Strong institutions not strongman is what Mthwakazi needs

Integrity is a key attribute for a well-functioning political entity: there is a strong correlation between people’s perception of a political organisation and their trust in it. Strengthening the integrity, openness and credibility of the pro-Mthwakazi agenda and the policy-making process should therefore be a priority for our movements. This requires not a strongman, but disciplined institutionalised mechanisms of governance.

What is evident in our political space is that some individuals are building their political career by marketing themselves as “good for the region”, affable, assertive, tough against Zimbabwean discriminatory policies and the standout fighters who understand the needs of the region better than all before them. 

The Mthwakazi movement has a duty to inspire the nation to engage in the struggle to free itself. In that role, we cannot afford a political campaign based on denial and avoidance of some of our real problems. An overview of the funding of some movements, their communication mechanism and decision-making processes provides a compelling argument for why operational change is required.

Whether we like it or not, the democratic credentials of the pro-Mthwakazi movement have been called to question. Allegations are that the movement is run by autocrats who pay miniscule attention to democratic norms. Adopting such an approach may facilitate quick decision-making but leaving the public on the margins of the political process will have a detrimental effect to the movement in the medium and longer term.

An increase in the strongman style of leadership within the movement and the “macho” phenomenon, driven by rising populism is inviting local criticism. Judging by public response to the said leadership style, it is clear to all that our political movement needs urgent internal review with a view of re-strategising to change character and actively move away from a politics of personalities and patronage to one rooted in strong institutions.

There is a general understanding through our collective experience of living under a corrupt Zimbabwean system enabled by weak institutions that until the Mthwakazi people break off a majoritarian tyranny and control the political narrative, and then take it out of the hands of the sick minority that chooses to pervert the meaning and the intention of humanity, we will remain accessories in a political system that only represents the interests of a political elite and ethnic Shona majority.

We need to ensure that we have the safeguards in place, the protection mechanisms in place, to ensure that it is not strongman’s norms, rules and values that filter into our own system and therefore leave the nation vulnerable to the whims of any individual leader. To protect everyone from abuse of power, strong institutions are required for checks and balance; our movement needs to ensure its structures reflect democracy.

In his speech to the Ghanaian Parliament in 2009, Barack Obama, the President of the United States of America at the time, asserted: “Africa doesn’t need strong men; it needs strong institutions.”

Institutions play an important role in how organisations perform and may increase the chance of policy continuity; in theory they play an important role in shaping and incentivising the way society and organisations behave by setting the ‘rules of the game’. They may not be always effective thus, the necessity of regular reviews, but they guide the organisation’s internal and external political interactions and protect both the organisation and its membership.

To those who ascribe to Bismarck’s view that the “great questions of the day will not be settled by means of speeches and majority decisions . . . but by iron and blood”, we caution that no one should be allowed the misplaced luxury to use the suffering of the public for broader authoritarian purposes. Strongman politics has not saved Africa from economic poverty and political destitution, it will not help Mthwakazi.

Evidence from around the world shows the real political risks of marketing an individual and attempting to shape the politics on the personality of that person, e.g. Xi Jingpin of China, Kim Jong-un (and many before him) of North Korea, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey, Donald Trump of the USA, among others. The problem with strongman politics is that it is inherently divisive and prone to violence; there are few winners and many losers.

Trump, Putin, Xi and the cult of the strongman leader | Financial Times
Image copyright ©Financial Times. The strongman politics may have limited advantages but it presents deep and broad problems for State or organisation accountability and public safety

Characteristically, the strongman finds it difficult to consider alternative perspectives. He turns himself into an expert of everything, ignores advice from professionals and experts because it does not fit in with his narrative; instead he uses charm and populism to circumvent existing systemic check and balances.

Oftentimes, in the warped mind of the strongman, opposition to his views is construed as confirmation of the legitimacy of his political stance, which reinforces his sense of moral pre-eminence.

In matters of power, it is reckless disregard for human nature to place absolute trust on any individual; no individual should be given unrestricted authority because power is toxic, when allowed unrestrained access to power, leaders have proven incapable of reining themselves in. We need leaders who sought out the advice of those who know more on the subject, including those who disagreed with them.

A step change is required for the pro-Mthwakazi movement to work in greater partnership with those closest to the impact of decisions politicians make; we need to learn from lessons of strongman politics that has compromised African development. Let us change our style to focus on building strong political institutions that create, enforce, and apply laws. Institutions that will challenge potential abuse of authority, mediate conflict, make policy on various social, political and economic systems, and otherwise provide representation for the population. Once again, it is important that institutions protect the public from overzealous, powerful individuals who may want to abuse power given them.

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