Imagining and understanding Zim after the Monday election

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My friends and I have decided not to debate the merits of this election in order to avoid irreparably harming our relationship nursed over decades. We support different parties and so I said to them “see you in August, after the election!”

By Brian Kagoro

The July 30 general election has broken several national and regional records. Just think about it:

The highest number of presidential candidates (23);

The longest campaign period in Zimbabwe since 1979 (seven months plus);

The highest number of promises and the most extravagant too;

Highest number of young people contesting to lead as councillors or National Assembly representatives across the political divide;

Three female presidential candidates. This may be both a Southern African Development Community and African record;

Highest number of expensive cars, rallies, town hall meetings, billboards, posters, T-shirts, radio and television advertisements. In other words, it has been the most expensive election campaign since the inception of the Zimbabwean state; and

The highest ethno-racial diversity of all Zimbabwean elections (i.e. coloureds, Indians, whites and blacks).

These records ordinarily should be a sign of hope for transformation, deepening and widening of democratic participation. But could they also signify the audacious capture of the political space, the state and the economy by a collusive elite? Do the 2018 elections potentially pose a threat to Zimbabwe’s democratisation?

Much ado about nothing

Election season is a highly emotive time. Often fantasy passes for reality as different sides endeavour to win the hearts and minds of the electorate. Those who suspect that they have an ace or joker in their pack of cards, exude an unusual level of confidence and arrogance, even when the game may have changed and the requirements are different.

Speculation and political superstitions ahead of the elections are on steroids. A fever of expectation grips the country and it is unclear what exactly is expected since there has hardly been a discussion of substantive matters of pertinence to ordinary citizens.

Citizens are excited all the same. Excited that they will for the first time in 38 years have an election where there is a greater variety — not necessarily depth or quality — of choice. This will be the first election in 18 years that the late Morgan Tsvangirai and Robert Mugabe will not be on the ballot paper.

Sadly though, this election is severely lacking in transformative content. It may very well — if not harnessed and directed towards a transformational pathway — become much ado about nothing! The trees have changed, but the monkeys remain the same.

Weakened social bases

Recurrent economic crises, rapid de-industrialisation, chaotic urbanisation, and grand corruption have combined to erode poor and vulnerable people’s social support systems and human security, resulting in recurrent food insecurity and malnutrition. Deprivation, dehumanisation and exclusion create a natural hostility towards the establishment.

For the last 30 years ordinary citizens risked their lives in strikes, stayaways, and demonstrations against a very brutal and reckless state elite. The leadership performance of Zanu PF over the last 38 years has at best been diabolic and at worst posed the most serious threat to the lives and livelihoods of ordinary Zimbabweans.

Informalisation of the economy also seriously eroded the historical social bases of organised labour and the black middle class, thus shifting social struggles’ focus to “sadza, nyama and goulash” or what the West Africans call stomach infrastructure politics. As a result, those citizens who have the most to lose, who sacrificed the most and have the greatest stake in the transition from authoritarianism to democracy and the redistribution of power that this implies, have the weakest capacity to influence Zanu PF and the MDC Alliance in terms of leadership selection, policy trajectory and programme implementation.

These groups continue to eke out a living on the margins of society. Their hope of a better life is dwindling with each new day. It is therefore expected that when confronted with the profligacy of relatives, business partners as well as businessmen-cum-party activists-cum-criminals, that people are angry with the ruling elite. This anger and frustration is shared among the impoverished classes and explains the rise of a massive natural trade union of discontent. It does not require incitement at all because poverty, exclusion, insecurity and vulnerability help to mobilise similarly circumstanced citizens into a potent anti-establishment movement. Transformation for them is much more than getting a job, although that is deemed a reasonable starting point for most. This is a generation that is full of potential, but is faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges as well as largely man-made socio-economic and political disasters.

The danger, though, is that anger and social frustration are not synonymous with political consciousness. They can lend themselves to easy manipulation and abuse by political and economic elites. People that are victims of corruption — after receiving some petty incentive — do temporarily support corrupt political elites who eventually exploit or oppress them. The pursuit of personal survival does make some individuals sell their class, cause and struggle birthrights literally for a bowl of soup.

Political celebrities have tragically hijacked the struggle of vendors, informal traders and workers, General Bae’s, millionaires, demagogues and crafty wannabes. This begs the question: is a democratic revolution still possible in Zimbabwe without well-organised and politically conscious subaltern classes?

The hope of change created in the immediate period post the 2017 coup cannot be followed by a rapid backsliding back to Mugabe-era type repression. This would be a titanic error. It will make people apprehensive that freedoms they gained at a phenomenal risk will be lost or sacrificed at the altar of convenience. In such circumstances their mood becomes defiant and revolutionary. We must sustain and encourage Zimbabwean people’s expectations for change through the ballot.

It follows then that the task facing Zimbabwe beyond the Monday election is that of radical social, economic and political transformation into the kind of democracy that empowers ordinary citizens while growing the economy in an inclusive and sustainable manner. If we fail in this task, then Zimbabwe is headed for a political heatwave of new discontent.

Pro-democracy movement

No matter who wins the poll, it is likely that what will constitute the pro-democracy movement and the leadership of the new government will share deep historical roots and class interests.

Parliament is also likely to be made up of a sizeable chunk of remnants of the Zanu PF “Gamatox”, “Weevils”, “G40” and “Lacoste” factions — albeit wearing new guises. It is worth contemplating the possibility and implications of an election that recycles the same elite that were in Mugabe’s cabinet, politburo and central committee. This raises serious ideological and ethical challenges for the new government, especially as far as accountability for grand corruption and gross human rights violations is concerned.
The pro-democracy movement as we know it today will undergo a rapid metamorphosis and the new struggle will be to keep it rooted in values and principles. In part because, as Claude Ake observes, “for elites, support for democratisation is highly instrumental, it is merely a means to access power, privilege and status”. A principle-based approach to pro-democracy politics requires an abiding consciousness of the personal and collective responsibilities that democratisation entails.

Land question

The talk in 2018 of giving land back to white commercial farmers with no word regarding compensation of black farm workers or the financial services sector whose loans to those farmers were forfeited is likely to open old wounds. Address also the plight of black Zimbabweans who were precluded from accessing land because of their political affiliation or those who were unjustly dispossessed alongside the whites.

The re-racialisation of the land question in Zimbabwe along with selling off or long-term leases of large tracts of land to foreign business is likely to present a new dimension of contestation and ideological contradiction both within Zanu PF and the broader society. More poignantly, women who constituted less than 27% of the beneficiaries of the Fast-Track Land Reform process have every reason to feel de-prioritised. If the agrarian question is to be democratically addressed, then all these and other questions ought to be placed on the table for discussion. Tread very carefully on this one, comrades! The problem is much deeper than management of optics for public relations and international re-engagement dividends purposes. A proper national conversation and not these shallow “quick fixes” are required.

The end of history myth

In the 1980s, when Edgar Tekere alleged that Zanu PF had betrayed the revolution, and there was need for another revolution, Mugabe dismissed that suggestion as preposterous. He insisted that: “There will never be another revolution in this country. The only revolution in Zimbabwe is the Zanu PF revolution”.

Masipula Sithole summarised this reasoning thus: “The march of history must somehow come to an end after Zanu PF comes to power. I am saying that the logic that drove those men and women assembled at the Gweru congress in May 1964 to declare war on the (Ian) Smith regime is the same logic that leads people to declare that, ‘Enough is enough!’ as they take the necessary action in their quest for the ‘good life’.”

After 38 years of grand mismanagement and industrial-scale corruption, the elite still believe that they have an exclusive (or divine) right to rule. We now know from the events leading up to the coup in November 2017, that: “Often-ample warning is given and opportunities to resolve things peacefully are created, but mindlessly squandered before the revolt. Moreover the regime’s core elite becomes self-indulgent, trite and flippant before its fall.”

Impoverished and disorganised masses do not always build the consciousness to become a class in themselves and a class for themselves. Sithole argues that hungry people are: “just plain hungry, too hungry to be concerned with anything other than food”.

Revolutions are most likely to occur when a period of socio-economic or political improvement is followed by a sharp reversal as happened from the momentary reprieve of the Government of National Unity to the sole rulership of Zanu PF post-2013. He further argues: “The rapidly widening gap between expectations and gratifications portends revolution.”

We learnt from Egypt and Tunisia in 2011 and Zimbabwe in 2017, that sustained anger of the masses may enable regime renewal and consolidation. This is a stark warning to feuding opposition leaders who risk becoming cannon fodder for regime survival and renewal. Their resentment for each other seems to run deeper than their commitment to democratise Zimbabwe.

To the rulers, please note that revolutions — like histories — are never closed chapters. Radically opposed ideas of continuity and change frame the expectations of different voters ahead of the Monday polls.

Mnangagwa recently repeated that Zimbabwe has its owners (vene vayo). The youth across the political divide now claim that the country, its resources and genuine freedom is their heritage and this is why they say they won’t wait any longer! Whether soft as wool, forceful as a flooded river or as unpredictable as a hurricane, an irreversible revolution started in Zimbabwe in November 2017. It is a revolution of thought, of action and citizen conception of their power against the coercive machinery as well as embedded plutocracy.

Zimbabwe will not experience a democratic revolution until its politics changes and the politics will not change without significant leadership changes at the top. The 2018 election is a litmus test for the prospect of democratic revolution in the near future or at best democratisation.
See you in August!

Kagoro is a local lawyer. He was instrumental in the formation of Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition. He has served as a consultant for several regional organisations including the African Union Commission, The New Partnership for Africa’s Development and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. He has published a number of articles on Zimbabwean and world politics.

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