Ruthless rural strategies

Big Saturday Read: Battle for hearts and minds of rural Zimbabwe

Alex T Magaisa

June 10, 2017

USAID Food distribution in 2007 – Photo:  Associated Press

The rebel

Tozivepi Nyikamunhu walked away with a shrug. In the past he would have been frustrated but he had become indifferent. Once again, they had told him that his name was not on the list. He was used to it. It had almost become a ritual. Whenever the call was made for local villagers to come and receive their food rations, Tozivepi went along with the others, even though he knew he would get nothing. They would always tell him that his name was not on the list. 

“Why do you waste your time going there?” his wife, Muchaneta, had asked him a number of times. She had since given up. But Tozivepi always joined other villagers at Cheshiri School, where the officials distributed food rations after yet another devastating drought. At the start of the season, when others got seed and fertiliser from government, Tozivepi also came back empty-handed. Whereas everyone got their share, Tozivepi’s name was always missing from the list. 

One day, Sabhuku Mutota, the village head had called Tozivepi to his home. Tozivepi found other elders gathered at Sabhuku Mutota’s home. “You have to change your ways, Dhehwa, or you will kill your children with hunger,” said Sabhuku Mutota, with a voice that carried a tone of authority and persuasiveness. “Do you want your children to suffer because of your stubbornness?” His face was slightly contorted, like a man trying to shield his eyes from the glare of the sun.   

“We cannot allow you to starve your family just because you refuse to follow the ways of the party,” chimed one of the elders, with an air of authority.  Another one cleared his throat, clearly preparing to issue some stern words. “What will you lose if you simply say yes to them like we all do?” he said.

“Do you think we agree with what they do? The other year, they almost killed you. If the women of this village, your mothers, had not cried and pleaded, for sure they would have killed you. You forget how they hunted Museyamwa’s boys like wild animals until they killed one of them? Very soon they will be back for elections and you know what they will do.” There was concern in the old man’s voice. The elders were concerned that Tozivepi was courting danger.

Tozivepi told them he would not change. His mind was made up a long time back. “They can do what they want, but I will not change. Even if they refuse with their food, I will not change. I would rather die with my honour than submit to them like a dog with its tail between the legs”.

He walked away and the elders were left without words. They just shook their heads. “He’s headstrong, this boy, ever since he was small,” said Munyakwe, an elder who had sat quietly during the discussion. “He takes after his grandfather. The old man was like that. He never listened. They say his great-grandfather was a warrior during Chimurenga when the Europeans first came and settled here. Some say they cut off his head and took it away to their country overseas. That’s where this boy gets his stubborn head from. I fear one day these people will kill him.” 

Although Tozivepi knew they would always tell him his name was not on the list, he had long decided that, as a matter of principle he would always go along to the events. “I must remind them of the injustice of their ways. If I stay away, they will think I have given up,” he once told his wife. Tozivepi never attended their meetings. They had tried to force him but he refused. “I will have nothing to do with your party!” he had declared. Everyone else complied. They said he was the rebel and he was paying the price for it. 

Tozivepi’s story is a familiar one across the rural areas of Zimbabwe. Villagers are expected to comply with the ruling party. Those who fall out of line are regarded as outcasts. The Romans had a figure that they called the “Homo Sacer” – the accursed person. During the Roman Empire, when a man committed a certain type of offence he was banned from society and lost all rights as a citizen. His life was regarded as so worthless that he could not be sacrificed and he could be killed by anyone. But even if he was killed, the killer would not be regarded as a murderer.

The notion was also evident in some pre-colonial African societies. In Chinua Achebe’s classic novel, Things Fall Apart, when the tragic hero, Okonkwo commits an abomination in the community, his punishment consists primarily of banishment from his village - Umuofia. He is sent to his mother’s village for some years, where he starts afresh while staying with his uncle. This banishment was clearly a form of exclusion from society. 

In Zimbabwe’s rural areas, a man like Tozivepi is not always banished from the society in the physical sense – not like Okonkwo. He does lose all his rights like the Homo Sacer in Roman society. But the common denominator between all these characters is that they are excluded from society in a number of ways. There are cases where people like Tozivepi have been beaten up severely or killed but their assailants have never faced justice. In effect, as in Roman times, killing people like Tozivepi does not even attract a murder charge because the perpetrators are protected. Even where they are found guilty, they are simply granted presidential pardon. The history of presidential pardons and amnesty and the moral hazard it creates has previously been analysed in these pages:  

Tozivepi’s story is very important in trying to understand voting behaviour among voters who reside in the rural areas. Of course, like any other party, ZANU PF has core supporters and many of them live in the rural areas. The rural economy revolves around land and the fact that ZANU PF took land from white commercial farmers and gave some of it to rural peasants means there are thousands of rural households who have a strong attachment to ZANU PF. Ironically, since the new land occupiers have no title to the land and can be easily removed, loyalty to the party is the mortgage they must pay in order to keep the land.  But ZANU PF also knows when to throw gifts and trinkets related to land, such as seed and fertiliser, all of which remind the peasants that the party “cares” for them. To conquer the rural areas, the dynamics of this rural economy must be understood. The opposition must offer an alternative and believable alternative to the peasants.  

Acknowledging that ZANU PF does have a core of support based mainly in the rural areas does not mean that it has exclusive control of those areas. Not everyone is indebted to ZANU PF. If everyone was loyal, ZANU PF would not resort to strategies of intimidation, violence, instilling fear and other control methods. The rigging thesis has been used to explain ZANU PF’s apparent dominance in the rural areas. Nevertheless, how this rigging takes place is often described in general and vague terms.

Election observers often arrive a few weeks before the elections and leave soon after. It is during that period that the conduct of political actors is scrutinised. Whether or not elections are free and fair depends on what happens during this limited period. In my experience, this is a flawed model of judging whether or not elections are free and fair. It is a flawed model of assessing whether or not there is rigging. The conception of rigging under this model is narrow as it looks to acts and omissions within this limited period. However, the technologies of power employed to affect elections stretch over a longer period of time, well before and well after the observers have come and gone. Some of these technologies of power are evident in Tozivepi’s story. 

These technologies of power, including the use of poverty and food aid, are influential enough to affect the behaviour of the majority of villagers. The exception is Tozivepi and his family, but they must pay a penalty for their political choices. The threat of social exclusion is a technique that compels villagers to comply. 

A way of life

It is important to understand that for the rural voter, ZANU PF is more than just a political party. It is a way of life. In fact, in more desperate areas, they have been led to believe that ZANU PF is life itself, that it is the difference between life and death. The structures of the state and the structures of the party have seamless interaction. The boundaries are so fluid that to the rural voter, ZANU PF is the state and the state is ZANU PF – there is literally no difference. 

When food aid or agricultural inputs are distributed in these areas, this is done in the name of ZANU PF, even though they are funded by the taxpayer or donors. Growing up in the villages, it was not uncommon to hear villages refer to “Chibage chaMugabe” (Mugabe’s maize) or Beans dzaMugabe (Mugabe’s beans). Even plots of land were named after Mugabe’s inputs -- dhunduru rechibage chaMugabe, meaning the plot on which maize seed donated by Mugabe was planted. As we have seen with Tozivepi’s story, villagers who are associated with the opposition parties are excluded. They do not get food aid or agricultural inputs. For most villagers who rely upon agriculture, it is quite literally a matter of life and death. 

Spaces of state authority, such as the District and Provincial Offices are also ZANU PF spaces. They are predominantly occupied by and exude the spirit of ZANU PF. The location and architecture of their offices tells a story. Oft-times, party offices are located side by side with the district and provincial offices. Sometimes, they are in the same buildings. When people see the state, they see ZANU PF. In the villages, the traditional structures – Chiefs, Headmen and Village Heads - switch from their formal and ZANU roles with seamless ease. 

Many Zimbabweans who have tried to do philanthropic activities in their home regions have met the same problem: interference from the political actors seeking cheap credit. Even if you want to donate to your local clinic or school, the head of the institution will have to seek authority from or at least inform the MP or local political leadership. They are scared of acting on their own. The MPs and political leadership want to claim credit in order to build their political capita among voters. This interference puts off many in the Diaspora who want to be involved. But for the rural dwellers, their way of life means they cannot separate their activities from the control of political actors, the majority of whom are ZANU PF. 

Overall, the lifestyle in most rural areas is a ZANU PF-dominated lifestyle. The party has a suffocating presence in the rural areas. There is no single person that it does not affect. It is what children grow up knowing. When there is a rally, schools are closed and school kids are commandeered to attend the rally. Some might even spend months preparing to perform music and dance as part of the event’s entertainment. Their socialisation, from the time they are born is heavily affected by ZANU PF. For many of the unemployed youths, the only way out of the rural areas is offered by aligning to or participating in activities ZANU PF-sponsored activities. It is these young rural youths who become members of ZANU PF’s Youth Militia, eventually graduating into members of the Police Support Unit or joining the military. Thousands are deployed as Youth Officers under the guise of the Ministry of Youth, Indigenisation and Empowerment. ZANU PF understands the rural economy, which is why it concentrates its efforts in these areas. 

The Panopticon effect 

Last year, I explained how the “Panopticon Effect” works in the rural areas and it is relevant to summarise it here again in order to explain forces that affect voter behaviour. Oft-times, when people talk of rigging, they refer to methods where voters are forced or coerced to behave in a particular manner. This is partly true. What the narrative does not include however is that ZANU PF uses technologies whereby voters appear to act autonomously, exercising free-will, when in fact they would be responding to insidious forces. 

The panopticon is an architectural design developed by English philosopher, Jeremy Bentham. The design allows a centrally-located watchman to observe occupants of the panopticon building structure with the occupants believing that they are being watched but without them knowing whether they are actually being watched. Bentham’s panopticon was designed to house and monitor inmates in a prison. The panopticon is a circular building consisting of cells and a central tower. A watchman sits in the central tower watching over the occupants in the cells. These occupants could also be workers in a factory or students in an educational facility. 

The tower allows light to come through, enabling the watchman to see every occupant in the cells below. However, the occupants in the cells are not able to see the watchman or what he is doing. They won’t even know whether or not he is actually keeping constant watch over them. However, because they do not know, they must assume that they are constantly being watched. This belief and fear of being punished means the occupants must always be on their best behaviour. They must do whatever they believe is expected of them by the watchman. Thus, they become regulators of their own behaviour, doing what they believe is expected of them by the watchman. The watchman doesn’t actually have to do anything. 

The famous French philosopher Michel Foucault, took up Bentham’s concept of the panopticon in his work on disciplinary societies. According to Foucault, the panopticon is a useful concept to demonstrate how disciplinary societies tend to dominate and control citizens. When a prisoner is in a panopticon, he is the subject of surveillance by the watchman. But this relationship is asymmetrical. “He (the inmate) is seen, but he does not see”. The watchman might not even be there or even if he is there he might not be watching the inmate constantly. But the prisoner does not know that. The result is that the prisoner must regulate and police his own behaviour to avoid punishment.   

This self-policing by the inmate is an important way by which a central authority indirectly controls citizens.  As already pointed out, it is not limited to prisons. It can be used at the workplace or in schools to supervise and monitor workers and students. It could also be used in hospitals, where a central authority monitors patients. Once advantage is that one doesn’t have to use a large number of staff for the surveillance task. It can be achieved with a limited number of staff – instead of a supervisor for each cell, class or ward, you can have one central authority for everyone.

Technological innovations have however, extended the panopticon effect to wider areas of society beyond the prison, the classroom or the hospital. Indeed, the idea of a circular building with a central tower is now more evident as a metaphor of a system in which society is under general surveillance. With CCTV everywhere, citizens believe they are constantly being watched by central authority. With digital snooping being used in several countries, citizens live in fear that whatever they do in cyberspace is being monitored by a central authority.

The enduring idea of the panopticon lies in the principle of central supervision/inspection.  The belief in the presence of a central authority means the subject has to behave according to the standards expected of him by that central authority. When Bentham developed the panopticon, he did not intend that it would be used to oppress people, even its effect as a metaphor when applied across society has been to subjugate citizens.

I have used the Panopticon Effect to explain how it influences voter behaviour in the rural areas. It might well have resonance elsewhere. There is no physical structure that is called the panopticon. There is no central tower or cells in which inmates are located. I use it merely in its metaphorical sense. There are various actors who make up the central authority which watches over the activities of rural citizens. These actors include traditional leaders, members of the police, intelligence and military, civil servants in administrative structures, and ZANU PF political officers. Together, they perform the role of watchman, overseeing rural spaces and exercising disciplinary power whenever rural citizens do not conform to the rules. All these actors represent the interests of ZANU PF and their task is to ensure that everyone complies – they are the enforcers.

The disciplinary power which these enforcers exercise includes sanctions against those who do not comply. For example, those who are regarded as opposition supporters are punished by not being given food aid or agricultural inputs. They might even be beaten up during elections. Voters are told that they will be secretly monitored in the voting booths. In some cases, since voters cannot be trusted to comply, the traditional leader gathers all voters in his sphere of influence and accompanies them to the polling station. They are told that they must declare illiteracy which means a trusted person will assist them to vote, literally supervising how they vote. All these strategies mean that the voter is constantly labouring under the belief that he is being watched. The consequence is that he self-polices himself, behaving in a manner that he believes is expected of him by the central authority. He is “free” to vote, but actually, his freedom is emasculated by the Panopticon Effect.

I had occasion to observe the Panopticon Effect during the last election campaign in 2013. One day, when I worked with Morgan Tsvangirai, we visited a rural business centre in the heart of Mashonaland East. This area had seen high levels of violence in 2008. Five years later, although there was no violence, fear was evident in the eyes of the people. A group of hard-core MDC supporters – the Tozivepi type – had dutifully gathered at the appointed space, waiting for their leader. However, it was evident that there were many others who were loitering around the business centre, watching from afar. They showed some interest in the proceedings but for some reason they could not physically present themselves.

When the politicians started giving their speeches, I received a message from a group that was sitting in one of the nearby shops. “Can you please ask them to raise the volume so that we can all hear them? We can’t be seen at the gathering but we want to hear, too.” I found this very interesting. Here were people who were keen to be involved at our meeting of the opposition but for their own safety, they could not afford to be seen at the rally. As far as they were concerned, someone was there watching them and if they were seen at the gathering, they would be in trouble.

I don’t know if there was someone watching them. But the fact that they believed that someone was watching them meant they had to police themselves. However, they still wanted to be close enough to the event to hear what the opposition leader was saying. I then told the speakers not only to speak louder but that their address must focus not just on those who were at the gathering, but the hundreds who were sitting in shops and bushes because they also wanted to hear but they could not physically present themselves.  

What’s to be done?

The golden question, therefore, is how to overcome these challenges. Can they be resolved merely by changing the Electoral Law? But there is no law that says traditional leaders must behave in that manner. There is no law that allows the police, army or intelligence services to engage and interfere in politics. There is no law which allows traditional leaders to gather villagers before proceeding to the polling station. In fact, both the Constitution and the Electoral Law prohibits all these things. However, those who are supposed to enforce these laws do not perform their role or they are the chief violators. This makes law-based solutions limited.

The implication is that dealing with these challenges among rural voters requires strategies that go beyond the law. A lot more work has to focus on the mind of the voter. The problem lies in how the voter, particularly the rural voter, has been socialised. After independence, critics spoke of the need to decolonise the mind. This was in reference to the fact that even though colonialism had formally ended, the mind of the citizen was still colonised. It needed to be decolonised. Bob Marley put it in song as he called, in the Redemption Song, for emancipation from “mental slavery”. There is a need for a similar phenomenon within the electorate, particularly in the rural areas – something that might, for convenience, be called a de-Zanufication of the mind.

This is why a multi-disciplinary approach is necessary in dealing with the problem of elections in Zimbabwe. Law alone is not enough. Politics alone is not enough. There is need for a radical approach that de-Zanufies the mind of the voter. It has to be an intensive programme of de-Zanufication of the mind. Those in the Diaspora can play their role too. They are the benefactors of many households back in Zimbabwe. They too have to play their role in this process, engaging their relatives, instead of leaving it to the "opposition". They have leverage and they must make use of it.

People must understand that there is life beyond ZANU PF and that it does not control their lives. They need reassurance. Apart from engaging the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) on legal reforms, opposition parties have to more actively engage rural voters in countering the culture of fear which stifles free-will. As long as ZANU PF is all they see in their localities, or all they believe is in control, their voting behaviour will yield to ZANU PF.

As I have often said in recent months, the opposition leaders have to stop moaning about ZANU PF’s power and control and they must start using positive and more confidence language that they can overcome, the handicaps notwithstanding. Ordinary people will look at it and wonder what they themselves can do in the face of ZANU PF if their leaders are always crying out for help.

There are few people like Tozivepi. The challenge is to have more people like Tozivepi. They are there and with more active strategies, they will emerge and inspire a new generation.