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Groupthink in Zanu PF is out of this world

By Mike Bambo

The decision making process is such an important aspect in business, as well as in political groupings. At a family level or even at an individual level, decision making is so important that much thought needs to be done in order to make the right decision.

Robert Mugabe with Zanu-PF ministers
Robert Mugabe with Zanu-PF ministers

Decisions in politics play a major role and have been discussed in detail using the groupthink model because they may affect the country and its people, or its relations with other countries.

In order not to arrive at faulty decisions, leaders normally seek the advice of their followers, and in some advanced societies, leaders have a decision making panel or made up of lawyers and other experts.

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Be that as it may, the purpose is to make the right decision that does not result in consequences in the near future. Although this might be the case, some leaders have grown so powerful that they dictate the process of decision making and in the process “force” their followers to follow and support it, even if they do not agree with the decision made.

Examples which I think groupthink prevailed in ZANU PF; the land reform program, indigenization, successive election riggings, murambatsvina, Look East Policy, beating of people, arresting and jailing opponents without evidence, failure for leadership renewal etc.

Groupthink is a term that was first coined by Irving Janis in 1972 to refer to the narrowing of thought by a group of people, leading to the perception that there is only one correct answer, in which to even suggest alternatives becomes a sign of disloyalty (Janis, 1972).

In 1982, Janis defined groupthink as a deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment that results from in-group pressures (Glaser, 2005).

Janis developed groupthink model after studying a number of group decisions made by political leaders that proved to be terribly wrong. The model is based on the premise that consensus-seeking becomes the dominant and most important focus of the group decision, thereby resulting in faulty decision making in a bid to maintain the group cohesiveness.

The theory is based on human social behavior in which, maintaining group cohesiveness and solidarity is felt as more important than considering the facts in a realistic manner (Kowart, 2002). A person would conform to a group decision even if the person thinks otherwise, because of the need not to be regarded as a rebel.

Groups affected by groupthink ignore alternatives and tend to take irrational actions that dehumanize other groups. Normally groups are supposed to solicit the ideas of members in order to make important or complex decisions, through provision of differing views or solutions to those problems.

While group members help in bringing up new ideas and also act as error-correcting individuals, their purposefulness or usefulness may not help when new perspectives are rejected in favor of faulty decisions that bind the group together (Hart, 1998).

Janis (1972) noted that an individual who dares tell the truth that is against the mentality of the group may face backlash from other group members for deviating from the group consensus, such that the individual ended up joining the group against his will.

Mavhaire comes to mind in this regard. When suggested that Mugabe must go, he was suspended from the party. When Mutinhiri expressed disappointment about the goings on in her party, ZANU PF, she was expelled, and was on the verge of losing her farm.

Just as groups can work to promote effective thinking/decision making, the same processes which enhance the group’s operation can backfire and lead to disastrous results.

A group is especially vulnerable to groupthink when its members are similar in background, when the group is insulated from outside opinions, and when there are no clear rules for decision making.

Poor group decision- making is most likely when group cohesion is based on the personal attractiveness of group members (McCauley, 1998), rather than on the objective nature of the event.

How groupthink works (the ZANU PF way)

Janis (1972) identified six points on how groupthink works, or how groups make faulty decision making. The first aspect is that the group’s discussions are limited to a few alternative courses of action (often only two), without a survey of the full range of alternatives.

This might be compared to the former ruling party in Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwe African national Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) who when faced with dwindling support base, thus being threatened in power ended up “buying votes” through giving people land belonging to whites.

Faced with no alternative to recruiting potential supporters back to ZANU-PF, the former ruling party took land belonging to whites, and gave it to blacks. In the process of taking the land, people who ‘stood’ in their way were victimized or killed.

The result was that those who were mostly connected politically ended up having more than one farm, and most were not even competent farmers. The manner in which land reform was carried out was haphazard, and caused the continuous economic malaise we find ourselves in.

The second aspect is that the group fails to reexamine the course of action initially preferred by the majority of group members from the standpoint of the non-obvious risks and drawbacks that had not been considered when it was originally evaluated (Janis, 1972).

ZANU-PF had been advised by the civil society against taking land by force, but to engage in a systematic land redistribution exercise. Even the MDC advised the government to do in a systematic way within the confines of the law.

They were labeled enemies of the state, bent on destroying the sovereignty of the country due to their connection with whites. They ignored it and the result was chaotic land grabbing exercise that resulted in the beating and killing of people, especially those who resisted or stood in the way of ZANU-PF land grabbers.

The third aspect is that group members neglect courses of action initially evaluated as unsatisfactory by the majority of the group, but they spend little or no time discussing whether they have overlooked non-obvious gain.

It is believed that some members in ZANU-PF wanted the government to engage Britain over the land issue since they had promised through the Lancaster House conference that they would fund land reform exercise. The core group of ZANU-PF believed it was running out of time, hence needed to act soon, so there was no consultation to be done.

Fourth, the members make little or no attempt to obtain and use information from experts who can supply sound estimates of gains and losses to be expected from alternative courses of action (Janis, 1972).

The fifth point which contributes to groups making faulty decisions is when selective bias is shown in the way the group reacts to factual information and relevant judgments from experts. The group may show only concern to facts and opinions that do support their initially preferred policy.

ZANU-PF took this route when they ignored all expert advice as they stuck to their initial position of land redistribution even though advice from experts had shown that the results would be disastrous.

Sixth, the members spend little time deliberating how the chosen policy might be hindered by bureaucratic inertia or sabotaged by political opponents; consequently, they fail to work out contingency plans.

When ZANU-PF decided to embark on land reform program, there was no policy framework, and people grabbed land individually without any clear policy to regularize land acquisition.

When the party realized that the process was fraught with irregularities, they had no contingency plan, and no one knew how to stop people from grabbing land without official permission. This is why the land reform process has not normalized after almost a decade since its inception.

Three general problems seem to be at work: over-estimation of group power and morality, closed-minded-ness, and pressures toward uniformity (Janis, 1982). ZANU-PF came to the conclusion that land reform process could not wait any longer, and gave the justification that the land was stolen from their forefathers in the first place.

They felt morally right to take what they said rightly belonged to them through whatever any means necessary. To this end, they believed they were perfecting a “historically wronged” land ownership. ZANU-PF ignored warnings of poverty, and those who thought otherwise were labeled “enemies of the state bent on ensuring the re-colonization of Zimbabwe.”

There is also pressure for uniformity, as certain amount of self-censorship occurs. Individuals who might have questions or divergent views would keep those views to themselves, thus results in the lack of dissent, in which Janis calls it an “illusion of unanimity.”

If for some reason any difference does occur, group pressure is applied to bring the dissident into line. ZANU-PF had in its ranks, Professor Jonathan Moyo, who emerged as “self-appointed mindguard” who took it upon himself to protect the group and the leader from information that is problematic or contradictory to the group’s cohesiveness, view, and/or decisions.

He controlled what was churned out by the only television station in the country, and also what the state newspapers could write on. Now that he is back in the ministry, sounds disaster for all those who still listen to state owned media.

(In the next article, I am going to articulate ways in which ZANU PF could avoid dangers of groupthink)

Mike Bambo is a student in the US and can be contacted on [email protected]