Gerontocracy equals oppression

This week Zanu PF dug in even deeper. The bone of contention this time around is Sadc’s expressed wish to sit down with Zimbabwe’s service chiefs to unlock the political logjam in the country.

In 2008, South African generals came into the country under Sadc facilitation auspices to investigate the Zimbabwe Defence Forces’ role in the bloody run-up to the presidential election run-off.

Up to now their report hasn’t been publicised because it is widely believed to be damning of the military. So what’s new this time around?

The country is still in a political logjam and Sadc has quite logically sought to re-engage the service chiefs because they have become a big factor in the scheme of things. Zimbabwe is bleeding and it needs urgent reform.

Having had interminable clashes with the West over the past 11 years, Zanu PF has now directed its fire at Sadc; now it’s the turn of the regional bloc to be accused of a regime change agenda. According to Zanu PF, everyone is out of step except them. What drives them? What makes Zimbabwe unique, if at all?
There could be an underlying problem and the situation with the military could be a mere manifestation or a convenient cover for a deep-seated phenomenon — gerontocracy. Could it be that the military are being used to perpetuate gerontocracy?
Sadc has diagnosed this, whether directly or indirectly, as one of the major factors in the costly political impasse in Zimbabwe, with the potential of not only leaving Zimbabwe in a permanent state of instability and turmoil, but leading to region-wide ramifications.
A gerontocracy is a society which is dominated by elders. In a gerontocracy, people who are substantially older than the bulk of the population hold most of the political power, and they tend to dominate companies, institutions, and organisations as well.
Gerontocratic leadership was common in communist states in which the length of one’s service to the party was held to be the main qualification for leadership. In the time of the “Eight Immortals of Communist Party of China”, it was quipped: “The 80-year-olds are calling meetings of 70-year-olds to decide which 60-year-olds should retire.” For instance, party leader Mao Zedong was 82 when he died in 1976, while his successor Deng Xiaoping retained powerful influence until he was nearly 90. Other gerontocrats have included Albanian leader Enver Hoxha, who was 76 at death, East Germany’s Erich Honecker, who was 77 when forced out, North Korea’s Kim Il-sung, who was 82 at death, and Romania’s Nicolae Ceauşescu, who was 70 when executed.
One of the issues with a gerontocracy, aside from an unfair balance of power, is that older leaders tend to become very set in their way, and fixated on specific ways of doing and thinking about things, according to Wikipedia. As a result, they are slow to act in response to emerging social trends and global issues. It can also ultimately cause problems, as leaders become inflexible and unwilling to consider the weaknesses of their nations. One oft-cited cause of the “Jasmine Revolution” in the Arab world is the age difference between youthful populations and “grizzled” leaders. Egypt’s average age is 24. President Hosni Mubarak was the fifth-oldest leader in the world before he was toppled aged 82. Such a wide gap is more common in autocracies like Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Algeria and North Korea.
Democracies, by contrast, seem to prefer more youthful leaders these days. So there is a correlation between the age of leadership and type of governance – whether democratic or oppressive.
Cuba has also been characterised as a gerontocracy. “Although the population is now mainly black or mulatto (coloured) and young, its rulers form a mainly white gerontocracy,” one observer noted. But Cubans overwhelmingly welcomed President Raul Castro’s call at a Communist Party congress last month to limit the terms of leaders, saying this would bring new blood to the government that the Castros and their ageing colleagues have monopolised for 52 years. The 79-year-old president said limiting high political and state positions to two consecutive five-year terms would help “guarantee the systematic rejuvenation” of the government. Castro said the limit would apply to “the current president of the Council of State and his ministers” – a reference to himself, acknowledging that “the confidence of the majority of Cubans had been tested, with regard to the party and the revolution”. Cubans, he said, would have to overcome a “mentality of inertia” and, he continued, the only thing that could threaten the revolution was “our inability to rectify errors”.
Zimbabwe has had virtually the same leadership since 1980. The 1987 PF Zapu-Zanu PF Unity Accord still talks of a one-party Marxist-Leninist state. It’s a system where “very old men are replaced by old men” and the results are there for all to see – including the politicisation and privatisation of state institutions.
The nation has undergone rapid political and socio-economic changes, but these gerontocrats have struggled to keep up because of inflexibility. They have responded in the only way they know – by force. Examples are the 2005 humanitarian disaster code-named Operation Murambatsvina and the closing-down of political space as if the country is a one-party state.
Gerontocracy and oppression feed off each other.
In Zimbabwe’s case, the situation is not helped by the fact that Jonathan Moyo and his ilk give intellectual voice to such oppression – it’s a chilling reminder of the forces ranged against democracy in this country. As the gerontocrats get older, the stakes get higher – that’s why Sadc has puts it foot down.

ctutani@newsday.co.zw

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