HomeOpinion & AnalysisFreedom of thought, expression — Pillars of democracy

Freedom of thought, expression — Pillars of democracy

Opposition parties the world over come into being for various reasons, mostly to do with unfulfilled promises or inadequacies in those in government.

Sunday Opinion by Grace Mutandwa

In Zimbabwe the MDC was born out of the anguish of a people tired of the politics of impunity, massive patronage and a strangled democratic space. There was a hunger for change and freedom of thought and expression. The MDC fed the expectations of those who believed true democracy was the answer to Zimbabwe’s problems. It held out a promise that it would guarantee every Zimbabwean’s right to a life of dignity and a life where the various freedoms would be upheld.

But over the years we have witnessed worrying signs of a “democratic party” slowly morphing into the very same animal that those in search of change found wanting in Zanu PF. In a free society people should be able to proffer criticism of their leaders and they should never fear being lynched for calling for leadership renewal.

Freedom of thought and expression are fundamental pillars of a democratic and just society. Freedom of expression guarantees everyone’s right to speak and write openly without state interference, including the right to criticise injustices, illegal activities, and incompetency. This is a right that ideally should be enjoyed by any member of a political party that espouses democratic principles.

But since the MDC-T deputy treasurer-general, Elton Mangoma’s leadership renewal letter was publicised, he has been called names and he even had his disability used to belittle him. Not one of those angry with Mangoma has stopped to consider his right to an opinion. When did freedom of thought and expression become enemies of democracy?

Calls by those who want Morgan Tsvangirai to step down must not be viewed by Tsvangirai and his supporters as an evil attack, but a necessary component of democracy. The fact that there have been people in the party who felt they could freely express their opinions must be taken as a positive gain for a fledgling democracy.

A party that stands for democracy and good governance should be mature enough to embrace diverse opinions, even when those views are highly critical of the leader.

While those who support Tsvangirai see the leadership renewal calls as a plot to unjustly seize power, the reality of this battle is that democracy is the real loser. The MDC gave those who wanted change hope.

It promised a freer democratic space. It dangled hope to free thinkers. By insulting and violently attacking those who speak out, the MDC is effectively slamming the door shut on the little democratic space it had helped open up.

It is a sad day for democracy when we start selling ourselves so short that we believe there is only one leader who can rule us or bring about change. Zanu PF has been stuck on that track for decades and the MDC should certainly refrain from doing everything in its power to emulate it.

Unless I am terribly wrong, most MDC supporters and founding members started the MDC because they yearned for a government under a different person from the person who has ruled Zimbabwe since independence. Tsvangirai wanted President Robert Mugabe to step down, and so did thousands of other people. They found the idea of being ruled by one person for decades an anathema.

Democracy demands that we listen and take note of the misgivings of even just one person. When leaders tell supporters that they have a right to demand change, they should be aware of the fact that tomorrow they might very well hear the same calls.

This should not be seen merely as a turf war — it is bigger than table settings. The MDC should reflect on our past and remember what it is that led to its formation. Does it still uphold the principles it sold all those people who for too long a time have been hoping for change?

There is need for serious soul searching. The struggle should not just be about taking over from Mugabe and Zanu PF, but about shunning impunity, patronage, violence and dictatorial tendencies —the very things that the MDC accuses Zanu PF of. And yes, leadership renewal should never be a taboo topic.

People who vow today that they will die to keep Tsvangirai in power will be the same people in future who will find it hard to get rid of him when they no longer want him. Ask those in Zanu PF who want change in leadership but do not have the guts to speak out. That there are in the MDC people who are brave enough to express themselves even if some dislike it, should be embraced.

A democratic leader knows that diverse opinions are important. True leadership is shown in how a leader treats criticism and how he handles those that dare to hold him accountable.

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