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Guest Contribution: Thoughts on a potentially revolutionary election


With the fall of Robert Mugabe in 2017 – the man who led his ZANU PF government with an iron fist and whose rule was characterised by numerous human rights violations – the 2018 election without him is a potentially revolutionary election. It could be an important watershed that could fundamentally redefine the course of Zimbabwe's political and economic path.

The fall of Mugabe in November 2017 at the instance of the “bullet” can be viewed as the beginning of a revolution that the 2018 ballot is meant to finish. While there are many political contenders eyeing the presidency, the main question is between ZANU PF’s new leader Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa [ED] and the Movement for Democratic Change Alliance leader, Nelson Chamisa. Who between them should lead Zimbabwe? That is the question.

In this potential revolutionary election, what should inform the voters’ choices? Aside the voters who simply vote along party lines, should voters consider politicians’ past, present or future promises when making their choices? These are the fundamental questions that this paper seeks to address. While commentators and politicians have been encouraging voters to register and to vote them into office, this paper also seeks to discuss the meaning of every vote that citizens choose to cast. Stakes are very high when the country is faced with a potentially revolutionary election and voters must take this seriously. This is a contribution to that debate.

Politicians’ conduct on the eve of an election

In debating the available choices in the upcoming 2018 election, voters often give reference to what politicians or political parties are currently doing, offering or what they have done or given on the eve of the election.

On the eve of the election and in a bid to create a good impression of themselves, politicians from ZANU PF, MDC and other political parties are posting photos and videos of their visits to hospitals, talking to the ordinary citizen or rural folk and even doing mundane things like eating ordinary food. They try through all means to say to the voters “I am just like you”.

Towards the same goal, there are several photos and videos of ED and his administration commissioning new Government projects or reviving old ones; of ED and his Government signing “mega deals”; of bulldozers and graders fixing and mending roads only to mention a few. These are all politicians’ current attempts not only to make a statement about their suitability for office, but to identify with the cause of the electorate on the eve of elections.

Of course, it is well within the said politicians’ rights to sell themselves and their parties to the electorate in the manner described above. Nevertheless, for the voter, the important question is: in deciding who to vote for, how much weight should one give to a politician’s conduct on the eve of an election? To what extent should a voter’s decision be influenced by a politicians’ conduct on the eve of an election?

I have read a number of comments whose line of argument is: at least ED Mnangagwa and his government are doing or giving us something, what are the opposition parties giving us? Some commentators even suggest that instead of complaining on the state of affairs in Zimbabwean hospitals for example, the likes of Chamisa and other opposition leaders should help in sourcing funds.

While the voter should take into consideration the conduct of politicians and political parties on the eve of an election, it is critical not to give undue weight to such conduct for the reasons discussed below.

First, politicians’ conduct on the eve of an election is largely self-serving; it is mere political window-dressing meant to win votes. For example, the ZANU PF government’s conduct during election time does not match what it does when there is no election on the horizon. Whenever an election is in sight, the ZANU PF government speedily initiate projects or revive the ones started in the previous election. This is all a front to be seen as a government that is doing something for the people. Each moment that elections are concluded in favour of the ZANU PF government, projects that are started on the eve of an election are abandoned by the same speed they were started. One does not need to belong to any political party to know that the above is fair comment.

The second point that the voter should consider is that it is unfair to compare ZANU PF’s recently initiated governmental projects to opposition parties’ current material contributions to society. As the ruling party and therefore the government of Zimbabwe, ZANU PF has access not only to State power but State resources. As such, it is ZANU PF’s obligation to provide basic services to the citizens of Zimbabwe. It is ZANU PF alone which controls State resources and how they are distributed. As such, when the ZANU PF government mends a road or conclude a deal with a foreign investor on the eve of an election, it is not doing citizens a favour, it is its obligation.

Along the same lines, when the ZANU PF government is criticised for failing to deal with the terrible state of our hospitals or failure to deliver on any other basic service, neither ZANU PF nor its supporters have a legitimate standing to ask what the opposition has given to communities. It is illogical to expect delivery from opposition parties who neither have access nor control of State resources and power. You cannot judge opposition parties on the basis of a standard that is only applicable to governments as governed by State obligations. Of course, the above is not to say MDC officials who are in government should not be criticised. To the extent that resources have been availed to them by the Government and to the extent that they have not been vocal about the challenges that inhibit them from fulfilling their mandates, they should be criticised.

On the eve of an election, however, what should worry voters is where the ruling party uses State resources to further its own political agenda. For example, using food handouts to buy votes is illegal. Arguably, funds that are used to buy such food handouts are taken from State coffers. Furthermore, donations to the State should not be distributed on party lines as if they were donations to ZANU PF.

From the foregoing, it is clear that in deciding who to vote for, over-focussing on the conduct of politicians on the eve of an election is not really helpful. In fact, it is a misdirection. This leads to second consideration: how about the future promises that are made by politicians?

Politicians’ future promises

To some extent, politicians and voters alike seem to push an agenda that the decision as to who should lead Zimbabwe must largely be based on what the politicians are promising to offer in the future. The emphasis that is sometimes put on politicians’ future promises suppose that what is promised by politicians is what they will deliver.

To begin with, while Gregory David Roberts has defined a politician as “someone who promises a bridge even when there is no water”, Dick Gregory has observed that “political promises are much like marriage vows. They are made out at the beginning of the relationship between the candidate and the voter but are quickly forgotten”.

It may not matter whether a politician promises a donkey or a horse, until it is fulfilled, a politician’s promise remains just that – a promise. It can well be said that a politician’s promise is that of a madman, well summarised in the Shona proverb “totenda dzamwa dzaswera nebenzi”.

ZANU PF, MDC Alliance and other political parties continue to give out political promises. Recently, Zimbabweans have focussed on the future promises of the MDC Alliance’s president, Nelson Chamisa. He has been hailed by his supporters and criticised by his opponents for his promises on bullet trains, “spaghetti roads” and airports for example. Some commentators have argued that Nelson Chamisa’s visions are unachievable or that he is out of touch with the immediate needs of Zimbabwe.

I have previously responded to critics of Nelson Chamisa’s future promises. Having a future vision for Zimbabwe neither mean than one is unaware of the immediate needs nor that you will not deal with them. In other words, talking about the maximum possible does not mean one is unaware of the minimum that ought to be achieved as a matter of priority. After all, if you aim for a 100%, you may not score the 100 as planned but you have greater chances of scoring high. Future visions and immediate needs are not mutually exclusive concepts.

Nevertheless, the main point here is that when deciding who to vote for in the upcoming election, an undue focus on the future promises of a politician may be a misdirection. There is, however, something unique about ZANU PF’s political promises in governance. As the ruling party, ZANU PF has been making promises for the past 38 years without fulfilling them. In such situations, Fred Thompson has rightfully advised the voter as follows: “you can’t substitute promise after promise with known violators of prior promises at the expense of protecting yourself or setting an example”. This leads to the next issue, consideration of politicians’ past deeds and that of their political parties.

Politicians’ past deeds

Now, if in the current elections, a politician’s conduct on the eve of the election, his or her future promises should not be given much weight, how about a politician’s past? For reasons that will be explained below and contrary to what has been suggested by some commentators, the author argues that the past is the crux that should formulate voters’ decisions in the upcoming elections. The past informs the voters of the candidate’s capacity and trustworthiness.

One cannot miss that the current mantra of ED and ZANU PF is that “let bygones be bygones”. Recently, addressing his supporters at Nyamhunga Stadium in Kariba, ED said: “Isu hatirarame in the past, the past is gone, the past is dead”. In other words, voters are being encouraged to overlook all the bad things that politicians – in particular, ZANU PF politicians – have done in the past.

Of course, when ED says the “the past is gone, the past is dead”, he refers only to his and ZANU PF’s terrible past. As for the past of opposition leaders, citizens are constantly reminded of it through State media. Furthermore, when it comes to ED’s positive past and that of ZANU PF – e.g. the immense contribution to the liberation struggle – the electorate is reminded about it at every turn. State media regularly circulate liberation stories including photos of ED and others during the liberation struggle.

Without doubt, the contribution of veterans like ED to the liberation struggle should never be forgotten and should forever be cherished. The freedoms we enjoy today came on the count of their sacrifices. Yet, in making choices today, we should never forget the terrible deeds by the same cadres in their governance of Zimbabwe since 1980. If liberation leaders expect credit for their deeds during the war, it is only fair that they take responsibility for their misdeeds during their time in government.

All well-meaning voters, those who truly love Zimbabwe – including ZANU PF supporters – should seriously consider a political party or a politician’s past deeds in public office. In deciding who to vote for in the 2018 elections, consideration of a politician’s history in public office is critical and should be the determinant factor for the reasons below.

First, it is the only known, traceable and verifiable conduct of a politician or political party. As many would agree, politicians’ past largely influences their conduct at present and their conduct in the future. For example, while many people were shocked why ED retained some of the most corrupt and ruthless politicians after the fall of Mugabe – the politicians who served under Mugabe, Journalist Hopewell Chin’ono rightly observed that ED could not get rid of such politicians because of historical ties and an impending election. ED not only owes such politicians his rise to power, but they have been “partners in crime” – perhaps, literally. For that reason, ED had to sacrifice good governance principles to accommodate such politicians, even so, against his will.

When a politician serves for a long time in a government and a political party that is corrupt and ruthless, not only do they end up participating in the institution’s shenanigans, they develop personal relationships with some of the most dangerous individuals – relationships that they cannot sever if they want to survive politically. As a result, no matter how much he or she can promise, if a politician’s feet are muddied and his or her hands bloodied, he or she will never be able to bring change that citizens of Zimbabweans are hoping for.

Again, the above is not mere political gimmick, this is a fact and if you love Zimbabwe and want to see it prosper again – whether you are ZANU PF or not – it may be time to start afresh with politicians who do not have much debt and dirt on them. Thus, in view of the fact that a politician’s past deeds or the party’s overall conduct in the past determines how they act at present and in the future, voters should not believe in promises of beds covered in rose petals when all that have been given to them election after election are beds of thorns.

Second, serious consideration of a politician or a political party’s past deeds while in power is the only way to ensure accountability. It is the only way voters can hold politicians and their political parties to account for what they do once they elect them. By punishing them at the ballot for their past deeds, politicians can then know that if they blunder during their time in office, when elections come, they will pay with their political careers. It is the only way voters can end political impunity.

ED’s “let bygones be bygones” mantra echoes of the Biblical sayings that “though your sins may be red like scarlet, come, we shall make them as white as snow”. As Christians, forgiveness is a good thing. However, when it comes to who should occupy public office, voters should tell the politician that while we pray that your sins be forgiven, however, you may not continue to hold public office.

Third, voters should understand that where a politician commits crimes against citizens and remains in public office, this directly hinders the victim’s right to remedy. While ED preaches reconciliation, national healing and transitional justice, such transitional justice is impossible as long as there has not been substantive transition of power.

Justice cannot be served against powerful ZANU PF politicians as long as they remain in public office and controlling the justice system. Victims of Gukurahundi and other atrocities cannot participate in a reconciliation process that is presided over by those who violated them. Thus, transitional justice presupposes the removal of the perpetrator from power or at the very minimum, the weakening of their power. The fall of Mugabe did not result in any meaningful transition of power. In fact, ED chose to give Mugabe a de facto immunity while arrogating to himself and other ZANU PF senior politicians “the right to be forgiven”. It is for this and other reasons that ED’s attempt at national healing and reconciliation in Matebeleland are being seen as half-hearted and are therefore facing resistance.

Fourth, even if victims were to agree to let bygones be bygones, it is important to note that preaching that “Zimbabwe is now open for business” will not win back all the confidence of private investors. Commentators seem to focus on being “forgiven” by other foreign governments. There is a wrong assumption that “forgiveness” by foreign politicians is what will bring investment back into the country.

Individual investors who were victimised and chased out of the country will not easily buy the mantra “Zimbabwe is open for business” when the same individuals who victimised them are still in power. Furthermore, as long as Zimbabwe is still presided over by the same corrupt and violent politicians, any economic developments that can be achieved now are unsustainable. There can never be security. This points to one of the reason why a real new start is needed in Zimbabwe.

Voter's responsibility

In relation to the above, what does a citizen’s right to vote mean? While many political parties urge citizens to register to vote and while citizens register and vote, citizens are hardly reminded what exactly the right to vote means. The right to vote is not only a fundamental privilege, it is a duty. A duty that every citizen owes to another.

In any democratic country where there are periodic elections, citizens are the governors of the country. Politicians are representatives or proxies of citizens. Therefore, when you are aware of a politician’s shenanigans – say for example, murders, corruption incidents, etc. – and you go ahead and vote for them, you cannot morally disassociate yourself from their actions. When you vote for a corrupt politician for example, you are approving, condoning and acquiescing to their wrong-doing in your name.

It is surprising that with the fall of Mugabe, everyone, including millions of people who repeatedly voted for him, now want to disassociate and distance themselves from him. If one did not know better, one may think that no one ever voted for Robert Mugabe.

During Mugabe’s reign, when you saw kids starving to death, when you heard about people who were murdered and maimed on the count of Mugabe, when you heard of people who died of curable diseases because of lack of medicines in Zimbabwean hospitals, when you saw families breaking up because others had to leave for foreign lands, when you heard stories of young ladies who were trafficked and prostituted in foreign lands, it was not all Robert Mugabe’s fault when you freely voted for him again and again.

If you voted for him regardless of the fact that you were aware of his abuses, people who suffered on his count equally suffered on your hands too. You are morally responsible. The disgust you feel or feign to feel about Robert Mugabe is the same you should direct against yourself. That is what the right to vote means. That is what every voter needs to be reminded about.

When you walk into that voting booth and make your decisions, ask yourself these questions in all earnest: what am I saying about the atrocities that have been committed against citizens of Zimbabwe by the politicians I am voting for? What am I saying to the victims of atrocities such as Gukurahundi? What am I saying about accountability? It should not be enough to simply parrot so and so have my vote. Consider what has been done to Zimbabwe and its citizens by the persons you choose to vote for. You can do better. In this case, to be forward looking is to look at the past.

Now, as already indicated above, when thinking about the above questions, one needs to take off all the political party blinders and just be a Zimbabwean. Just be a human being. Guided by the Ubuntu spirit, by humanity which I still believe can be found in every human being, you may note that there is something extraordinary about the upcoming elections. This is what the next section will discuss.

Nevertheless, before that, it is important to note that focusing on ZANU PF and ED’s past is not to suggest that the opposition parties do not have weaknesses in their past. There are, however, two critical points that distinguish the past of ZANU PF and that of opposition parties. First, on the scale of “how bad”, ZANU PF has a worse past than any opposition party. Second, ZANU PF’s past failings are more damaging because there were and still are committed as actions of government against its own citizens – in clear violation of State obligations to protect citizens.

A potentially revolutionary election

The election of Thomas Jefferson as the president of the United States in 1800 is well known as a revolutionary election that marked the first time that political power was transferred from one political party to the other. In his letter to Judge Spencer Roane in the summer of 1819, Thomas Jefferson described his election as “the revolution of 1800” that “was as real as [the] revolution of 1776”. He noted that the revolutionary election of 1800 “was not effected by the sword but the rational and peaceable instrument of reform, the suffrage of the people”.

Thus, in addition to the argument that a politician’s past deeds in public office should be the determinant factor in deciding who to vote for, it is also fundamental that Zimbabweans consider the nature of the forthcoming election. The forthcoming 2018 election is potentially revolutionary as it can complete the revolution that started with the fall of Robert Mugabe in 2017.

Just in as much as the 1800 election in the United States marked the emergence of a two-party system in that country, Zimbabwe’s 2018 election has the potential to usher Zimbabwe into real multi-party democracy. The 2018 election is like the 1980 election, it’s meant to complete a revolution. Multi-party democracy means nothing if citizens cannot change political parties. In the case of Zimbabwe, changing of party leadership alone is insufficient. A badly leaking calabash can never bring water from the river regardless of who is carrying it.

The suggestion is not that ZANU PF, as a revolutionary party, should be destroyed; rather, it is to emphasise that the once glorious revolutionary party is in dire need of total democratic reformation. While ZANU PF may get well-meaning leaders, it is difficult, if not impossible, for the ruling revolutionary party to experience democratic reformation while its members continue to binge the intoxicating stuff called State power. It is to its benefit and to Zimbabwe’s greater interest for ZANU PF to one day experience what it means to be an opposition party. Until ZANU PF has the opposition experience, it will never know trul understand the importance of a multi-party system, democracy and fair play.

The only opposition politics that has been experienced by ZANU PF is politics of violence in opposition to the colonial regime back in the day. For it to reform and fully embrace modern democratic politics and its tenets, it may be that a ruling revolutionary party like ZANU PF needs to become an opposition party in a democratic state led by a political party with no revolutionary war credentials. I call this the “purification process”.

While the reformation suggested above will exorcise the spirit of political royalty and entitlement that has possessed many revolutionary politicians since 1980, it will also mark an important era in our democratic growth where we place in power politicians that can be removed if they disappoint the electorate. Regardless of our political affiliations, it is not wise at this point to proceed on a path where we cannot see the separation between state and the army for example.

The entitlement to rule mentality is what brought Zimbabwe where it is today. That spirit of entitlement did not only possess Robert Mugabe, it possesses ZANU PF as a whole. The 2018 election should be seen as a revolutionary election meant to exorcise ZANU PF of that spirit and set Zimbabwe on a new political path.

For example, why Robert Mugabe’s entitlement to rule was summarised in his infamous statement dismissing the opposition: “zviroto-zviroto, ngazvigumire mukurota”, ZANU PF’s embodiment of that entitlement is currently seen in ED’s infamous statement: “tichingotonga, tigotonga, tichingotonga, ivo vachingovukura”. That entitlement also saw ZANU PF refusing to leave power in 2008 and the leadership of Zimbabwe’s defence forces declaring that they will not salute anyone with no revolutionary credentials.

When one suggests the need to replace ZANU PF as a government, the question that is often asked is whether there is any alternative opposition political party. It must be emphasised that while the current available opposition parties may not be perfect, in 1980, it did not matter that the colonial regime made golden promises to reform, it did not matter that the black community had certain differences with Mugabe, it was time to change the government then.

Likewise, in USA’s 2008 election, it did not matter to the black community and other liberal thinkers that they did not agree with everything that Obama said, they understood it was time to show that a black man too can be president of the most powerful nation on earth – the United States of America.

Thus, while it is healthy for voters not to agree with everything about opposition political parties, it is important to understand that the 2018 election is an opportunity to complete a revolution. The 2018 election – whether you are a ZANU PF supporter or not – is to show ZANU PF that Zimbabweans can have another government, that ZANU PF is replaceable and that it is not its sole right to rule. The same spirit that guided all Zimbabweans from all walks of life when they marched to the Statehouse in November 2017 against Robert Mugabe should guide Zimbabweans in this election.

Voters’ nuanced differences with opposition parties should not blind voters of the bigger picture here: the revolutionary act of having another government other than ZANU PF for the first time in 38 years. Every action you take and every vote you cast has the consequence of either aiding or undermining the revolution at hand. In the past three years, elsewhere in Africa, in particular, Nigeria, Ghana, the Gambia, Liberia and recently Sierra Leone, ruling parties lost presidency to the main opposition parties. This is also possible in Zimbabwe. You may even have supported and voted for ZANU PF in the past, God forbid, you may still have attachment with ZANU PF which is within your rights but understand that changing the ZANU PF government is good for everyone. As a ZANU PF member or supporter, it’s time to show the ZANU PF politician that they cannot take your vote for granted, that they cannot continue to use you without political consequences. More importantly, if you are really a true supporter of ZANU PF and want to see it protect its revolutionary legacy, you would realise that it is in dire need of reformation. Such reformation is impossible without going through the processes mentioned above. It is time for tough love!

As may be clear from my above analysis, I am in favour of the MDC Alliance as the alternative government in the upcoming election. While I agree with the politics and ideas of individuals like Dr Noah Manyika and Dr Nkosana Moyo, it is the practical realisation that MDC have the numbers that can potentially remove the ZANU PF government that informs this choice. It is important that your vote should count in this revolution.

The MDC Alliance leadership should continue to reach out to the likes of Manyika and Moyo to come to the big opposition “tent”. These individuals, if possible, should also consider what is at stake and sacrificially defer their political ambitions to after 2018.

Where MDC is no longer the main opposition party, these newly formed political parties have a potential to grow. The best they will be able to do in the 2018 election is to minimise the chances of removing ZANU PF – sending all opposition parties back into stunted growth. This is not in their interest. It is for these same reasons that while I understand Dr Thokozani Khupe for refusing to hear Nelson Chamisa’s call for unity, she is, in a way, choosing to put her own personal interest first than that of the nation. She could have remained in MDC and challenged Chamisa in a congress after elections. If Chamisa won national presidency and she subsequently won party presidency at MDC congress, there are provisions in the Zimbabwean Constitution that allows her ascendancy to the Statehouse. Breaking away from MDC was not the best of options. As already mentioned above, in this potentially revolutionary election, every step or action that a voter or politician takes has a potential of hurting or aiding the revolution.

Conclusions

Deciding what to consider when choosing who to vote for is sometimes a daunting task. Voters are often bombarded with propaganda in different forms on the eve of an election. Politicians are generous in churning out promises. While everyone can make any future promises, and everyone can pretend to be something good on the eve of an election, no one can change their past and their old ways of doing things. It is for this reason that the voter must look at the past deeds of a politician while in public office. The same goes for political parties.

There are other voters who just vote along party lines without considering the meaning of their vote. The right to vote is fundamental. Yet, it is also a duty that is entrusted upon us by our community and future generations. The right to vote is a very powerful weapon – depending on how you use it, it can build or destroy a country.

Voters must be more patriotic to Zimbabwe and fellow citizens than there are to political parties. Love for one’s country and participating in the well-being of our nation is not manifested by being a die-hard supporter of a certain political party, chanting party slogans and trolling opponents online. Love for one’s country is doing the right thing when it matters most.

The forthcoming 2018 election has the potential to set our country on a new political path. It is all up to voters to either think of the short-term selfish goals or to see the bigger picture. It is time that ZANU PF as a revolutionary party goes through purification as an opposition party than a ruling party. Choosing the opposition in 2018 is not to say they are perfect but to set Zimbabwe on a new political path where political parties know that they may be the ruling party today but tomorrow they may be the opposition.

Advocating for removal of ZANU PF government in the 2018 election is neither to say that the revolutionary party must be destroyed nor is it to undermine their positive contributions. Rather, it is to say the revolutionary party is in dire need of the “purification process” mentioned above. No ruling party should be comfortable to the extent of thinking the voice of opposition is mere barking (kuvukura) that has no impact on their rule (tichingotonga mantra).

If beyond 2018 election our language of describing State power is not changed from “the ruling party ZANU PF to the opposition party ZANU PF”, then we would have failed our generation’s golden opportunity to complete a political revolution that began with the fall of Mugabe in November 2017.

While ZANU PF may make some economic developments after the election if it wins it, sustainability of such developments and stability of Zimbabwe will remain in doubt as long as ZANU PF does not go through the “purification process” described above. Without that “purification process”, no one is safe, we will forever live in fear, waiting for the day when the ZANU boogeyman will re-emerge to claim another “pound of flesh”. Well, not necessarily a “pound of flesh” but a whole lot of dead bodies.

Four key take-aways

  1. It is the past deeds of a politician or political party while in public office that should determine voters’ choices.

  2. Voters should not give too much weight to politicians’ “good conduct” on the eve of an election because such “good conduct” is normally self-serving.

  3. Where prior political promises have not been fulfilled, it is folly for voters to make their choices on the basis of another future promise by the same politicians.

  4. The 2018 election must be understood as a potential revolutionary election, voters and those running for public office must understand that stakes are very high, their actions can either aid or deter the revolution.

About the author:

Dr Thompson Chengeta is a research scholar in international law and human rights. He is currently visiting the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights at the University of Oxford, Faculty of Law. His research at Oxford focuses on the relationship between international human rights law, democracy, elections, populism and the fitness for public office rule.

Twitter: @DrThompsonLaw

TCHENGETA@LLM16.LAW.HARVARD.EDU

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