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Zimbabwe’s ailing democracy

A society that does not appreciate the source of its problems is less likely to navigate its way out. As ZANU PF celebrates its recent ‘victory’ in the 21st Century and the opposition once again cries ‘robbery’ questions have to be asked of Zimbabwe’s democracy and why the Zimbabwean general population remains unable to command their political destiny. This article argues that Zimbabwe does not possess an actual body politic that supports power sharing.

The perception of democracy as a majority rule can be as misleading as it can be dangerous; for instance, there is nothing democratic about 51 percent of people taking away the rights of the other 49 percent. The Zimbabwean fundamentalist ‘winners take all, losers go to hell’ interpretation is not democracy. Far from being a majority rule, democracy is primarily a rule by all those adult citizens not subject to disqualification on the basis of reasonable, fair and agreed upon factors.

Democratic rule can either be direct or through elected legislators or a combination of both. Democracy is characterised by the diffusion of power, the representation of the conscience of the people as well as the recognition of minorities; it is a political regime ‘…in which the peaceful rivalry for the exercise of power exists constitutionally’ (Aron, 1969) where, ‘exercise of power’ implies temporary control (Aron, 1969).

No form of government exists in a cultural vacuum; history, culture and associated traditions and customs affect socio-political transactions, these in turn shape the way politics is instituted in Zimbabwe. The lived political reality of Zimbabwe is that ethnic essentialism defines the institution of the country’s politics. Leaders are judged not by their content but their ethnicity. There is no due regard for advancing ethnic equality; Matabeleland remains disproportionately underdeveloped despite an abundance of natural resources.

In fact, since 1980 the ethnic Shona dominated governments have pursued a Shonalisation programme aimed at extending the Shona hegemony across the country. Entrenched ethnic divisions make the current political framework incompatible with the country’s political needs. It is morally repulsive to have a Shona king preside over Matabeleland when he has no regard for the people from that region.

The idea of power sharing or diffusion of power and leadership renewal through an electoral process that assumes equality of all citizens is not a natural feature of the ethnically inclined Zimbabwean society. This raises questions on the essence of the first-past-the-post system. Ethnic identity is important in elections, people vote for individuals whom they can identify with irrespective of the content of their politics and the rest of the population have to endure the political outcomes. Under the circumstances is proportional representation and devolution of power not the best system? Those (and only them) who vote for incompetence should be victims of their decisions?

Zimbabwean society has been conditioned to a life of conformity; traditional customs foster respect and reverence of leaders thus, open challenge to authority remains broadly frowned upon by both leaders and the people. Political leaders impose ideals, and instead of organising people they manipulate them. To foster democracy people would have to unlearn some detrimental forms of respect; challenging beyond established authority is not undemocratic, it is essential to it.

The succession debate must be welcome instead of being suppressed. In a recent Facebook survey on who should succeed Tsvangirai one contributor argued that Tsvangirai had become a brand as such his removal would be detrimental to the opposition movement. Unfortunately that is the collective ignorance from which Zimbabwean politicians from both sides of the house draw their strength. This, in part, accounts for the longevity of the immoral status quo and why the debate on succession remains out of bounds in both sides of Zimbabwean politics.

Worrying as it is, the dictatorship in Zimbabwe is no less of a worry than the absence of a decisive response to a system that the majority of the population privately acknowledge as unfair. It is a travesty that even the 2008 election heist failed to trigger a decisive response from the people. In a typical case of the best people’s revolution being hijacked and surrendered by an incapable political leadership, Mr Tsvangirai (the opposition leader) could only muster an unconvincing dash to the Dutch embassy ostensibly fearing for his life. This was immediately followed by perhaps his most misguided and worst political intervention when he opted to withdraw from the presidential re-run when he had Mugabe on the ropes!

Zimbabwe’s politics is driven by the fear of losing power on the one side and the fear of being the scourge of power on the other. There is broad democratic dysfunction, being in the opposition is a dangerous as opposed to being a privileged and an important political role of calling government to account. Zimbabwe’s politics operates within a framework that seeks to starve the opposition of political space leaving it struggling for legitimacy; the government defines and controls the space within which democracy is exercised.

Election losers are effectively denied public space to directly contribute to the development of the country; losing an election is thus tantamount to temporary condemnation to political obscurity. The practice of democracy should go beyond wining and losing elections. Democracy should primarily foster the culture of negotiated solutions to national and local challenges; that calls for the widening as opposed to the constriction of the political space.

Zimbabweans need not place the burden of moral responsibility on the hands of an experienced dictatorship and discredited politicians. The current disorganised democracy fronted by the MDC-T is by no means a decisive response to the organised ZANU PF dictatorship; it is instead rapidly growing into a political liability and a disastrous existence whose only political utility is to legitimise the dictatorship by participating in obscenely compromised democratic processes. A complete civil society inspired political renewal that will align democracy to local realities is essential. Without a regard for equality of all ethnic groups, there will never be democracy in Zimbabwe; the first-past-the-post system is not suited to the almost incompatible socio-political regions of Zimbabwe.


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