CALLS for national unity have been commonplace in the past two decades, but have taken on a new urgency since November 2017.
However, since November 2017, and the coup, these calls are increasingly hollow and, for a variety of reasons, are unlikely to bring about the kind of collective identity and action that seems so necessary to pulling the country out of the mire.
First and foremost, the notion of a national identity has been undermined by Zanu PF itself with its continuous exclusion in its version of the country’s history. There can be no doubt that the country was liberated through armed struggle, but it is also the case that “people power” was a significant factor behind the success of the armed struggle: if the freedom fighters were fish swimming in the waters of the people, then the waters had to be friendly, and they were. However, the reasons why they were friendly were multiple and diverse, and very often personally and locally selfish. It is obvious that all Zimbabweans wanted an end to the Rhodesian state, but their aims and goals are mostly ignored.
Secondly, the liberation was more than the struggle of one party and one guerrilla army, and this has also not been sufficiently acknowledged. This exclusion has been further poisoned by the Gukurahundi issue. Thus, we are left today with a gap in our common history and the anger of the excluded southern half of the country.
This appropriation of the liberation history becomes an exclusionary narrative, pointed out by so many commentators. This is not what the constitution requires, as seen in the preamble, the founding values and principles, and the national objectives: all emphasise inclusion of all who struggled to free the country from colonial rule. In practice, however, all these worthy sentiments are honoured more in the breach, and the insistence by Zanu PF that it has some special entitlement to the history and hence to governing. Thus, from early on, and despite the notion of reconciliation, the possibility of a deep, post-Independence social contract was undermined.
Thirdly, the attempts from 2000 onwards, for the young of the country to define a new social contract, firstly, through demanding a new constitution, and secondly, by forming a new political party, were met by resistance and violence. The earlier attempts to bring a new narrative by the Zimbabwe Unity Movement and others met with the same resistance and violence. National identity became increasingly more narrowly defined and exclusive.
It is unsurprising that the young, now 70% under age of 35, would find this exclusion unacceptable, and, despite millions fleeing into the diaspora, that the major opposition party is able to attract nearly as many “official” votes as Zanu PF.
Fourthly, the growth of the predatory state, so well-described by Ibbo Mandaza, as well as Michael Bratton and Eldred Masunungure, has led by incremental stages to the impoverishment of the vast majority of the citizenry. The convenient explanation for all was the excessive power of Robert Mugabe, but obviously this could not be the whole story: Mugabe’s power was built on the power of the party, and its role in maintaining both him and itself in power. The personalistic explanation was too facile in reality. Predatory power, of course, depends upon the strong leader, but strong leaders need strong followers.
When Mugabe is toppled in November 2017, the personalistic explanation was accepted all too easily, but it did not take a genius to work out that, for the many thousands that celebrated his fall, there was also the anticipation that this might also see the end of Zanu PF. This is an obvious conclusion given the very bitter conflicts over the elections since 2000, and the enormous number of Zimbabweans who did not vote for either Mugabe or Zanu PF. They were even in the majority in 2008, but were brutalised and bamboozled out of acceding to government, except as a junior partner.
The events that followed the coup demonstrate how deep the polarisation in the country has become, and it is evident that there are now different narratives about national identity. One that claims that the “old exclusive” identity has been laid to rest, but also claims that the ideology behind the liberation war was subverted.
Actually, it was subverted by Zanu PF itself, and we hear increasingly that the way forward is to join this “new” party and its government in a “new dispensation”.
The other narrative, and not merely that of the MDC Alliance, calls for national dialogue, a new social contract, reform of the state, and even a transitional arrangement. This is not yet a coherent narrative, and the government is working hard to undermine any prospect of it being so. We can see the attempt to set up a “national dialogue” and the creation of a Presidential Advisory Council as either a genuine attempt to create a unified approach to solving the country’s problems, or a cynical attempt to undermine the growth of a powerful movement to challenge the government’s narrative. Time will tell which will prevail, and certainly there is food for thought in the recent events in Algeria and Sudan.
In Zimbabwe today, calls for unity cannot be based on coercion, exclusion or controlling the process, they can only come from an openness to discuss with everyone, and the very unpalatable acceptance that one’s solutions might be wrong. This is the deepest problem we face currently: Zanu PF, for all the reasons described above, has never admitted that it might be wrong, for its inbuilt pathology for the past 39 years is that it is entitled to govern.
Never mind the gross human rights violations and the corruption of the past 39 years, and there are serious accountability issues to be faced, until Zanu PF accepts that it can be wrong, and that the party does not have the answers, any call made for national unity will be rejected. The reason is very simple: Zanu PF and the government are not trusted by the people, no matter how many elections it “wins”.
Deeply, there is no trust, and hence no confidence, in the government. And trust and confidence are the critical components of a truly national identity. It will take both an extraordinary leap of faith and courage for the government to accept but, until they do, calls for national unity will fall on millions of deaf ears.
Tony Reeler is a former academic at the University of Malawi and the University of Zimbabwe. Trained as a lawyer and psychologist, he has been active in mental health, human rights and governance for the past 30 years. He writes in his personal capacity.