Zimbabwe and the politics of populism

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FOR the past 14 years Zimbabwe’s two main political parties have largely thrived on populist rhetoric, and one can generally identify Zanu PF with the agenda of peasant-driven populism while the MDC can be easily conjoined to proletariat populism, especially when the labour roots of the movement are taken into account.
None of the two parties has a remarkable commitment to take electoral promises beyond electioneering and acquiring the vote, and the five year governance venture between the two parties that ended last year was enough testimony to show the unanimity in deceit among Zimbabwean politicians across the divide.
In the early 1890s the United States experienced the rise of a party named the Populist Party, also known as the People’s Party. This party was a coalition of labour, farmers and the middle class. The party was a product of a broad social movement that emerged as a response to contorting challenges in the American economy and society, more or less the way economic hardships gave birth to the MMD in Zambia, and the MDC in Zimbabwe.
The Populist Party was immensely boosted by the advent of the telegraph and the telephone in the post-US Civil War era, technology that made mobilisation a lot easier than had been the case in the decades prior to the Civil War. The corporate world also expanded rapidly at this point in time, and the gap between the rich and the poor was quite obtrusive.
We have seen the link between populist politics and technology driven-globalisation in the modern day global political landscape. From the protests that toppled Hosni Mubarak in Egypt to the mobilisation of the Benghazi rebels in Libya, the effect of Internet social media could not be missed, and cannot be underestimated. It is the Internet that gave the faceless bozos going by the name Baba Jukwa the platform to carry out the breathtaking roguery that slandered hundreds of characters remorselessly towards Zimbabwe’s election 2013.
In 2000 the Movement for Democratic Change was propped up by world-wide publicity at the benevolence of powerful Western media houses whose agenda was shaped by the foreign policy of the Western Alliance in general, particularly as influenced by Britain’s bitter position over Zimbabwe’s land reform program – itself carried out in a spectacularly populist approach that was blatantly designed to counter the labour-driven populism of the rising Tsvangirai led MDC.Advertisement

The ZCTU had been at loggerheads with the Zanu PF Government since the 1992 introduction of the IMF-prescribed Economic Structural Adjustment Program (ESAP) – a poisonous economic concoction that resulted in almost half the civil service being laid redundant, as it also led to massive retrenchments in the private sector. Government support for university and tertiary students was drastically cut down, infuriating thousands of students, many of whom were still trying to come to terms with the fate of their retrenched parents.
In 1997 the government tried to introduce a development levy in the aftermath of a drought levy that had been introduced earlier in order to mitigate the effects of a deadly drought. The ZCTU together with students vigorously resisted the move and organised a nation-crippling protest that left a telling trail of unprecedented destruction across the country’s cities. Retail shops were destroyed, goods were looted, vehicles were stoned and burnt to ashes, and public transport buses were torched to ashes by the marauding protesters.
The 1999 formation of the MDC was just a culmination of these preceding events, and it was very easy for rooky stump speakers from the newly formed party to attract thousands of enthusiastic crowds in high-density urban areas, and at various tertiary education centers and universities across the country. Morgan Tsvangirai’s political career has so far been a huge but futile hankering for a recurrence of this wrath wave among Zimbabweans, and even now he publicly wishes for an unstoppable mass revolt against his political competitors in Zanu PF.
When Tendai Biti talks of a grand coalition as envisaged by his faction of the demising MDC he is trying to reanimate the forgotten glories of the formative years of the beleaguered opposition party. It is a bit tough for Biti and his colleagues that Zanu PF has extended its populist policies to entice the urban youths – many of whom who no longer see employment as a panacea to their pervasive poverty – thanks to the rise of the economic informal sector.
The economy has been so informalised that selling job prospects has now been rendered almost meaningless. That is why the MDC-T JUICE policy dismally failed to impress in Zimbabwe’s terrain of populism politics when the country went into the last election at the end of July 2013. The policy simply failed to pass the populism test, and Biti recently admitted publicly that JUICE was as complicated as to be nonsensical to the Zimbabwean voter.
It was Zanu PF’s rather haphazard indigenisation policy that gave hope to a desperate nation craving for long forgotten economic stability. The ruling party has the clueless MDC-T leadership to thank for successfully selling its discombobulating indigenisation policy in a spectacularly populist way without any contesting voice at all. It is not shocking that no one from the MDC factions was asking any questions at all. The party was swimming in denial and telling the nation was not going to have an election without Tsvangirai saying so.
Saviour Kasukuwere even managed to create what appeared to be an impressive personal legacy for himself; just nine months before members of parliament unmasked the insidious pack of untruths and outright lies behind the widely hailed policy. It looks like the youthful Minister is not too keen to be associated with his past at the indigenisation Ministry these days.
Populism at its peak drove Zanu PF to pose catastrophic challenges for corporate power, overturning land control from the hands of powerful colonially privileged white commercial farmers, and advocating for take overs and compulsory share partnership in foreign owned enterprises. Faced with challenges to support the newly settled indigenous farmers, populism compelled Zanu PF to mint money, just like the US Populist Party pressed for minting of silver and printing of the greenback to provide relief on debts and low prices on farm goods between 1876 and 1896.
The rise of Zanu PF’s nationalist populism horrified foreign investors and enraged Western capitalists, just like the MDC proletariat-based urban populism riled the Zanu PF leadership and its state machinery. The West lamented the death of civilisation in Zimbabwe, arguing that resettling “unskilled black farmers” on productive land was going to put modernity in peril.  Zanu PF on the other hand furiously argued that the MDC’s Western-sponsored urban populism was an unacceptable threat to the independency legacy of the country – so dangerous as to be capable of “reversing the gains of independence.” In fact MDC politicians stand as certified traitors in as far as most Zanu PF supporters are concerned.
In the 1950s, Richard Hofstadter of Columbia University argued that populism carries seeds of irrational, intolerant and homophobic mass politics, and perhaps this explains well the polarised nature of Zimbabwe’s politics in the first decade of the 21st century. Hofstadter concluded that populists are backward looking and delusional, and that they struggle badly in coping with the demands of a modern day society. Of course he was talking about the demands of capitalist modern day society. But how many of our own politicians are backward looking and delusional about where the country is heading?
How many times is our glorious liberation war history used as an escape route by ensnared failed politicians, and how many times are our people pampered with delusional sweet promises that never come to pass? Yet populism can be seen as the democratic response of oppressed people taking a stand to protect their threatened interests. Lawrence Goodwyn and Christopher Lasch concluded that populism in the 1960s was a direct result of failure on the part of the commercial culture, and that rural people were, through populism, only expressing their democratic wish to preserve their own traditional way of life.
This was the argument given by Zanu PF for the forceful occupation of white owned commercial farms in Zimbabwe at the dawn of the millennium. The Robert Mugabe-led party argued that the dispossessed rural people were only expressing their democratic response to the colonial imbalances that prevailed in the country at the time. Populism can be viewed as proto-fascism or as the last best hope for grass roots democracy, depending on who is making the interpretation.
While Africa sees in ousted Zimbabwean white commercial farmers a redress of an unjust colonial imbalance, the West sees in these farmers a persecuted group of innocent people, reminiscent of the Jews of Hitler’s holocaust times. Whichever way one looks at populism, one common conclusion is that populism is an expression of a revolt against a threat to a people’s way of life – be it workers whose jobs have been eroded away, or peasants whose traditional way of living has been disrupted, or students whose welfare and future has been put under threat.
Populism can be taken advantage of, or can be infiltrated by people who see in it an opportunity to further their own narrow or selfish interests. This is why the labour-driven populism in the MDC ended up taking on its shoulders Rhodesians and oppressive capitalist employers. It is the same reason why some ruthlessly anti-people charlatans who mimic the party’s revolutionary language in order to pursue their own selfish and felonious goals have hijacked the people-driven revolution for which Zanu PF stands.
Here is a party that has become notorious for remembering its ideological cadres only during times of need, and opulently rewarding the reactionaries within its ranks during peace times. Zimbabwe’s middle and upper class have of late embraced Zanu PF populism from an acute opportunistic angle, purely as a strategy to gain protection for their often ill-acquired wealth. When the MDC looked like they were ascending to power this group strategically aligned itself with opposition politics, only to shift away after the comprehensive defeat of Tsvangirai’s party in the July 31 2013 election.
I know of one former Permanent Secretary and one former Parastatal CEO who, during their time, were spectacular pretenders at supporting Zanu PF policies, and there is no doubt there are scores of such self-serving strategists within Zanu PF’s Government today. In populism any fool can hide and get away with it, and that is why the wrong people wantonly get rewarded in the notorious patronage system.
In America populism is considered to have died in 1896 when Republican candidate William McKinley defeated Populist Party presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. Then the corporate model triumphed over the populist alternative. However, the incoming government adopted much of the Populist program, from the federal income tax, the direct election of senators, to banking reforms.
It is hard to imagine any alternative Government taking over power in Zimbabwe and governing without adopting most of Zanu PF’s populist policies, or Zanu PF governing without adopting some of the MDC’s populist policies. We hear Minister Patrick Chinamasa is growing impatient with those continuing with “hostilities against the West,” and his conniption is purely based on the liberal understanding that Western investment is key to revive job-based welfare in urban areas – itself the MDC-T alternative to governance.
One hopes that populism in Zimbabwe will one day die as a seed that would yield accountability in governance, leading to genuine economic development in the country. But we have to admit that we cannot see the death of populism when we continue to see clueless pretenders masquerading as knowledgeable Cabinet Ministers, or when corruption is officially sanitised as a normal phenomenon in politics.
We need to stop the mentality that allows our politicians to turn themselves into a pack of wolves because they count our people a flock of harmless sheep. Zimbabwe we are one and together we will overcome. It is homeland or death!
Reason Wafawarova is a political writer based in Sydney, Australia