Op-Ed: Zimbabwe’s Leadership Moment: The centre can no longer hold

By David Takawira 28 July 2016

During the first week of July 2016 there were sporadic protests in Zimbabwe as citizens staged demonstrations from Beitbridge to Harare and Bulawayo. The protests, led by a variety of citizens including local commuter omnibus operators, civil servants, vendors, civic and political activists and clerics, culminated in a nationwide stayaway dubbed the #ZimbaweShutDown2016 on 6 July 2016. While the establishment (unfortunately but predictably) raised questions about the authenticity of the protests, citizens revelled in their newfound power. By DAVID TAKAWIRA.

How did we get here? Reflecting on how Zimbabwe got to this moment of renewed protest is an important leadership question. Given the nature and location of the protests, it is clearly more than conjecture on our part to suggest that the answer is found in the dusty streets of Zimbabwe. In other words, understanding the protests and their motivation is a function of lived realities of the people of Zimbabwe. We argue that the protests provide an opportunity for national dialogue around re-imagining our future, but also that this opportunity is in danger of being stillborn, resulting from the continued missing link of inspirational and empathetic national leadership.

The lived reality is characterised by want, political and economic malfeasance, and poor government made worse by the missing link of inspirational and empathetic leadership. To that end, while the season of protest may be ‘new’, its genesis is in old problems associated with a long winter of discontent, aided by a crisis of leadership and governance spanning over 20 years.

While Zimbabwe has been crisis-prone since independence, the latest episode beginning in the late ‘90s brought out clearly the leadership and governance challenges that the country faced. As this crisis continued and intensified post-2000, inspirational leadership has been missing. The dire economic, political and social status of Zimbabwe especially from 2000-to-date shows that the national discontent and the attitudes of the citizens is not unfounded. It is this long suffering by the citizenry over, especially, the two past decades that led to a national venting by a populace under enormous duress through screams of ‘Hatichada’; ‘Zvakwana’; ‘Tajamuka’; and so on – all roughly translatable to ‘Enough is enough’ and epitomised broadly under #ThisFlag. The July protests were characteristically, yet unfortunately, met by arrogance from the state, manifested through a “we do not care attitude”, intimidation, incarcerations and repression. This uncaring arrogance, clearly un-African, is what Zimbabwean citizens have come to expect by way of national leadership.

The governments leadership style entails, at best, laughing and looking aside on things that matter to their citizens, and at worst arresting dissent and discontent through arresting interlocutors and repression. Nothing affirms the Zimbabwean state’s absence of a creative problem-solving mindset more than its easy resort to and reliance on force. Reliance which is not only an exercise in futility but also beginning to have diminishing returns as citizens are becoming harder to intimidate and less afraid. An inspirational problem-solving leadership, which is empathetic and listens to citizens when they speak, is a big part of the hitherto elusive solution to Zimbabwe’s problems.

Genuinely locating the leadership problem that has led to where Zimbabwe is today is an important starting point. This challenge has manifested in the mutually reinforcing spheres of politics and economics. Zimbabwe’s political economy is fluid and dynamic, as well as rigged with power contestations, accumulation of resources and outright corruption.

The succession dynamics in all political parties and the parties’ inability to bring clarity and fixity of purpose within their institutions has affected their ability to lead an economic recovery. This, in turn, has been exacerbated by the state’s failure to discharge its essential functions, due to poor financial discipline in the face of an economic meltdown, shrinking resource base, and high corruption levels. To highlight the gravity of mismanagement of public resources, President Robert Mugabe, earlier in 2016, admitted that the finite opportunity to leverage Marange diamonds for broad-based economic development was squandered. By his admission, an estimated $15-billion remains unaccounted for, among other wasted opportunities not admitted and others that the Office of the Auditor-General has pronounced.

A massive social crisis with far-reaching humanitarian consequences is unfolding as a result. Unemployment remains above 90%, criminalisation of the informal sector and rising inequality remain a downside risk, although with inspirational and empathetic leadership this can be flipped into key opportunities for the country. This social crisis is primarily man-made, a function of poor leadership, and should not be confused with the current natural El Niño-induced drought in the country which has more than 3-million people facing starvation in 2016. The drought is a major and urgent crisis, which adds to the multifaceted socio-political and economic crisis nurtured over the past decades. Unfortunately, the response from government and key state institutions remains woefully inadequate and bankrupt in the main.

We believe that the situation can be salvaged and resolved as follows:

  1. The government of Zimbabwe must meet the demands of the people with less arrogance and force but with more pragmatism, leadership and engagement built on greater compassion. There is nothing sinister about citizens asking for electricity, which they paid for, nothing amiss about demanding that corrupt public and private officials, including police, be brought to book, nor with calling for the rule of law to be respected. There is nothing stranger than working and not being paid and being beaten to a pulp for asking what is rightfully yours. These are genuine concerns, which require less arrogance and more urgency of purpose.
  2. The government must address endemic corruption in the public and private sector, which is increasingly systemic and corrosive. The first step, at the level of individuals, is for accused public officials to resign, or be relieved of their duties pending independent investigations. These investigations ought to be carried out by relevant commissions with full powers as enshrined in the constitution. Given the centrality of mineral resources to our economy, transparency reforms are the key, and need to be built around the adoption or adaptation of EITI, to ensure infrastructure for good mineral resource governance required to enable optimal national benefits from exploitation of our abundant mineral resources.
  3. Far-reaching political reforms, including the unfinished business arising from the new constitution, need to be put in place. Three years after its adoption, Zimbabwe’s constitution can no longer be referred to as new. The constitution, if followed, presents a significant opportunity for a national conversation on leadership and governance – politically, socially and economically. Such a national conversation will help put a stop on statutory instruments that in effect are meant to shrink the rights of citizens to engage within the realm of their individual and collective rights. Last, and within the framework of constitutionalism, alignment of the main institutions remains critical and imperative in ushering a new social contract.
  4. Outside the constitution, Zimbabwe needs a national discourse on a national framework that deals urgently with the social, economic and political crisis. Holding elections now is a tempting and easy call to make, but will not bring solutions to unpaid civil servants, jobs to young graduates and school leavers, or closure to the rural folks who dream of running clean and safe drinking water in their homes. If there was a time for a national process that seeks to address the current at the same time as harnessing a national process that looks at redefining, reshaping and re-imagining our future, this year is the year. DM

Photo: Zimbabwean President and patron of the liberation war fighters, Robert Mugabe arrives to address around 10,000 former liberation war fighters at the City Sports Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe, 07 April 2016. EPA/AARON UFUMELI


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