Of Mockingbirds and Resuscitating Democracy

23rd April 2010 By: ISS, Institute for Security Studies

The Mockingbird is an excellent metaphor that captures the politics of the dominant political actor in Zimbabwe. Popular belief has it that if you approach a mockingbird it is unlikely that you will survive. And as the literature states: ‘Mockingbirds have a very highly developed sense of hearing, to the point where it can even hear your thoughts'. Hence the advice is when attacking, you scream very loudly. But who has heard the screams of the citizens of Zimbabwe over the years? Or perhaps they did not scream loud enough? For, just like leaders, citizens are not born they are raised. And if they were raised to whimper softly, then the probability of being heard was equally low. How then can democracy be resuscitated against such a background?

At present the resuscitation of democracy in Zimbabwe appears to be rather bleak, with neither side offering a viable strategy to overcome the entrenched ‘I own you' kind of politics that dominates the political agora in the country. This dampens the hoped for cascading effect of coalition governing that was ushered in by the Global Political Agreement in 2008. The politics of civil society was expected to follow the same spirit of cooperation, despite the public despondency prompted by years of repression. Coalescing at every level on every issue could have been a panacea for breaking the might of a repressive hand. Years of exposure to violence can break any spirit and yet it is when the spirit breaks that determination for all good things, freedom included, is strengthened. Hence reconstituting alliances across the board, reaffirming agreements and rethinking a post- turmoil Zimbabwe that could result in a sustainable democratic culture that will ultimately undergird the country's political culture is inevitable. Yet it will remain a challenge for all the political actors for some time to come.

Over time, Robert Putnam's civic engagement characteristics have been spawned across space and time in the country since 2002. The percentage of citizens willing to speak out verbally and act in defense of democracy has steadily increased. The ratio of women`s actions to those of men has equally increased and this period has witnessed a high frequency of women`s participation in high-risk political participation. Women and Men of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) is one such example of daring political participation. The negative engagement by some youth has undoubtedly cost us a generation, as has the stalled and regressed educational system. Still many new voices emerged to contest the shrunk political space. But we still need to ask, what has happened to trust?

Distrust, a healthy ingredient that keeps us alert, and mistrust, the loss of trust due to unfulfilled commitments and deliberate deviation from agreements, have both contributed to shaping the post coalition governance style. Both real and imagined external forces have had a hand in filling the distrust and mistrust basket and have at times led to rather unwise strategies and leadership positions taken by all concerned parties. For instance, a complicated circle of distrust kept the MDC of Morgan Tsvangirai on its toes, that is, the pussy footing around their issues by former President Thabo Mbeki, and the fear that South Africa was more likely to embed itself closely with the MDC faction which included Welshman Ncube and others. On the other hand, Zanu PF fiercely guarded its liberation ideology and feared the loss of its ‘liberation gains' through the infiltration of external contaminating ideologies.

The unfortunate end result has been an unhealthy impasse: each side has continuously questioned the capacity of the other to change and realign modalities that would restore faith in democracy for the majority of Zimbabwe's citizens.

So how do we tackle the Mockingbird that has amazing cunning capabilities? Breaking the monotony of the liberation's hegemony and shifting to an inclusive and democratic discourse that can make it possible to harness all the wealth the country has lost, especially in the form of human capital, is essential for tackling and dismantling ingrained authoritarianism and more importantly, for resuscitating democracy. If Zimbabweans are to pursue happiness at all, the hardware they currently need is democracy and leadership that is effective in addressing public issues as well as having the capacity to motivate the right people to create visions and solve problems. And as David Chrislip and Carl Larson emphasise in their book "Collaborative Leadership: How Citizens and Civic Leaders Can Make a Difference", civic leaders who can generate the civic will to break through legislative and bureaucratic gridlock, deal with complex issues, and engage frustrated and angry citizens, are equally essential to restore democracy in Zimbabwe.

Written by: Dr Annie Barbara Chikwanha, Senior Research Fellow, AHSI/ISS, Addis Ababa