By Tinomudaishe Chinyoka
I really like animated shows and movies. After Shawshank and District 9, I cant think of three better movies of all time for my top five than Brave, Zootropolis and Up. But my favourite line from tinseltown is not from any of these, it is rather from Ducktales.
Many a times, when contraptions made to defeat the weekly villain failed, a hero would look to his minions and say: “I am surrounded by idiots.” Now, imagine a boy fresh from Mberengwa, early teens, first chance on a TV, and hearing a word that he had been brought up think “ kuti zvinonyadzisira” being said so nonchalantly. Bliss!
It was James Carville, who worked as a strategist for then Governor of Arkansas Bill Clinton become President of the United States, who coined the phrase. Meant as a private reminder for the candidate, it has entered popular usage as “it’s the economy, stupid!”
Of course, Homer Simpson, not one for too much intellectualism and clearly a disciple of Eisenhower’s “an intellectual is a man who takes more words than necessary to tell more than he knows,” has a better formulation of the same phrase: “Duh!”
We live in a world that is good at eulogizing heroes, and forgetting that very little on earth is ever accomplished by one person alone. Many people will say Pele or Maradona were the greatest footballers that ever lived, but struggle to name who was in their respective World Cup winning teams. And, until fairly recently, thanks to the work of good-intentioned revisionists, we were taught that Sir whatnot Hillary was the first person on Everest, the role of Tenzig Morgay completely ignored.
Sadly though, it’s not always the case that the people around you help you. I suppose if we could ask one of our heroes how much they benefited from those around them, a good few would say that they achieved a lot not because of, but despite the efforts of those around them to derail their efforts.
Not that these people always go out of their way to sabotage the hero: some do so because they simply aren’t good enough to upgrade their closeness to a leader/hero into usefulness. It might originate from cartoon folklore but, in some cases, there are people out there who really are surrounded by idiots.
This is why, when you watch political parties choosing their slates towards congresses, you have to feel sorry. A whole host of no-hopers and also-runs are routinely chosen because of how they praise sing the preferred leader and not necessarily because of merit.
Case in point: while l disagree with almost everything that Tendai Biti says, when the so-called MDC “provinces” sent their slates of potential leaders which did not include him, it is very hard to imagine that they seriously considered that the more than a dozen names they cobbled up bring more value to their team than him. Objectively speaking, l think not.
The trouble with being surrounded by people of little ability is that their failures start to reflect on the leader/hero. Or to damage the whole enterprise.
Case in point: we have a President who has made fighting corruption the cornerstone of his agenda. However, almost 18 months later, without a single high profile corruption conviction and a whole lot of spectacular failures, we have the entire group of the very same ZACC commissioners who resigned from office due to incompetence applying to be reappointed again! And, lo and behold, Parliament listed their names as duly nominated! The whole thing would be a joke if it wasn’t too serious.
We have an economy that could conceivably be anchored on diamond production like Botswana. But, for some inexplicable reason, we have a diamond company that has decided that it is not selling the country’s diamonds. Which is probably for good reason, but then when you hear of movie style robberies depleting their stocks, you wonder why the robbers always know where to hit.
Or, even worse, the rank profligacy that the company engages in. Watching CNN and Sky News over the Easter holidays, l was astounded as to how many times a poorly narrated ad from the Zimbabwe Consolidated Diamond Mining Company is flighted.
There are so many ways in which that ad is wrong. Do we seriously think that potential investors are watching CNN looking for opportunities to invest? Don’t we know who they are, these investors? Why not just send them a project proposal, instead of wasting money hoping that Mrs & Mrs John Q Public will come and invest in a diamond cutting plant?
As an example of arrested thinking, it ranks only alongside NSSA’s wasteful full page colour ads in the newspapers telling people that it’s a good idea to be paying contributions: these contributions are not voluntary, you don’t need to appeal to people to enjoy paying them. You just enforce the law; the money wasted on these ads could be better spent employing more enforcement officers or paying the present ones better.
Of course, some heroes are themselves not deserving of the accolades, so blaming the people around them is not always the correct default position. I can imagine how one day, if God forbid our people decide to elect one Nelson Chamisa president, someone will suggest that he was a hero. In my book, anyone that travels all the way to Washington DC to beg for sanctions on their own country can never be a hero. No matter what good they might later on get to do. Terrorist yes, hero? No.
This is the same person who thinks that the Zimbabwe Bird is idol worship and must be changed. The same person who thinks nothing wrong with the USA celebration of Easter complete with the Easter Bunny, or who empathizes with the burning down of the Notre Dame cathedral together with its clearly pagan gargoyles. In guess because it was not conceived by white-folk, it is idolatry.
Though of course this also confirms my first view: the people around a leader can sometimes be the ones busy sabotaging him, making his greatness even more of a feat as it is achieved despite the lack of support. There was not a single person named on any of those slates that dared point out that the leader had erred, though l am sure many were burying their heads in their hands in shame.
To be surrounded by idiots is to have people that say you were chosen by God, when it is voters that choose leaders. To be surrounded by idiots is to go to an elective congress with slates full of empty vessels whose claim to their nomination is simply that the electors know it will make the Dear Leader happy.
To be surrounded by idiots is to have people that spend every waking moment excoriating government waste yet go and splurge millions on gifts for the leader so that he might look good at a Congress where he is unopposed. To be surrounded by idiots is to have your top lieutenants insult your coalition partners and think that the people they brought into the tent will stay there simply because you are “the only game in town.”
To be surrounded by astute people means the leader lays out a vision and those around him carry it out. Inasmuch as it is good for supporters to see their leaders, the idea that a whole president of a political party should go round the country monitoring elections to structures tells you that something is very wrong. Leaders who are not adequately supported by those around them cannot possibly achieve their vision. There just isn’t enough time.
Sadly, the damage done by incompetent supporters is not confined to what they can’t do, but to the perceptions they create. While l don’t like Chamisa’s politics, l like to think hope he didn’t go around telling people not to vote for Mwonzora. But you have people like Chibaya and Komichi saying such things as ‘there is no vacancy’, which is not helpful. Just as it’s not helpful when religious leaders claim that our president was chosen by God: we voted for him.
Unless we improve how we structure our politics, we will not get out of the place we are in. There is not a single person in this country that can claim a monopoly of knowledge, on this we probably all agree. And yet the main opposition party has just elected unopposed someone that says he has the “answer sheet.” And gutted from the leadership of the party some of the better brains to work with him, simply because he wants certain people and not others. That is worrying.
We don’t have a politics of finding people on merit, but we must. In government and opposition alike, the best minds must rise to the top and work towards refining the agenda so that people have a choice between two (or more) well thought out agendas.
The default position where people make their choices based on personalities is not sustainable. It is what leads to otherwise intelligent people like Biti saying people must vote for his candidate because he is better looking than the other guy. It is the kind of situation that reduces losing candidates to disputing results not because they think they won, but because they don’t think the electorate had anything to go on besides fluff and razzmatazz.
Every government needs a viable opposition to keep it honest, to keep it delivering. Our democracy requires this. But, with political parties imploding and self-immolating left right and centre, firing their officials for wearing the wrong clothes or being the wrong gender or tribe, not nominating talent because it is a threat to the leader, one might understand why a voter looking for options outside of government might feel the need to quote from the cartoon: “I am surrounded by idiots”.
And sadly, it might just be true.
Tinomudaishe Chinyoka is a Harare based lawyer and a member of the ruling Zanu PF party