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Zimbabwe needs a new political culture

By Tendai Kwari

Political development refers to the underlying rules by which we can organise ourselves. It is change over time in political institutions, which is the evolution of the state, rule of law and democratic accountability.

Tendai Kwari
Tendai Kwari

Changes in political institutions must be understood in the context of economic growth, social mobilisation, and the power of ideas concerning justice and legitimacy.

Social mobilisation concerns the rise of new social groups over time and changes in the nature of the relationship between and among these groups.

Our youth is a new political social group rising today in Zimbabwe. They are conscious of themselves as a people with shared interests or identities. One of the main distinctive features of our youth is that they are a well-educated people with no job opportunities in Zimbabwe.

Most of my political associates are the disillusioned, highly-educated, displaced and unemployed youths of Zimbabwe scattered in the diaspora. We share a lot of ideas on various social networking platforms.

One major issue that keeps coming up in our discussions is that of good governance. In simple terms, governance is the system or manner of government or the act of governing a country. The political institutions I am going to focus on in this discussion are the state, rule of law and mechanisms of accountability.

The state

The state is a hierarchical, centralised organisation that holds a monopoly on legitimate force within our borders.

Most of us want a state which strives to treat citizens on a more impersonal basis, applying laws, recruiting officials, and undertaking policies without favouritism. I was pained when one South Africa-based Zimbabwean youth made the following comment:

“Zimbabwean youths are fed up of the current system, it’s either you know someone or you come from a rich family to make it in life. After attaining our education, our dreams are shattered. The movement to South Africa and Botswana is the order of the day. Zimbabweans are naturally hard workers, but unfortunately all their sweat is being used in other countries and for peanuts.”

How true? This is one glaring example showing that the current system in our country is not working. Our state, as an institution, is failing the youth and as a result, has failed itself.

The rule of law

One school of thought defines it as a set of rules of behaviour, reflecting a broad consensus within society that is binding on even the most powerful political actors in a society. If a leader changes the law to suit themselves, the rule of law does not exist, even if those laws are applied uniformly to the rest of the society.

To be effective, the rule of law has to be embodied in a separate judicial institution that can act autonomously from the executive. In a nutshell, rule of law must be a constraint on political power. We have to be able to separate rule of law from rule by law.

Rule by law represents commands issued by the president but not binding on him.

We need to make sure that the laws will apply impersonally to all Zimbabweans, and that there are no exemptions for a privileged few.

Our future government, in a new Zimbabwe, must be responsive not only to elites and to the needs of those running the government; the government should serve the interests of all citizens of Zimbabwe.

The rule of law is critical for economic development; without clear property rights and contract enforcement, it would be difficult for businesses to break out of small circles of trust.

A state that is powerful without serious checks is a dictatorship; one that is weak and checked by a multitude of subordinate political forces is ineffective and often unstable.


The third institution is accountability. This is when government is responsive to the interests of all citizens — rather than to its narrow self-interest.

However, in our new Zimbabwe, we need to be very careful when selecting our government. It has to be one that will not change the constitution to prolong its stay in power. Two terms means two terms. I mention this because we have two types of accountability, which are procedural and substantive accountability.

Procedural accountability entails periodic free and fair multiparty elections that allow Zimbabweans to choose and discipline their political leaders. Substantive accountability means that political leaders will only respond to the interests of the broader society, without necessarily being subject to procedural accountability. This is one way we can end up with tyranny.

However, one school of thought believes there is a strong connection between procedural and substantive accountability because unconstrained leaders, even if responsive to the common good, usually cannot be trusted to remain that way forever.

We have to be wary of the fact that good procedures do not inevitably produce proper substantive results.

I am not so sure whether we will be able to come up with a new government with all three institutions in tandem. We may end up with a new Zimbabwe with a weak state and rule of law but a strong periodic accountability.

I am sure most of us would like to see our future president leaving office after two terms.

A new Zimbabwe should have all three sets of political institutions in balance. We have a huge task of educating Zimbabweans post-President Robert Mugabe.

Government officials and civil servants must realise they are supposed to be servants or custodians of a broader public interest and are legally prohibited from using their offices for private gain.

We need to be governed by bureaucracies that are characterised by strict subordination to public purposes, technical expertise, a functional division of labour, and recruitment on the basis of merit.

Our future politicians, unlike the current crop, should not adopt the outward forms of our current state — with bureaucracies, legal systems, elections, etc — and yet in reality rule for private gain.

Favours are being doled to a network of political supporters in exchange for votes or attendance at rallies. We have to accept that we currently have a weak and ineffective state.

Our current government is a strong despotic power, deriving its strength in suppressing journalists, opposition politicians and civil society.

But it is not strong in its ability to exercise infrastructural power, the ability to legitimately make and enforce rules, or to deliver necessary public goods like safety, health and education.

We have struggled to develop high-quality bureaucratic administrations and are mired in high degrees of clientelism (a social order which depends on relations of patronage) and outright corruption.

Replacing a poorly administered autocracy with an equally incompetent democracy will get us nowhere.

Follow Tendai Kwari on Twitter @tendaikwari