Celebrity politics, underhand campaigns

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Paidamoyo Muzulu
THIS week, Zimbabwe witnessed two political developments that will shape the 2023 general election roadmap. First to happen was the re-election salvo from President Emmerson Mnangagwa in the State-run The Herald and the formation of a new political party, Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC), led by Nelson Chamisa.

On Monday, Zimbabweans woke up to a front page picture of Mnangagwa flanked by musician Freddy “Kapfupi” Manjalima and his manager DJ Shugeta. The picture seemed highly inappropriate when one read the caption beneath it.

The paper alleged Manjalima had always wished to meet Mnangagwa. DJ Shugeta made the arrangements and Mnangagwa agreed to the photo-op. The picture was edited and seems to come out of Mnangagwa’s re-election team. It had the statement “BelievED” imbedded on the picture at the bottom right hand corner.

The picture, when analysed in the context of the March 26, 2022 by-elections and the general elections slated for next year, it pointed to two issues: A new culture of political celebrity endorsement creeping into Zimbabwean politics and State media’s biased campaign for the incumbent administration.

Celebrity endorsement is an established political culture in the United States. After the main parties endorse their candidates, celebrities, among them actors and musicians, choose which candidates to back and go public about it.

These endorsements help the candidates gain access to certain segments of the electorate. It is done with certain maturity and generally, there is no backlash against the celebrities for endorsing certain candidates. Mnangagwa has been working on this for some time now. Last year he had musician Sandra Ndebele’s endorsement and pictures were splashed in the State media. The Mnangagwa team also has a relationship with controversial celebrity and preacher, Passion Java.

It is not only conceivable, but a certainty that as we progress towards the polls, many artistes will join the bandwagon to endorse Mnangagwa. There is no harm in that, artistes have choices too.

However, for argument’s sake, can The Herald splash a picture of opposition leaders like Chamisa, Douglas Mwonzora or Lovemore Madhuku on the front page with celebrities endorsing them?

The answer to the aforementioned question is in the negative. It is clear that public media continues to break the laws governing them as ordered by Justice Martin Mafusire in the Veritas v Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation application.

The other respondents in the application were Zimbabwe Newspapers (1980) Limited, Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, Zimbabwe Media Commission and Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe.

Interestingly, paragraph 19 of Justice Mafusire’s judgment read: “Zimpapers have not contested the application. Through their legal practitioners, they gave notice of their readiness to comply with the law. Counsel negotiated on costs.”

Justice Mafusire ordered: “The first and second respondents are hereby ordered and directed to exercise impartiality and independence in the editorial content of their broadcasts or other communication; and to afford fair opportunity for the presentation of divergent views and dissenting opinions by ensuring that their communications do not show bias in favour of one political party or its candidates against the others.”

It is beyond doubt that the State media is in breach of Justice Mafusire’s judgment.

On another point, State media has been publishing an advert daily on page 1 which reads: “#NDS1 #EDelivers #FiveMoreYears.”

It is not clear who is paying for these adverts. Is it government? Is it the broke Zanu PF party, according to its last financial statement presented at the Bindura conference last year? Or there is an undeclared donor funding this?

It will be interesting to see if Zimpapers will publish opposition adverts at such a strategic position as the electioneering continues.

Zimbabwe now urgently needs a review of Political Parties (Financing) Act. The law should now make it mandatory for all political parties that receive donations from the members or any other third parties to declare such donations in an audited financial statement tabled in the National Assembly.

This would be primarily aimed at curbing State capture by shady businesses and gangs and generally bringing the culture of transparency and accountability among political parties. It would further improve trust between political parties and their members.

Chamisa finally launched his party after four years’ embroilment with other factions of the MDC over legitimacy issues. He launched CCC at a small event without the razzmatazz in Harare.

CCC uses predominantly a yellow colour and on its logo, has Chamisa’s face. I will not repeat what I wrote last week about personality cults in politics, save to say this transcends political divisions in Zimbabwe.

The launch of the yellow party is significant in that there will be no confusion among the electorate on who is who on the ballot. I could, however, not help myself from laughing when I looked at the synonyms of the word “yellow”.

The battlelines were drawn in the sand on Wednesday when the nomination courts sat across the country for the 120 by-elections for Parliament and local authorities to be held on March 26, 2022. It became clear that Zimbabwe is a three-party country — Zanu PF, CCC and MDC, where the three parties fielded candidates in all vacancies that were declared.

This could be a dry-run of the 2023 general elections and a lot is at stake. For Zanu PF, it is about its continued domination of power since independence in 1980. For MDC, it is time to reflect on what it has achieved in the last quarter century of its existence. And for CCC, it is a moment to stake its claim on the Zimbabwean political landscape.

May the general citizen be more informed about elections and able to understand and hold parties to account on their manifestos.

This remains the missing link of an engaged citizen, who has agency and holds leadership to account. May the better party win.