guest column Takura Zhangazha
Acquaintances of mine are in the habit of always asking me a broad, but utterly unanswerable (emotive) question.
Every other time we meet, they may ruefully and after a couple of potshots at the current government ask: “What is the future of this country?” I have an answer that I now also routinely throw, but I will give it at the end of this write-up.
The more significant point about my acquaintance’s question is that they ask it because they already have answers to it. Hence, in conversation, they already give their generally
cathartic take on the country’s economic state of affairs, offer one or two pro-business and pro-United States dollar-solutions that should, in their view, also protect their interests;
both by way of the ability to make enough money to meet the requirements of increasingly consumerist lifestyles.
It is all fair enough. The political economy of Zimbabwe is such that opinions and perceptions of opinions really matter. The key question is whose perceptions are these that appear
to have a fairly strong grip on the urban and rural political psyche?
I mention urban and rural opinion as distinct because they, indeed, are somewhat different perception spaces; not least because of communication infrastructure, but also the historical
(and colonial) view of the urban as the more sophisticated and knowledgeable about what goes on in the (post-colonial) nation-State; a situation that still obtains in our contemporary
times due to the urban-centric reach and geographical preference of information communication technologies (ICTs), inclusive of mobile telephony and social media.
Despite the geographical dimension of political opinion in Zimbabwe, that is, the urban citizenry perceived as more enlightened due to its historical proximity to technology and the
(former) colonial centre than the rural, we will still need to answer key questions of contemporary motivations of the same.
Public and popular opinion in Zimbabwe is largely driven from a perception of what would be ‘knowledge’ or ‘education’. Those that shape it in the immediate are publicly expected to be the most educated. This is as historical a point as it applies to the contemporary.
In the immediate post-independence era (the 1980s to be specific), it was the most educated, coming from the heart of the global superpowers, who were to determine what popular public
opinion would be. Those educated in the global north and east at the height of the cold war would return home to become Cabinet ministers or high level civil servants at the expense of
those that were coming from the direct experience of the liberation struggle. Marechera would write about this in his little known novella, The Black Insider. Hence, we eventually had to contend with the relatively convoluted idea of the ‘one-party State’ as well as economic structural adjustment as a battle for our public intellectuals cum-political leaders as they
demonstrated their ideological loyalties. The key point here was that there was an intellectual source for assumptions of progress as perceived by the public. By the time we were into
full-fledged economic liberalisation via ESAP, again public opinion followed views by the educated in the 1990s, until times became politically desperate and organised labour began to
talk back to the received wisdom of the free market.
Counter narratives to the latter emerged, based on the fact that ESAP was not working, and these came again from the intelligentsia, except that it was in two respects. Labour had built its own intellectuals who were left leaning and who had begun to influence working people’s perceptions of what should be national progress. Mainstream intellectuals from
business, the clergy and academia, realised this growing influence and worked closely with labour to help form the intellectual framework for the formation of the Movement for
Democratic Change (MDC) as an alternative to the free market oriented ruling Zanu Pf party.
This alliance was, however, a short-lived one of equals. Business and the clergy, with the passage of time, became the primary drivers of public opinion output for the mainstream opposition, particularly during the years of the inclusive government.
Zanu Pf was, however, to counter the progressive direction of the new opposition by reverting to the populist intellectual recess of nationalism and historical injustice, but at the
same time attempting a Chinese version of State capitalism, tallied with radical indigenisation of the economy. This, however, required instruments of propaganda and the threat of
force for it to be reluctantly accepted as ‘progressive’.
Therefore, between 1999 through to 2017, the two dominant strands of how to influence public opinion were predominantly motivated by mainstream political parties and their apparatchiks.
And as the years toward the coup-not-a-coup got closer, both influencers were increasingly similar in their ideological tone, reserving their most acerbic attacks on each other to personalities as opposed to ideas.
And this is where it becomes important in relation to our contemporary circumstances. While in the past public opinion was influenced by a clear political partisanship (the party you
belonged to or voted for determined many opinions), in the period after the 2018 ‘harmonised’ election, public opinion has been largely motivated by considerations on the state of the
national economy. In populist terms, this has also had the personalised dimension of considerations on who was best placed to solve what we consider to be the national economy’s
The solutions proffered by a majority of opinion leaders (clergy, academics, columnists, political leaders, among others) have invariably had one model as a solution, this being a neo-
liberal framework where whatever the government does, it must return to the global political economy by opening up Zimbabwe to economic market forces.
I know that this already sounds sophisticated and beyond measure, but so do those that push this as the one-size-fits-all solution to Zimbabwe’s socio-economic woes. So, it comes in
cultural packages. That is, it comes with relative sophistry and an assumption of a sense of belonging to the best thinkers and best systems in the world. For example, talking about
monetary policy would immediately necessitate a comparison with how the American Federal Reserve Bank works, or the touting of joining the Rand Monetary Union immediately evokes images of a Zimbabwe that is similar to South Africa or even just a sense of belonging to our southern neighbour. Basically, it couches its language in that of a promised land (hence, to this
day we are faced with the tragedy of multitudes of young Zimbabweans and Africans migrating to the global north) and also, fundamentally, of envy of other countries’ economic policies.
All this is without historical suppositions as to how those countries that appear to be the best also suffer poverty and violence riddled underbellies; or how historically they may have
arrived where they are on the backdrop of historical injustices motivated by colonial conquest, and in doing so, seeking more a proximity to the already globally wealthy minus an
understanding of their or more importantly, our own local context by trying to see ’cause and effect’ beyond political personalities in power or in the opposition. This is why when the Mnangagwa government seeks a ‘return to normalcy’ via the ‘ease of doing business’, the language is essentially bereft of contextual meaning. Instead, it is lauded in the capitals of
the globally powerful because it means we are an open sesame to global capital.
So, if you ask the question, who is now shaping political public opinion in Zimbabwe, the answer is; it is hardly us as a majority of Zimbabweans. Far from it. We are complicitous in
singing the tune of an already established system, neo-liberalism which, though in deep envy of, we regrettably do not fully understand it. Hence, sometimes a majority of us will insist on privatisation of public services such as health, education, transport or water provision, largely because we admire the system too much or we choose to be ignorant of it, or
we revert to our materialistic and hedonistic individualism mode (so long we still have the capacity to cater for our personal as opposed to collective needs). In most cases, the
former is true.
We know there are alternatives, but we choose to ignore them. Even when critical comrades in the global north are not only giving examples of these alternatives, but also starkly
warning us of the inherent dangers of neo-liberalism, austerity and racism.
But back to my acquaintance’s rhetorical question about where this country is going? I always answer it with a quote from Thomas Mapfumo’s song (and album by the same title); Varombo kuVarombo, Vapfumi kuVapfumi (the poor to the poor, the rich to the rich). If probed further, I also stated that Mnangagwa’s government was on a determined path of ‘reclassifying’ or a return to class society-proper in Zimbabwe.
First, by way of lifestyle, your income should be reflected in your lifestyle, under the guise of fighting corruption. Second, and more importantly, by rewarding capital and the rich
with societal exclusivity as in capitalist societies. Even if austerity affects the poorest, they shall remain in their place in the long term. And not only is it probably
government’s hope that not only will they remain there, but that they will come to accept it, all in the vain hope that they, too, shall eventually make the ‘middle class’ by 2030. And
the most paradoxical joke of the year may just be; it will work, it will not work.