Seizing the opportunity
“There’s a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and miseries”
This is Brutus in Shakespeare’s epic drama, Julius Caesar. He is talking to Cassius, his co-conspirator as they battle to take control of the Roman Empire. Brutus believes it is the right time to take the war to their adversaries, Octavius and Anthony.
It’s a beautiful metaphor, which describes life and how the world works through the image of the sea’s tidal movements. Although humans cannot control these tides, they can, nevertheless, take advantage of the tides when they appear. Those who sail the seas have, since time immemorial, gained fluency in this language of the sea. Their ships enter and leave the ports based on this literacy. The wise captain must take advantage of the high tide when it comes.
It is, in essence, a metaphor for seizing the opportunity; for the ability to recognise the high tide and making the most of it. This is as true for those who literally sail ships upon the seas as it is for individuals, organisations and nations in the conduct of their worldly affairs. There are ebbs and flows, just like the tides, and one must have the wisdom to identify the opportunity and take maximum advantage of it.
The High Tide of 2017
There was such a high tide for Emerson Mnangagwa. It arrived in November 2017, soon after a low ebb. He had just been fired by his old mentor, Robert Mugabe, a circumstance which necessitated rapid flight into exile. But then his co-conspirators instigated a coup, the high tide that brought him back to be soon installed as president.
The apparent illegalities notwithstanding, the coup was warmly received by most citizens and regional allies. There were no serious objections from the international community. None of the key voices were prepared to let the small matter of the law get in the way of the joy at seeing the dethronement of the much-reviled Robert Mugabe. That was the high tide for Mnangagwa and his co-conspirators to take and probably “sail on to fortune”.
Yet, despite the abundance of goodwill across the world, Mnangagwa and his allies worked hard and conspired to fail. The performance on all fronts - political, economic and social - has been dismal. Two years after the high tide, Zimbabwe remains mired in a cesspool of mediocrity. It did not take long before the flower of hope wilted under the harsh glare of junta rule. It is embarrassing that even today military men are commanded to settle marital disputes as if they were toy soldiers. Unsurprisingly, the goodwill in the international community has virtually evaporated and desiccated.
Frustrated, poverty-stricken and staring into the abyss, Zimbabweans are doing what most humans have done throughout history: they are registering their displeasure with their feet. Everyday, there are ever-lengthening queues at the central passport offices in the capital, Harare, as people seek the precious document that enables them to travel abroad in search of a better life. Not even the escalating costs of acquiring a passport can deter them. Not even the long hours, sometimes days, spent waiting to apply, no. Mired in serious challenges, the government is unable to meet demand. Applicants must wait for long periods before they can finally get a passport.
Many can’t wait for these formalities. They are gate-crashing into other countries through illegal entry points. Anything to get away from the misery of home. South Africa, with a larger and more diverse economy is the most popular destination. Not even the perils of xenophobic attacks in that country can stop them. They will take the risk, far better, it seems, than the hellish conditions to which they are subjected by their own inept government.
Meanwhile, the World Food Programme is already feeding millions in need of food aid. Drought played a part but much of the calamity is human-made. Zimbabwe used to be a net food exporter; it fed others in the region. Now thanks to decades-long inept government and poor agricultural policies, it has become the chief donee of the region.
It is unlikely that Mnangagwa will ever get a similar tide again. It is not surprising that the ship he is steering, Zimbabwe, is “bound in shallows and miseries”, to use Shakespeare’s words. And yet, incredibly, in this bleak picture, the Mnangagwa regime saunters along, as if everything were normal. The regime still believes it has the capacity to turn around the country’s fortunes. He is even putting himself forward for re-election in 2023 and his party, ZANU PF, is encouraging him. All this despite the misery in the country and the clear absence of ability on the part of the regime.
It is a weakness of our society that there is no culture of resignation even when it’s clear that one is failing to deliver; that our standards have become so low over the course of 40 years that leaders have no sense of responsibility. When you are a leader and the nation you are leading is suffering, you must take responsibility.
Not so in our world. They will find someone to blame, a scapegoat. They will even have the audacity to carry on, as if to spite the people. ZANU PF’s record over the past 40 years shows that its main preoccupation is power retention and using it for private wealth accumulation among its elites. They live for personal enrichment and the next election. From time to time, they drop a few crumbs for the impoverished supporters, who in turn must be grateful. These crumbs buy loyalty and votes among the gullible. That’s why they even boast of winning elections at any cost without a care about governance after the so-called “resounding victory”. It’s not leadership. It’s utter cruelty.
With just a bit of wisdom, Mnangagwa could have taken advantage of the high tide of 2017 and this new decade, the 2020s, might have started on a more positive and hopeful note. Instead, Zimbabwe remains in muddy waters, unable to move. The prospect of Mnangagwa running again in 2023 threatens to make the 2020s decade another write-off. At least there were green shoots of hope at the start of the just ended decade. But it was just a temporary phase. From 2013, Zimbabwe returned to default ZANU PF settings. The rest, excuse the cliché, is history.
So what are the prospects going forward?
Futility of Elections
The 2020s will present two opportunities for electing the government. The first such occasion is just 3 years away in 2023; the second comes 5 years later in 2028. Under the current electoral system, both are likely to be a waste of time. And quite possibly, a waste of lives. There is really little point unless there is a fundamental overhaul. I’m not optimistic that Zimbabwe’s fortunes will change at the ballot box as long as elections are run as they have been for the past 40 years of independence. This is a bleak but sobering prognosis, informed by past experience.
Elections are never perfect even in the most democratic countries, but the expectation is that they must satisfy at least the minimum and universally-acclaimed standards of freedom and fairness. They must produce a democratically legitimate outcome. To achieve that, they must be substantially fair so that even the losing contestants can be reassured that they were treated fairly and they can be confident that if they try again next time they will have a chance to succeed. Confidence in the system of elections and how it is operated is crucial for the legitimacy of the outcome.
However, Zimbabwe’s elections have been afflicted by problems, chiefly the bias and lack of confidence in the electoral referees. ZANU PF thrives on an electoral system that is skewed in its favour. It controls the electoral management body and those who adjudicate over electoral disputes. It controls the state machinery, much of which is deployed to run elections. But above all, it is in cahoots with the military establishment, which has a stake in ZANU PF’s maintenance of power. A combination of these factors including violence, intimidation and bribery making the electoral route an expense charade.
Given this bleak picture, it’s not surprising that most people, especially the young, are becoming disillusioned with elections. This frustration is because there is a feeling, from past experiences, that the outcome of elections is pre-determined and ZANU PF will always do everything to avoid a declaration of outright defeat. The system which controls and manages the electoral system has no intention of giving up power and privilege. For years now, people have been calling for alternative approaches to the democratic struggle. It is hard to imagine that a future election using the current electoral system will produce anything different.
The futility for the electoral route could result in the growth of alternative approaches during the course of this decade. Some of the key factors that will shape these alternative approaches are the changing generational and social dynamics and the escalating poverty which is pushing young people to extremes. Political parties would do well to study these changes because they might find themselves struggling for relevance. The generation that will become politically active and influential in the 2020s will be vastly different from the generation that was politically active and influential in the 2000s or even in the 2010s.
In this regard, a historical view might give us a bigger picture of the situation. Since we are 40 years into independence in 1980, let us briefly cast our eye on the 40 year-period before independence. That would take us back to 1940. So much happened in those 40 years before independence, including a brutal war, but the black Africans who were challenging colonialism did not start off as the militant radicals they became in the 1970s. Their strategies changed as they encountered the regime’s intransigence and they became more desperate because they saw no way out.
The generation of black Africans that became politically active and influential in 1970s Rhodesia was different in outlook, consciousness and methods from the generation of the 1940s Rhodesia. As historians have noted, in the early 1940s, the black Africans who spoke out were largely seeking accommodation and acceptance in the colonial set-up, not challenging its foundations. By the 1970s, however, they were challenging the entire colonial system, seeking to replace it completely and they were prepared to die for the cause, hence the war. Their methods had changed and they had become far more radicalized and militant. The majority of them were young people.
These young people had observed that the efforts of their forbearers had failed to produce the change they were seeking. The early fighters of black Africans’ rights’ attempts to negotiate their way through, around and into the colonial system had yielded nothing useful. Whereas these fathers and grandfathers had been pummeled into a culture of compliance by the colonial regime, the young generation of the 60s and 70s were prepared to disobey, rebel and fight.
Ironically, in an interview, 5 years ago, Mnangagwa explained that his generation was prepared to go to war against the colonial regime because they were young, unemployed and had nothing to lose. Now, he is charge of a generation that is unemployed, hopeless and fast-realising that it has nothing to lose. The irony does not register in his mind. This decade may see a perfect storm - when conditions come together to create a mass revolt against the government and this is unlikely to be led by organised political parties.
A changing society?
In this regard, it’s important to note that society has also been changing during the 40 years since independence and with such changes come different approaches and attitudes. Zimbabwean politics has been conducted in an organised manner, with opposition political parties generally playing by the rules. This is largely due to how the leaders and followers of those parties were socialised. But things are changing.
One of the most significant changes has happened in the labour market and this has profound implications for society. As economist Ha-Joon Chang has written, “We are partly formed by our work experiences, so where and how we work influences who we are”. He wrote this 10 years ago, addressing the claim that there is now a “post-industrial society”, about which he expressed skepticism.
But this is not the important issue here. My interest is drawn to the idea that change in our work experiences impacts who we are and how we do things. I’m interested in how the drastic change from formalised employment to mass informalisation has impacted society and consequently how it might influence the way the 2020s generation approach societal challenges including our bad politics.
The formalised employment era was also the era of strong labour unions. This was partly because the formal employment spaces provided incentive for cooperation between workers because of the nature of the work and organisation. “Factory workers cooperate more closely with their colleagues during work and outside work, especially through trade union activities,” says Ha-Joon Chang.
This culture of cooperation led to unions which in some cases provided the platform for the creation of political parties. Both Zimbabwe’s MDC and Zambia’s MMD are prime examples of parties that were built upon unions. It will be a long time before Zimbabwe gets a new political party to rival the MDC in terms of pace or growth from inception. It benefited from pre-existing labour unions and not surprisingly its leadership reflected these labour roots.
But unions and political parties associated with them are creatures of the rule-based system in which they operate. They are disciplined and discipline means complying with rules of the game. They operate within a structure of rules and principles, both written and unwritten. They force the other to the negotiating table using tools that the legal system permits. They bargain collectively. They use the law to challenge employers and seek remedies in the courts of law. This is how they are wired. Indeed, if they venture outside the rules they would be condemned
Political parties that emerge from organised labour tend to be similar in outlook and approach and strategies. They are reliant on organised labour to call for strikes, stay-aways and other forms of labour activism. They negotiate. They bargain.
In short they recognise that they work within a system of rules and they generally work to comply with the rules, however unfair they might be. So they apply to the police to hold meetings. They go to court to seek remedies even when they know the police and the courts are compromised. They seek engagement with regional bodies even when it’s clear that they are biased.
But the MDC has traveled a long way from its labour union roots. Whereas the majority of the initial leadership might have had a union background, this has diminished greatly over the years. This does not mean that the approach and methods have changed. Indeed, it may be argued that the opposition needs to rediscover the element of surprise in the conduct of its politics. If ZANU PF has become complacent and dull over its 40 years in power, the charge against the opposition is that it has become predictable over the 20 years. This is the cycle that has become all-too-familiar:
An election is held. ZANU PF is controversially declared the winner. The opposition raises concerns and rejects the outcome. There is an impasse. The government plods along with a legitimacy-deficit. on a road to nowhere. A year or so before the next election there is flurry of calls for electoral reforms - demonstrations, meetings and futile court battles. The election is held under a cloud of dissatisfaction and protests. The cycle is repeated.
This predictability has become frustrating for supporters.
A more radical approach in the 2020s?
This is why any radical challenge to the regime is likely to emerge from outside the organised political parties, not from within. The existing political organisations are wired to work within rules, not to challenge and break rules. The 2020s might see a change though, depending on how individuals and small groups are able to organise and coalesce. The informal sector promotes individualism over the cooperation of the traditional factory. In the informal sector, people work individually and there is little incentive for unionisation - there is no common employer to organise against or negotiate with. This makes organising difficult.
However, the flip side is that there is more breaking of rules than compliance in the informal spaces. People operate outside rather than within a system of formal rules. They don’t even pay income tax. The generation that’s growing up and working in these systems is less susceptible to rules and commands than previous generations. Whereas we are prisoners of our upbringing, submitting to rules however unfair they might be, they have no incentive to comply.
We grew up in a period when there was hope. We aspired to join the formal workplace. There were comfortable professions which got us into the middle class. We had to behave; we had to conform. There were unwritten codes of conduct that we stuck to even if we disagreed.
The generation that has grown up in the last twenty years has much less hope. They have grown up in conditions of want. Basic services that we took for granted have been scarce - clean water, electricity, safe roads, decent and respected police, healthcare, etc. While we grew up with the fear of something to lose, the new and upcoming generation has nothing to lose.
What might make the difference in the next decade is that while we were conditioned to conform and to be polite, the new and upcoming generation is geared to question and if necessary, to challenge and rebel. Our generation and the one before us are closer in time and experiences to the generation that went to war and the memory of war has been heavy on us. We are very sentimental about it and retain residual awe towards those who fought for independence. The new and upcoming generation has much less connection to or sentimentalism toward the war. Many of them born long after independence, their worldview is shaped by their own experiences and struggles under a black government, not colonial rule.
The 2020s will witness the rise to prominence and influence of a generation that has much less respect for the traditional rules of the game because they are unfair. Because of that, they will ignore and discard those rules. Since poverty levels are likely to rise and as frustration levels grow together with the belief that elections change nothing, these and other conditions could create a perfect storm. The regime may have treated older and compliant generations with disdain but it will face a new and more difficult challenge in the 2020s. And that is likely to come from outside the traditional political organisations.