The poverty of Zimbabwe’s political discourse

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By Zimbabwe Investor on May 3, 2013. No Comments

Leadership: Zimbabwe's political leaders, Morgan Tsvangirai, Robert Mugabe, Arthur Mutambara and Welshman Ncube after constitution talks breakthrough

Leadership: Zimbabwe’s political leaders, Morgan Tsvangirai, Robert Mugabe, Arthur Mutambara and Welshman Ncube after constitution talks breakthrough

OPINION (Zimbabwe Investor) – The poverty of the Zimbabwean political debate is that of focusing on individuals rather than structures, processes, and issues. While individuals play a significant role in making of politics and its articulation, the Zimbabwean political debate, puts President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai too much at the centre of the political discourse as though there would be no Zimbabwe without these two political gladiators, writes Prof Sabelo Gatsheni-Ndlovu

The unintended consequence of this ‘individualisation’ of the political discourse is that electoral contests become reducible to choosing between personalities rather than well-articulated projects. Manifestos become nothing in this individualised conception of politics.

Consequently, political actors do not make their home-work of coming up with well-thought-out programmes to market to the electorate as part of soliciting for votes. Those who try to write and contribute to political debates generates to simple railing against some specific political actors rather than engaging in articulation of issues at stake.

The excellent and important New Zimbabwe.com platform has been turned into a place of exchanging insults and other obscenities that do not help in the process to imagining a better Zimbabwe. The other unintended consequence of this type of approach to the political discourse on Zimbabwe is that as a people, we miss engagement with the big picture of the context within which the Zimbabwe question features. It would seem even those who claim to present academic analysis remain locked in inflexible partisan orientation that make them fail to provide refreshing analysis of the core problems haunting our beautiful nation.

The fundamental question which is skirted by many is what constitutes the Zimbabwe problem? Are elections a panacea to this problem? What happens after elections? The dominant but simplistic response has been that either President Mugabe or Prime Minister Tsvangirai is the problem. Some have even labeled Tsvangirai a security threat that needs the intervention of the military in Zimbabwean politics! Some entertain an equally shallow analysis that if Mugabe is removed from the political scene, the Zimbabwe problem would be solved. All this is a consequence of the poverty of the Zimbabwean political discourse.

I think there are five core issues that must pre-occupy us as we reflect on another election. These are coloniality, tyranny, puppetry, national question, and the contested meaning of democracy.  Let us briefly articulate each of them.

Coloniality and the myth of African liberation

The Zimbabwean liberation forces managed to roll back direct administrative colonialism but failed to extricate Zimbabwe from coloniality. Coloniality cascades from colonialism but survives colonialism. The term neo-colonialism that is preferred by those influenced by Marxist thought does not fully capture the essence of coloniality as it emphasises only the economic dimension. Coloniality is best understood as a global power matrix that lies at the centre of the current racially hierarchised, patriarchal, Western-centric, Euro-American-centric, hetero-normative, Christian-centric, capitalist, modern and colonial world order that emerged in 1492.

The year 1492 is an important date for the making of the Global South because it marks the year Christopher Columbus claimed to have discovered the so-called New World, inaugurating imperial expansion across the world. Decolonisation has not yet succeeded in decolonising the modern global system.

What simply happened is that the Westphalian sovereignty order that came into being in 1648 that excluded Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean from enjoyment of sovereignty, underwent a paradigm shift into the current post-1945 United Nations sovereignty system that embrace juridical-political decolonisation of Africa.

Practically, what happened was that the anti-systemic/anti-colonial political formations were disciplined by forces of coloniality into reformist movements that became available for accommodation into the lowest echelons of the modern global system. Coloniality works to discipline and dilute revolutionary force and content of liberation movements. Consequently, those who originally fought for liberation and freedom end up celebration emancipation which is articulated in terms of democracy and human rights.

The reality is that in the current modern global system, Africans remain a people, whose being is articulated in terms of lacks and deficits – lacking history, lacking civilization, lacking development, lacking good governance, lacking democracy, lacking human rights, and lacking ethical leadership. This discourse cannot die as long as the modern global system remains underpinned by coloniality and resistant to decolonisation.

Within this modern world system, humanity remains hierarchised racially with whites at the top and blacks at the bottom. States remain hierarchized with the USA at the top and African states at the bottom of the global power hierarchy.

Zimbabwe is caught-up in coloniality just like all other ‘postcolonial’ states. The quest for a new Zimbabwe becomes part of a global South’s decolonization struggle to end all forms of coloniality. Coloniality is more dangerous than colonialism because one cannot see it. It operates as an invisible force embedded in institutions as well as carried by those discourses like democracy, human rights and development that appear to be progressive.

As we approach another election, the question of coloniality cannot be ignored. It’s a global question with indirect and direct local implications. The crisis is that the so-called African nationalists have simply reproduced coloniality and this is manifested in their readiness to inherit institutions left behind by colonialists. Coloniality has destroyed African spirit to innovate and invent new institutions. It has destroyed the ability to dream in African terms and to imagine beyond parameters set by coloniality.

Tyranny and African human security

The post-colonial African states including Zimbabwe are modeled on Westphalian template albeit modified by colonial political engineers like Cecil John Rhodes. They are a product of Euro-American modernity that produced the nation-state as a superior form of human organization. African boundaries are a product of Berlin consensus of 1884-5. The OAU only accepted their inviolability in 1963.

The African leaders manning the postcolonial states occupy an invidious position similar to African chiefs under indirect rule. They run local economies on behalf of the world capitalist system rather than in trust for African people. Those who try to deviate from the coloniality script face consequences of assassination, coup d’état and sanctions. Those who comply face the wrath of the people. They are in a cul-de-sac. They are in a coloniality straitjacket. Thus instead of delivering services to the people they deliver violence and tyranny as a form of governance.

One finds African leaders unashamedly and deliberately identifying black citizens as their worst enemies. This is why they use spy agents to unroll surveillance on society.  Police, army and prisons are there to deal with those considered to be anti-status quo. Any one speaking the language of change is labeled an enemy of the state as the party, state, nation and presidency are conflated into a singular leviathan. The leaders become comfortable in practicing what Fanon termed ‘repetition without change.’

The fundamental issue is to reflect on the nature of change that Zimbabweans envisage as we approach elections. Is it possible to reap real, genuine and quality decolonial change, without defeating coloniality? How can we transcend the habit of ‘repetition without change’? These are not simple questions requiring one answer. The electorate must play its role. Those who aspire to lead Zimbabwe must be pressured to come up with clear visions and plans for the country.

Puppetry and the West

Ever since the dawn of juridical-political independence, the Euro-American world has managed to continue to influence and shape African affairs through the use of puppets.  Those African leaders like Kwame Nkrumah, Steven Bantu Biko, Herbert Chitepo, Jaison Moyo, Thomas Sankara, Chris Hani, Patrice Lumumba, Amilcar Cabral and a few others, who refused puppetry, were quickly eliminated physically. All those who survived to this day had proven to be usable as puppets in one way or another.

One finds African leaders competing among themselves for puppetry and those who lose the competition turn around and call the West names. If the West is on one leader’s side, it becomes a partner. When ditched by the West, the African leader rails against the West while behind the scenes negotiating for Western favour. Once the African leader has been rehabilitated, puppetry is normalised as engagement with the rest of the world.

Puppetry is an important tool of coloniality that Zimbabweans must be aware of as we approach elections. What must be noted is that those who are quick to call others puppets are often those who have been outwitted in the same game of puppetry. So we must be very vigilant as to try to transcend this problem. Puppetry can be avoided by a people who are genuinely nationalistic and patriotic.

The national question

The idea of Zimbabwe is a recent one. It emerged in the 1960s.  It was meant to be a nodal point around which a singular identity of a people of diverse ethnic backgrounds had to crystallize into one postcolonial nation.But at the very time that nationalism was emerging ethnicity began to spoil the national project.Without genuine nationalists, it became hard for the project of imagination of a singular postcolonial nation to be sustained.While claiming the noble spirit of nationalism, the political actors still thought and behaved in terms of being Zezuru, Karanga, Manyika, Ndebele, Kalanga, Ndau and other identities.

At a minimum, a problematic Shona and Ndebele identity emerged during the nationalist period undercutting the broader vision of imagining a pan-ethnic Zimbabwean identity. ZAPU and ZANU played an active role through their Departments of Commissariat to preach disunity as they articulated separate identity for their political formations and its military wings. Young recruits were exposed to lessons that taught them to hate those who belonged to other political formations. Belonging to a particular nationalist formation was elevated as an identity above that of the formative Zimbabwean identity.

Armed with this background, one cannot be surprised why two years into political independence; Zanu PF became engaged in a violent project of eliminating Ndebele-speaking people under the pretext of fighting against dissidents, most of which were manufactured by Zanu PF. The Fanonian ‘pitfalls of national consciousness,’ were beginning to devour the little that was emerging as a pan-ethnic Zimbabwean formation.

The most important point as we gesture towards another election is to know that a pan-ethnic Zimbabwe needs to be created.  While Zanu PF inherited the state from Ian Smith, its mammoth task was to create a nation called Zimbabwe. It could not inherit that because colonialists never made it part of their project to create nations in Africa. They created tribes. Zanu PF engaged in de-racialisation process but never attempted de-tribalisation of society.

The two projects of reconciliation aimed at allaying white fears and unity that was meant to deal with tribalism never succeeded. Very little efforts were invested in the project of unity, as Zanu PF like all schizophrenic postcolonial states quickly embraced violence as a tool of nation-building. Whoever will win the elections must prioritise the project of nation-building. Zimbabwe is still work-in-progress.

Democracy with social content

The last important issue to consider as we approach elections is what we mean as Zimbabweans by democracy.  Zimbabwe needs a democracy with social content. This is a democracy that is in synch with decoloniality. A democracy that does not only speak about what has been termed ‘first generation rights’ reducible to political and civil rights, but incorporates the important issues of social and economic justice. What is needed is a context sensitive democracy that is usable to advance transitional justice and is not antagonistic to the unfinished decolonization project.

Let me end by saying all these considerations needs to be taken seriously as we imagine another Zimbabwe where the ontological density of Zimbabweans would be restored. Despite all the problems that Zimbabwe has faced, I must say that it ranks much higher in the scale of decoloniality. We must build on the progress made to deliver a democratic and prosperous Zimbabwe.

Ideally, the election moment is a time when people regain their power and those who have been in power lose it if they don’t work hard to appeal for votes through clear crafted promises. Let us put both for decoloniality and democracy as complimentary liberatory projects.

Professor Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni is Head of Archie Mafeje Research Institute (AMRI) at the University of South Africa. Views expressed in this article are his own. He can be contacted by email: sjndlovugatsheni@gmail.com