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Zimbabwe: The Takeover

The attitudes that decry the value of a secret ballot spring from the precolonial traditions of village life, by whose norms 90 percent of the people, in Zimbabwe and indeed in most of sub-Saharan Africa, still live. In the old days the Shona consisted of a series of chieftainships, about 250 or so, more or less autonomous, with no overall secular authority, very loosely bound by ties of language and custom and by some widely recognized spirit mediums through whom the chiefs related to the people’s ancestors. Roughly similar systems prevailed in many parts of Africa. The immediate society in which people lived was self-contained, homogeneous, well-balanced, and often democratic in the sense that important decisions were taken by consensus among village elders, after discussion lasting sometimes for days and even weeks.

In the end, everyone would agree: if by chance someone did not, he would probably be chased out or might even form another chieftainship: land in those days, before the white man came, was not so scarce. A man’s family allegiance, his economic and social connections, were probably the major factor governing decisions: how could there ever be any secrecy about that? Everyone knew where everyone stood, who was related to whom, and eventually consensus would prevail. “The idea of a decision being made by fifty-one votes to forty-nine is not good for us Africans,” a black headmaster told me. People, families, wife with husband, vote together. “We vote as a community, not as individuals.”

And individuals can the more easily be submerged for the common good, “individual rights” sacrificed to the values of society as a whole. In Shona society, the chief is very much an arbiter, a reflector of popular feeling, not a dictator. He must pay heed both to his contemporaries and to the spirits. But after the necessary consultations, he must be obeyed. The ZANU-PF central committee has been likened to a typical Shona decision-making body, with Mugabe as the arbiter-chief.

So there is no easy acceptance of countervailing institutions, whose independence could be seen as disruptive and subversive. The party will be expected to control the labor unions, the police, the army, the press, the educational establishment, the law. Even church appointments will probably take political considerations into account.

Take the Tekere trial. Whatever the deliberations of the white judge bred in the traditions of dry Western legality, to most Zimbabweans what happened to Tekere would merely reflect how far the will of the new society, as interpreted by the party, would prevail over old white-dominated institutions. Many central committee members were angry that the trial was held at all. Whatever the outcome, most people were bound to view the court’s verdict as political. For them the issue was simple: were Mugabe and the party pro-Tekere or not?

Mugabe’s own feelings, once again, seemed mixed. One part of him likes the idea of an independent, Western-style judiciary. He himself appointed a white chief justice who, Mugabe knows, will not bend before a political wind. After Tekere’s acquittal, Mugabe stated that the judge (not the chief justice) who had argued for Tekere’s conviction was of “high professional standing and importance.” But another part of Mugabe warns him that it may be foolishly liberal to defer to capricious Western-style judicial niceties. During the liberation war, Mugabe’s party dissidents in Mozambique, the guerrilla haven, were incarcerated for months in underground earthen pits.

In the upshot of Tekere’s trial, the court’s decision neatly demonstrated the “new reality,” to use the current euphemism which denotes that some people are a little more equal before the law than others, just as (different) people were in Smith’s day. The judge ruled Tekere guilty, but the two court assessors, one black and the other of mixed race (and appointed, incidentally, during the Smith era), overruled the judge, although their main role is to advise on points of fact rather than on interpretation of law. (And everyone, including the accused, agreed that Tekere had indeed murdered the farmer.) But the two assessors insisted that an extremely loosely framed law invented by Smith to allow his ministers to circumvent existing laws should be invoked in Tekere’s favor. The successful and far-fetched use of a legal loophole, by inadvertent courtesy of Smith, splendidly illustrated the new order of the day, while still paying formal heed to the trappings of the old judiciary. Upon his release, Tekere roundly abused the judge, called for revolution, and announced: “Now I’m on the loose.” In any case, if Tekere had been found guilty it is very probable he would have received a presidential pardon.

The rural kangaroo courts to which the black villagers have grown accustomed over the years of the war are far better understood than white man’s justice, as they see it, far away in the towns. Trials of alleged witches also became more common in the war. People are judged for what they seem to represent, not for what they can be proved to have done. In short, people can be condemned if they are felt to be out of tune with the prevalent mood of society. It is “people’s justice.”

Such social values are necessarily conformist and authoritarian, as government, too, is expected to be. Another indicator is the readiness of the new authorities to invoke Smith’s old laws: to banish Lt. Gen. Peter Walls, for instance. The general’s remarks on British television—suggesting that Mugabe’s election results were unfair and that they should have been nullified—were outrageous in view of Walls’s position as head of the army directly responsible to Mugabe. He was certain to incur Mugbabe’s displeasure and to provoke dismissal. But he had, in fact, broken no law. Banishment from his country of birth, despite the amnesty that had been ordained for all participants in the war, was in ugly imitation of legal tactics used previously by Smith. Similarly, as in Smith’s day, the detention of political opponents in due course is to be expected: already some of Nkomo’s colleagues are behind bars. The death penalty for murder will be maintained. (In many African countries it is mandatory for armed robbery.)

The lack of rancor toward the person of Smith also fits the pattern: I often feel that many black Zimbabweans believe the white fox did only what is expected from the chief of a rival tribe: nothing wrong in that, perhaps something to be admired. His techniques are there for emulation. Contrary to what was often believed in the West, Smith was opposed by the blacks not, essentially, because he was illiberal and undemocratic, though blacks were naturally happy for diplomatic reasons to use Western liberal arguments against him. He was opposed because he personified a conquering, unsympathetic, alien culture. Zimbabwe (and most of Africa) is an unsentimental world where liberalism has little place. In the post-colonial age, the whites who tend to feel most at home are ruthless or cynical businessmen or fervent ideologues, both of whom find authoritarianism easy to accept.

In some respects these traditions are inimical to the egalitarianism expressed by Mugabe and his colleagues in exile. To be certain, there will be a genuine ideological debate in many fields—over the question of agricultural policy and land resettlement, for instance. But at the same time, the traditional need to preserve as wide a consensus as possible, to embrace as broad a spectrum of society, generally produces a system of jobbery: people get placed in high positions partly for family or clan affiliations.

Key men are thus endowed with rights of patronage. This is already visible in many of Zimbabwe’s ministries. Behind ministerial doors, there are already queues of petitioners, often friends of friends of the family, needing jobs and help. Ministerial privilege is accumulating, despite the egalitarian rhetoric. That is not necessarily reprehensible. Most ministers seem now to have smart cars and fine houses in the plushest former white suburbs—but some of their houses are permanently packed with guests. Ministers are expected to be generous. (Tom Mboya, the Kenyan politician, was paying the school fees of 300 children when he was assassinated.) People also expect ministers to address themselves to small problems: when four people were recently discharged in Bulawayo, it was apparently incumbent on the labor minister to fly down for the day to sort the problem out himself. People like the personal touch.

So the transition from village society to one-party state has some logic and merit. Authoritarian consensus government did not work badly in the village. Lack of technology and a predominantly subsistence agriculture made time no object. Political issues could be lengthily discussed. With the evolution into the modern state, the one-party system seems the best way for the “big man” to forge a consensus and dispense patronage and rough justice as fairly as possible across the tribe and—if he can—beyond it. Especially when a brutal civil war has only just ended, petty party politicking, Western-style, seems a divisive waste of time.

But of course the one-party system has disadvantages. The party itself, once people acknowledge its power, usually becomes moribund through lack of competition. Wholesome small-time village patronage and the recognition of family ties can, on a national scale, easily develop into vast corruption. The endless search for consensus often means the retention of incompetents in high position. The time spent by ministers attending to personal detail demanded by personal patronage brings inefficiency. Civil services often grow fast (especially when an array of para-governmental organizations spring up alongside), becoming constituencies of their own, soon to be enmeshed in a bureaucratic tangle.

Above all, “participatory one-party democracy,” to use the phrase of Kenneth Kaunda, president of the classic politically moribund one-party state of Zambia, invariably means that decisions are imposed from the top downward. If they are lucky, the people have a little say in the implementation of policy, but none in its formulation. There is no room for free-spirited dissenters, except in jail. Furthermore, the patronage gives rise to great sycophancy. People become exceedingly deferential to authority. The press is quick to flatter and self-censor. The national leader becomes untouchable. No African leader of a one-party state (or of a multi-party one, either) has ever been peacefully dismissed from office by the people.

An increasing number of African political thinkers, however, are seeing the one-party state as a post-colonial transitional phase and are trying to construct, instead, a model that allows greater freedoms without precipitating chaos or tribal free-for-alls. It is notable that there are now more multi-party states in Africa than there have been for a decade: ten today (eleven until a few weeks ago, when Upper Volta’s risky multi-party experiment ended in a military coup). Some, like Senegal, Morocco, and Egypt, are what I would call “closed” multi-party systems, strictly circumscribed by national leaders who brook little opposition in important matters and would certainly never be supplanted against their own will.^2 Even in more open multi-party systems, it is hard ever to envisage a national leader allowing himself to be voted out. Being voted in is another matter. But what is surely healthy is that even a limited multi-party state tends to allow a much livelier discussion of national issues and greater freedom of expression.

It is also notable that after the failure of so many collectivist economic experiments, there is a trend in favor of economic liberalism in Africa, which in turn favors investment from the West; and it is significant that, while one-party states can tilt ideologically in any direction, all multi-party systems without exception are both pro-capitalist and politically fairly liberal by third world standards.

By far the most important political experiment in Africa is taking place today in Nigeria. It is still a patronage society, with gross inequalities, ingrained corruption, and fierce divisions along ethnic lines. There is not even a nationwide socialist party. Traditions of patronage are so well established that poor Yoruba invariably vote for rich Yoruba, poor Ibo for rich Ibo, and so on. Under a presidential system, the president also has powers of patronage and the mighty status of an African superchief.

But power at the center is checked by federal balances. There are many articulate, educated people; institutions outside government have lively traditions of independence; there is an exuberantly free press. The great Nigerian paradox is that, in order to hold power at the center of the federation, power must also be devolved to cater for ethnic and local loyalties: to form some consensus that may bind Nigerians together, much allowance for the expression of local allegiances is being given. Of nineteen Nigerian state governments within the federation, nine are hostile to the president. And, by a complex set of electoral rules, the president has to prove considerable support outside his home state in order to be elected in the first place.

The Nigerian experiment is the most imaginative attempt to date to reconcile the fact of ethnicity with the need for central direction. No one is sure it will work; no one can guarantee that the army will not one day return. But after a year in office, President Shehu Shagari is proceeding well. There is room for creative dissent. In theory there is room for individual rights.

Zimbabwe’s present constitution will not last. Nor did those who wrote it expect it to. The phase of one-party rule is nigh. The faster it comes the more the risk of violence and the heavier the authoritarianism needed to contain it. But political systems in Africa are changing. Zimbabwe, after all, is only just beginning its quest for peace and progress.

Nor would it be wise to expect Zimbabwe to be truly “non-racial.” The black people, molested by colonialism, are today remarkably tolerant toward their former white rulers. But whites neither understand nor accept the values of the new dominant political and social culture. Most will emigrate, once they can get their money out. A few will numb themselves to the new reality, hoping to enjoy the high standard of living and pleasant climate, but in spirit they will generally remain apart from their black compatriots. Even among liberal whites, grudgingly admitting their irrelevance, there is astonishingly little social contact with blacks beyond work.

Mugabe has shown skill and humanity: he has neither panicked nor censured the whites. He has won greater control over the guerrillas than I expected. Against my own dire predictions, he has come to power not just by the barrel of the gun but by the ballot box, before chaos engulfed the country. He is a clever man who means to do the best for his people. But he will not feel that he has the room to defer to democratic ideals as defined in the West.

December 29, 1980

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