By Ngoni Muzofa
With the changing of the guard in both the ruling Zanu PF and main opposition MDC in the past year, many observers were of the view it would mark a sea change in Zimbabwean politics with new personalities fronting the political formations.
For two decades, Zimbabwean politics had been defined by former president Robert Mugabe and former premier Morgan Tsvangirai from Zanu PF and MDC respectively.
The duo’s larger than life personalities dominated the political sphere, with Zimbabweans either loving one or loathing the other in equal measure. Very few neutrals could be found especially considering the immense violence and lives lost in the fight for power.
With Mugabe’s ousting and Emmerson Mnangagwa’s installation as president through a military coup, Zimbabweans seemed intent on prioritising rebuilding the nation and gave the benefit of doubt to the man infamously nicknamed crocodile.
History will judge if Mnangagwa did enough during his honeymoon phase to bring a divided nation together and spur economic development or needed more time as his supporters contend.
Needless to say that Mnangagwa gradually lost the nominal support of most opposition aficionados who were initially happy to see the back of Mugabe. Nelson Chamisa’s dramatic – albeit controversial — ascendance to the helm of the MDC galvanised the party and ensured that its supporters returned to the trenches.
With the disputed 31 July 2018 elections and bloody 1 August aftermath, supporters of either side dug in and the rapprochement of November 2017 gave way to vicious polarisation.
It was as if Mugabe and Tsvangirai never left and the invidious effect of the polarisation cascaded down to the family, work and social levels.
Resultantly, some family, work and social relationships have become frayed because of this political divide. Nowhere is this polarisation more apparent than on social media especially Twitter — or to be precise Zwitter.
It has truly become a race to the bottom with one-upmanship and taunting of the other side the order of the day. At some point, Zwitter was a forum for witty and enlightened conversations.
All hell broke loose when the politicians realised that social media was the latest site for political contestation and deployed their surrogates to fight their battles.
Now we have varakashi (destroyers) on the Zanu PF side and nerrorists on the MDC side – a play on Chamisa’s first name Nelson and the word terrorist.
Meanwhile, the moderates are being drowned out in the ensuing melee. Zwitter epitomises how our society has evolved; or is it devolved.
Venom and bile are slung from one end of the political spectrum to the other on a daily basis. Creativity and ingenuity are deployed to full effect to inflict the most telling blows to the other side. Setbacks on one side are cause for celebration on the other.
When Finance minister Mthuli Ncube returns home empty-handed from yet another sojourn to a metropolitan country to beg for financial assistance, it is cause for celebration and ridicule among those opposed to the government’s policies.
On the flipside, when opposition supporters and officials are harassed, assaulted or arrested, it is an opportunity for the government’s supporters to rub in the salt.
Whatever anyone says, however helpful or insightful, is viewed within the prism of the political corner they are perceived to belong. In my view both sides of the divide are guilty of this.
Anyone who takes an objective approach to dissecting the issues of the day is bound to cross paths with either side.
The mudslinging is mesmerising and can be amusing until one realises that all we are doing is nullifying each other’s efforts with the end result of being the laughing stock of the world.
A conversation I recently had with my wife brought into sharp focus my own proclivities to demeaning and ridiculing those who hold different views to mine. She brought attention to my very frequent use of the word “ignorant” in describing people I argue with on politics and other related topics.
While I would be sincerely using the word to describe what I perceive to be an under- or ill-informed person, she told me that the word had a brutality and finality that snuffed out any sensible debate and breeds hostility.
Even if I am right and the person I am arguing with doesn’t have the full picture, labelling them will only elicit defensiveness and will not help me to understand what informs or motivates their viewpoint.
The reality is not as binary as we would all like to frame it. It has more shades of grey than we would like to admit. Opposition supporters choose to ignore the fact that – by hook or by crook — Zanu PF continues to hold sway in vast swathes of the country. The party is here to stay whether anyone likes it or not.
The main opposition party’s influence cannot be underestimated either, especially among the countries that matter in terms of global finance. While Zanu PF can count on the solidarity of the African Union and the southern African region against sanctions, the reality is that it counts for nothing without the material assistance Zimbabwe sorely needs.
Whether we want to admit it or not we are united by a common destiny as Zimbabweans. We all have to contend with an increasingly dysfunctional economy and society, implications of which will only be apparent with the passage of time.
Even Zimbabweans in the diaspora carry the financial and emotional burden of dealing with the latest economic and political disasters in the motherland. Try as you might to ignore, but you can’t have a good night’s sleep with the knowledge that there is wailing in the homeland.
At the end of the day the solution cannot come from politicians but from us as individuals. Instead of being drawn to the herd mentality of humiliating and dehumanising our perceived political opponents, let us opt for restraint. That doesn’t mean we should gloss over the human rights abuses and other infractions committed by our compatriots.
However unpalatable the viewpoint of the person across the political divide we need to actively find areas of mutual agreement. Using the results of the 2018 presidential elections as a barometer, it is apparent that the nation is split almost into half as far as political allegiances are concerned and it would be foolhardy to try to wish the other side away.
Those among us prepared to use crass and vicious means to get their points across should not be joined but isolated. Maybe that way the politicians will take the hint and join the party.
All the countries that have successfully emerged from protracted strife and polarisation did so by first acknowledging each other’s different viewpoints and mapping an inclusive way forward. Despite all its glaring flaws, South Africa is an example of a country that realised that none but themselves would bring the relative peace and democracy they now enjoy.
The rest of the world will not wait for us to get our act together.
Ngoni Muzofa is a Zimbabwean journalist who is a former Lesotho Times newspaper editor and Associated Press correspondent.