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Big Saturday Read: The potency of propaganda

The week began with the police and state media making a fuss over police helmets which were allegedly “discovered” in the basement of a building in central Harare. Predictably, they both made insinuations that the opposition party, the MDC Alliance was responsible. Although the helmets were in a building with a name, Robinson House, The Herald made a point to state that they were found “near Harvest House”, the MDC headquarters. The intention was clearly to associate the helmets with the MDC Alliance.

They were weaving a narrative of violence; namely that the MDC had a stash of police helmets which it had concealed in order to carry out acts of violence. Followers of the Zimbabwean story will know that the Mnangagwa regime has in the past sought to deflect responsibility for acts of violence by police and soldiers by alleging that their uniforms and equipment had been stolen. It has also alleged that there is a “Third Force” which is responsible for the violence. The so-called discovery of the stash of helmets was a good fit for this narrative.

Many people saw it as a ruse and they weren’t wrong. On the same day, journalist Hopewell Chin’ono and MDC Treasurer David Coltart exposed the charade. The helmets had nothing to do with the MDC. They had been bought at auction by a businessman, one Mitchel Chibwe who has a security business. By the end of the day, a lawyer representing Chibwe tweeted that he had spent a long time at the police Law and Order section where the police had interviewed his client and allowed him to leave without charge. This confirmed the revelations made earlier by Chin’ono and Coltart.

So here was a police service which had sold helmets but was now making a big claim of discovering the same helmets which it was treating as a criminal offence and with the connivance of The Herald, attributing it to the opposition. Did the police service not know that it had disposed of these helmets? Does the left hand of the police not know what the right hand is doing? Surely a few checks within their system could have revealed that the police itself had sold these helmets. Instead they made a song and dance about them, slandering the opposition in the process.

The regime is desperate to malign the opposition. It will throw as much mud as possible in the direction of the opposition, hoping some of it will stick. But history also reminds us that these are typical strategies used to justify a clampdown upon the opposition. The 1980s Gukurahundi was preceded by “discoveries” of arms-caches. Pseudo-dissidents were deployed to launch attacks in Matabeleland and the Midlands as precursors of a brutal state clampdown ostensibly to fight dissidents. In the process, many innocent civilians were beaten, tortured and murdered. There will be more of these “discoveries” beyond the helmets. If they were capable of embarrassment, they would be embarrassed by the helmets’ incident. But they are not wired for embarrassment.

The untouchables

A few weeks ago, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe issued a directive to all banks to freeze the accounts of a selected number of companies and their associates. One of them was Sakunda Holdings, a company that appears to have a footprint in almost every major sector of the economy. Sakunda is related to a major international logistics behemoth, Trafigura which according to previous media reports owns a major stake.

However, the company has become synonymous with Kuda Tagwirei, who is also a member of President Mnangagwa’s Presidential Advisory Council (PAC). Sakunda has traditionally operated in the fuel supply business. Over the years it has been one of the main beneficiaries of cheap foreign currency allocations since government prioritised fuel suppliers.

In 2016, Sakunda was controversially awarded a contract to build and operate the Dema Diesel Power Plant just outside Harare. This was arguably a corrupt deal, awarded unprocedurally and contrary to the country’s public procurement laws. Sakunda had not even participated in the tender process for the project. An American company which had won the tender was dumped by the government in favour of Sakunda.

However, since Sakunda had virtually no experience in the power-generation business, it contracted Aggreko, a British multinational company. Ironically, Aggreko had lost to the American company in the tender bidding process. In a stunning turn of fortunes, the losing bidder now had the contract, albeit through the agency of Sakunda. Without any knowledge or experience, Sakunda was a mere rent-seeker, collecting rents while Aggrekko performed the contract: classic rent-seeking behaviour where the middleman’s role is merely to extract rents in exchange of political proximity and opportunity to the contractor.

Sakunda and Tagwirei seem to have a knack of forming productive relationships with those in power. They sense the direction of the political wind and go along with it. At the time of the Dema Diesel Power Plant, Sakunda appeared to have benefitted from its proximity to the Mugabe family. A brother to Mugabe’s son-in-law was a partner in the project.

The rent-seeking tendencies of Sakunda are also evident in respect of the controversial and corrupt Command Agriculture under which billions are reported to have been siphoned. Sakunda has long been named as the government’s major partner in the Command Agriculture program. Although it was touted as the financier, the Auditor General’s reports show that it actually received money from the government to buy and supply inputs to farmers. However, as the AG found out there was a severe lack of transparency and accountability. The Tendai Biti-chaired Public Accounts Committee of Parliament has also uncovered gross abuse of public funds under Command Agriculture.

Again Sakunda seems to have had no more significant role than that of a middleman, receiving public funds and supposedly buying inputs for farmers although whether this was properly fulfilled remains vague as there was severe lack of transparency.

Given the ubiquitous connections between Sakunda and the government, it came as a surprise when the central bank ordered a freeze on its accounts. This was touted as a bold move by government clamping down on corruption. Yet it made no sense, given that the face of Sakunda remained as one of Mnangagwa’s advisers and Sakunda itself is still heavily involved in Command Agricuture despite the Ministry of Finance’s efforts to present a different picture. How could the government say it was freezing Sakunda’s accounts when Sakunda was its Command Agriculture partner and when Tagwirei retained his role as a presidential adviser?

It did not therefore come as a shock when the Minister of Agriculture, Retired Air Marshall Perrance Shiri disclosed that Sakunda was still the government’s major partner in Command Agriculture. So there we have it: a company under investigation for money-laundering and corruption and whose accounts were frozen, is still the government’s major partner in a controversial program ridden with corruption. This is not a regime that takes the anti-corruption fight seriously. It’s mere rhetoric without substance.

In a normal country, a presidential adviser whose company’s accounts are frozen on suspicion of money-laundering would either resign or be fired by the principal. Zimbabwe’s struggles are not externally-induced. They are a symptom of a poor leadership which is guided by corrupt instincts. The world sees through the anti-corruption charade and doesn’t take the government seriously.

Capturing the referees

In the past issues of the BSR, we have written extensively about the capture of political referees as a feature of authoritarian rule. Back in 2016, we did a whole BSR on the history of judicial capture in Zimbabwe. We thought the judicial capture was bad under the reign of Chief Justice Chidyausiku. It seems to have gotten worse and some of it is being engineered through surreptitious means.

This week, it emerged that magistrates had been clandestinely awarded wage and benefits increases under the cover of secrecy. This favourable treatment of judicial officers is in stark contrast to the treatment of their counterparts in the medical profession. Doctors and nurses have been on strike precisely because of poor wages and conditions of service. The Chief Magistrate was livid that the generous package secretly awarded to magistrates had been leaked to the public.

While it’s important to look after judicial officers in the lower rungs of the judiciary, there should be no selective treatment compared to other professionals in the civil service. Selective treatment of judicial officers which is done under the cover of secrecy betrays government’s machinations which are designed to buy their favours and compromise them. They become grateful and beholden to the paymasters for the carrots they are offered and as the livid Chief Magistrates reminds them, there is always a stick in the background to punish ungrateful behaviour. This is why rules on remunerating the judiciary must be open and transparent. They must not be at the whim of political actors.

The Mnangagwa regime is under severe public pressure especially as the economic situation deteriorates. Already there have been demonstrations and more are likely to come. The government has already banned demonstrations by the opposition and it has secured the support of the courts to enforce those bans. The regime needs to keep the magistrates onside and the carrots they are being given selectively are part of the process of capturing them.

The internationally respected lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa has spoken boldly on the creeping capture of the judiciary in her recent candid interview with Trevor Ncube. Mtetwa is a respected and authoritative voice and her comments carry weight in the court of public and international opinion. It would be foolhardy for the regime and the judiciary to ignore these sentiments and concerns. Ncube himself is a member of the Presidential Advisory Council. One hopes Mtetwa’s powerful comments will, through him, reach his principal. As we have stated before political reforms include ensuring an independent and impartial judiciary that inspires public confidence. The selective treatment of judicial officers goes against these goals.

But here is the big question: if the regime is buying the loyalty of magistrates, what is it doing for the soldiers? The soldiers have greater power and are a bigger threat than the magistrates. It is unlikely that the regime would look after the magistrates without taking better care of the soldiers.

Agents of patriarchy

The BSR has always taken a strong position against misogyny and all forms of discrimination against women and girls. A few years ago, we were very critical of the then Attorney General, Johannes Tomana when he seemed to suggest lowering the age of consent and even leniency towards men who impregnated under-age girls. While it’s easy to identify discrimination when it’s more blatant, oft-times it is subtle and harder to pinpoint. In some cases, agents take the moral high ground as they propagate and spread arguments designed towards abusive behaviour.

This was the case this week when the Gender Commission was implicated in scandalous statements that justified sexually abusive behaviour of college lecturers. A legal manager at the Gender Commission was quoted as suggesting that colleges should have a dress code for students apparently to “make life easier for the lecturer”. This was both reckless and disingenuous. It rationalised the behaviour of abusive lecturers at colleges and presented them as if they were victims who needed protection from girls rather than the villains they are. The Gender Commission tried to reverse the tide of criticism by disowning the statements. While commendable, the retraction did nothing to address the actual statements that were made in its name. It could have been more honest, acknowledging that the statements were indeed made in its name but that it disagrees with them and they do not represent its policy or views.

Needless to say, there was a lot of criticism over the statements, the retraction notwithstanding. As some pointed out, the most dangerous aspect of this proposition is that it perpetuates unhelpful stereotypes that characterise women’s dressing as a cause of rape and sexual abuse when that is not backed by scientific evidence. There is rape in societies in which women are covered from head to toe. Children and infants are still victims and survivors of rape. The issue of dressing has been exhaustively discussed and dismissed in the past that one does not expect the body charged with protecting the rights of women and pursuing a progressive agenda on gender matters to be raising it in 2019.

That is the major disappointment. The Gender Commission was included in the constitution in the hope that it would push a progressive agenda for the protection of the rights and freedoms of women, after centuries of marginalisation and disadvantage compared to their male counterparts. No-one could have foreseen that it would instead put forward deeply conservative arguments that rationalised male abusive behaviour. It’s yet another reminder that the human factor is important in the affairs of institutions. You can create the best-engineered vehicle but if it has a poor driver, it will not work well.

The people in charge of the institutions are equally important. When we were writing the Constitution, there was a major fight over the inclusion of chiefs, who also wanted some seats on the Gender Commission. They argued that it was necessary to ensure inclusion of cultural values and principles in gender matters. Some of us opposed this because we thought it was intended to derail a more progressive agenda and that the chiefs would be there as guardians of patriarchy. Eventually one seat was reserved for chiefs. I thought it was a mistake then and I still think it is a mistake.

The problem is made worse by the fact that there is no reserved place for young people, despite the fact that youths are recognised in the Constitution. As one commentator stated on social media, the problem is that old people with ancient mentalities get to decide matters to do with young people when the young are not represented in those forums. If the Gender Commission has a place for chiefs, then surely it must also have a place for youths. One day the constitution will be amended, and if it is, this is one issue that ought to be considered.


Civil servants ranging from nurses, teachers, doctors and general staff have been declaring “incapacitation”, a word used to signify their inability to present themselves at work due to the severe economic challenges. Their wages have remained low and where they have been raised, they have been outstripped by inflation.

However, in governance vocabulary the term “incapacitation”, is often used where a leader is no longer able to perform their role due to a physical or mental condition. There have been a lot of questions lately over the situation regarding Vice President, Retired General Constantino Chiwenga, who has been absent from duty for the better part of the year due to an undisclosed but severe illness. He has been to three countries – South Africa, India and China - seeking medical treatment. In this extended leave, he has not been able to perform his role.

The situation is covered by the constitution. Much depends on whether it can be shown that he is incapacitated. While an extended period of absence from work may be a sign of incapacitation, it is not enough without medical evidence. Legally, there are two ways of dealing with the situation.

First, the fate of a Vice President is in the hands of his employer, who is the President. Section 14 of the Sixth Schedule to the Constitution provides that the Vice President serves at the President’s pleasure. This means the tenure of a Vice President is determined by the President. If the President believes that the Vice President is no longer capable of discharging his duties, he has the discretion to relieve him of the role.

However, given the political dynamics and the circumstances by which President Mnangagwa came to power, the possibility of him laying off Chiwenga is extremely remote. It’s not impossible but it’s unlikely to happen. Chiwenga is the man who risked all to open the gates to power for Mnangagwa. As I have argued before, politically, Zimbabwe has a power-sharing arrangement between the ZANU PF political elites and the military elites. In these circumstances, while Mnangagwa has the constitutional power to relieve Chiwenga of his duties, he doesn’t have the political power to do so. If Chiwenga must be laid off on grounds of ill-health and extended absence, it would have to be by mutual agreement rather than a unilateral decision by Mnangagwa.

The alternative approach is handling the matter through Parliament. Section 97 of the Constitution provides for the removal of a President or Vice President on grounds of incapacitation. This is the same route that was used to pressure President Mugabe into resigning during the coup in November 2017. There has to be an ordinary resolution passed by a joint sitting of the National Assembly and Senate that the Vice President is no longer able to perform his functions because of “physical or mental incapacity”.

Following that resolution, Parliament must form a nine member committee to carry out an investigation in to the matter. This would involve ascertaining medical evidence of incapacity and also on the basis of principles of natural justice, the Vice President would be given an opportunity to be heard. If the committee recommends the removal of the Vice President, Parliament has the final say which must be approved by a two thirds majority of a joint sitting of both houses.

Plainly, this parliamentary process is in the hands of ZANU PF because it has a two thirds majority in Parliament. Whether or not Parliament wants to exercise this power is down to the political dynamics in ZANU PF. However, as with the President’s power to lay off his deputy, exercise of this power is highly unlikely. If Mnangagwa cannot fire Chiwenga, it is unlikely that parliament would have the guts to do so.

The potency of propaganda

The library is one of my favourite buildings at university. I guess it’s the smell of books and the nostalgia it brings. I spent many hours at my primary school library at Avondale, reading novels. Sometimes I just walk up to a shelf and grab a random book, open a random page and start reading. In no time I find myself taking notes. Sometimes I find myself reading things that are so relevant I just say perhaps destiny led me to those pages.

It happened this week. The random book I picked from the shelf, as I discovered upon checking was entitled Nazi Propaganda by Z.A.B Zeman, published in 1973. The book describes Hitler’s rise to power and how he consolidated his power through the use of propaganda. “The task of propaganda is to attract followers” Hitler has written in his book Mein Kampf. He was interested in the masses and did not care much for the intellectuals. Propaganda was an appeal to emotion not to reason. As Zeman wrote, he understood that “a politically uneducated mass public was bound to be receptive to emotive appeal rather than to rational argument”. There was no middle ground. The same message had to be hammered home repeatedly. And because you were dealing with masses propaganda had to keep it simple and there it had to “focus on as few points as possible” repeating them as often as possible. His chief propagandist, Josef Goebbels a man who according to Zeman “liked playing with words and arguments, and best of all [who] liked lying” once said “Any lie frequently repeated, will gradually gain acceptance”. This echoed Hitler’s own thinking. It was not enough to tell a lie. If you told a lie, it had to be a big lie.

From the beginning I always thought the sanctions regime was a boon for President Mugabe and ZANU PF. It would be a great propaganda tool. And so it was. Mugabe used it to great effect. After a pretentious beginning in which he pretended to be what he wasn’t when he said sanctions were a non-issue, Mugabe’s controversial successor has also found it convenient. At the time he was seeking rapprochement with the West. When it broke down, he reverted to type. Unsurprisingly, the sanctions mantra has increased in volume in recent months and SADC has bought into it.

They know the march will not move the US. They know the EU sanctions regime is only nominal; one of the sanctioned is now deceased, leaving Grace Mugabe on the list. But the US and the EU aren’t their target. The target is the domestic constituency. There must be an excuse for failure; a reason to tell the suffering masses why this regime has failed. The answer, they are told lies in sanctions. Now this argument might make little sense to the learned who have a better understanding of the reasons behind Zimbabwe’s failings; that they are rooted in leadership and governance weaknesses more than sanctions. But propagandists are not interested in the views of the intellectuals. They are not interested in reason. Their interest lies in emotion. They just focus on very few points; the simple points which appeal to the uncritical masses. The more they blame sanctions for the country’s woes, the more their message sinks.

Hence the likes of Nick Mangwana, superintending Mnangagwa’s propaganda machinery, will tweet nothing else except sanctions for the next week. The battalion of minions that he leads on social media will be on active duty, focusing on nothing else by sanctions. Radio, the most effective means of communication with the masses which is essentially in the hands of ZANU PF will hammer home the same simple message: all your problems are because of sanctions.

It does not matter that this is a misrepresentation of facts about the collapse of the economy; it matters not that this narrative is partial and does not tell the full story; it is THE only story. Propaganda puts things in black and white and there are no concessions. To concede that there are major causes of collapse which are home grown – sheer incompetence and corruption - would be to dilute the propaganda which they cannot allow. The opposition cannot afford to ignore this propaganda. Ironically, the strength of the propaganda lies in its simplicity and crudeness. It gives the impression of victimhood on the part of the regime. It obfuscates the fact that they are the authors of the political, economic and social calamity. It obfuscates the impact of grand theft and corruption that is depleting public resources and stifling development. It shields the political repression which is contaminating the political environment and the economic ineptitude standing in the way of investors. It overlooks the fact that there are simple political reforms which they can implement to unlock the diplomatic logjam. But for ZANU PF, like all regimes with an authoritarian streak, it’s a combination of persuasion through propaganda and coercion through intimidation and terror. This is how Eugene Hadomovsky, who was head of the German broadcaster, described Hitler’s strategy of persuasion and coercion: “Propaganda and the graduated use of violence have to be employed together in a skilful manner. They are never absolutely opposed to each other. The use of violence can be part of propaganda: it was their “hard-sell” technique”. It is hardly surprising therefore that for ZANU PF, intimidation has always been a useful instrument, alongside propaganda. If the masses can’t be persuaded by propaganda, they can be forced to believe it by violence. The march will attract disciples of propaganda, but it will also have many who will have no voice but to travel lest they suffer the dire consequences for defiance.

The regime will milk the sanctions issue to the maximum. For them it’s a potent propaganda tool that works for its constituency and even beyond. It would be foolhardy for the opposition and democratic forces to ignore the potency of this propaganda. Some will believe it. If they don’t, they will be forced to believe it. It has to be countered and countered with all the machinery that’s available.


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