Machiavelli and the perils of change in Zimbabwe
Dr Alex T. Magaisa
After reading my recent article on the dynamics of change in Zanu PF and Zimbabwean politics generally, a good friend and generous reader reminded me of a famous quote by Machiavelli, the famed Italian politician and thinker of the Renaissance period, whose works on political thought have become major planks of political philosophy.
It is not the purpose of this article to assess Machiavelli’s political philosophy (which is a monumental task that is best left to more knowledgeable men and women of philosophy) but I will shamelessly prise and use that famous quote on change because it can help us explore and understand the challenges faced by those willing to pursue change in Zimbabwean politics, whether in Zanu PF, the MDC or Zimbabwe generally. In his most famous political treatise on the dynamics of gaining and maintaining power, The Prince, Machiavelli stated that,
“It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries, who have the laws in their favour; and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it. Thus it arises that on every opportunity for attacking the reformer, his opponents do so with the zeal of partisans, the others only defend him half-heartedly, so that between them he runs great danger."
In this brief quotation, Machiavelli captures an explanation of why it is difficult for those who wish to pursue change within a particular context. It is such a beautiful quote because it can be applied not just in relation to political power but indeed to all forms of power or units, be it the family, the corporate organisation, or any other unit in which people are involved. Whenever change is an issue there are at least three players: the change agents; that is, people that seek to lead change, then there are those that resist change and finally the ordinary members that are pro-change.
As we saw in the last article, there is evidence in Zanu PF of those that have an appetite to change the leadership structure. The significance of what is now called the Tsholotsho Declaration is that it demonstrated the presence of change agents within Zanu PF. However the aftermath of that event consisting of the suspension and dismissals from key posts of persons suspected of having been involved also demonstrates the perils faced by change agents. More recently, the apparent lack of consensus on key issues at the recent Zanu PF Congress at Goromonzi has shown that the presence and appetite of change agents has not diminished. Nevertheless, there is also a core component of anti-change agents; those that favour the status quo and therefore have show a reluctance to change.
Machiavelli’s words indicate that initiating a new order is not only difficult to handle but it can also be a dangerous exercise. The biggest impediment is represented by those that profit from the existing order. They enjoy the benefits of the status quo and depend for their survival both literally and politically on the existing order. They owe their status to the patronage of the leadership and therefore have the most to lose from any change of leadership. This might explain the dogged resistance to change by a seemingly large section of Zanu PF, when it is clear that change is not only necessary but inevitable.
Life might be extremely tough for the majority, but there is a section that is thriving, perhaps better than they have ever done before. They are even prepared to postpone change in order to continue enjoying the benefits of the current order. How can you, when you hold a senior government position where you set the rules, with its generous official and unofficial perks, and you are also a new farmer with interests in the lucrative tobacco and flower industry, and you have unlimited access to financial lines meant to empower the formerly oppressed, all of which enable you to purchase with your own cash the most luxurious automobile there is in the world and build the most luxurious property and perhaps even enable you to marry another wife?
The same could be said on the national scale, where those Zimbabweans that believe that they are doing well in the current economic conditions are not very keen on change. It is not surprising that those that have benefited from exploiting the current economic landscape have no desire or concern for change because making things right would immediately wipe out their cash cows. Similarly, in the MDC, resistance to change in leadership could be explained by the fact that those that are attached to the old order have interests to safeguard, which would be vulnerable if change were to take place.
The change agents might be bolder if they were confident of receiving the support of those that are pro-change. Arguably, there are ordinary members of Zanu PF who are amenable to change both at the party level. Like every other citizen, they suffer due to the deterioration of the national economy and they have not benefited from the cronyism and corruption that has sustained the wealth of those leaders who are against change. The problem however, as Machiavelli pointed out, is that their support for those leading change is only lukewarm. That support is lukewarm and lacks the necessary boldness that would otherwise drive change because firstly, they fear that the leaders that resist change have power at their disposal which they can use against them, whether through legal or non-legal means.
The same argument is probably more pronounced at the national level, where the opposition supporters have had a lukewarm approach because Zanu PF has both the legal and non-legal machinery, which they deploy to thwart any attempts at effecting change. The raft of laws and the deployment of the security forces in recent years is clear evidence of this. Perhaps in the same way, those within Zanu PF that are prepared to seek change are apprehensive because the opponents of change appear to have the legal and security machinery within their control. However, in the event that the change agents within Zanu PF have control of these power institutions, then their fear of pursuing change may be easier to overcome.
The other reason in Machiavelli’s quote for the lukewarm support among change agents is that by nature people like to experience something new before they can believe in it. There is a certain inertia whereby people are more comfortable with an existing order for no reason other than that they are used to it. We examined this behaviour in the previous article, and pointed out that people are generally reluctant to change the order of things and even if they know that it might benefit them, they are not sure they want to disturb the status quo. This lukewarm support does not encourage the change agents, who find themselves vulnerable.
The purge of change-agents that followed the Tsholotsho Declaration in 2004-5 and the lack of visible support for those people by Zanu PF members who may have been pro-change is probably a good example of the lukewarm approach often given to change agents. Similarly, events in the near future may be indicative of how those who did not appear to support proposals to effectively maintain the status quo at the recent Goromonzi Congress will be treated. However, much will depend on the power that is held by the change agents, because if they are in control of key structures of power, such as the security and economic structures, they may not be as easy to marginalise. In fact, there may be a balance of power between the pro-change and anti-change agents, which will tip one way or the other depending on the circumstances.
Finally, the quote at the core of this article is capable of being applied not only in assessing the dynamics of change within Zanu PF but also as I have indicated in parts, it can be applied within the context of the MDC and indeed more generally on the dynamics of change in Zimbabwe as a whole. There is really nothing new in all this, but Machiavelli’s quote crystallises the issues in a more beautiful way that I thought it would make an appropriate sequel to the earlier article in which I questioned the apparent reluctance of Zanu PF as a party to make reforms especially at a time when it appears beneficial not only to its fortunes but also to the country’s future, seeing as it is that Zanu PF remains a major player on the political landscape.
The fact is, there will always be a significant sector that resists change because they are beneficiaries of the existing order and the reformists have to be more pragmatic in dealing with the challenges. There will be a lot of people who support change but are reluctant to show it because they fear that those benefiting from the status quo have control of the power structures, which they can use against them. The key, I suppose, is if change agents have some measure of control of these power structures which power they can demonstrate in order to gain the confidence and therefore bolder support of those ordinary members that are pro-change. The same applies in Zanu PF as it does within the MDC and on the broader national political landscape.
Dr Magaisa can be contacted at email@example.com
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