When it comes to democracy in the modern world, Zimbabawe’s democratic system finds itself in a precariously unique position where it seeks to find a balance between survival and stability in a challenging environment. The nation’s unique position is attributed to a combination of postcolonial history, geography, economics, politics, and relationship with its citizens. The main argument of this paper is to analyze the relationship between these and demonstrate how these dynamics will influence the state of democracy in its future. Furthermore, I will integrate this analysis with concepts discussed in class to develop the argument.
Zimbabwe’s current history followed the historical trend of developing nations where they had an existing Indigenous society that was governed by pre-existing dynamics such as empires, chieftains, and confederations.
- In the late 19th through early 20th century, they were colonized or became protectorates of European powers such as Great Britain, France, Belgium, Portugal, Italy, Germany, and Spain until they achieved independence during the independence movements of the 1950s to 1980s.
- For Zimbabwe, its democracy started from the remnants of the former Rhodesian government in the 1980s with a democratic government led by Robert Mugabe with an economy based on the lucrative and exploitative diamond industry.
- The government of modern Zimbabwe on paper, is presidential republic with a bicameral, multiparty parliament, led by an elected President. However, Robert Mugabe served as its president under a political coalition under the Zimbabwe African National Unity Party, or ZANU-PF.
- ZANU-PF exudes control under electoral and stealth authoritarianism. In this framework, Mugabe leveraged favoritism while retaining popularity and his office with disputed elections while candidates from opposition parties are typically controlled by the ZANU-PF directly and indirectly.
- During his time, Mugabe cracked down on protests and any threats to his hold on power until the current president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, succeeded after his death in the 2010s.
Despite a promising start, Zimbabwe’s democracy remains fraught with corruption, democratic backsliding, suppression of civil and political rights, chronic debt and hyperinflation, and prolonged presidency of Robert Mugabe.
According to Masunungure, author of “Zimbabwe’s Trajectory : Stepping Forward or Sliding Back,” describes a random citizen’s perspective since independence. “At independence, the country proudly stepped forward after one and half decades of international isolation and comprehensive, mandatory sanctions. It was a moment of jubilation though signals of predation had already begun to emerge towards the end of that decade. The second decade was a transitional one in both the socio-economic and political domains.. It was a decade that connected the first decade of a positive trajectory to the last two decades of serious decline leading to the birth and proliferation of civic organizations advocating for democratization of the political agora and governance systems…Today, Zimbabwe has become a fragile state.”(Masunungure, 2020)
The description adds a vivid perspective set the stage for the post- Mugabe society where he debates the notion of a “failed state” as a failed service that contributed to a vicious cycle of electoral authoritarianism from the government. Economic inequality exasperated and pushed the country to adopt several foreign currencies ranging from the across the world. This contributed to its own currency being rendered worthless as it constantly borrowed and printed money from that stymied domestic development and the social mobility of its citizens.
One question challenges this assertion: If other democracies experienced similar events, what can Zimbabwe learn from them? How can these lessons improve state services?
In Africa, the nations of Botswana, Rwanda, and South Africa faced similar scenarios. Today they have a prosperous society as one of the most developed and landlocked nations of Africa with a higher standard of living, gross domestic product, and human development than their neighbors. Botswana, Rwanda, and South Africa it is important to understand that they were based on good political management, democratic and peaceful state building, and economic diversification.
One can argue that the prosperity of a nation is a combination of the aforementioned factors and the mobility of its citizens to make social changes in their nation’s society. An empirical argument in this regard also comes from Mwanaka as he described the economic aspect of the agriculture sector.
He describes the fall of the sector as an attribute to a wider economic disconnect with Zimbabwe’s policy of land redistribution schemes. “Between 2000 and 2002, some 11 million hectares were confiscated from 4000 white farmers and redistributed to an estimated 127,000 small-farm families and 7200 black commercial farmers, and these farms remained unutilized, 15 years down the line. Those who are struggling to do something on these farms are producing very little to account for much to the GDP of the economy. We used to be in the top 6 in tobacco farming, which was our biggest agricultural foreign currency earner, but we have plummeted. I am told by insiders that even tobacco companies in Zimbabwe do not use the tobacco we are growing because it is of low quality. They would rather import tobacco from Brazil, at $3/kg, than buying the low-quality tobacco from new farmers which is going for $4/kg.” (Mwanaka, 2020)
This policy is a stark contrast to the practices of the most prosperous nations on Earth as certain laws and principles such as private property, freedom to conduct business, loosening overbearing bureaucratic regulations, and building domestic confidence to generate economic and social growth. The implications of this program should serve as a lesson on the drawbacks of the failure to address domestic issues in the greater international scope by the government.
In regard to the wider state of democracy, the author of the book, Zimbabwe: Urgency of Now, accentuates the frustrations of the people from his own perspective. “Participating in a democracy requires putting one’s life and trust on the good faith of others.. This is what we have been staking our lives and trust on, the good faith of the ZANU-PF. Every time, we have our faith trampled on. Every time we go to these elections with faith and high hopes that we are going to have free and fair elections, and every time we have been crying… The price of freedom is not cheap, and there is no price for culpable ignorance. When you say you won’t go and vote because already the election is lost.” (Mwanaka, 2015)
The frustration and disappointment that he expressed in his book captured a compelling perspective about the political process in a compromised democracy. The book takes a more rallying tone akin to Dr. King’s book, “Where Do We Go From Now?” that pushed the issue of democratic and civic involvement from the citizens as whole. Mwanaka portrayed this dissatisfactory relationship in the midst of democratic drawbacks and growing pains such with democratic norms such as participation, activism, civil society, personal freedoms, and accountability to the public.
An empirical example of politics in 2018 where the ruling ZANU-PF party “won 69% of the 210 elective seats in Parliament, and the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) announced that Mnangagwa had beaten the other 22 presidential candidates to garner 50.8% of the vote. The main opposition, the MDC Alliance (MDC-A), challenged this election result which was later upheld by the Constitutional Court.” (Masunungure, 2020)
The implications this system in present a challenge the notion of Mugabe regime’s control as constitutional enforcements serve as counterpoint by demonstrating the resilience of its political system and possible future erosion as seen in other countries such as the United States, Europe, or its neighbors. It is important to know that courts are a driving factors towards pushing the government to adopt reforms in the future or allow civil society to change the political environment.
If state service failures are the reason of democratic hinderance, it is also possible to understand that securing personal freedoms, business rights, civil reforms, and an actively diligent civil society are necessary to protecting and improving the state of democracy. Under this framework, there is more opportunity for domestic unity rather than foreign intervention that has been practiced in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Sudan, in previous decades. Zimbabwe demonstrates that a nation can exist in between failure and success as its struggles to grow and adapt with modern times. There is no denial that democracies are institutions that will always face challenges through time. However, the distinction of between successful and failed democracies is more nuanced than what is on the surface of news reports. For nations like Zimbabwe, the situation presents an opportunity that can be addressed through a combination of tailored and well-conducted reforms. The most important piece of this proverbial puzzle lies in the political will between the government and its people. The implications of a reform of this nature are initially difficult until a habitual precedent encourages change in the following decades.
Hannah Baron, Robert A. Blair, Jessica Gottlieb, and Shelby Grossman. 2019. In Finkel, Eugene, Adria Lawrence and Andrew Mertha (eds.). The US in Comparative Perspective. Newsletter of the Organized Section in Comparative Politics of the American Political Science Association 29(1): 77-84