DEMOCRACY continues to elude the Zimbabwean body politic with the two main political parties showing beyond any reasonable doubt that dissenting voices will not be suffered gladly. Convergence, not divergence, has apparently been the preferred mode of operation across the political divide, with democracy emerging as the unfortunate casualty.
The use of violence, seclusion, expulsion and other punitive and victimisation tactics against those who dare to think or propose differently have littered the Zimbabwean political landscape over the past few years and such practice have grown in intensity and frequency with time. This has seen the country slide further and further away from democracy, an ideal that many nations have for years striven for.
Both the ruling ZANU-PF and the main opposition, the Morgan Tsvangirai-led Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T) have been just as guilty in flouting democratic ideals.
Last year, the country watched perplexedly as Tsvangirai who had received a letter from one of his lieutenants — party deputy treasurer, Elton Mangoma — advising him to consider stepping aside to make way for new leadership, resisted the call and in what was suspected to be a mobilised effort from the top, Mangoma, the bearer of the unpalatable news, ended up suffering a mob beating for expressing an alternative view.
The incident marked the genesis of inner turmoil for the democratic movement, which rocked the party till its split in April of the same year.
A month ago, the then Vice President of the country and of the ruling ZANU-PF, Joice Mujuru, and her purported followers suffered exclusion and ouster from the party structures and government for suspected machinations for an alternative leadership.
Ironically, in both the MDC-T and ZANU-PF instances cited above Mangoma and Mujuru were, by and large accused of not being constitutional, or democratic, by not waiting out the terms or due selection and election processes of their parties.
Mangoma was accused of jumping the gun by not observing the constitution of the party which provided that election of leaders would be at congress; in much the same way Mujuru was accused of jumping the gun by wishing to ouster a democratically elected hardly half way through his new term.
As such, dissenting views, whether real or suspected, were thwarted without tolerance.
In both parties the development of events saw constitutions and policies amended to bestow power on the incumbents thereby entrenching threatened powers beyond the touch of reforming detractors. In ZANU-PF a congress, which is supposed to be an elective event, became only endorsive as the right to vote dissipated like dew on a warm morning.
The MDC-T took the assault on democracy a notch higher this week when Tsvangirai dealt a blow to freedom of expression when he ordered that all members of the party desist from participating in social network groups
“Any Whatsapp group administered by anyone who is an MDC member without exception, be shut down with immediate effect. All members of the party must exit all groups on their own will with immediate effect…” Tsvangirai said in a letter to all party members in a letter dated February 4, 2015.
At a time when Whatsapp — a cross-platform mobile messaging application which allows people to exchange messages without having to pay for SMS — has caught fire and drastically increased the sharing of information and the participation of masses countrywide in conversations and debates on issues and matters of concern to them in an inclusive manner that is very citizen friendly — Tsvangirai is seeking to throw spanners in such democratic works, halt and curtail freedom of expression.
However, this is by far not the only affront to freedom of expression in the country. The very fact that electronic communication by whatever device can be intercepted by authorities in the country has in and of itself rendered citizens not as free to communicate as they would like to be.
Yet Zimbabwe would like to be counted amongst emerging democracies.
Hardly, says Grace Kwinjeh, opposition politician based in Belgium.
“Zimbabwe is in a real quandary — the two main political parties are in a mess,” Kwinjeh said.
Zimbabwe Democratic Institute chairperson, Rashweat Mukundu concurs.
“Democracy is in peril in Zimbabwe largely because of its undermining at a political party level,” Mukundu said. “Zimbabwe is drifting away from democratic practice mostly because the political class is increasingly undemocratic and the same undemocratic practices are permeating the state. The ZANU-PF way of doing things which is guided democracy and reverence of the top leader has permeated all other parties the MDCs included.”
Political analyst, Shakespear Hamauswa, is similarly persuaded.
“(Recent) intra-party developments, (have shown) clear fascist tendencies that are in any case anathema to democratic values. There is a perceptible order within Zimbabwean politics where the leaders of any organisation including burial societies resort to fascist practices when their positions are challenged,” Hamauswa said.
He added, “Democracy is a political dispensation which all nations aspire, though it comes with its own short falls with regard to political developments. If we take democracy to be a system where leaders are chosen by the people, and where all those who have reached the age to vote are able to participate in elections and in government and where leaders are accountable to the people underpinned by the observance of rule of law, independent media and independent judiciary, then I think Zimbabwe is now sliding back to the pre independence era where rights were accorded according to (certain discriminative aspects).”
Zimbabwe is a pretend-democracy, said Dewa Mavhinga, senior researcher for Southern Africa at Human Rights Watch.
“At best, Zimbabwe is a pseudo-democracy, that is, a system of government that only pretends to be a democracy, or is a democracy only on paper, while in practice it grants no real empowerment to the people to elect their leaders freely,” explained Mavhinga.
Hailed as one of the best in the world and the best the country has had to day, the Zimbabwean Constitution does, in essence, embrace democracy as an orientation is aspires to but sadly fails to measure up to.
“Zimbabwe is a democracy as far as the Constitution and laws say so. In practice Zimbabwe is hardly a democracy as such laws are not respected, rights suppressed and accountability ignored,” Mukundu said.
“For Zimbabweans life is hard,” said Kwinjeh. “Repression is real, arbitrary arrests, torture and so forth, continue with impunity.
The country’s Constitution on paper embodies democratic values such as the right of every person of legal age of majority to vote freely, to choose a government of their choice, a party of their choice; the right to dignity; free expression; the right to assemble, among others. The charter also extols democratic ideals such as access to information; press freedom; among a host of others.
But, pointed out Mukundu, “Facets of democracy are deployed selectively and to serve partisan interests, yet democracy must be painful even for those in power.”
The west, which has sought to position itself as the “righteous” custodians and poster countries for democracy, though they have their own shortcomings, have repeatedly ranked Zimbabwe very lowly on indices that measure human rights.
In fact, since the early 2000s, smart sanctions have been slapped on a number of Zimbabwe’s political elite for, in part, non-observance of the rule of law and tramping on the rights of the majority. Although the country has seen a slackening in the sanctions, considerable restrictions still exist on some ruling party bigwigs, including President Mugabe and his wife Grace.
But the journey to the much idealised democracy is not altogether hopeless, said Mavhinga.
“In light of the new Constitution and the mushrooming of political parties, and the active debate on good governance and democratic values, it appears Zimbabwe is on its way to gradual transformation into a democracy. The hope is in the existence of key national documents like the constitution which openly affirm democratic values and also in young generations who are exposed to functional democracies in other countries who will soon be Zimbabwe’s new leaders,” Mavhinga said.
According to Mukundu, it is important to strengthen the countervailing state institutions such as Parliament and the judiciary as well as insist on constitutionalism. Citizens must be supported to challenge and participate in governance at a lower level, in order to entrench accountability and transparency and hence build democracy from the lower levels, Mukundu believes.
“Hope lies in citizens or communities taking the mettle of democracy and fighting on their own, from the ward, kraal head, street, district, province and to the national,” Mukundu said. “There is need for citizens to be organised to demand accountability and take action be it litigation, boycotts against the corrupt in schools, councils, churches, social clubs, Parliament, and Executive. Zim citizens are equally complicit as everyone looks up to themselves and see undemocratic practices as opportunities and not undermining our collective good as a society.”