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Zimbabwe’s hope: A wind of change to democracy

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By Kuda Manjonjo


IN 1960, British prime minister Harold Macmillan famously declared, “The wind of change is blowing through this continent. Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact.”

This quote captured a time that later became known as the period of African nations attaining majority rule — from the 1960s to 1980s — after a period of colonialism that lasted from the early 1800s to the 1960s. This was followed by a wave of democratisation (1990s to 2010), which saw the rise of multiparty regimes in most African nations. But, since 2010, the wind of change has turned and brought about a period of authoritarianism into which Zimbabwe’s August election falls. Rather than this election being a chance for a change in government, it is about defending the remaining vestiges of democracy in the country.

There has been a concerted effort of reversing democratic gains that can be termed as re-authoritarianisation. As noted by the Washington-based pro-democracy organisation,  Freedom House, most countries on the continent live in nations that are “partially or not free” and the number has gradually increased since 2010.

The re-authoritarianisation of Africa has been influenced by two key factors, the rise of right-wing populism and authoritarianism globally and African “Big Men” learning their lessons from the democratisation period. This will be explored through the prism of Zimbabwe’s political climate over the past 15 years.

In November 2016, something that was unthinkable a year earlier happened, Donald Trump won the United States presidential election. Analysts viewed this as a zenith moment for populism worldwide. Other events occurred such as Recep Erdogan becoming Turkey’s president and Narendra Modi becoming India’s prime minister in 2014, Russia annexing Crimea, the Brexit election in 2016 and China’s President Xi Jinping gradually strengthening his power in the Communist Party. These events strengthened ring-wing populism, which usually fights for neo-nationalism, social conservatism, economic nationalism and cultural/identity hegemony.

African leaders who wanted to indulge in authoritarian control found themselves in a global political climate that was willing to turn the other way as they reduced democratic space in their own countries. Yoweri Museveni in Uganda and Cameroon’s President Paul Biya amended their nation’s constitutions to stay in power longer. In Zimbabwe, a coup d’état replaced long-time leader Robert Mugabe with his vice-president, Emerson Mnangagwa. Big Men were taking firm control of the reins of their nations, creating a political axis of transnational authoritarianism, which was exemplified by the list of countries that voted against or abstained from the United Nations resolution against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The Big Men in Africa, who usually rule by dictatorial means and for longer than two terms, learnt from the mistakes made by some of their counterparts during the democratisation period (in Africa. They realised that to hold on to power they had to employ a palatable form of authoritarianism that had the facets of a stable enough economy, regular albeit unfair elections and adequately compensating the key levers of state power — the constitutional court judges, the army and the economic elite. The star among the Big Men is Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, who has combined socio-economic development alongside authoritarian control inspired by China’s developmental authoritarianism.

Zimbabwe’s President Mnangagwa has taken these lessons seriously and has enacted laws to support this. In 2018, a year after the coup d’état, he allowed the scheduled elections to go on to gain some legitimacy. Since then, bills and laws ,such as the Criminal Law Codification and Reform Amendment Bill (Criminal Code), contain reference to the  Patriot Act which punished so-called unpatriotic citizens. The Private Voluntary Organisation Bill, which is currently awaiting Mnangagwa signature, gives the government control and oversight over the financing of non-governmental organisations. Opposition leaders have been routinely arrested and convicted to instil fear among grassroots activists and demobilise campaigns against the government.

The irony of Zimbabwe’s situation in comparison to the 2008 election is that the nation is suffering hyperinflation. In 2008, the hyperinflation period led to Mugabe losing his first general election to Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, and later the Movement for Democratic Change. Mnangagwa has learned from this period and instead of the country functioning only with the hyper-inflationary Zimbabwe dollar, the US Dollar is also a currency of exchange, which is a refuge for citizen’s income and savings.

The period of democratisation came with unmet expectations in most African countries, when democratically elected leaders turned out to be authoritarian — as occurred with Zambia’s Edgar Lungu. And South Africa, which hitherto has been the citadel of democracy on the continent, has increasingly turned towards authoritarian colleagues for support. Promises of economic growth and equality have been stifled by global issues such as Covid-19, corruption and Africa’s poor position in the global economic structure.

In Zimbabwe, some critics have argued that opposition leaders did not effectively mobilise the hopes and anger of citizens, which they say resulted in significant voter apathy.

It is likely that the Zanu-PF will win the upcoming elections not because they would have won the popular vote freely and fairly but because the ruling party is doing everything in its power to hold on to power and further entrench it. The more worrying reality is that these elections may become a watershed moment to protect the visages and vestiges of democracy and its ideals in Zimbabwe.

This includes but is not limited to the freedom of expression, independence of media, and ensuring and protecting the right to vote. The opposition may receive a third of the vote. The one-third benchmark will provide some protection to the 2013 Constitution from being amended and further entrenching the ruling party’s power. This relies heavily on global democratic forces supporting the protection of the vote, which seems to rely on South Africa ending its “ostrich diplomacy” regarding Zimbabwe and instead becoming a defender of the rights and lives of Zimbabweans.

It is difficult for a generation of activists and opposition leaders to consider that their lives will be spent reaching out for a dream that might never materialise in their lifetimes. The hope, prayer and belief that they are the anointed generation to bring about democracy through elections keeps the fire burning in their hearts and minds. That fire should never be extinguished. But political reality also informs that the strategy for the upcoming elections calls to limit the damage against the increasing re-authoritarianism.

The period of the struggle for majority rule is informative. Nelson Mandela became the first president of a multiracial South Africa, Oliver Tambo lived and fought in exile for decades. Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo sat side-by-side at Lancaster House. Herbert Chitepo, who went into exile, led the Zimbabwe African National Union until his assassination in Zambia in 1975. This period seemed to require leaders with the mind and soul of Tambo and Chitepo.

Many times, leaders speak about how they stand on the shoulders of giants who came before them. But do they ever imagine themselves as having to be the giant whose shoulders will be stood on by the next generation or leader? It is a thankless job that risks one’s name being forgotten in the dustbin of history. But the risk of Zimbabwe and Africa becoming a cradle of dictatorships calls for a period of selfless leadership with the hope that the wind of change will eventually blow through the continent again towards democracy.

Kudakwashe Manjonjo is a democracy activist who has worked in civil society and community development. He is a Canon Collins PhD Scholar in Sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand. This article was a winner of Canon Collins Trust’s annual Lead with Your Mind: Troubling Power Essay Competition. The trust’s mission is to build a community of change agents across Southern Africa who create and use knowledge for positive social effect.