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Elite convergence in the post-Mugabe era

Opinion & Analysis
There has been a surge of interest in politics and elections among young voters in recent years and the expectation is that more young people will participate in the forthcoming elections than ever before.

There has been a surge of interest in politics and elections among young voters in recent years and the expectation is that more young people will participate in the forthcoming elections than ever before.

By Alex T Magaisa

#GenerationalConsensus has been coined as a rallying point for young people both within and outside social media. The idea behind it is that the election presents an opportunity for the younger generation to mobilize and take over State power. Although #GenerationalConsensus has been prominent and has attracted both praise and criticism, there is another less obvious but pertinent phenomenon in the run-up to the election. It is what may conveniently be referred to as Elite Convergence and it is becoming more evident on the other side of the political aisle.

Elite convergence

In this case, the notion of elite convergence is used to describe a process by which groups of elites from different sectors come together in pursuit of a common purpose despite their differences and this elitist process tends to exclude the ordinary people. These elites exist in various sectors, they include the political, economic, military, civil society elites and they also come from the religious and traditional sectors. Politically, elites exist on either side of the political aisle: the ruling party and the opposition. The power of elites could be political, economic, military or social. In a class-based system, they often occupy the same social class, despite their political differences. They share similar spaces: golf clubs, churches, social clubs and so on. In their localities, they are probably neighbours, living side by side. Their children go to the same schools and colleges and as parents, they probably sit on the same school boards despite their political differences. They share common friends and there are probably social ties through marriage and other unions.

In almost all cases, elites claim superiority other than the rest on the basis of their claimed knowledge, skills, wealth or power. They believe they know exactly what is in the public interest and that they have the ability to deliver it. In most cases, they claim they don’t even need a democratic mandate to do it. This might help us to understand why political and military elites converged in November 2017 to remove Robert Mugabe from power despite long-standing political differences. The political elites from the ruling party and the military elites received backing from opposition elites despite the latter’s usually hardline stance against the involvement of the military in political affairs. These differences were suspended because of the common interest to remove Robert Mugabe and the belief that there might be some coalition arrangement in the aftermath of the coup. This was touted as being in the public interest.

However, this convergence between ruling party, opposition and military elites quickly crumbled when the opposition elites were excluded from the post-coup political arrangements. There seemed to be a belief among some opposition elites that the dramatic fall of Mugabe would open up a channel for a transitional arrangement of sorts, which would bring the ruling party and opposition forces together ostensibly to resolve the country’s economic crisis and promote political reforms. This, it was believed by some, would entail the postponement of elections. However, as I argue in this BSR, there is a broader convergence that has survived the coup and has become an important, albeit understated force in our national politics. It is the convergence between military, political and economic elites. These economic elites have both a local and international hue. Indeed, it is no longer fanciful to believe that beyond the 2018 elections there could be a broader convergence of elites, which would include opposition elites.

Lancaster House agreement

First, however, it is important to locate the emerging developments within the broader historical context. This is because this elite convergence is not a new phenomenon in our national politics. We must locate occasions within our recent historical path that suggest or even demonstrate the phenomenon of elite convergence. It will also help us appreciate its effects on our democratic experiment since 1980.

The first of these is the negotiated settlement at Lancaster House in 1979, which provided the watershed between the colonial state and the independent state. The purpose of Lancaster was to end a debilitating civil war and confer majority rule and independence to Zimbabwe. In reality, it largely transferred political power from one set of elites (the White settler elites) to a new set of elites (the black nationalists). The Lancaster House Constitution was a big compromise, which gave the political title to the black nationalists while guaranteeing political and economic protection to the white settler elites. Politically, the less than 5% white population had 20 reserved seats in the new Parliament with the remaining 95% of the population holding 80 seats – a disproportionate arrangement which meant even at independence a single white vote carried greater weight than a black vote.

Another demonstrable compromise was the property rights clause, whose major effect was to protect the White settler elites who owned the bulk of arable agricultural land. It had a 10-year protective fence, which meant it could not be changed during that period and, therefore, largely maintained the status quo in regard to land ownership. There are more examples, but these two are enough to demonstrate the elitist nature of the Lancaster House agreement – the new black nationalist elites got political power while the white settler elites retained economic power. The problem with this elitist pact is that while it ended the war and ensured stability and continuity at the time, it merely postponed a problem that needed a comprehensive solution. Unsurprisingly, the problem returned to haunt the country in the post-2000 era when a populist Mugabe used it to re-launch his flagging political career. The idea of populist politicians using an emotive issue to rally popular support is evident in Western democracies today, with the anti-immigration policy being an important rallying point.

This elite convergence between political and economic elites continued well into the independence era but it began to break down in the 1990s as Zanu PF political elites began to feel political pressure from the ordinary people and allies such as War Veterans who felt excluded from the fruits of independence. For a while, the Zanu PF elites and economic elites in industry and agriculture appeared to have a strong relationship. The industrialists and farmers provided the productive efficiency which kept the inherited economy running and gave glory to the new government while on the other hand, the government generally left the farmers and industrialists to pursue their economic activities. More importantly, however, the new black political class began to acquire property and businesses.

This acquisitive behaviour transformed them from being merely political elites into economic elites who shared similar interests and tastes with the existing white middle class. They became neighbours in the formerly all-white suburbs. Their children began to learn in the same elite schools in larger numbers. The economic interests of New Money increasingly became more aligned with Old Money and the black elites became more removed from the majority they had worked with during the war of liberation. This honeymoon period even saw the exclusion of fellow veterans of the war who, upon realising what was happening in the 1990s, began to mobilise and demanded their own share of the national cake. Their leaders had moved on and left them at the periphery. The Fast Track Land Reform was in part a desperate effort to realign the black political and economic elites with the rest that had been left behind. Still, this process only served to exacerbate the chasm between the elites and the majority as the politically powerful grabbed more than the rest.

1980 Government

There are at least three examples of convergence of the political type. The first was the elite convergence between the black nationalists and the political elites of the Rhodesian establishment in 1980, part of which has already been explained under the discussion of the Lancaster House Agreement. As the new leader, Robert Mugabe realized that it was necessary to have this convergence in order to prevent a political fallout between the old and new order which could threaten his rule and the state of the economy. The White settler community was virtually in control of the major parts of the economy – agriculture, mining and industry – in terms of knowledge, skills and capital. A mass exodus of the white settler community had the potential to immediately cripple the economy. Mozambique was a good case in point. Such a path was to be avoided at all costs.

This meant that politically and militarily, the transition into independence required accommodation of the old Rhodesian political and economic elites, hence, for example, the retention in the early years of the entire top brass of the Rhodesian security forces. It also explains the disproportionate political arrangement that has already been alluded to. Thus leaders on either side who had waged a bitter war against each other for many years found themselves converging in 1980, in the interests of peaceful transition and both political and economic stability. The elites were sure that they knew what was best for the people and that they were acting in the public interest. A war-weary public did not scrutinize the merits of this arrangement more closely. Most deferred to their leaders, believing they knew best and it allowed elites to do as they pleased.

1987 Unity Accord

The second was the convergence between political elites in ZANU PF and PF ZAPU in 1987 when both parties signed the Unity Acord. The Unity Accord was the product of protracted negotiations between the two parties following a period of intense conflict which became more evident shortly after independence but in reality, pre-dated it. When Mugabe won the elections he extended an olive branch to his rival, Joshua Nkomo and his party, PF ZAPU. This was the first convergence between the parties as they were part of the same coalition government. However, this convergence came to an early end, with Mugabe accusing Nkomo and his party of plotting to sabotage his government. Mugabe reacted viciously to the dissident problem in Matebeleland and the Midlands which he blamed on PF ZAPU. The excesses by Mugabe’s North Korean-trained crack unit, the Fifth Brigade, which resulted in thousands of deaths of innocent civilians are now common cause.

Some argue that while the Unity Accord ended Gukurahundi, it also resulted in the cooptation of ZAPU elites into the new ZANU PF, effectively sealing an elite convergence in which the rights and interests of survivors and victims of Gukurahundi were largely ignored and excluded. Nkomo and other ZAPU leaders were accommodated in Mugabe’s government. However, this convergence of political elites did not solve the problems. Years after the Unity Accord, there is still a huge reservoir of disgruntlement in the affected regions. This is because the elitist arrangement provided by the Unity Accord and the convergence of elites excluded the ordinary people. It was good for stability but it was far from being a democratic and inclusive arrangement. It is a great reminder that while elitist arrangements may have some benefits in the short-term, ultimately, they fail to provide comprehensive solutions to problems affecting the rest of the population.

2008 GPA

A third example of the convergence of political elites is the more recent Inclusive Government under the Global Political Agreement (GPA) in 2008. This political arrangement saw two bitter enemies, Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai and their parties working together in a coalition government brokered by South Africa under the political stewardship of SADC. It was the result of a failed and illegitimate election process in 2008, in which ZANU PF had used violence to prevail in the presidential run-off election. The negotiated settlement was ostensibly done in order to provide stability, restore legitimacy and end the cycles of political violence. It did provide stability and provided some economic respite to a tired nation.

However, like the Unity Accord before it, the GPA also represented a convergence between political elites from hitherto seriously opposed organizations. The political elites learnt to accommodate each other during their four years in government. Just like former ZAPU supporters had felt their leaders had abandoned them for the luxuries of government, some opposition supporters were unhappy with the behaviour of their leaders whom they felt were beginning to mimic their ZANU PF counterparts. The former opposition could no longer claim the moral high ground against ZANU PF elites since they too had joined the same class of political elites. ZANU PF was all too happy to make this point, that the MDC politicians were no better than them. Although there was a lot of false equivalence, it was becoming harder for the public to make the distinction between the two sets of political elites and this worked against the formerly opposition elites.

However, the difference between the Unity Accord and the GPA is what the former had led to the total cooptation of PF ZAPU into ZANU PF to make a single party, the MDC parties remained independent entities under the latter. Still, like the Unity Accord, the GPA was also an elitist arrangement which was reached without any public consultation and did not address the concerns and grievances of survivors and victims of atrocities committed by the ZANU PF government. The political elites simply did what they believed was good for the people. The result is that the ordinary people remain excluded and their grievances are still unresolved. It was good for stability but it was far from being democratic.

Congo and Diamonds: the new Military elites

The DRC military adventure which began in late 1997 after Robert Mugabe controversially deployed Zimbabwe’s armed forces into the DRC ostensibly to support the government of Laurent Kabila, created many economic opportunities for both political and military elites. Laurent Kabila had swept to power after defeating government forces backing long-serving dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko. However, Kabila found himself facing an internal rebellion, backed by former allies Rwanda and Uganda. Mugabe intervened in an operation called Operation Sovereign Legitimacy (OSLEG). Zimbabwe did not have the resources to sustain its war effort but it was said the DRC would shoulder some of the cost through its abundant mineral resources. Nevertheless, it was alleged that the mineral resources were exploited for the personal enrichment of Zimbabwe’s political and military elites. Some of these elites were named in UN Report into the plunder of the DRC’s resources.

However, it was the Chiadzwa diamonds that provided rich pickings for ZANU PF political and military elites. It is now common cause that the army, police and intelligence arms of the State had stakes in diamond mining firms and operations. Political and military elites were at the forefront and benefitted personally from the diamond discovery. The ordinary people were generally excluded from the stampede in Chiadzwa. The full extent of the scandal is yet to be uncovered but the reports and investigations that exist suggest that there has been massive plunder by political, military and foreign elites, the latter dominated by the Chinese. The Chiadzwa diamonds, just like the Congo War was an occasion of convergence of ZANU PF political and military elites and foreign economic elites, united by their pursuit of economic gain.

There is, in addition, a long tradition of military elites retiring into government or state-related commercial and administrative arms of government. This phenomenon is by no means unique to Zimbabwe. It also represents another process of the blending that takes place between the political and military elites. In Zimbabwe, it has become more evident and visible in recent years, and especially after the major political developments in November 2017 when the military elites joined top levels of government on an unprecedented scale. For years, retired military personnel had been deployed in parastatals and statutory board, both as executives and board members but November 201 resented a visibly intensified process of convergence. The history of political and military elite convergence shows why it is not surprising that November 201 was co-authored by a coalition of political and military elites.

November 2017 and the resurgence of political, military and economic elites

Having mapped the historical context of elite convergence in general, we can now return to the present. The model of elite convergence helps us to make sense of the shifting tectonic plates in our politics, particularly among the economic elites and their relationship with political and military elites. There is a demonstrable shift among some economic and technocratic elites who are realigning themselves with ZANU PF political and military elites. For many years, disgruntled by the Mugabe regime and its closed economic approach which stifled business, economic elites began to move towards the opposition and civil society spaces. To be fair, some had already played both ends – practising ruthless capitalism while at the same time preaching democracy and human rights. Some economic elites who had been part and parcel of the earlier convergence in the 1980s had shifted completely and joined the MDC. Some became MPs for the opposition. In more recent years, some economic elites were creeping close to joining active politics as they considered challenging Mugabe and ZANU PF in the 2018 elections. Many ordinary people began to look up to them as allies whose economic power and wisdom could be a useful force in the fight against Mugabe and ZANU PF.

However, there have been significant shifts since last November. Some of the economic and technocratic elites have shifted completely while others are still hesitant but are in the process of doing so. They have become ardent supporters of the very same system that they ostensibly opposed and challenged under Mugabe. Some of the elites who had become part of the MDC over the years have also shifted. They have become major praise-singers of the post-Mugabe administration. They have ceased to become advocates for their party’s policies and are instead talking positively, and sometimes sycophantically, of the new administration. Some elites of an intellectual and technocratic hue have also shifted. Once passionate critics of ZANU PF, they have become serial praise-singers of the Mnangagwa administration. The effort to separate the State from ZANU PF is rather disingenuous when it is common cause that one of the landmarks of ZANU PF rule over the past 38 years is the conflation between party and State.

Economic and technocratic elites justify their new direction on the usual claims of superiority of knowledge and skills which elites use as a claim of legitimacy in the absence of popular consent. In some cases, there is even a patronizing saviour mentality emerging from their narrative: namely that they are acting benevolently and not for any personal gain. The role of economic and technocratic elites as service providers who charge fees for their services is disguised as selfless help. This behaviour of local elites mimics the behaviour of foreign elites who have been criticized for demonstrating a saviour mentality towards Africa and its people.

Given the background of elite convergence described in this BSR, these latest shifts should not come as a surprise. Economic elites are generally motivated by self-interest and profit maximization and they will do whatever is beneficial to their economic interests. They might use some professional or ideological cover but at the heart of it is the pursuit of economic interest. This behaviour is not limited to economic and technocratic elites. It is also evident among opposition elites who are in business. This is why it is very easy for opposition politicians who provide legal services as lawyers to represent persons who are otherwise their political opponents even when the latter are accused of corruption which the opposition politicians often criticize. It is evidence that beyond their political differences, political elites have their points of convergence and the motive is usually economic. This convergence is often disguised and justified by the language of professional ethics. This language of professional ethics sits very uneasily with the expectations of political supporters among the general public.

However, using the model of elite convergence, it should be easier for opposition supporters to see why their leaders sometimes do things in their economic lives that are completely at variance with their political messages. This behaviour, however, is the root cause of the people’s scepticism of political elites. How do they trust political elites when they do one thing on one stage while saying the opposite on another stage? It shows the chasm that exists between the ordinary people and political elites on either side of the political aisle.

The main point of this discussion is that ordinary people need to understand the dynamics of relations between political elites. The phenomenon of elite convergence is not new and it is not uniquely Zimbabweans. A lot of the public disaffection in the older democracies and the rise of populist demagogues who are threatening liberal democracy is blamed in part on the behaviour of political elites and their peers in business and other sectors. I have only focused on Zimbabwe in order to make sense of the shifts that are taking place in the post-coup political landscape as a number of economic elites, intellectual and technocratic elites appear to be shifting from the opposition spaces they have previously appeared to occupy and are now walking arm-in-arm with ZANU PF political and military elites. Democracy is not their most important interest. Indeed, their narrative has shifted from democracy and human rights to stability and development, which is quite consistent with the narrative of the new administration and their allies in the international community.

What does all this mean for Zimbabwe?

For the Mnangagwa administration, the elite convergence bringing political, military, foreign and economic elites is strategic for their political prospects. They are all united by their belief that what matters most is stability and economic development and that they are the ones best able to deliver it. Democracy and human rights can take a back seat for the moment. They are not an immediate concern. With new-found allies among former critics, the Mnangagwa administration can play the message that they are being accepted locally. These economic elites and technocrats do have their power and influence, particularly in the opaque world of international diplomacy. It is the economic elites and technocrats who regularly ply the diplomatic circuit, attending dinner parties at foreign embassies and posh restaurants. Their opinions are sought after and sometimes they are listened to. They will probably be actively pushing a narrative for Mnangagwa, reinforcing the view held in some Western embassies that Mnangagwa is the only one who can provide stability and economic development. All this is important in the pursuit of the Holy Grail of this election: legitimacy.

It also means democracy advocates have to realise the force that stands against them. The convergene of elites is not necessarily motivated by a belief in democracy. They are, instead often sceptical of democracy and are willing to suspend it in the interests of so-called some claimed virtues such as stability and development. Democracy or popular consent is presented as an inconvenience or even as an impediment to attainment of these goals. They would even advance an argument for a “strong leader” and extremists might even argue that popular consent is not necessary. The convergence of elites tends to shut out alternative voices.. Alternative or critical voices are seen as holding back development and sometimes as a lacking in patriotism. This is dangerous. However, democracy advocates must hold steadfast in defence of democracy and the legitimacy of popular consent. They ought not to underestimate the challenge posed by elite convergence, particularly in the run-up to the 2018 elections.

Before concluding this paper, it is important to cast an eye on the immediate future. What are the chances of elite convergence among political elites from either side of the political aisle? Is it possible that the current process of elite convergence drawing together ZANU PF political elites, military elites, foreign elites, technocratic elites and economic elites will be broadened in the post-election period to include political elites from the opposition and perhaps even civil society elites? This BSR has already shown that historically such processes of convergence are not new. It has happened before and it could easily happen again. It could have happened in the immediate aftermath of last November but it didn’t because ZANU PF and military elites realized they did not need the opposition to gain international acceptance. Could there be another possibility of elite convergence between political elites on either side of the aisle after the highly anticipated 2018 elections? My preliminary assessment is that this is not an impossibility. But the last significant episode of elite convergence between political elites via the agency of the GPA caused severe damage to the opposition. This time they will have to tread very carefully.

Alex T Magaisa is a law lecturer at Kent University in the United Kingdom. He is a former advisor in the office of prime-minister Morgan Tsvangira (2009-2013)