Ideological Silences in Zimbabwe's Political Discourse


IN previous submissions, I described Zimbabwe’s politics as driven by populism, one that has allowed content free phenomena to occur. Because of that, politics is nolonger guided by theory. It is also not premised on shared values and world views.

Zimbabwe politics elections 2023
Image - Encyclopedia Britannica 

This is what I characterise as ideological silences within our political discourse.

Political parties are no longer clear to the voters on what their preferred national direction is and what their central issue is, apart from prosperity rhetoric.

I will explore the ideological silences in our politics and give analysis ranging from political parties, policy and national history. Ideological silences manifest in policy inconsistency, ineffective approaches to international relations, discord within political parties and corruption.

For example, the fruitless re-engagement foreign policy by the Harare administration is in and of itself an agenda divorced from organic thought as it has led to massive ideological contradiction.

The Zanu PF government revived the problematic neoliberal austerity, in a bid to please the west while forgetting the very basis of our economic problems and their broader class implications.

Looking back at history

We study history because we have forgotten what we were taught, what we learnt and why not to kill each other. In fact we have forgotten our values as people, we have ignored our ideologies!

When Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Zapu) was formed in 1961, it was clearly a leftist movement guided by Leninist-Marxist theory. They were a communist party. This philosophical clarity was helpful in inspiring political direction. 

The Marxist philosophy was clear in their relation to the working class struggle, the anti-imperialism activism and social justice policy. In 1963, Zanu broke out and it was equally a leftist movement, despite falling into the snare of populism. In the 1980s, Zanu-PF pursued socialist policies, like Growth With Equity Policy (GWEP). During the liberation struggle both PF-Zapu and Zanu-PF prioritised free and fair elections, economic justice.

1987 PF-Zapu and Zanu-PF signed the unity Accord and joined forces to form Zanu PF, which by its constitution purports to be a scientific-socialist party.

Fast forward to the 1990s, Zanu PF took a different turn to neoliberalism and implementing the dictates of the Washington consensus, like reducing government intervention in the economy with less regulation on the markets, austerity through Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (Esap). 

This led to the workers’, students’ and other civic movements joining to form the MDC in 1999, which was also a socialist/social democratic party despite also being hijacked by capitalists and later being sunk by populism and moving into ideological deficiency.

As for the new Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC), the claim is that of a social democratic party but the praxis is far from it.

In CCC, populism speaks more while ideology speaks less and personalities dictate the conversation. The most obvious example is on party symbolism.

Reader, in politics everything matters including colours. The opposition party adopted yellow as their new color and in the corners of political thought we questioned the ideological standing of the party because of that. Yellow represents cowardice and is usually associated with right wing populism. The failure to really have this analysis before choice or not coming close to it rather shows that there is troubling silence on ideology. All these historical traces explain a terrible ideological silence within and among political parties.

How do we see them in government?

Power politics has been the main driver of Zimbabwe’s political discourse in recent years, with different factions within the ruling Zanu PF party jostling for supremacy. These power plays have often masked the deeper ideological divisions that are simmering below the surface.

For example, stayism and entitlement of the old guard killed sober discussion on generational renewal and inclusive politics, thereby resulting in bad politics bereft of any philosophy. Also a failed succession plan is the major contributor, after the long stay of Robert Mugabe, there was a generational collision that resulted in internal fights to succeed Mugabe.

This disunited the party and disconnected the young and old ideologically. Democracy from within the party was subverted and no truthful debate was held, in fact principles were set aside and the party lost its radar. At the core of these ideological silences are questions about the role of the state, the nature of democracy, and the appropriate balance between individual freedom and state control.

These are questions that go to the very heart of what kind of society Zimbabwe should be. One of the most striking ideological silences within Zimbabwe’s political discourse is the lack of serious discussion about the role of the state in fostering economic growth. 

The country’s experiment with socialist policies in the early years of its independence was a failure, leaving Zimbabwe with a legacy of economic instability and social inequality. Despite this failure, there has been little serious discussion about alternative policies for economic growth, beyond a vague commitment to “modernising” the economy. 

Another ideological silence in Zimbabwe’s political discourse is the lack of any real debate about democratic governance. Zimbabwe has been plagued by accusations of electoral fraud and political violence, and yet there has been little discussion about reforming the country’s electoral system or promoting democratic institutions more broadly.

Without a serious debate about democratic governance, Zimbabwe will struggle to achieve the stability and legitimacy that are necessary for sustained economic growth and social progress.

To add more, Zimbabwe’s political discourse has been marked by a lack of any serious discussion about the appropriate balance between individual freedom and state control. Zimbabwe’s recent history is marked by the excesses of state power, with the government using violence and intimidation to maintain control over the population.

Silences within Zanu PF

It is an expectation that because of their history as a movement of veterans, the ruling party should lead by example. Zanu PF, Zimbabwe’s ruling party, has been in power for over four decades and has a long history of political and economic policies that have shaped the country’s trajectory.

However, despite this, the party has been accused of ideological silences, a lack of clear policy direction, and internal contradictions that undermine its ability to govern effectively..

One of the main criticisms of Zanu PF is that of its incoherence in ideology and policy platform. The party has been accused of being driven more by personalities than principles, being more focused on power retention than on addressing the country’s pressing issues. For example, Dr Alex Magaisa once argued that Zanu PF’s “ideological offerings have been rather thin, with slogans like ‘land reform, empowerment, and indigenisation’ often touted as all-encompassing solutions to complex problems” (Magaisa, 2016).

Ideological bankruptcy has led to internal contradictions and confusion within Zanu PF itself. For instance, the party claims to be socialist and anti-imperialist, but has implemented neoliberal policies, such as privatisation and austerity measures. This discrepancy has caused tension between the party’s hardliners, who want to maintain a more populist, anti-capitalist stance, and the more pragmatic elements, who favour market-driven policies and engagement with the West.

As political scientist Brian Raftopoulos notes: “Zanu PF has never resolved its internal contradictions, which are driven by tensions between different factions and interests within the party, and by the challenge of maintaining a populist, nationalist narrative that is increasingly out of sync with the realities of government”. (Raftopoulos, 2019).

The ruling party’s rhetoric around democracy and human rights has become hollower as it has consolidated its grip on power and suppressed dissent.

The 2018 elections, which were marred by allegations of vote-rigging and violence, were a stark illustration of this trend. Political analyst Ibbo Mandaza argues that “Zanu PF’s lack of ideology has been replaced by a crude authoritarianism that is less about promoting the interests of the people and more about maintaining the interests of the party and its political elite”. (Mandaza, 2018).

Therefore , Zanu PF’s lack of coherent ideology and policy direction has been a major obstacle to its effectiveness as a governing party. The internal contradictions and authoritarian tendencies that have emerged as a result of this ideological vacuum have further eroded the party’s legitimacy and ability to inspire confidence among ordinary Zimbabweans. While the party has shown some signs of adapting to the changing realities of Zimbabwe’s political and economic landscape, it has yet to develop a cohesive and consistent set of values and goals that can guide its decision-making in a more sustainable and accountable way.

Silences within the opposition

Because the ruling party has failed, we expect the opposition in all its formations to at least provide an alternative or a logical correction but the case in our country is different. Comparatively, I envy South African parties. Their debate is always premised on ideology and guided by values and theory. They have an admirable clarity on issues and you can identify them on the basis of their discourse. It is easy to tell that DA are liberals and their policies pronounce that, the EFF are socialist- Mugabeists and their debate pronounces such.

It is also easy to trace the ideological derailment of ANC as socialist/ social democrats and the criticism from EFF make it clear. The incoherence of thought within the main opposition has lowered the bar in terms of what an alternative to the ruling party would look like.

Content deficiencies are highly noticeable within the discourse of main opposition. Apart from exposing failures of Zanu PF, the chat on alternative ideas is still to be explained explicitly.

There are a number of different reasons why such silences exist. One of the most obvious is that many opposition parties are comprised of disparate groups with very different political ideologies. Some are relatively liberal, others are more conservative, and still others fall somewhere in between. As a result, it can be difficult for these parties to come together and agree on a coherent ideological framework. The worst part is in some opposition parties, the conversation on ideology is not deliberate. Such an example is the LEAD party led by Linda Masarira.

It is hard to really identify their guiding theory as to whether they are socialist, nationalist or liberal . It is not only for the sake that I wish to see more leftist political parties but at least to understand their praxis, and debate with them on that basis. Political ideology makes it easy for the public to know what to expect from them and even vote with an informed view.

Finally, there is also the possibility that opposition parties are hesitant to embrace a clear ideological position because they fear alienating potential supporters. They may believe that by appealing to a broad base of voters and avoiding divisive ideological debates, they will stand a better chance of winning elections.

Whatever the reasons for the ideological silences in Zimbabwe’s opposition parties, the consequences are clear. Without a clear and compelling vision for the future of the country, opposition parties struggle to gain traction with voters.

They may appeal to certain groups or exploit local grievances, but they often struggle to articulate a broader vision for the country that can generate broad-based support. In order to overcome these challenges, opposition parties need to be more intentional in their efforts to develop a clear and compelling ideological vision.

This may require investing in research and development necessary to articulate a coherent set of ideas, as well as, building institutions and structures that can sustain a longer-term commitment to ideological development. It may also require a willingness to engage in the difficult conversations necessary to build consensus around a shared vision for the country.

Ultimately, the ideological silences politics have led to great political degeneration and impeded change that is desperately needed. The ruling party needs to relocate its guiding philosophy , opposition should start to be intentional about the same .

*Kanhenga is a public intellectual and leader of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Monitor Platform.

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