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Chinyoka on Tuesday: Democracy was sold with too much simplicity

By Tinomudaishe Chinyoka

When I was growing up, back when we lived in the back of beyond, my sister (RIP) used to tell me all sorts of stories. Stories about mermaids that stood in wait to devour me if I ever went to the river to bathe or swim there – this came after I had been dared into crossing a flooded stream holding on to the tail of a cow, true story, but perhaps for another day.

Tinomudaishe Chinyoka
Tinomudaishe Chinyoka

Stories about the old man who lived near us who would lure you into his house by asking you to come kunomutsengera mhandire (chew almost dry corn for someone without teeth, then giving them the paste to eat after it is softened? – I have said it once, I will say it again, some things simply do not translate from Shona), but who would eat you afterwards. 

Of course, as I have grown up, I now know that these stories were not true. There were no mermaids on our stretch of the Mwenezi River. There however were crocodiles, after my stunt crossing the small river nearest to home on a cow’s tail, it was quite obvious that there was a real danger that I might try and ‘upgrade’ my bravery to crossing the Mwenezi. There are crocodiles in the Mwenezi river, and my sister made sure I never tried, without saying no.

And the old man? No, he didn’t eat anyone. His problem was that he was generous to a fault, and would have definitely offered me food from his house had I gone there. Given how poor we were (I recall nights when we didn’t sleep, not because we weren’t tired but because we hadn’t eaten all day and had no blankets so, sitting by the fire looking at father snoring was…….I digress), there was no way I would have said no, and likely taken residence at his house during mealtimes.

Unfortunately for me at the time, we are Lemba, baSena, baMwenye, and he was not. Eating his defiled food would have defiled me, but that message needed to be communicated in a way that I would accept. “Don’t eat food at his house because the meat was not slaughtered according to our customs” was decidedly not going to stop a hungry boy from eating the food. “Don’t go there because he will eat you” proved very effective. I never so much as went near his home.

There are many examples I have seen, from our culture, about how children were protected from harm through similar means. Of course, colonialism came and called these lessons “superstitions’, thus guaranteeing their eventual retreat from the lexicon of our cultural wisdom. “Unoita showera” was enough to stop any would be Peeping-Tom from harassing ladies taking a bath by the river. Now? You have to explain about invasion of privacy and respect for the dignity of the person and potential criminal sanctions. Not as effective, I think.

By calling these nuggets of wisdom “superstitions,” the coloniser left us no choice but to think that his ways were superior. That his ways were more enlightened. That we must run from these “superstitions” into the embrace of modernity.

Tragically, modernity in this sense is limited to the art of things James Ferguson (his book: Expectations of Modernity: Myths and Meanings of Urban Life on the Zambian Copperbelt makes one angry) equates to modernity: “cars, suits, fine clothes, a decent necktie.”

It is one of the great robberies committed by colonialism. And one of the most insidious, given that we do not see it. Daily, we disparage our own things, either because we want to make a contrary point, or because we are simply ignorant, and extol the virtues of foreign cultures.

It is so bad that there are many who think that speaking in or writing flawless English is a sign off intelligence: it is not, English is just a language, and an ability to speak flawless Shona or Ndebele is similar tho there same ability in English. Yet, we use colonially defined narratives or, even worse, current western Neo-liberal double-speak to disparage our own.

The arguments that we deploy against the conduct of our own elections, the stage of development of our democracy, the economic challenges we face, all have the same simplistic, “forget yesterday condemn today and dream of a western tomorrow” character.

Pictures of buses owned by the Salisbury United Passenger Bus Company (or whatever) driving up and down Willowvale Road are deployed to demonstrate a better yesterday and as a critique of Mnangagwa today.

No context, not consideration that the people that were ferried by these buses were not allowed to shop in Barbours or walk around First Street, or vote. The pristine buses are presented as evidence of failure now, without regard to the fact that the government that ran them was rich on the back of exploiting blacks, that it had an interest in ensuring that cheap labour got to where it was needed and back to the ghetto and could prioritise buses for ferrying such labour without worrying about the fact that some of the men in those buses were not allowed to live with their families in town.

Our arguments on the economy are likewise not presented as the after-effects of a corruption-interrupted effort to pull a whole country from the near-feudalisation of 95% of the population. These arguments look at our present conditions and circumstances as a result of deliberate action on the part of government, rather than as the inevitable consequences of the damage done to our social and economic existence by the combined ills of colonialism, the global distribution of wealth, corruption, the under-valuing of labour by Neo-liberal economics and the confusion brought on by the fact that we are raised a certain way and live out the rest of our lives mimicking others based on which books we have read.

It is the curse of mimicry that is especially sad. We have people waxing lyrical about how our elections fail to meet a certain standard, or how our government fails to have the same institutions as those obtaining in DC, London or Paris. We are routinely reminded by donor-preneurs and other cashivists that our political processes fail to meet this or that standard or international practice.

Not once do these intellectuals stop to explain why we never seem to contribute to what is ‘international practice’, but must always be measured against it? Not once do they bother to explain why it is that we must conform to anyone’s ways of doing things, and not chart our own ways of doing our own things.

I am on record as saying that our constitution is a disaster, and this is part of the reason why. There was no effort to incorporate our own culture and way of thinking into this founding document. Instead, it reads like something straight out of NGO-central, largely foreign to the people that it seeks to say it has a mandate from.

The trouble with mimicry and having a foreign themed constitution is that in order to know what is right or wrong, one cannot use their own instincts, but must be educated in what that is. In order to know what rights I have as a Zimbabwean, I must read a document, for which I need education.

Back when I drove those three cows across the river so that I could hold on to the tail of one and show my bravery, I had no idea that I was committing crimes: they were not our cows, just some random cows, and the place where I did this stunt was someone’s land, I was trespassing.

The trouble with mimicry is that you tend to think that what you are copying is perfect, even when it might very well be the originator’s efforts at perfecting something. Democracy developed in Greece, but the ancient Greeks would most certainly not call what happens in Western Europe today democratic. Yet, we have managed to hold our country at ransom based on a perceived failure to meet the litmus test of what some NGOs and their sponsors call democracy.

Daily, we read of failures of this democratic experiment in the West (the election of Donald Trump despite him getting 3,000,000 voters less than Hilary Clinton, the election of far-right racist politicians in supposed European democracies, the Brexit mess, etc) but we are asked to judge ourselves against a yardstick that is in effect a work in progress.

In fact, so tragic is our forced mimicry that while our attention is drawn to our failings, hypocritical contradictions are obtaining right in front of our faces. The EU, the US Embassy and the rest of civic society organisations parroting the narrative that our government “has failed to implement reforms that are likely to deliver the rule of law” or some such spiel while insisting that the government should dialogue with the MDC Alliance cannot fail to see that the ascendancy of that party’s leader, the expulsion of Thokozani Khupe (complete with accusations of being a prostitute), the treatment of one Douglas Mwonzora, the violence that is currently being waged to ensure that only followers of a certain faction attend the rubber-stamp congress of that party, are all not actions that speak highly of their chosen torchbearer of ‘democracy’.

Which confirms the lie, and the method in the hypocrisy: we mimic, because they want us to. The best way to ensure continued control of a country’s economic resources, after you lose political control, it to incapacitate the people that removed you.

By creating conditions that allow the citizens to think that they have genuine grievances against their own government, you create the right conditions for you to rape the country of its resources without oversight. While the citizens fight and argue over who must be the tenant at State House, you use your already well laid infrastructure to carry on robbing the country.

While you fund Chamisa’s cries about his manufactured legitimacy crisis, there is no opposition keeping government honest about why we export all our products (platinum gold, diamonds, tobacco etc) raw instead of processed.

While you sponsor Chamisa to wax lyrical about a generational mandate at his rallies, there is no opposition to push government to put in place strategies to ensure that the generations that have lost out on the liberation dividend from the ruinous policies of the First Republic have something to bequeath to their children.

I could go on and on, but the point is made: we are not walking a path that we have set for ourselves. We have been sold a simplistic understanding of this animal called democracy, and simultaneously been divested of our own methods of critical thinking by having them categorised as ‘superstitions.”

We have been educated on a diet of useless theoretical narratives whose examples are all from outside our country, with the result that we chase after a democratic Utopia that even they do not try to achieve. We have been fooled into believing that democracy means that the opposition must win elections, and that when this does not happen, there has been cheating. We have been told to shun such basic cultural things as sitting padare to talk about our problems, and schooled into thinking that when you talk you are negotiating, and that to do so you must first put forward pre-conditions.

We have allowed this language of no-respect, which allows one to say “you” to their child or father-in-law alike, to commoditize everyone as either followers or enemies, and our discourse has become toxic as a result. We have allowed our children to learn disciplines that make every contest a zero-sum game, and invested very little in our own conciliatory and consensus building approaches to problem solving.

In the end, we have allowed ourselves, in the pursuit of an elusive modernity and what we think is better, to play on another person’s pitch, using their balls and their rules. We are nothing but actors in a play written by someone else, whose ending we might not know but can fairly predict is not rigged in our favour.

We are not doomed, however, because it is not too late. Not too late to fashion our own version of democracy. To grow new superstitions for our children, such that they grow with the fear of that which is harmful and the ability to see the wisdom of their forebears.

Not too late to change the conversation from someone’s script to our own. Not to late to stop mimicking something whose authors aren’t sure what it even means, and come to our own understanding of what we need and go about creating it. Not too late to take heed when the President practically quotes from the good book and says to his erstwhile opponents: “Come, let us reason together”.

It is definitely not too late. But only if we change course. Now.

Tinomudaishe Chinyoka is a prominent former student leader at the University of Zimbabwe and now a Harare based lawyer who is a member of the ruling Zanu PF party.