Zimbabweans may be described as “voters, but not yet citizens.” Mahmood Mamdani’s classic thesis about citizens and subjects in late colonialism seems to apply strongly to Zimbabwe, a country in which the voice of the citizen has been largely non-existent since the country’s colonisation in 1890.
The idea that citizens are at the heart of the state has never been central for the state in either Rhodesia or Zimbabwe. The majority of the population was denied political voice of any significant kind virtually until the end of the settler state, forced into a brutal and bitter civil war after 1965, and was largely relegated to the minimalist role of mere voters since independence in 1980.
Studies have shown that Zimbabweans consistently favour democracy, reject all non-democratic alternatives, are discontent with Zimbabwe’s kind of democracy, and mostly vote in elections, but only a minority are active in other ways. This is usually attributed to fear, as in the fear to express opinions in public, but mostly to fears of political violence.
What is the reason for this: political culture or risk-aversion?
It is now conventional to see three types of “political culture”: parochial culture, subject culture, and participant culture.
A parochial citizen has a limited or narrow outlook, with very little awareness of central government, and lives life regardless of any decision made by government. A subject citizen is relatively detached and passive; aware about government and politics, but mostly controlled by the state with little room for dissent. Lastly participant citizens who are knowledgeable about the processes in government, take an active role in engaging governance and in trying to shape policies. These are, of course, ideal types, and most civic cultures are a mixture of the three, and various forms of these types can be seen in Zimbabwe.
The tragedy of the Zimbabwe situation was that, after the country went through a relatively protracted period of very high citizen participation during the decade-long liberation war, the population relapsed into a subject political orientation. This was shown in the prolonged period of citizen passivity for two decades after 1980, followed by brief moments of citizen (mostly urban) eruptions at the end of the 1990s before this went dormant again for the next one-and-a-half decades. After the 2013 elections, especially from the beginning of 2016, the country has witnessed a resurgence of active citizen participation (largely restricted to urban centres) which shows itself in various forms, most prominently as social media-based movements
Risk aversion mostly revolves around uncertainty, and is mostly concerned with the taking of risks, which, presumably is the obverse of avoiding risk, or risk-aversion. Some theorists argue that, in respect of gains and losses, these operate differently: losses produce greater risk-taking than the desire for gains.
Ordinarily, and when the risk-taking by leaders does not generate fear, one can imagine that people resort to either mobilising or protesting, or, alternatively, by changing political party affiliation or even not voting. However, the perception of risk in politics is not driven by purely political considerations and is affected by many factors: personality, upbringing, culture, cognitive and emotional processes, gender, and the socio-political context.
In Zimbabwe, citizens will vote, and will generally reduce their public participation to very low risk issues and events. They are not strong members of community groups, apart from churches, rarely join others to raise issues, and are generally reticent even to voice their opinions in public or have political discussions with intimates. Thus, the two major characteristics of agency, voice and participation, are greatly reduced in Zimbabweans.
Understanding lack of agency
Using the data from the Afrobarometer surveys conducted in the country from 1999 to 2014, MPOI and RAU developed a measure of risk-aversion. We then looked at the factors that were associated with risk-taking and risk-aversion: age, gender, education, employment, residence (rural or urban), and political party affiliation. We also looked at the major events that were happening at the times that the surveys were carried out (or a few months prior to) as we thought that these might have an effect on people’s perception of risk.
As can be seen (see graph), Zimbabweans have gone from being risk-takers in the 1990s to being completely risk-averse in 2005 in the aftermath of Operation Murambatsvina, but, by 2014, a majority are now risk-takers again.
From the perspective of 2014, the highly visible citizen agency behind the social media, protests and demonstrations could have been predicted and this suggests a participant rather than a subject political culture. What would not have been obvious in 2014 was the participation of the youth in 2016.
In 2014, the most risk-taking age groups were the older generations (36-49; 50+), but in the 1990s and up to 2004, it was a younger population (18-35; 36-49). Is this older group in 2014 composed of those that experienced the open activism of the 1990s, and have remained active citizens at heart?
It was also very interesting to find out that women and men were no different: when the population becomes risk-averse, as in 2005, this is true for both men and women, and, when the trend is towards becoming risk-taking, this is similarly true for both men and women. This is against an international trend that claims that women are likely to be more risk-averse than men.
Studies elsewhere show that risk-taking increases with the level of education, but, in Zimbabwe, the higher the level of education, the greater the aversion to risk. International studies also show that wealth influences risk-taking, and we relied on looking at employment. There were no differences between the employed and the unemployed, with both groups following the general trend mentioned in respect of gender.
It is commonplace that rural and urban Zimbabweans differ in many respects as regards politics. For the first three rounds (1999, 2004 and 2005), there was little difference between the two groups, but, from 2005 onwards, urbanites are consistently more risk-averse than their rural counterparts; a possible long-term effect of Operation Murambatsvina, compounded by the bloody and violent Operation Mavhotera Papi of 2008?
There was also wide variation between the provinces, both between provinces and within provinces over time. This suggests the effects of local events in provinces, and needs closer examination. Similarly, ethnicity provided some puzzling findings that need further study. Over time, Manyika respondents are the most risk-averse, while the Ndebele are the most risk-taking, and certainly this latter finding deserves more attention.
Finally, the supporters of Zanu PF are consistently the most risk-taking of all groupings. Over time the MDC, and then the MDC-T after the party split in 2005, are generally the most risk-averse, but those claiming to be unaffiliated or members of other parties are also risk-averse.
Overview of findings
Three points can be made on the results so far.
Firstly, if this study had been done in 2014, the current risk-taking by Zimbabweans could have been predicted. Not only because older people refuse subject status, but also because risk-taking is independent of gender or employment.
Secondly, Zimbabweans can easily be reduced to a subject political culture if a risk-taking government in willing to act on a national scale as was the case in 2005 with Operation Murambatsvina.
Thirdly, the involvement of the youth in 2016 would not have been predicted in 2014, but perhaps there is one indicator to suggest why. If the young became risk-takers in the 1990s due to the relatively open civic space and low rates of repression in the 1990s, then maybe the same is true of the period since 2008.
Zimbabwe has experienced a long period of relatively little violence, at least on the scale of the elections in 2008 or Operation Murambatsvina, and perhaps this has created the conditions in which the younger citizens have acquired greater agency, buoyed by the voice of social media. Or is it just that the enormous youth bulge, with nearly 70% of the population under the age of 35 years, is having the consequence seen in so many other countries? A future that looks exceedingly gloomy, and government that seems unable to reform in order to meet the crisis, perhaps this is a factor that should be taken more seriously.
Research and Advocacy Unit (RAU) is an independent, non-governmental organisation.