By Terence Hornes
For over two decades, Zimbabwe has lurched from one crisis to another. Its politics has also turned toxic characterised by populism, intolerance, violence, and corruption.
It is frustrating that the national interest is rarely used to scrutinise the ideas, principles, and the systems championed by the different political parties and in particular their leaders. Instead, much effort is spent deifying the leader of one’s political party and demonising all others and especially those who hold a different point of view.
This much is obvious from the events of the past four weeks, which provide a small window into Zimbabwean politicians’ self-centred politics. First is the COVID-19 pandemic, which is spreading in the region and the country. With limited testing facilities, it is likely that the figures provided by the government understate the country’s true mortality rate. Second, were the calls for countrywide demonstrations, which did not materialise as planned on 31 July in part because of a heavy clampdown by the security forces. Third, on 30 July, the government announced that it had agreed to pay US$3.5 billion to a group of former farmers whose land was expropriated during Robert Mugabe’s rule.
The issues, which received and continue to receive the most coverage locally and internationally concern the planned demonstrations and justified outrage following the abhorrent methods used by the security forces to suppress free expression.
It is concerning, however, that there has been little discussion of the planned demonstration’s impact on the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country, and the economic and political risks posed by the agreement to pay former farmers US$3.5 billion.
Failure to learn lessons
Most discerning observers will agree that much of the news about Zimbabwe in the past twenty years has been negative and, in many cases, deservedly so.
Zimbabwe has become synonymous with violations of rule of law, the brutalisation of citizens, and endemic corruption. Those in Zanu PF say, the country’s economy is on its knees because of the opposition and the regular calls made by some of its members for sanctions. While those in the opposition put the blame squarely on Zanu PF.
This is a nutshell is Zimbabwe’s kindergarten politics. Neither the ruling nor opposition parties take ownership of the challenges facing the country or responsibility for addressing them.
We need a new and responsible politics.
War crimes and crimes against humanity were committed in Rhodesia against blacks. In post-independence Zimbabwe there was genocide against Ndebeles. And, for the past twenty years our politics of intolerance killed, tortured, and maimed thousands.
In all these conflicts, hate and intolerance is the common denominator. The use of violence principally but not exclusively by those in Zanu PF has only served to inflame the situation. And, sanctions, championed mainly by those in the opposition and civil society, have put the country on a war footing.
With the politics of both the ruling and opposition party’s not working for the good of the country, is it not time to introspect, press the reset button, come together and agree a way out of the two decades old crisis?
Has our internecine conflict not destroyed the country enough?
Zimbabwe is in a hole, yet our leading political parties now aided by the twitterati continue to dig furiously using the same old approaches of hate speech, an us-versus-them approach and the deifying of their party’s leaders and their powers of so-called salvation.
Political civility is all but dead. And, neither the political parties nor the media use the national interest to explain their actions and policies and to ask searching questions of political parties and their leaders.
Both Zanu PF and the fractured MDC (in all its manifestations) are now past masters at creating political crises some of which have adverse geopolitical implications. And, the characters involved have become ever more colourful with politicians trading insults, talking past each other and playacting to the international gallery.
This would all make for an excellent comedy were the damage to the country and especially its poor not devastating.
Demonstrations in a COVID-19 ravaged Zimbabwe
The demonstrations received the most attention. True to form, none from the main political parties has addressed the question whether it is in the national interest for demonstrations to be organised at a time when it is projected that the epicentre for the COVID-19 pandemic might be shifting to sub-Saharan Africa.
It is also projected that 7.7 million Zimbabweans face food insecurity and it is well known that the past twenty years have all but obliterated the country’s public health system.
Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic must not be used as cover and an excuse to stop people excising their freedom of speech and assembly as protected by the Constitution.
But such a retort, accurate as it is, does not answer the question whether it is in the national interest to hold demonstrations right now in Zimbabwe given the many well documented challenges that its citizens are facing.
What percentage of the population are Zimbabwe’s political parties willing to sacrifice to COVID-19 in pursuit of their political goals?
Calls for the imposition of sanctions
Some citizens, many of whom must be genuinely appalled at the methods used by the government to suppress the planned demonstrations, have called for more sanctions to be imposed on the country.
It is unclear whether the purpose behind the calls for sanctions is to get those in government to change their behaviour or if it is intended as punishment. Either way, there is no question that twenty years of sanctions have done little to change our politics for the better.
Rather, these sanctions have entrenched Zimbabwe’s image as a pariah state, which has damaged the country’s attractiveness to both local and foreign investors. Is it in the national interest to link our internal political disagreements to the fate of the country’s economy and to tarnish its international image?
The country will and must be built by both Zimbabwe who hold different political views and support different political parties. Zimbabweans of all walks of life fought to gain independence. We can certainly build our own governance systems that enable us to live in peace with one another and address key challenges such as those we face.
Some Zimbabweans have swallowed hook, line, and sinker and now echo the propaganda issued by ambassadors of several western countries, who say – at the bidding of their governments – that the sanctions are targeted only against individuals or that they do not in fact exist.
Where is our pride as a people? Surely, it is up to us to determine our destiny, our political systems and our economy.
Sanctions are a blunt instrument with many an intended and unintended consequence. They also breed acrimony. It is often not appreciated that countries that have imposed sanctions have done so not because they are friends of Zimbabwe but because they have interests in Zimbabwe.
People should ask why for nearly 20 years the US has renewed an Executive Order that says, “Zimbabwe represents an unusual and extraordinary to the national security, foreign policy, or economy of the United States.”
Many of these countries have worse similar-type problems or turn a blind eye to worse problems in nations to which they are favourably disposed. One needs to look no further than western countries’ response to the murder in Turkey of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi Arabia or the systemic racism in the United States and many European countries.
This begs the question: is it in the national interest for Zimbabweans to always call for the imposition of sanctions against one’s own country and/or compatriots? Many of the sanctions that were imposed on the country during Mr Mugabe’s rule remain in place.
It is certainly arguable that this behaviour – calling for sanctions against one’s own country and compatriots – is a sign of political immaturity, a refusal to take responsibility and to exercise agency in resolving the challenges we face as nation. It is also selfish as it fails to take into account the needs of the country as a whole.
Purpose of demonstrations
It is of course correct that there would be little need for demonstrations especially during a pandemic if the country’s political system worked as it should, and the politicians acted in the national interest. But it is obvious that the system does not work, and this has been worsened by the political rancour.
It is regrettable, however, that those who have been calling for countrywide demonstrations have given mixed messages about their intended purpose and outcomes.
Some have said, they want Mr Mnangagwa to resign. Obviously, this is a right enjoyed by all citizens. But, it is irresponsible to not address the question whether it is in the national interest to cause a collapse of the government during a pandemic in a country that has not been able to feed its people for close to two decades and where the public health system has all but collapsed.
Others have said their planned demonstrations are a call on the Zanu PF government to stop using torture and abusing the criminal justice system. This is a legitimate cause. But is it in the national interest for such demonstrations to take place right now in the proposed manner given COVID-19 and the collective condition of the country’s urban and rural poor?
There is also ample evidence that the planned demonstrations were fuelled by factional fighting in Zanu PF and, in particular, the Presidium and many of the corruption disclosures were allegedly weaponised against Mr Mnangagwa’s faction.
Surely, we should refuse to be used as hapless pawns by conniving political elites, who conveniently weaponize genuine grievances to secure power.
Of course, Mr Mnangagwa and his governance have a lot of questions to answer as egregious violations of the rule of law and human rights, and systemic corruption and use of torture have continued under his watch.
But focusing on individuals as we have done since the days of Mr Mugabe is myopic.
We need to build a national consensus and focus on changing systems so that these vices become the exception and not the norm. But this will require a new type of politics, one that focuses on the national interest and uses it as a point of reference to regulate political behaviour, goals, and strategies.
The US$3.5 billion compensation bill
An issue, which ought to have received a lot of airplay and debate is the agreement entered into by Mr Mnangagwa’s government with former farmers without any meaningful debate in parliament or for that matter considered public discussion.
Unsurprisingly, both the ruling and opposition parties have outdone themselves by being mute on the issue, which is a damning indictment on the state of our democracy.
It is certainly arguable that those in Zanu PF have not said anything let alone demand a debate in parliament because of the politics of fear as their leader has lauded the agreement. Those in the opposition and civil society have stayed mum most likely because of the political and financial support they receive from certain western countries that have used sanctions to champion the cause for compensation for expropriated land.
Zimbabwe has suffered 20 years of devastating economic and political sanctions because of its land expropriation policy. And, now, the government has agreed to pay US$3.5 billion in compensation, which amount will be borrowed – not in Zimbabwe – but in international markets at high interest rates because of the country’s junk credit rating.
The debt will, of course, not be assumed or paid for by Zanu PF. Rather, it is the taxpayer that will pick up the tab.
Does Zimbabwe already have an unsustainable foreign debt problem? Yes. In what way will the addition of US$3.5 billion resolve or worsen this situation? Is this not a question that should be of interest to all Zimbabweans?
Zimbabwe’s foreign debt relative to its GDP, its inability to reschedule its commitments because of the impact of the US-imposed economic sanctions, the use of deficit financing to sustain a bloated and unaffordable civil service and other off-budget expenditures contribute to the country’s hyper-inflation and economic and political instability.
And, in a classic illustration of Zimbabwe’s immature politics its main political parties and its government have spent the past four weeks engaged in inane and highfaluting squabbles over the demonstrations. Sadly, this too has been the focus of many of the country’s opinion makers.
Now, given Zimbabwe’s history of defaulting on foreign debt payments and an economy that has been devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic, what security will the bondholders require? How will we explain this debt to our children, whose blighted future we have just worsened?
The question of compensation for expropriated property is, of course, not unique to Zimbabwe. The United Kingdom and Germany were sued first in their own countries and later at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), following land expropriations in their respective countries.
The ECtHR held that there was no requirement at international law to pay market value for property expropriated in the public interest within a nation’s territory and that it was up the individual countries to determine appropriate levels of compensation. This rule does not, of course, address the question of properties subject to Bilateral Investment Treaties.
These are some of the many national interest questions that should have been and must be raised and discussed in the context of this compensation agreement.
It is insane that as we squabble over demonstrations, foreign powers and politically connected individuals are busy cherry picking the nation’s best assets and those in power saddle the country with unsustainable debt with no questions asked.
Surely, we can do better if not for ourselves, then for the sake of our children.
We must re-evaluate our politics and operating values. We need to adopt and implement policies, goals, and strategies only if they are in the national interest. Party politics must be and is only a means to an end in the national interest.
We need to work as a collective and cohesive political unit, whatever our party-political affiliations. We need to be aware of the dangers of inviting foreign powers to adjudicate and set standards for how we interact in our daily political lives. And, importantly, violations of the rule of law, human rights or corruption serve no purpose save to destroy a country’s soul. It also destroys our nation and our children’s future. As the saying goes: a house divided cannot stand.
This article is written by Terence Hornes is based in the Netherlands and writes in his personal capacity. The author may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org