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Bikita West by-election and “the discovery of ignorance”

So here we go again. An election has been held in Zimbabwe. ZANU PF has prevailed. No, it hasn’t just prevailed, it has practically pummelled the opposition candidates in Bikita West constituency. Not unusually, the opposition is crying foul. For its part, civil society is reporting on the irregularities and malpractices associated with the election, almost all of them allegedly authored by or associated with ZANU PF.

It’s a hugely familiar story.

For the opposition that contested, the figures are bad. Awfully bad. The winning ZANU PF candidate got 13 156 votes, which makes up 77% of the total votes. The runner-up, representing the new kid on the block, former Vice President Joice Mujuru’s Zimbabwe People First (ZimPF) is a very long distance behind with 2 453 votes, less than 15% of the votes. ZimPF must be wondering whether this was the right moment to announce its arrival into the murky world of Zimbabwe’s electoral politics. As feline sounds go, this performance is a purr rather than the roar of a lion. The result has far-reaching repercussions. Whatever bargaining strength it had in coalition talks with fellow opposition parties has suffered some degree of depreciation.

There’s little point talking about the remaining candidates. None of them could rally a thousand votes. Heya Shoko, a former MP for the constituency who contested as an independent on this occasion could only manage a mere 76 votes. In a more glorious past, 9 years ago, wearing the apparel of MDC-T, Shoko had managed to gather more than 7 000 votes to win the election, albeit by the narrowest of margins. Clearly, the mountain has become a molehill. Altogether, the opposition candidates got just 3 729 votes. That’s less than 30% of the ZANU PF candidate’s votes and just 22% of the total votes.

The embarrassment is complete when one considers that there were 247 spoilt votes, meaning bad votes outnumbered votes for the last two candidates put together. It’s an abysmal show, whichever way one looks at it.

The opposition say ZANU PF stole the election, once again. A familiar cry, too. They are right to complain about ZANU PF’s dirty tactics, which are corroborated by civic society observer groups like ZESN, ERC, Heal Zimbabwe Trust, and Crisis Coalition. But it’s not as if they were not aware of what they were getting into. With 37 years of electoral experience, Zimbabweans have a fair idea of what to expect from ZANU PF, which has refused to reform electoral laws and practices, prompting the main opposition party, the MDC-T to boycott the by-elections. A man who goes headlong into a beehive without protection will most certainly be stung. That ZANU PF behaves in this manner is not a new discovery.

Discovering ignorance

The problem is not that the opposition do not know how ZANU PF conducts elections. It is that the Zimbabwean opposition has not yet discovered ignorance. Because it has not yet discovered ignorance, it continues to do the same thing over and over again. This charge applies to civil society and intellectuals as well.

By discovery of ignorance, I mean acknowledging and proceeding from the standpoint that we do not know and therefore, we must learn and find out more. This can only be done when we accept that we are ignorant, that we do not know. That “we do not know” everything is the basis of modern science and the scientific revolution, says Noah Harari in Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind. “Even more critically,” he writes, “[science] accepts that the things we think we know could be proven wrong as we gain more knowledge … The great discovery that launched the Scientific Revolution was the discovery that humans do not know the answers to their most important questions”

This is an important lesson for Zimbabwe’s opposition. Many of us believe that we have a fair idea what is wrong with the electoral system in Zimbabwe. Many of us also believe we know why ZANU PF prevails in elections. Indeed, many of us believe we know why people, especially rural voters, vote for ZANU PF. We believe we have the answers. But do we really know? How much do we really know? How much of what we think we know is a reflection of the actual reality or merely of our own prejudices? But therein lies the problem: has the belief that we know prevented us from discovering our own ignorance? Could it be that we provide answers to our own questions, instead of investing in digging and discovering what we actually do not know?

Civil society organisations covering the election have done a great job of documenting ZANU PF’s abuses and malpractices. That this conduct has an impact on elections is hard to doubt. The role of traditional leaders in rural areas is often a key factor. I have previously written about the “Panopticon Effect” in rural areas, by which I meant rural areas are like a Bentham-inspired jailhouse, in which inmates behave in a manner they believe is expected of them by authorities, which leads them to police each other as they believe they are constantly being watched. This, I have argued, has a fundamental influence on voter behavior.

Yet all this seems to me to constitute what we think we know, which may or may not reflect the actual or total reality that obtains among voters. It may certainly be correct, but its impact may not account for everything about voters’ behavior. Trouble appears if we believe that what we know represents all there is to be known. The US election and Brexit last year shocked many seasoned political pundits, the media and polling agencies partly because they all believed they knew how the vote would go. The results proved that, actually, they did not know. The aftermath of both events has seen extensive post-mortems of what happened and how the majority in both countries could have made those seemingly improbable choices.

Likewise, voting for ZANU PF seems to be the most improbable choice for the average voter. In fact, it sounds totally irrational. It would seem no reasonable person could vote for ZANU PF given the dire economic and social situation brought by its 4 decades in power. They could only do so if they were coerced or bribed into doing it. That is the common thinking within opposition spaces. And so we point to the machinery of coercion. We point to incidents of force, violence and intimidation. We highlight the abuse of food aid, agricultural inputs and a grossly biased media. Collectively, these factors become our predominant explanation of why ZANU PF prevails in an election when, in our view, it is supposed to lose.

But is this a complete or convincing explanation of ZANU PF’s electoral dominance? How much of ZANU PF’s 77% of the votes in this by-election is due to electoral malpractices and related abuses? In other words, how much of the 77% of ZANU PF’s success is accounted for by organic support which is unaffected by electoral malpractices and abuses? This can only be known if the opposition discovers its ignorance. Such a discovery is a driver in the search for knowledge. But searching for this knowledge requires the deployment of resources and expertise.

Nevertheless, the most important area where the discovery of ignorance is fundamental is in respect of what to do in light of what is known of ZANU PF’s electoral malpractices and abuses. For 37 years the opposition have entered elections aware of how ZANU PF will behave, but without a clue, apart from mere hope, how to overcome it. In 2013, it was plain that ZANU PF favoured an unfair playing field and that the election would not be fair. But the opposition went ahead and participated anyway, some believing in the generosity of hope and others believing in the force of providence. Four years later, I do not think the opposition, as a collective, has figured out how to overcome the impediments that ZANU PF places in its way. Come 2018, the opposition will be relying once again upon hope and providence and when ZANU PF prevails, there will be a familiar cry of a stolen election. It is unlikely that the behavior that ZANU PF exhibited in Bikita West will be any different from the behavior it will demonstrate in 2018.

What’s to be done?

Harari says modern science’s willingness to admit ignorance has made it “more dynamic, supple and inquisitive than any other tradition of knowledge”. This has enabled humans to have a better understanding of the workings of the world and to develop new inventions. The opposition must take a cue from the wisdom of science. We all – opposition politicians, civil society, intellectuals – must discover our ignorance. In other words, we must admit our ignorance and invest a great deal more in the search for knowledge of our politics and voter behaviour. The sooner this is done, the better. The answer no longer lies merely in seeking reforms to the electoral systems, but acknowledging that ZANU PF will not change its ways before 2018, and therefore, devising ways to overcome the system in its present state.


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