The obsession with ZANU PF is now a subterfuge in the critical analyses of the role of the opposition in Zimbabwe’s politics. This obsession, though understandable, has become a hindrance to the objective and expansive analyses of Zimbabwean politics. Why should we spend our life-time trying to mop water in the house while ignoring the gaping hole on the roof that lets the water into the house deluge after deluge? ZANU PF does not exist in a social and political vacuum hence the pre-occupation with the party’s activities in isolation is counterproductive for the long-term political future of the country. Equal attention should be given to all the relevant variables: social norms and values and the role of the opposition in perpetuating the role of ZANU PF as a major player in Zimbabwean politics.
Why is it still an expectation – albeit rarely mentioned in public – that a Zimbabwean leader has to be Shona? Why is our democratic outcome still determined by the candidates’ ethnic origins and/ or racial background? Why should opinion divergence within political parties lead to breakups instead of enriching political debate and informing policy outcomes within the organisation? As long as ethnicity and the racial background of candidates and not their policies remain the determinant of election outcomes, Zimbabwe’s political policies will be based on short-term tokenistic policies and target the larger ethnic groups and ‘problematic’ groups but ignore (if not punish) minority and ‘less noisy’ groups; the electorate will often get what they want in terms of leaders and scarcely what they and the country need in respect of policies. Currently, political popularity is inextricably linked to the population size of an individual’s ethnic group and that popularity cannot necessarily be a measure of the strength of an individual’s political debate and leadership qualities.
Zimbabweans, like many black Africans, are family orientated and family ties go beyond one’s immediate family through to community links by birth, ancestry, residence and ethnicity among others. While expertise is considered in assigning political and socioeconomic roles, kinship remains a vital factor at all levels of Zimbabwe’s economic and political life. Loyalties are not easily broken, the leader is expected to look after his/her ‘own people’ while the people feel an obligation to subordinate themselves, support and not challenge the leader. The success of individuals from the community is somehow viewed as the success for all within it; at times it is true as evidenced by the disproportionate infrastructural development in communities with whom the leader has ties (ethnic, birth, parents- own and spouse’s – , and so on). Leaders are rarely questioned as such; they inadvertently adopt a traditional king’s role and have an unfettered reign spanning decades: their authority is rarely questioned in public and even less so in private since being given an advisory role is mostly dependent on one’s allegiance to the leader and rarely on merit or expertise alone.
The politically crippling ethnic loyalties are maintained in Zimbabwean politics by accentuating inter-ethnic socio-cultural differences and myths thereby creating a politically convenient mistrust between two of the major ethnic groups (Ndebele and Shona) in the country. It is hardly surprising that potentially good leaders may lose an election either because of their own ethnic identity or that of the political organisation they represent. It is for this reason that a mere focus on ZANU PF alone will not necessarily change the political dynamics in the country or lead to a sustained democratic political growth process. ZANU PF identified the social and political weaknesses and manipulated them to perfection; there is no reason yet to suggest opposition politicians are interested in addressing the inherent ethnic divisions. Recent statements from the Prime Minister (the leader of the opposition) that suggested that the smaller faction of the opposition was a regional party bear testimony to the importance of ethnic division in Zimbabwean politics.
The continued influential role of ethnic identity in Zimbabwe’s election outcomes is arguably the hole in the roof that has kept ZANU PF in power and allowed the party to sculpture and practise its abrasive political and social policies. The last 11 years have seen the rise of the opposition yet powerful as the MDC is, it has not been able to affect the political climate of Zimbabwe. This is arguably the result of ZANU PF’s willingness to hold onto power by any which means and also because of the maladroitness within the opposition leadership. Arguably, the MDC’s role in the GNU has been to shore up ZANU PF while the benefits to it (MDC) and more importantly its electorate are quite negligible. The MDC has failed to address the ethnic polarisation in Zimbabwe’s politics. The involvement of ordinary members in major party decisions has been questionable, at best. For instance, was the leader’s last minute withdrawal from the 2008 presidential run-off election sanctioned by party members or a calculated political decision by the leadership that back-fired badly? If it was the latter, why were there no resignations after that?
The party has failed to prove its democratic credentials beyond reasonable doubt which has led to an unhelpful split of the organisation into three factions (MDC-T, MDC, and MDC-99). The bigger faction (MDC-T) has not been able to articulate its vision for Zimbabwe to Zimbabweans and the international community. For example, it is not yet clear how the MDC-T will pursue its indigenisation policy that will make it fundamentally different from ZANU PF’s and how that will build investor confidence thus, make Zimbabwe genuinely competitive again for the much needed foreign investment. Without relevant costing and estimates for the trickle down effects of the programme, it remains uncertain how the proposed indigenisation will make lives better for the ordinary people.
While ZANU PF cannot be separated from the extant socioeconomic and political policies, it is possible to place more emphasis on the policies than make ZANU PF the focal point and ‘a common enemy’. It is time to identify and make relevant links between ZANU PF’s policies and the poverty in Zimbabwe today. However, pointing at ZANU PF’s failed and often destructive policies is only great material for history books and should (of its own) not be enough for any party modelling itself as a government- in- waiting. The MDC-T needs to articulate its vision for the country; the point of relying on a protest vote has long gone, now is the time for the party to earn votes through positive and consistent policies. Changing social norms and values is an onerous but not impossible task: politicians need to start promoting ethnic cohesion through policies that promote respect for individuals and their belief systems thereby embrace diversity in Zimbabwean society. There needs to be transparency in the allocation of resources across regions. Furthermore there has to be transparency in the awarding of public contracts to the private sector; and in the recruitment process for higher education and for jobs by both the private and public sector.
Zimbabwean politics has to be more receptive to the greater participation of civil society in the governance of the country through the creation of quasi-government bodies that would check and balance possible political excesses. As for the ordinary men and women of Zimbabwe, there is an urgent need to take full responsibility in the way the country is run. At both national and party level, the opposition and ordinary party members have to start holding their leaders to account. Policies and not ethnic balance should be the determinant of election outcomes.