Zimbabwe needs a new social contract


To restore genuine and enduring national unity — Zimbabwe desperately needs a new social contract. The concept of a social contract originated during the Age of Enlightenment in Europe.

Although not always, it concerns the legitimacy of the authority of the State over the individual. Theories of a social contract became popular among Enlightenment philosophers such as John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, as a means of explaining the origin of government and the obligations of the citizen.

In short, a social contract is an implicit agreement between the State and the individual. Under a social contract, people live together in accordance with an agreement that establishes moral and political rules of behaviour.

In the current liberal global order led by the United States, a social contract is established through an election. An election then becomes a sacrosanct right for individuals to choose their legitimate rulers. An election becomes the heartbeat of democracy. Equally important is a Constitution — it lays forth the duties of the government and the obligation of the citizen.

A quick peek at history shows that all attempts at establishing a social contract in Zimbabwe have been flawed — they have been elitist in nature devoid of any inclusiveness. This is why 42 years after independence, we find ourselves in this precarious situation — social and economic degeneration, political discord, and ubiquitous mistrust in State institutions and even among ourselves. It’s not rocket science to understand that Zimbabweans don’t trust each other. Yet, trust is the glue that unites a nation State.

Zimbabwe's first attempt at establishing a social contract can be traced to the Lancaster House Agreement in 1979.  The Lancaster House Agreement brought ceasefire to the Second Chimurenga — the tension between the Rhodesian State and the black nationalists. The Lancaster House Agreement brought an end to white minority rule and ushered in black majority rule. It nullified the 1965 Unilateral Declaration of Independence and gave black Zimbabweans the right to self-determination.

While auspicious, the Achilles’ heel of the Lancaster House Agreement was its elitist nature — it involved compromises between the British government, the Rhodesian white oligarchy, and a coterie of black nationalists. For example, Mugabe et al agreed to postpone land reform in exchange for free and fair elections.

Although there was euphoria at independence, attempts at establishing a social contact in the 1980 elections plunged the country onto the precipice of a full civil war that would have torn the inchoate country apart.

Not everyone was prepared to bestow legitimacy to the new ruling party and State led by the late Robert Mugabe.

Part of the “blame goes to the colonial State. In its “divide-and-conquer” strategy, the colonial State had violently fragmented African society.

The ethnicisation of the African natives meant that some people gave allegiance to an ethnicity rather than to a State.

I have some problems with the word “tribe” because of its racist and colonial connotations. In the mainstream media and literature, the word is often reserved to describe diversity in Africa in what will be called “ethnicity” elsewhere.

Anyways, the idea that one ethnicity would have preponderance and hegemony over another was intolerable to some people in 1980.

Decades of colonial fragmentation culminated in Gukurahundi — an ethnic confrontation between the Shona and Ndebele.

The fact that the embryonic nation State was beset with ethnic divisions, especially among the elite meant that attempts at establishing a social contract through the 1980 elections were doomed to fail. In its rudimentary form, the new nation State needed a social contract that was conscious of ethnic diversity.

The Unity Accord in 1987 was the second attempt at establishing a social contract in post-independent Zimbabwe. The Unity Accord brought ceasefire to the unrest in Matabeleland. Signed on December 22, 1987, the Unity Accord was an agreement between Zimbabwe’s two dominant nationalist movements, the Zimbabwe African National Union led by the late Robert Mugabe and the Zimbabwe African People’s Union led by the late Joshua Nkomo.

The agreement ended the ethnic violence that had bedevilled the country after the 1980 elections. The major contribution of the Unity Accord was national unity and peace.

As part of the agreement, Robert Mugabe announced an amnesty for all dissidents, Zanu PF and PF Zapu merged into one political party, thus giving birth to Zanu PF and Joshua Nkomo was elevated to Vice-President.

While the Unity Accord was a stepping stone in fostering national cohesion, it had major flaws. One of the flaws of the Unity Accord was its intolerance to political opposition.

One of the resolutions of the accord stated that Zanu PF shall seek to establish a one-party State in Zimbabwe. The idea of a one-party State was very tempting at the time.

Mugabe once said that: “The concept of setting a party merely to oppose and not to assist the government in being to govern on a national basis is repugnant to me.” Mugabe found the idea of opposition politics to be abhorrent.

Such distaste for opposition meant the social contract embodied by the Unity Accord was condemned to be short-lived.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the political, economic and social landscape in Zimbabwe began to change: the opposition to Mugabe’s rule became virulent, the economy began to plummet, and the war veterans confronted Mugabe with the land issue. Confronted by these challenges, Mugabe only sought to solidify his grip on power.

The death of Joshua Nkomo in 1999 was also a serious blow to the Unity Accord. The defeat of the 2000 constitutional referendum that was to create an imperial presidency and grant Mugabe’s government the right to seize and confiscate white-owned farms and appropriate them to black Zimbabweans without compensation meant the post-independence euphoria was over. The confiscation of white-owned land that ensued also meant the breaking of the Lancaster House Agreement.

The 2008 Global Political Agreement (GPA) was another attempt at establishing a social contract between the opposition led by the late Morgan Tsvangirai and Robert Mugabe’s Zanu PF.

One of the major assignments of the GPA was to implement democratic reforms that would do away with contested elections.

In hindsight, the GPA was a wasted opportunity. For the political opposition, I am sure the saying “fortune knocks once at least at every man's door” is what comes to mind when they contemplate their time in the government of national unity.

Once on the gravy train, Morgan Tsvangirai and company forgot about the ordinary people. Robert Mugabe dangled the carrot and they fell for it — hefty salaries and vehicles, just to mention a few. They forgot about the democratic reforms that they had been yearning for.

The GPA was also an elite contract between the ruling party and the opposition. The ordinary citizen was removed from the deliberations that gave birth to the government of national unity. Given the 2008 crippling hyperinflation, ordinary Zimbabweans just wanted the new government to restore economic normalcy. Because the citizens were too preoccupied with economic woes, there was no urgency to push for political reforms.

Democracy also assumes a well-informed and educated citizenry. The ordinary Zimbabwean had no clue what the GPA was about. Tsvangirai and Mugabe were not held accountable. It is not surprising that the GPA social contract was inefficacious and transitory.

When the 2013 election came, the opposition was caught in flagrante delicto, busy eating from the feeding trough oblivious to the impending doom. In 2013, the country had not made any progress towards ending undisputed elections.

When it became apparent the opposition had lost the election Morgan Tsvangirai called the result a “huge farce” and “null and void.” With that, Zimbabwe was back to default settings — division and polarisation.

Then came 2017. The military coup or military-assisted transition, depending on who you are talking to further polarisped the country. While chairman Mao Zedong’s axiom that “political power grows out of the barrel of the gun” lives to be true, alternatively all government legitimacy comes from the people. Any attempt at establishing a legitimate social contract will need to involve all the citizens. For that, Zimbabweans will need an independent and robust civil society to hold the elite accountable and cultivate democracy.

Innocent Mpoki is a Political Science PhD student at Boston College in the United States with a focus on African politics.

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