Two leaders of the MDC this week appeared before the Commission of Inquiry into Post-Election Violence and gave powerful and compelling accounts. Many people within the country watched the testimonies on ZBC television, the national broadcaster which has been broadcasting the commission’s proceedings. Others followed via internet broadcasts provided by private and semi-private actors.
However, there was much disappointment when the service provided by the ZBC was cut short during Biti’s testimony and was briefly interrupted when Chamisa appeared soon afterwards. It was a reminder that when the narrative does not favour ZANU PF, you cannot trust the national broadcaster to give fair and impartial coverage.
It was also a reminder that lacking in the democratic movement’s arsenal is media machinery which should help shape the national narrative, just as ZANU PF does through the aency of the ZBC and related entities. In this article, I argue that the MDC needs to set up its own television channel in order to achieve effective visibility and to control the political narrative in Zimbabwe.
All the prominent churches have them including the chap who claimed to have a cure for HIV, the biggest company, Econet has one which is stuttering but at least it’s out there, Zanu has had one for 38 years now; so why haven’t the MDC launched their own TV channel? Why hasn’t a movement which genuinely seeks to improve the welfare of every impoverished person in the country got itself a television channel, a proper channel with presenters, original content and the works?
In a country that has a highly literate population which consumes copious amount of media content and news, it's damn near an abomination that a dynamic political party such as the MDC does not have their own TV channel, it really is! The MDC didn’t have to rely on the ZBC or private actors to ensure the impressive testimonies of their leaders was broadcast to the world. It has long been known that the ZBC will not play fair. They will always bat for the ruling party and play lip service or even distort the opposition narrative.
Why is this TV channel so important?
The reasons are plenty and some of them will be interwoven in other sections of this piece. However, firstly, it's important for the MDC to have their own TV channel because, well, ZANU has a TV channel which is the ZBC. If the enemy has one then we should have one, that's a given.
Secondly, we know the MDC and the public's ability to hold protests or demos has essentially been eliminated by Zanu state agents using their usual Leninist mantra about 'order'. Zanu are not even hiding the fact that they will crush any protest however meek or quakerish the crowd is, and regardless of what the constitution says about people's right to protest. This regime is so jittery that even if a bunch of vapostori knelt down in Harare city centre begging for better sewage systems in the country, they will be lucky to go home with bandages wrapped around their distinguished shiny heads. The point is this, now that the public cannot protest with their feet (or knees), the only other way the MDC can take political action is by intellectual means - it's now the battle for hearts and minds.
The third reason is an extension of the second reason and that is to say in this battle for hearts and minds, Zanu are already way ahead because they control the biggest visual media platform in the country - the ZBC. Everyday, footage is beamed on the ZBC which shows Zanu officials, especially the president, looking in control, indispensable, and as always milking fabricated niceness from that scarf. All this is a narrative that completely whitewashes the legitimacy problem of this presidency amongst other troubles facing the nation. Most importantly, this footage goes a long way in normalizing the presidency and Zanu's continued rule.
From an MDC perspective, the impact of all this is that they are slowly being marginalised from the political discourse. In the rare occasions when they are mentioned on the ZBC their reputation is continually besmirched – they are presented as criminals attending court or as sore losers refusing to accept electoral defeat or the latest Zanu gambit which is to portray the MDC as an armed dissident group. The MDC might not know it but they are gradually being seasoned by the state to look like 'political dissidents' of the early 1980s. All these are impressions, lies, and propaganda which the MDC can easily dispel and counteract if they have their own 24/7 TV channel.
What is a political narrative and does it really matter who controls it?
The political narrative is essentially the main political story or stories which preoccupy the big news editors and public discussions including on Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp. These stories have a particular perspective of Zimbabwe which they portray which is not necessarily a picture of reality. It follows that whichever political party is controlling the political narrative is the one that shapes the zeitgeist - what people are thinking, what they are talking about, what they are hoping for and what is fashionable.
Certainly, in the run up to the election, control of the political narrative was in the hands of the MDC Alliance. But that was probably because of the air of change sweeping the nation; heck, there is usually an air of change whenever a dictatorship like Zanu has to go to the public to seek re-election. Anyway, whether by default or sheer popularity, the MDC Alliance were the main news in town, their rallies were like carnivals and Chamisa's oratory skills were mesmerising especially when one contrasts them with the dreary speeches which were being made by the desiccated incumbent who - it has to be said - is as unprepossessing on the podium as was Stalin. However, since that predictable ConCourt ruling, the MDC have lost ground in the political discourse of the country and this is largely being perpetuated by the lack of 'effective visibility'.
What is effective visibility?
To me, effective visibility for an opposition political party is about achieving the following:
being seen everyday and every hour on video platforms which matter i.e the popular mainstream video media platforms
delivering an attractive and transformative message while also showing the viewers that you have a competent team that is ready for government
leaving a lasting impression on the viewers that not only makes them talk about what you said but look forward to your next message
Effective visibility is what will enable the MDC to take control of the political narrative. As a concept, I'm not sure if there is distinct literature on effective visibility in scholarship, but it's likely that there are experts in the humanities and business who have used different nomenclature to describe the same thing. There are certainly more erudite intellectuals such as the proprietor of the BSR and many others who would be able to explain “effective visibility” in a clearer manner.
What about rallies? Don’t they achieve this effective visibility?
Rallies should never be sneered at. They will always be a key part of political campaigns because they bring the leadership in contact with the grassroots. They bring euphoria into towns and cities - it's always a big jolly up when a young and charismatic leader graces one's town. The downside is that on the next day that euphoria will most likely be gone and an encounter with reality will probably leave a sour taste in the mouth for some.
Admittedly, for others, the dire realities of life under Zanu could invigorate them into wanting to take political action, but that also could be short-live because reality kicks in the next day, and the one after and so forth. In the end, the direness of reality overwhelms the positivity and hope they would have garnered from that rally, so much that feelings of depression and hopelessness become the norm.
Now, this is where a 24/7 TV channel triumphs over rallies because visual content can be beamed non stop. If it's a rally, it can be replayed several times and significant euphoria amongst the grassroots is maintained. When people are feeling frustrated by the trappings of the day they can at any time switch on the channel and receive a “perk me up” from the leadership.
Please, do not get me wrong, I'm not throwing sand on rallies. Rallies are most useful especially during an election because they can serve both as a quick survey and as a voter encouragement exercise. For example, when a party pulls a huge crowd of 30 000 in a town that has a population of 50 000 people, they will see that victory in that particular town would be very much achievable. And if the numbers are low, they can hold more rallies and/or do more door to door campaigning to swing the vote in that town.
But on this side of a rigged election, the battle is to rejuvenate the faithful and the public; the struggle is to prevent a degeneration into an acceptance of the socioeconomic rot which is happening under Zanu rule. What is required are daily and hourly live -streaming of the MDC's political message. It's like therapy. Those of us who want democracy are like a person with post traumatic disorder, we need regular therapy after a traumatic rigged election. Since the causer of the trauma (Zanu) is out there bringing more anguish in other aspects of our lives, we need indefinite daily therapy to prevent us from falling into a stupor of despondency.
So what would this TV channel look like?
First and foremost the channel needs to be pukka nice. The last thing the MDC needs is a two bob product attached to their name. The channel has to be professional, with real presenters, aesthetic studios, original and innovative content. Based on what I articulated earlier, the channel would provide the MDC with effective visibility. Therefore the content has to meet those three tenets I cited.
In the main the leader – Chamisa – needs to look indispensable and in control, his cabinet and team need to look competent and ready for government and the fundamental message to the viewer should be that the “current government is illegitimate and at any time we are ready to form the next government because we have the solutions to the country's problems”. Obviously, for that message to wash, there will have to be serious presentations by various members of the MDC top team in which they outline what they will do differently and what solutions they will enact once they are in government.
I’m not talking about rhetoric here, I mean actual substance, policies with figures and pie charts. Don’t forget, serious people around the world will also be viewing some of this content so it's important to demonstrate competency. I'm not well versed in TV production, but the following hypothetical line up of programmes is the sort of stuff I would personally want to view on this TV channel
2.00pm. News on the hour
2.30pm. Daily Interview with the Leader
2.45pm. Daily Video Diary of the Shadow Cabinet
3.00pm. News on the hour
3.30pm. Presentation by the Shadow Minister of Health
4.00pm. News on the hour
4.30pm. Presentation by the Shadow Minister of Education
5.00pm. News on the hour
5.30pm. Presentation by the Shadow Minister of Local Government
6.00pm. News on the hour
6.30pm. Leader’s Daily Broadcast
6.35pm. Out and about interviews with the public
7.00pm. Review of Social Media news and discussions by political analysts
7.30pm. Presentation by the Shadow Minister of Finance
8.00pm. News on the hour
8.30pm. Panel discussion with Shadow Minister of Finance with captains of industry
9.00pm. Gukurahundi Documentary
10.00pm. Leader’s Daily Broadcast
10.05pm. Review of newspapers and social media by political analysts
10.30pm. Out and about interviews with the public
Just as I opined earlier, the message from this channel should leave an impression on the viewer that the MDC are ready for government. The message from the channel should invigorate the public to refuse to accept Zanu's mediocrity. One of the reasons why Zanu is able to stay in power is that significantly marginalised people believe the propaganda the party spews in the media. Therefore, the message from this channel will go a long way in equipping people with the intellectual self defence to have a default mind frame of scepticism towards everything Zanu comes up with.
In conclusion and some truths about Zanu
Let it be known, none of the people in this Zanu government are honest nor have the interest of the impoverished public at heart, absolutely none of them! These people are where they are because of the use of force and not because they are competent paragons of virtue. People may laugh at the misanthropic wroth and unintelligible rants occasionally blurted out by the war veterans but that is actually the attitude of the people at the top of this government.
Sadly, there are people who think Zanu may turn things around, but those people will forever be disappointed. Some have said Zanu peaked decades ago but that was because they had inherited functional institutions from the Rhodesian regime, and they had not increased the size of the state which they eventuated in the late 80s. Even then, when the economy was being supported by a big and functional private sector, the one area Zanu were in control of was the military and they used that to kill thousands of innocent people in Matabeleland.
So the idea that Zanu were ever a competent government is seriously questionable to say the least because even in the economy's finest hour – due to a large and functional private sector – Zanu were killing citizens. Imagine what they will do when the economy is in detritus. They are an antiquated Leninist institution, bereft of modern ideas on how to run an economy and with a particular disdain towards the average Zimbabwean especially one who asks pertinent questions about governance and accountability. They will stagger on and on like a buffalo with 12 arrows sticking inside of it. One has to suspend one's powers of incredulity in order to listen to the president or the Minister of Finance talk about the economy, and much else.
Unfortunately for the MDC and many of us who want democracy in Zimbabwe, this Zanu strain has a serious propaganda machine which is effective in spite of the egregious rhetoric it spouts. So yes, the MDC needs effective visibility to control the political rhetoric and then make preparations to form the next government as soon as possible. Monday at the commission was a great day for the MDC, when the superbly-delivered testimonies reminded the watching world that the opposition does have depth and substance. That ZBC tried to play a game of cat and mouse with the service showed how effective that counter-narrative was. It could be a regular feature in people’s daily lives if the MDC had a dedicated TV channel.