Chiefs are powerful tradition-based local authorities, endorsed by powerful political authority, and then reinforced by the ability of the state to resort to levels of violence appropriate — and sometimes disproportionate — to the threat of opposition.

Thirdly, there may be a resignation factor. As was pointed out above, no matter how much support an opposition party has, a majority even, this never translates into political alternation, and this may mean for many the feeling of a subject status. This is probably made even worse by the realistic perception for most Zimbabweans that every single institution of the state is actually another structure of the political party that is Zanu PF.

The combination of fear, deference and resignation might well explain the curious national “depression” that was so evident in 2013 after the elections. Not even the winners seemed immune from this feeling, and there did not seem to be the celebratory atmosphere that usually goes with winning a landslide election!

All of these hypotheses are based around the Afrobarometer data up to Round Six in 2014 and would suggest that the trends would continue up to the next election.

However, 2016 seems to be breaking with the pattern: Zimbabweans are revolting, peacefully, but revolting nonetheless. What would have predicted this? Or is it simply an age-old process, seen in multiple revolutions in the past? Treat citizens like subjects, tell them to eat cake, and pretty soon they will be on the streets.

In 2016, does this represent a move from subject to citizen, or whether Zimbabweans have been citizens all along and it was merely successive governments that failed to understand this? And successive governments that failed to realise that Zimbabweans are, by nature, a peaceful, democracy-loving people; that it takes enormous effort to disrespect this nature; but beware when they have had enough.

Smith never got this message, and hopefully, this government will wake up before things get too messy.
MPOI and RAU are Zimbabwean organisations.

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