Editor’s Memo

Our major failure

By Dumisani Muleya

I’M “renting” the Editor’s Memo column for this week because the landlord, Vincent Kahiya, is away. I usually do not like writing columns — even though I’m a c

olumnist elsewhere — because of the demands and pitfalls associated with such pursuits.

I have just finished reading a book titled Biography of the Columnist and I found it very interesting. It’s a must-read for all columnists, in particular our local mandarins who write as if they specialise in how best to bore readers to tears.

It would have been good to write about columnists to show how most of them are just redundant but there are more compelling issues to deal with.

I have been watching with horror the dramatic deterioration in our social and economic conditions for the past six or seven years. What has really been surprising for me is not necessarily the unfolding national crisis — the drama and its actors — but how as citizens we have responded to the situation.

History bears important lessons for us on what we should do and what not to do in a badly poisoned political environment to resolve such a crisis. Doing nothing is one of the choices and we seem to have elected for it.

From the storming of the Bastille in Paris in 1789, through the Napoleonic wars, revolutions in Europe, two world wars, the Cold War, and right up to the Prague Spring in 1968 and the Velvet Revolution in the same country 21 years later there are many events for us to learn from. That includes the colonial and post-colonial era on our own continent.

Our neighbours South Africa and Zambia provide good case studies in what to do and what not to do to succeed or fail as a nation.

As the political and economic situation gets worse, the question is: what is to be done? None of our main political actors — government, Zanu PF, the MDC and civic society groups, seems to have a clue. They are all blank.

It is difficult to understand why Zimbabweans have so far been unable to do something about their plight. Instead we have heard a lot of whingeing and recriminations against foreign leaders who tried to help out by people — including the MDC –—who want to blame them for the situation in Zimbabwe.

President Thabo Mbeki in particular has been treated as if he is answerable to the Zimbabwean electorate. Such abdication of duty and self-denial catharsis is unhelpful.

This is why perhaps some people tend to agree with President Mugabe when he claims people are voting for him, therefore he is popular with the majority!

This really sounds like a cynical view but in the absence of a clear and convincing explanation on why people are unable to demonstrate their disapproval, it will continue to appeal to some — albeit a fringe minority. It’s not good enough to just say elections were rigged. What did you do after that? It’s also not useful to say there is repression and harsh laws. Some people have secured change in much more difficult conditions.

The threats of mass action by Morgan Tsvangirai and Arthur Mutambara are not helpful if they remain as dark threats. They have become idle political chatter for the amusement of a yet to be identified constituency.

But this is not Tsvangirai or Mutambara’s problem alone. The citizens are probably more culpable because they have given Mugabe a political blank cheque for 26 years.

We seem to have a collective-action problem in Zimbabwe. This has also perhaps led to the argument that currently the real opposition to Zanu PF is the economy.

The collective-action problem — any situation in which the uncoordinated actions of different players may not yield the best outcome desired — is one of the main reasons why people have not stood up to tyranny.

The lack of cohesion in the opposition and civil society helps to explain the debilitating national malaise. The prevailing political culture and dearth of strong independent social institutions and thinking are also causes of docility.

Patronage is another. There is also a more fundamental explanation to be found in historical institutionalism and the interface between our political and economic spheres. People are hardly able to resist tyranny in a sea of poverty. Those with something to lose usually push for change if their interests are under threat. Marxists say human history develops as a result of social-class contradictions.

It also appears some Zimbabweans like free-loading which is why instead of fighting for change back home they are busy quarrelling with foreign governments to be allowed to squeeze in as economic refugees. There are people who left the country on genuine grounds but not the majority.

What is needed to change the situation is a holistic and cohesive national effort — backed by sound policy and political programmes of action and a credible political leadership — rooted in the aspirations of the people, not those of power-mongers.

Is any of this realistic in the short-term? Don’t hold your breath!

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