A Presentation to the University of Zimbabwe, Election Resource Centre Symposium on the 2018 Harmonised Election.
Friday 18 May 2018
By Takura Zhangazha*
Let me begin by thanking you, the Faculty of Arts here at the University of Zimbabwe and the Election Resource Centre for inviting me to share my views at this important symposium on the country’s 2018 harmonised general election. And to be particular to share my perspectives on ‘Political Activism and the Harmonised Elections’ as advised by the organisers.
On the face of it, this is a fairly straightforward topic. Mainly because wherever there is an election, obviously all the political activists come into full bloom. Even those that you would have thought were more preoccupied with religion or sport than all things electoral or political.
The more ambitious activists become candidates or campaign managers of others.
This is the lighter side of political activism around elections. And on the assumption that it is done in a democratic context. But I will return to this point toward of this brief presentation.
The reason why this topic is important is because of the dark history of political activism and elections since national independence and as informed by the culture of violence that stemmed in part from, the liberation struggle.
Since 1980 the dominance and power of he ruling party has set the tone around what it means to be a political activist or an activist for a political party in pursuit of political power. Intentions at dominance led to ruling Zanu Pf party leaders carrying over the culture of violence that informed the liberation struggle into its own civilian structures, particularly in the rural areas. Hence where there were differences with the then main opposition PF Zapu, there were regular incidences of violence meted out against opposition activists trying to hold meetings especially in what were considered ruling party strongholds in the early 1980s. This violence was to escalate with the historical tragedy that was to become Gukurahundi in the same decade where at least 20000 civilian lives were lost in the Southern parts of the country.
Even after the unity accord between the two main liberation movements in 1987, an intrinsic culture of violence in political activism did not peter out. It continued with ruling party activists continuously harassing the new Zimbabwe Unity Movement opposition activists in 1990. And the same became more evident in 2000 onwards with extreme levels of violence being meted out on the Movement for Democratic Change activists.
Historically therefore, the dominant form of political activism has largely been one characterised by resort to violence against those that are not in support of the ruling party. Ideas rarely mattered. Defence of personalities and the ‘party’ did.
In recent times an interesting dynamic has occurred. The victim has also learnt how to become a perpetrator. Opposition activists, so long bearing the brunt of ruling party violence (with state assistance) have taken on similar characteristics of not only violence but more significantly protecting the party and its leading personalities. Again, the activism is less and less about ideas but power, even if only internal party power, and protecting it. Hence the perpetual splits and violence against former party members in the main opposition MDC party.
Where we consider this year’s general election and the political activism that we are witnessing around this, we must not lose sight of these historical considerations. While the events of November 2017 have been touted as a new dispensation by the ruling party, the proximity of the general election makes it diffiuclt to tell if indeed the latter has changed its approach to political mobilisation.
The current political activism that we are witnessing largely through primary elections and rallies has been admittedly less violent. this is a tone, as in the past, that is being set by the ruling party and its leadership. The reasons for this new approach is as they have stated, to give the elections an irrefutable legitimacy in they yes of the international community. And after the departure of Mugabe, they had had a lot of goodwill from the diplomatic community which they do not intend to squander in the short period before the election.
So the activism this time around will be much less violent with such incidences being the exception rather than the rule.
But I must make a specific point about this state of affairs based on what we witnessed in 2008. The relatively peaceful political activism of the moment and on the part of the ruling party is predicated on an assumption that it will still be able to win the election. Where it fails to win the 50%+1 presidential vote count required for victory, it may change its spots in a run-off.
There are is one other key aspect concerning contemporary political activism that I will allude to before concluding. This is the startling fact of how in the now a lot of political activists (never mind their ages) are motivated by materialism. And its not just the t-shirt, cap or bag of rice that they are given in return for political support but I am referring here to bigger materialist motivations. More and more campaigners, ‘kingmakers’ are thinking beyond the t-shirt and more at tangible economic opportunities that proximity and ascendancy in a political party can bring. And some of these material benefits can be in the form of residential stands, tenders, access to credit and protection of business interests (including for those in the informal sector).
In conclusion cde Chairman, the political activism of the 2018 harmonised elections is largely going to be peaceful as informed by the approach and attitude of the ruling party. The opposition will tend to mimic this except in incidences of frustration or where they become victims and resort to retaliation. It is an activism that will not be driven by a pursuit of ideas but a motivation to protect the party and its leading personalities. All in return for sometimes crass but general material reward.
*Takura Zhangazha spoke here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com)