By Brian Ngwenya
IN the past three or so months the world has been following seismic developments unravelling in North Africa and the Middle East with fervent interest. First on the line was the Tunisian revolution that, interestingly, was triggered by the suicide of a street vendor in the Southern city of Bauzi.
Herein lies an important lesson to both politicians and grand theorists of history and political science: some of the most incredible historical events are not always explained by elaborate theories and concepts, but by very simple day to day events.
Likewise, governments of the fiercest dictatorships may succeed in setting up elaborate repressive machineries and securities, yet still crumble at a seemingly unimportant, unexpected event. The Tunisian fires soon engulfed Egypt to claim an even more significant figure, President Hosni Mubarak. Trouble has been brewing in Jordan, Yemen and Algeria. Only deities know where else next.
Despite the analyses of conspiracy theorists, what is interesting about these revolutions is their spontaneity, the bravery and determination of the protestors but, more importantly, their huge levels of success with little influence from the powerful nations of the world. For the first time in the last decade or so, the world has witnessed significant political developments in the third world that have not aroused widespread criticism of super-power unilateralism or their active hand. If there has been any foreign hand in this it has been, at most, invisible.
Speculation and hope were rife that the effects of these revolutions would cascade southwards, igniting massive anti-government demonstrations in countries like Zimbabwe where President Robert Mugabe has continued to rule with an iron fist since Independence in 1980. It has thus been easy, even tempting, for many analyses to believe that Mugabe’s Zanu PF is shaken by the happenings in North Africa and the Middle East.
On paper, there are lots of striking similarities among Mugabe, Former Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Mubarak. All three have overstayed their welcome in office; Mubarak and Mugabe have held the sceptre in their respective countries for over three decades. Ali was at the helm for more than two decades, still a very long time by any standards. Like all dictators, the trio has also maintained a façade of democracy by consistently holding farcical elections in their countries, and the results have been similar — they all claimed electoral victories suggestive of massive electoral mandates to their leadership. All three have claimed to have won the last elections in their individual countries by phenomenal figures in the regions of 80-90% popularity margins. By a coincidence of threes, all three elections have been held within the space of the last three years.
An obvious shall also be stated, that all three leaders have been the aces of politics of long incumbency despite increasing opposition to their rule by the masses they are supposed to lead. If not so, why would they have turned all state machinery to thwart any opposition to their leadership? The list of similarities may be infinite. In light of all these similarities, the question to answer is why hasn’t the Maghreb uprisings awakened Zimbabweans to follow suit?
Informal discussions have often raised the comparatively high literacy levels as a reason for Zimbabweans non-confrontational reactions to misgovernment. Proponents of this line of argument are quick to point to the unsuccessful efforts at mass protests and work stay-aways in the first few years of the last decade in Zimbabwe as proof. In my opinion, this thesis is nearly tempting. I
think that the literacy and competitiveness of Zimbabweans has enabled most skilled personnel to be accepted in the job markets of most countries around the globe. This has had the effect of finding outlets for the Zimbabwean crisis as people left the country en masse instead of staying to claw for a way out while, on the other hand, the same people have partly assisted in preventing a full blown crisis through remittances sent back to friends and relatives back home. But as the Egyptian example has shown, there is no direct correlation between high literacy rates and the ability of a country’s citizens to protest against tyranny. Why even in the developed world citizens demonstrate against anything politically unsavory. Recent demonstrations in Spain, Italy and Britain are a case in point, this despite their higher literacy rates.
One may also raise the brutality that has been demonstrated by the Zimbabwean security forces over the years, and the consequent fear that has been inculcated into the ordinary man on the street as the reason why Zimbabweans have taken a non-aggressive approach, choosing to air their resentment by way of the ballot as was shown in the 2008 election. Heavy handedness has not been peculiar to Zimbabwe. History has shown that very few despots have given power away in bloodless negotiations. The Egyptian and Tunisian scenarios are a succinct example of the high price paid in the fight for democracy. More than 700 revolutionaries lost their lives in the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions.
However, this did not break the fighting spirit of hundreds and thousands of protestors who thronged the streets of Tunis and Cairo. The results have been the victory of good over bad. The people spoke, and their voices were heard.
This brings us to the realities in our home yard. The success of the mass protests in Egypt and Tunisia are largely attributable to the courageous acts of the Egyptian urban masses that stood steadfast on their demands. In contrast, Zimbabwe’s urban population has failed several such tests, deciding to sit back and do nothing, even when sitting back epitomised extreme fear, cowardice, or both, to most on-lookers. Examples are numerous: the delay in the announcement of the 2008 March presidential election is a recent case in point. The truth is that Zimbabwe’s colonial and post colonial populations have never had a strong tradition of staging mass demonstrations against misrule and exploitation.
Of course, such judgment, without qualification, is excessive. For the entire duration of the colonial and post-colonial periods, urban resistance to injustice in Zimbabwe was mostly spelt in labour strikes, (the most outstanding being the 1945 and 1948 strikes) and other forms of covert and overt resistance. The only two examples of widespread popular resistance in urban streets during this long, century plus history are the Zhii riots which started in Bulawayo and spread to other urban centres in 1961, and the food riots of 1997 and 1998 in Harare and Chitungwiza.
Both cases do not measure anywhere near the Egyptian scenario either in duration, or in the numbers involved. This propensity of doing nothing creates — indeed created — a tendentious lethargy of silence in Zimbabwe’s urban masses. It is irrefutable that these traditions, though not always determinative, have a powerful tendency to persist.Religion also looms large in this comparison. Although other religions like the Christianity and the Copts exist in significant numbers, the Egyptian and Tunisian populations are largely Islamic. The majority of Zimbabweans are Christians, and the numbers continue to swell with the escalation of both the Pentecostal and Apostolic fevers. The point is that the two religions proffer different doctrines to secular leadership. On one hand, Moslems are taught that there is honour in sacrificing one’s life in the fight against evil, be it leadership or infidels.
Jihads or Holy Wars are an example of Islamic aggression against perceived ills. On the other, Christianity preaches turning the left cheek when you are struck on the right one. Christianity also holds that all leaders are God-ordained, even the tyrannical and murderous like Saul! To the Christians, the Almighty is the king-maker, and he alone decides who leads and for how long. The significance of these differences is too striking to ignore. While my pastor and many others were praying for God to restore good leadership the Moslems in Egypt were impatiently waiting for the end of the Friday prayers in order to join the chants in Tahrir Square.
Should Zimbabweans prove my on-going analysis wrong and get onto the streets, it also seems hardly possible that the Zimbabwe Republic Police will allow the demands of the people to be heard as did the Egyptian security forces. Security chiefs in Zimbabwe have made no attempts to disguise their allegiance to Mugabe and Zanu PF. Though there could be scores of army and police officers who sympathise with the popular voice, it has been clear in the past that the machinations of the partisan security chiefs win the day. MDC supporters have been the targets of arrests on all sorts of trumped up charges while Zanu PF supporters with known records of heinous atrocities are allowed to walk scot-free. In Mbare and Budiriro recently, only MDC supporters were arrested following what police call clashes between Zanu PF and MDC supporters, while Zanu PF youths are allowed to retreat into their camps and plan for the next strike.
For these reasons, it seems unlikely that the Maghreb solutions will be replicated in Zimbabwe any time soon. This is in spite of many Zimbabwean’s enthusiastic following of the on-going drama in Egypt. What is likely though is that Zimbabweans will continue to wait for plebiscites to air their voices. The ballot box or the voter’s cubicle shall be Zimbabweans own Tahrir Square. It is here that their chanting will be heard the loudest. Zimbabweans are good when it comes to this. During the Ian Smith regime, Africans successfully rallied for a “No” vote to the Pearce Commission referendum in 1972.
Several other Tahrirs have been witnessed in recent years. The election results of 2000, 2005, and 2008 are all testimony. Two more are yet to come. Zimbabweans will speak out come the constitutional referendum and the elections, whenever these are going to be and, hopefully, this time those with ears will listen.
Brian Ngwenya is a political analyst and a PhD Candidate based in Pretoria.