Two decades of warring and the limitations of political absolutism: what next for Zimbabwe?

Political absolutism and the ‘winner takes all’ mentality seems to have taken hold of the Zimbabwean body politic, thus limiting opportunities for nation building and progress. This has created extreme polarisation on issues of presumed national interest. The net result of this polarisation has seen the country facing a multiplicity of cyclical crises, spanning over two decades across the political, economic and social spheres. Nevertheless, the events facing Zimbabwe are not peculiar as history teaches that today’s successful modern states have faced similar cases but managed to rise from obscurity to prosperity. The post-genocide Rwanda, Singapore and of late Vietnam indicate the quantum of possibilities once a country’s leadership decides to cobble a national vision and spiritedly pursue it. However, it seems there is no end in sight for the suffering ordinary Zimbabwean citizens who have experienced losses of income, pensions and life savings within the space of a decade as the leadership endlessly war without resolving the crisis. It seems there is a pervasive obsession with power for the sake of power. This has seen the projection of individuals at the expense of institutions and systems, thus fundamentally eroding any notions of leadership and governance. Yet, the world has since moved from past eras where leadership and governance was seen as an embodiment of individual military exploits of the (male) hero to a more contemporary emphasis on institutions and systems. More so, leadership has transformed to mean a win-win situation, thus gravitating away from absolutism. Sometime, from mid-2019, the Alliance for Community Based Organisation (ACBOS) hereinafter known as the Alliance, gathered views of ordinary citizens on the critical subject of Dialogue in different communities spread across Zimbabwe. The survey sought the view of citizens on the nature and scope of Dialogue and people were unequivocal on the need for a broad-based dialogue that is driven by the spirit of inclusive state-society and economic relations. The key message from the communities surveyed was that political absolutism will lead into continued political and economic abyss for the country.

Whither the “Second Republic”?

In November 2017, Zimbabweans across the political divide seemed to have reached an ‘Aha-aah Moment’ as they challenged the political incumbency of long time ruler Robert Mugabe. War Veterans, some members of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU PF), the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) opposition parties, Civil Society and business leaders all agreed that the path that Zimbabwe was pursuing was unsustainable. President Mnangagwa’s words in July 2015 in China rang true then and still do today:

We have to see how we can create an investment environment which will attract the flow of capital…These are the tasks we face and we have to look at even legislation and our social systems need to be reformed in order to catch up with current global trend

Up to today, the President Mnangagwa’s words still serve as an indictment to the talk about the emergence of a Second Republic in Zimbabwe. ‘Operation Restore Legacy’ of November 2017 was premised on bringing back the values and ethos of the liberation struggle and ultimately creating a prosperous and democratic Zimbabwe. Its promoters told the world that the ‘military-assisted transition’ was all about resolving the national question and the unfinished business of independence. However, it never took long for before tale-tell signs of a botched take-off emerged. At an anti Mugabe solidarity rally at the historic Zimbabwe Grounds in Highfield. Two senior ZANU PF politicians, Patrick Chinamasa and Obert Mpofu respectively said:

We were correcting our own mess, we have the majority in Parliament, we can expel the president alone and we are the ruling party, so where does a coalition come in, we don’t need them…The removal of Mugabe and his cabal was to enable us to go to elections as a strong force after some rogue elements had infiltrated the party…


… what people have to know is that we are the majority and it won’t be wise to have a coalition

Indeed, Zimbabwe went to an election on the 31st of July 2018 but it failed to resolve the political deadlock within the current but further heightening tensions as shown by the 1st of August shooting, 16th– 17th of January 2019 riots and recurring bouts of social unrest. The failure of the Second Republic has become all too apparent, and within the ruling party and outside it, there are growing calls for a Third Republic. A number of absolutist positions have become apparent in terms of how to resolve the failures of the Second Republic. There is already talk of a ‘re-jigged’ ‘Restore Legacy’ within the ruling establishment. At the same time, there is also denialism by another section of the ruling establishment on the extent of the crises in defence of the status quo. Within the factions that have emerged within the ruling party, the talk has been more about personality cult politics at the expense of the nation. Outside the ruling establishment, it appears personality cult politics is also reigning supreme as there are talks of a revolution, but an undefined one. The opposition space has seen the supremacy of the MDC-A Presidency and little if no articulation of the values, systems and institutions that opposition stands for. However, all these positions are limited as they fail to appreciate the current material and social conditions of the Zimbabwean polity. 

Zimbabwe’s political and economic reality

Between 2000 and 2009, 168,671 families gained access to rural farming land through the Fast Track Land Reform Programme (FTLRP). This number was in addition to about 71,000 families who had been resettled between independence in 1980 and 1997, both adding to the already 45.9% of the population residing and eking out largely agrarian livelihoods in the communal areas. The last census in 2012 indicates that in addition to the 45.9% of the population residing in the rural communal areas, 13.1% have been added through land reform since 1980, an additional 5.9% reside on commercial farms and a further 1.2% at rural growth points and business centres. Demographically, this rural social base makes up almost 67% of Zimbabwe’s population. This political economy manifests itself in electoral politics where constituencies that are rural, agrarian and informalised have been controlled and dominated by ZANU PF. The reasons of domination have been contested with some attributing coercion and terror as the reasons whilst others have also attributed the lure of the policies of land reform and indigenisation. However, this a debate for another day, but what cannot be wished away is the existence of this social base and its continued relevance to Zimbabwe’s electoral politics.

Conversely, another social base also arose out of the post-Economic Structural Adjustment Program (ESAP) political economy, which became more pronounced in the late 1990s. The post-ESAP political economy social base is disenchanted with nationalist politics because of its failures to fulfil the promise of liberation. This social base increasingly became vocal from the late 1990s and its aspirations are articulated in the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Union’s document, “Beyond ESAP” and numerous social unrests that braced the period. It went on to further form a Constitutional Movement and finally morphed into the MDC in September 1999. This social base has largely been urban because of the industrial workers who had been experiencing declining working conditions and social services as a result of economic liberalisation reforms of the 1990s. In addition, it has also been young and dominated by the so-called ‘born-frees’ (those born immediately before or after independence in 1980), a demographic that keeps on growing. In fact, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commissions Chief Executive Officer, Justice Priscilla Chigumba observed that in the 2018 elections, ‘60% of the 5.3 million registered voters for the 2018 elections were between the ages of 18 and 40, a statistic that is bound to increase as we gravitate towards 2023. Demographic indications show that the population especially in Africa is growing younger, with indications of a ‘youth bulge’ across most countries. The growth of this social base not intrinsically tied to liberation politics and the fact that Africa is fast urbanising and by 2030 close to 55% and 2050 close to 70% of the continent will be urbanised, pontificates to a demographic shift and potentially continued politics of the post-structural adjustment social base. Starkly put, that the main opposition candidate polled over 2 million votes, the highest so far by an opposition candidate, drives this point home. Again, this social base cannot be wished away.

In the immediate and foreseeable future, nationalist and liberation politics (read ZANU PF) cannot be wished away. In the same vein, the post-liberation pro-democracy politics (read opposition/MDC and its civil society allies) cannot be wished away. Therefore, the implication of the effect of these two realities is that they represent two sides of the same coin. Where one finds emphasis in the socio-economic rights discourse, the other finds emphasis in the civil and political rights discourse; but both in trying to resolve the national question. However, praxis dictates that these two discourses are indivisible – one cannot be enjoyed outside the other. They are symbiotic; “Siamese twins” which cannot be separated. In fact, Professor Issa Shivji resolves this equation when he opines the liberation struggle as the precursor to democratisation struggles in Africa and process in continuity:

The struggle for democracy did not begin with the post-cold war introduction of multi-party system. The independence and liberation struggles for self-determination, beginning in the post-world war period, were eminently a struggle for democracy. Neither formal independence nor the victory of armed liberation movements marked the end of democratic struggles. They continued, albeit in different forms.

Therefore, the democratisation agenda in Africa and as such Zimbabwe, cannot be read outside the commencement of the liberation struggle or its end but as a relay to be run by many generations to come. This means that the Chimurenga 1(1890-1897) and 2 (1963-1980) and the post-independence struggles for inclusivity (1980 to the present) are all a relay of the same race that will be executed by different generations.  Resolving the national question from whichever standpoint therefore calls for a political settlement to reconcile these generational and diametrically opposed sides of the Zimbabwean body politic. Such a process means dialogue of the warring ZANU PF and MDC, whose two decade-old battle continues unabated. But the big question is: what is the nature and content of such dialogue? This takes us back to the research we conducted as the Alliance in 2019.

The unheard voices from below.

The Alliance of Community Based Organisations (ACBOs) conducted a nation-wide action research to gather views of the usually unheard communities on how to resolve this two decade old impasse. Below is a summary of the findings of the research:

  • The socio-economic and political crisis has led to a worsening and debilitating socio-politico-economic environment, hitting most hard on people’s access to livelihoods and basic social services. The ordinary citizen in Zimbabwe is barely surviving, living between a rock and hard place.
  • There is consensus within the Zimbabwean society that dialogue is the preferred route to solve the political impasse and resultant crisis in the country.
  • In as much as the nature of crisis is perceived to be political, communities anticipate the dialogue to go beyond the political question and address the socio-economic questions of access to basic services and livelihood opportunities.
  • Whilst political parties are crucial actors, communities are of the view that there is need to broaden any dialogue to include other societal actors, such as civil society, churches and business. It should also be nuanced enough to be inclusive of other socially marginalised groups including people living with disability, women and the youth.
  • The communities believe that the dialogue should be convened locally, with a significant majority proposing this to be convened by the church, whilst there is also the possibility of co-chairing.
  • It is important for the communities that the dialogue achieves the following: Stabilisation of economy; Unity and consensus, Political tolerance and Respect and community healing.

What next for Zimbabwe?

The findings of this research reiterates the existing calls for National Dialogue and emphasises the need to broaden it by going beyond political parties. The research acknowledges that political parties have an undeniable stake in any dialogue; hence, in one of the focus group discussions they were characterised as the “Main Actors.”  However, the communities also cautioned against any elite arrangement as this was argued that it will not sustainably and holistically resolve the political and economic impasse. In essence, the communities warned of the limitations of political absolutism in attempting to resolve the national question. It is from this reality and from the findings of the research that the ACBOs makes the following recommendations:

  • All parties interested in the resolution of the Zimbabwe crisis should actively seek the route of dialogue.
  • The current dialogue initiatives and overtures need to be expanded beyond the political question to include the social and economic questions. The stabilisation of the economy should form a key component of seeking sustainable dialogue solutions.
  • Civil society needs to initiate a process of gathering the views of citizens and ensure that these find their way onto the national dialogue agenda.
  • For the advocates of dialogue, there is a need to bring the main parties, ZANU PF and MDC Alliance, to the table but at the same time create room for other key societal stakeholders including business, the church and civil society in its nuanced and representative entirety.

Therefore, it is our conviction that for us to resolve the country impasse and cobble a prosperous and patriotic nation, Zimbabweans will need to sit down on the table to address its post-colonial development conundrum of the ‘triple crises’ – of wealth creation and its sharing; of nation-state formation and building imagined societies; and of democratisation and ensuring the ever-increasing participation of all in the affairs of the country’, as argued by Zimbabwe Scholar Professor David Moore. The exposes by Dr Magaisa’s Big Saturday Read (BSR) on the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) Farm Mechanisation Scheme and accompanying public furore, the arrests of Journalist Hopewell Chin’ono and Transform Zimbabwe leader Jacob Ngarivhume for calling the nation to participate on the 31st of July 2020 demonstrations, all speak to the need for the country’s leadership to dialogue as called for by the Church. Political absolutism will lead the country to a continued sojourn in the wilderness. Only through Dialogue and Inclusivity shall Zimbabwe win.

Source: Alliance for Community Based Organisations (ACBOs)

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