Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Voting with their feet – Zimbabwe’s youth refuse to buy into the illusion of democracy

There is a conundrum in current Zimbabwe that evokes Mahmood Mamdani’s seminal analysis of the strategy of colonial rule, the division of the colonial states into the rulers and the ruled, or “citizens” and “subjects”.

Zimbabwe's liberation movements fought to ensure that all those living in the then-Rhodesia would cease to be “subjects” and become “citizens”.

The colonial state, amongst many other forms of discrimination against the Black members of Rhodesian society, deprived them of the vote, probably the most fundamental way in which people move from “subject” to “citizen”. The movements' strongest refrain was “one man, one vote”: all would be citizens. and, derivatively, all would have access to land, resources, and public goods and services. 

So, how does it now look from the perspective of 2014, thirty-four years into independence?

Zimbabwe as a "predatory state" with a narrow citizen base

Zimbabwe is now described with considerable validity as a “predatory state” rather than the democracy for which a civil war had to be fought. That is, a state in which there are clear “insiders”, rewarded and given preferential access to public goods and services, and much more beyond, and “outsiders” are kept in their place by a variety of repressive institutions and policies.

One political party - the Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU PF) - has captured virtually the entire state to its own benefit, and the benefits flow only to “citizens”, narrowly defined as those that overtly support it. This small example illustrates the scale of the issue.

It is well-nigh impossible for anyone not belonging to ZANU PF to obtain a job as a civil servant, except in some narrow professional areas such as education or health. Even then, it is abundantly clear that a teacher, for example, had better evince support for ZANU PF, or be overtly apolitical. Teachers that violate this prescription can expect short shrift come the elections

In 2013, nearly 75% of Zimbabwe's budget paid for the salaries of about 290,000 civil servants, and about half of those are from the security services. These are the “citizens”, while the remaining 12 million Zimbabweans are still cast as “subjects”: despite paying taxes, they are compelled to obey draconian laws, and still not allowed to vote freely for the political party of their choice. Even if they do vote, they are very unlikely to see their vote count: where elections are not won by ZANU PF through political violence, as was the case in 2002 and 2008, they are won through intimidation and vote-rigging,  as happened in 2005 and 2013.

When so much of the fiscus supports the “citizens”, narrowly defined as ZANU PF supporters, the remainder of the country is increasingly reliant on the remittances from the diaspora, which are less a “resource curse” than a possible source of resistance to the partiality of ZANU PF.

The legacy of the liberation struggle still sustains ZANU PF but for how long?

Heroe's Acre, Harare. Credit: Gary Bembridge (Flickr) CC BY 2.0
What lies behind this façade of democracy is the “invisible power” of the liberation struggle, and the failure of ZANU PF (and most other Southern African liberation movements) to transform from military-party complexes into modern political parties.

This is amply described by contemporary political commentators, such as Christopher Clapham, who demonstrate the intractable nature of liberation movements.

However, underpinning this is the more general force deriving from “invisible power”, the “psychological and ideological boundaries of participation”, as John Gaventa puts it in “Finding the Spaces for Change: A Power Analysis...”. It is the psychological fixedness that underpins the ideology of the entitlement of liberation movements to eternal political power.

What does this have to do with the youth?

The ideology behind the invisible power is that only those that fought for the liberation of Zimbabwe are “real” citizens, as might be those that become proxy liberators, the young that support ZANU PF. The rest are those without “totems”, that is, the urban youth with no connections to a rural home, who can even be denied the rights to burial in a rural home if deemed politically unacceptable; “sellouts”, the rural youth who don’t support ZANU PF; and all are mere subjects.

Scarcely surprising that nearly one million Zimbabweans under the age of 30 years were not registered voters in 2013: they voted with their feet, and not merely because it was too hard for them to get registered, which was also the case.

With nearly 70% of Zimbabwe’s population under the age of 30 according to the 2012 Census, the memories and cachet of “liberation theology” are going to be hard to sustain in the future, worsened probably by the inability of the state to provide public goods and services to both citizens and “subjects”, or to offset the undermining of its clientalism by remittances from the diaspora.

Thus, subjugation is not likely to last forever: the only worry is how will it end – with the ballot or the bullet? And will the promise of the new Zimbabwe constitution foster the use of the ballot if the institutions (the courts, etc.) which must implement the constitution remain under narrow, partisan control? After all, a constitution is only as good as its implementing institutions, just as a country is as democratic as its citizens are allowed to be.

About the author
Antony Reeler is a Senior Researcher at the Research and Advocacy Unit. His main interests are transitional justice, governance, and active citizenship for women. He has been working with Marjoke Oosterom at IDS.  

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