The struggle for moral authority in Zimbabwe

One of the most remarkable protest acts in Zimbabwe in 2016 was a little-publicized act by a small group of female Christian worshippers who dressed up in sacks, and prayed and wailed for three days. It was indicative of a year replete with seemingly symbolic and performative acts of defiance against President Robert Mugabe and the ruling party ZANU-PF’s chokehold on power.

By Melusi Nkomo

In mid-2016, preacher Evan Mawarire started a campaign that startled the regime. Mawarire posted a video on Youtube of himself, swaddled in Zimbabwe’s national flag and lamenting the country’s state of affairs. Perhaps in spite of himself, he had gone straight to the heart of the beast. His words and actions appealed immediately to Zimbabweans’ moral sensibilities. Following Mawarire’s post, various other movements – mostly launched through social media – mustered courage and confronted the state using different tactics.

Some organized saucepan-clanging marches, prayer meetings, dressed up in academic regalia and played street football or just sat, looking idle on the streets. The actions injured the ego of a regime that prides itself in ruling over one of Africa’s most educated populations; the message of “graduates,” in particular, was unequivocal: “We are graduates today, rovha mangwana ([and]loafers tomorrow).” These actions, while seemingly eschewing direct confrontation with a notoriously brutal state machinery, effectively challenged the moral authority of the regime. The last thing the Zimbabwe regime wants to surrender to anyone, even before the national airport, is its guardianship of the post-independence moral narratives and symbols and the authority that comes with them.

After independence from British colonial rule in 1980, Robert Mugabe moved swiftly to consolidate his hold on the political and historical landscape narratives and imaginations of the country. Monuments were built to commemorate fallen war combatants and civilians of the independence war. Besides Independence Day, other days were also set aside for commemoration of the war and its heroes. Particular care was taken in ensuring that the war narrative, national days and associated emblems, such as the national flag, were closely related to President Mugabe and the ruling party.

It’s no exaggeration that Independence Day in Zimbabwe today is associated, not with a national embrace of a  nation, and the journeys Zimbabweans have travelled together, but with the ruling party’s reaffirmation of its perceived one-sided heroism, moral hegemony and authority.

Mawarire prayerful lamentation and use of the national flag on Independence Day was a radical political action indeed: A flag sans the meanings attributed to it, we are reminded by social theorist Emile Durkheim, is just but a piece of cloth, but as a societal emblem, it is imbued with a moral force that galvanizes collective sentiments and exerts moral demands on individuals in society. His action hit the regime square in the face. The national outpouring and support that followed Mawarire’s Youtube post and his subsequent persecution, became for many not only a civic duty, but also a higher moral one. For the regime, it was an extreme challenge to its moral authority and the backlash was immediate. Mawarire had to skip the country into exile.

Prayer meetings, spontaneous possession by ancestral spirits in courtrooms during activists’ trials and other quasi-religious activities continued after he left. Such political actions do not lack historical precedence in Africa. In 1985, the anthropologist Jean Comaroff wrote about Apartheid South Africa – and how the use of brute force in suppressing political protests gave rise to symbolic and performative practices, often involving ritual practice, in place of “open discourse.” In her analysis, Black Africans’ religious communities took centre stage in defying the brutal Apartheid machinery.

Similarly, in the Zimbabwean case where any kind of dissent is met with booted feet, gunfire, water cannons and tear gas canisters, creative modalities of political action, such as the manipulation of religious and cultural codes, are common responses from the oppressed. During the country’s liberation struggle against white minority rule in the 1970s, it was not uncommon for Black guerilla armies of ZANU and ZAPU to seek spiritual endorsement from traditional chiefs and spirit mediums.

Over and above their Marxist “revolutionary” training, ZANU fighters often sought legitimacy from mediums of the spirit of Mbuya Nehanda, a female ancestor claimed by many Shona-speaking groups in the country. So, political efforts that lean on things religious and spiritual have today also become useful in shaking the edifice of dictatorship. In fact, they are more useful than the calculated ten-point, calibrated plans and “organic” political actions of those identifying  as “secular” political outfits. It is pastoral figures, and other religio-political actors who have shown a knack at articulating the social experiences of Zimbabweans, and they have a redemptive appeal to the long-suffering nation.

What does this mean then for the future of political organizing and mobilization in Zimbabwe? Clearly, modalities of mainstream struggle also have to change or accommodate other creative political actions, even when they appear transient. It’s no longer helpful to cast aspersions on those who don’t bring forward political manifestos or chant revolutionary slogans. Religious, moral and psychic solidarities are not compensatory to “real” political action. They are real, and they reflect sentiments rooted in extant conditions of social existence. In Zimbabwe people have turned en masse in recent years towards religion – be it charismatic churches, traditional revivalist movements or other spiritual groups.

Civil society movements, such as those of organized labor and students (the traditional constituencies of opposition parties) have been largely decimated during the last two decades. So, religion, taken here in the broader sense as a rallying point for the collective social organization and action, has gained more from the crisis. And it is religion that will have the most significant role in either delaying or inspiring future meaningful political action in Zimbabwe.

Related Posts
What went wrong with democracy?
Can Donald Trump and the populist leaders of Europe do us some good? They do what populists have always done: play on fears, especially of those not defined as “our” ...
READ MORE
Mugabe: Liberation hero turned despot
On Saturday, his ruling Zanu-PF party endorsed the 92-year-old leader as its candidate for the 2018 presidential election, bringing him closer to achieving his wish. From crushing political dissent to ushering ...
READ MORE
Robert Mugabe shows no signs of leaving the office
Zimbabwe’s president Robert Mugabe has been confirmed as the ruling Zanu-PF party’s presidential candidate for the next election due in 2018, when he will be 94 years old, and should ...
READ MORE
2016: Zimbabwe’s year of uncertainty and unrest
IT'S early morning in the Zimbabwean capital Harare, and stockbroker Tafadzwa Dzingayi (not real name) is facing a barrage of questions from a foreign investor who wants to know when ...
READ MORE
Obama’s legacy: Achievements and failures of first black US President
He entered the White House a living symbol, breaking a colour line that stood for 220 years. Barack Obama's presidential victory in 2008 was a turning point in America's tumultuous ...
READ MORE
With Mugabe, 92, set for 2018 poll, Zanu should worry about the age of his ideas
When it comes to age and leadership, I am always reminded of two controversial statements. By KWENDO OPANGA One was made by a sitting American president at a serious, globally watched public ...
READ MORE
Innovative use of fertilizers revives hope for Africa’s Green Revolution
Phillip Tshuma is a happy farmer. Despite one of the worst droughts ever to hit his country, Zimbabwe, Mr. Tshuma’s maize and small grains harvests this year are 50% more ...
READ MORE
The Disintegration of Zanu PF
Events are moving fast in Zimbabwe. The economy is close to shut down – traffic levels have declined and shortages of key products such as fuel are appearing despite every ...
READ MORE
ZANU-PF’s complex dominance without persuasion
A COMRADE in the academic world recently sent me a copy of a New Left Review article entitled “The Heirs of Gramsci”. Largely focusing on intellectuals who furthered the Italian philosopher’s ...
READ MORE
Jah Prayzah-Gonyeti sex scandal: Sexual abuse rife in showbiz
When Rita Marley told the world in 2004 that her beloved and iconic husband, Bob Marley had forced himself on her back in 1973, the world reacted with incredulity. By Bruce ...
READ MORE
What went wrong with democracy?
Mugabe: Liberation hero turned despot
Robert Mugabe shows no signs of leaving the
2016: Zimbabwe’s year of uncertainty and unrest
Obama’s legacy: Achievements and failures of first black
With Mugabe, 92, set for 2018 poll, Zanu
Innovative use of fertilizers revives hope for Africa’s
The Disintegration of Zanu PF
ZANU-PF’s complex dominance without persuasion
Jah Prayzah-Gonyeti sex scandal: Sexual abuse rife in

Arts & Entertainment

Arts & Entertainment

Rapper Soulja Boy charged with possessing assault rifle, stolen property

23rd January 2017 Staff Reporter 0

Rapper Soulja Boy was charged on Monday with possessing an assault weapon and receiving stolen property following a December raid at his Hollywood home by police, Los Angeles prosecutors said. The rapper, whose real name […]

Arts & Entertainment

Bruce Springsteen says the “new resistance” against Trump has begun

23rd January 2017 Staff Reporter 0

American rock star Bruce Springsteen, who supported Hillary Clinton during the recent presidential election campaign, said on Sunday his band joins a global “new resistance” against U.S. President Donald Trump. “It feels a long ways […]

Arts & Entertainment

Madonna defends ‘blowing up the White House’ remark

23rd January 2017 Staff Reporter 0

Pop singer Madonna, who said in a profanity-laced speech at Saturday’s Women’s March in Washington, D.C., that she had thought about “blowing up the White House,” said on Sunday that she was speaking metaphorically. Madonna’s […]