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ZIMBABWE: Are MP's representatives or godfathers?
February 09, 2005

It's election season, and candidates are at it again, promising voters the moon. It happens all over the world and Zimbabwe is no exception. It supplements our time-honoured campaign tradition of buying rounds of drinks and entertaining potential voters. But in Zimbabwe in 2005, vote-buying has taken on a whole new dimension as ZANU (PF) aspirants vie with each other and with potential opponents to donate money and goods to their bemused constituents, long before the voting begins. Rural schools have become prime targets for parliamentarians' largesse and computers one of the main items dispensed. They are dumped here and there, with or without all the necessary components, in schools which may not even have the electricity required to operate them.

We hear of a retired general sponsoring a whole school, fees, buildings, books and doubtless much more. Some candidates barred from the ZANU (PF) primaries complained that they had spent hundreds of millions of dollars in their chosen constituency, only to be eliminated before the contest. Jonathan Moyo, even after being disbarred, ostensibly by the "Beijing Factor", boasts that he has donated $69 million for school fees in Tsholotsho because he is concerned about the people there, fuelling speculation that he will contest as an independent. The sitting Minister of Agriculture distributes much needed maize from the GMB and is rewarded, we are told, with a huge vote which gives him the party nomination in his home area.

With the exception of a few committed Christians, Zimbabwean individuals of the new "indigenous business" type have not been known for their public spirit or charitable works. They prefer to spend their newly acquired millions on themselves, to purchase luxury living, or on the Party, so purchase influence. So what is all this sudden transformation into philanthropists? Is it merely coincidence that an election is looming? Could we expect to reap all this bounty after the election is over? Not likely, for it is clearly campaigning: trying to demonstrate to the electorate that the candidate can deliver development for the people. But so what? Even if it is done to garner popularity with the public, with electioneering in mind, is there anything wrong with it that? Surely there is no harm in giving the beleaguered voters a few handouts?

Indeed there is - a great deal of potential harm. Some of this spectacle of mouse-less computers at schools with no electricity might be amusing, or even entertaining, were it not so clearly destructive. Not only does it fail to initiate genuine development, it is seriously subversive of the democratic process. It betrays a complete misunderstanding of what democracy is all about, both by the aspiring candidates, and the constituents who fall for this type of inducement.

Several questions might be raised:

  • First: What is the role of an elected member of parliament in a democratic state?
  • Second: What kind of a person do we want in our parliament?
  • Third: What is the role of an M.P. in promoting development?
  • Fourth: Where does the wealth of such individuals come from?
  • Fifth: What is the effect on the democratic process of such "donations"?

One of the major principles of democracy is that government is conducted by the people. In a modern society, this is not possible, so modern democracy requires that the people elect representatives who will voice their wishes and aspirations. In Zimbabwe we elect members to parliament, which is the legislative body of government; those members enact laws which, because they are made by people who represent us, should reflect our interests. It is the duty of members of parliament to express our wishes and to vote in a way that promotes our interests. Most voters, however, do not spend their time thinking about public policy. It is the role of political parties to devise policies and strategies for government - for providing a legislative framework which maintain services and promote development for the people. When seeking election we would expect aspiring candidates to present the policies of their party and convince the voters that those policies will be the most beneficial for the people. Once elected, whether or not they are members of the governing party, they must interact and consult with the people of the constituency, inform the constituents of proposed legislation and learn their views. Only with this type of interaction can democracy be considered to be government by the people.

For this work of representation, we need members of parliament who come from within the constituency, or if they do not live there, at least have a close connection and good understanding of the people they wish to represent. They need to be prepared to spend time finding out the views of the constituents, grasping their problems and hearing their proposals for solutions. They need to understand the policies of their party and be able to explain them to their people. Since members of parliament are primarily law-makers, they need to be people who have some understanding of the law as well, and of the issues of importance in the nation. They also need to be men and women of integrity and commitment to the welfare of the people. Since M.P.s occupy a key position in public affairs, they are frequently the target of persuasion by special interest groups. They come under pressure to pass or not pass certain laws, not because of the effect on the mass of the people, but because of the benefit to a few. M.P.s have to be very much aware of this and have the clarity to perceive what will be in the interests of the people and what promotes only the interests of private individuals. Furthermore they need to have the courage to follow what they know will benefit their people.

The candidate who seeks to ingratiate himself with the people by using private wealth to gain popularity is in fact showing contempt for the people. He or she is deliberately avoiding a discussion of issues. That candidate has no intention of finding out the views of the people or of representing them in parliament. Policies of his party are not discussed except possibly at the level of sloganeering. This politician is not promoting democratic participation. Rather the people become pawns to be manipulated and manoeuvred. He becomes, not their representative, but their godfather or godmother.

Candidates who present gifts to their constituents usually claim that they are promoting development. School fees, equipment for schools will help to develop the community. This raises the question of the role of the M.P. in development. Government in a country such as Zimbabwe is to a large extent about the promotion of economic development. In the 20th century, two choices seemed to be available to a developed economy: capitalist or socialist. For a time, ZANU (PF) verbally espoused a socialist route. However, this commitment was never genuinely fulfilled, and with the failure of most socialist regimes to sustain development, and their collapse at the end of the 1980's, this option was abandoned and a capitalist route embraced.

A benign capitalist approach to development would hold that the government will simply provide the legal, fiscal and monetary policy framework in which private individuals will then create wealth. Government may assist individuals and provide those essential services which require public support, but wealth will be created and spread to all sectors of the community by many individuals competing. The more players, the more wealth will be created for more people, hence promoting development. The role of the M.P. is to contribute to the legislation enacted, to ensure that the people understand how the laws work in their favour and help them to access any benefits provided which will spur the creation of private or community wealth. And to listen to their views of how the laws are working for or against them so that they can be amended. Political parties will adopt different views of how development can best be promoted and their members will seek to persuade the people that their programme will be more beneficial.

But ZANU (PF)'s form of capitalism is far from benign. It does not follow this model of wealth creation from the bottom, assisted by conducive legislation. The consistent tactic of our new "wealth-creators" has been to make use of connections to occupy privileged, monopolistic positions. Using corrupt means and intensely exploitative labour practices, they build up their own capital. Then, in order to protect that position, consolidate it and expand it, they find it useful to seek political power. That power is not to be used for the benefit of the constituents, but for their own economic enhancement. The competition which would bring development is not desirable, because it would limit their own opportunities. And so the new predator class emerges - political and economic power combine. When such people aspire to be elected to Parliament, they do not even consider policy issues. What they want is the power to build themselves. The easier way, they believe, to compete for the support of the people, is to give them gifts which might make them happy. Like the auntie who showers gifts on her niece in order to be loved, but provides no guidance or bases for growth and maturation of the child. The electorate may temporarily be cheated into believing they are being helped.

Many Zimbabweans admire people who have gained wealth and are tempted to see this as success. The demonstration of such wealth by free distribution of goods entices them to vote for that person. We need to begin to be sceptical of wealth, and question its origins. While there are some very hard-working business people who build up legitimate businesses, more often than not, that wealth is derived from money that should have been used to develop the country.

We see an individual who a few years ago was a scrawny salesman or salaried employee suddenly ballooning in size, flaunting wealth in the form of cars, designer clothes, foreign holidays and expensive foreign schools for their children. There are many such examples in Zimbabwe. And there are very few of these nouveaux riches who came by their money honestly. They may have had good connections to get forex allocations at official rates and change them on the parallel market; they may have fraudulent contracts to supply government at many times the cost of the goods; they may have converted company or government money to their own use; they may have obtained loans from their friends working in banks, which they know they will never repay. Hardly anyone uses legal methods to make money any more. Most of it has come from the acquisition of public assets by private individuals. So when these people offer donations to the voters, they are trying to get credit for being public-spirited, using money that was most likely misappropriated from public monies in the first place. We cannot trust them. Jonathan Moyo boasts that he donated $69 milllion for school fees. Where does a minister get such funds from to give away? Ministers may be well paid, but they are not that well paid. Elliot Manyika says it was government money. So how did Moyo get his hands on it? Does it mean that government ministers can help themselves to government money to help them win re-election?

It is not surprising that ZANU PF does not want anyone except themselves to undertake education of the voters. Civic educators from a variety of NGOs have been gaining some success in helping the electorate to analyse politicians who present themselves for election, to question their interests in becoming a member of parliament. They have challenged voters to examine the effect of vote-buying, whether on a large or small scale, and many voters have become more sophisticated. The rejection of the constitutional referendum in 2000 and the popularity of MDC in the June 2000 election was in large part a result of voters beginning to realise that they were being cheated by ZANU (PF), who were not really interested in what the people wanted. Now ZANU (PF) candidates embark on this competition to see who can shower the most on the electorate, at the same time denying the voters their right to be helped to question, to analyse, and to formulate their own opinions.

The final question is the most challenging. What is the effect on the democratic process of such "donations"? Clearly it subverts it. There is no discussion of policy, no attempt to let the people's voices be heard, no concept of representation. If someone is going to gain votes by offering "presents", the implication is obvious: vote for me and you will get favours. But the reverse is also true: don't vote for me and I will use all the wealth and power I have against you. Development comes from me, from being associated with me. If you work against me, you will not get any development.

Furthermore, if I get into power by offering you "goodies", then you certainly cannot influence the way in which I conduct myself in parliament. I do not represent your interests. I represent my own, and I have used you to gain political power to add to my economic power. In this period of famine, the "big man" can also get you food when there is none. He may be able to get development benefits from government as well. As long as you continue to be docile, obedient voters, you will continue to get goodies, but if you stray, the benefits will stop. Development does not come from the efforts of the people within a conducive framework created by the government. Development comes from outside, when people accept a "ruling" party without question.

But even more sinister, the man who can protect you will also punish you if you no longer support him. He who can buy your vote can also buy the support of the law enforcement agents. You can be dealt with by the party goons who will enjoy impunity - or even by the big man himself who will wield his gun to threaten anyone who dares to support an opposition figure. In Chipinge South he is said to house the police in buildings he owns, making it obvious that they will not touch him if he breaks the law. He is the "Godfather" protecting if you toe the line, but punishing cruelly if you attempt to leave the fold.

This is not democracy. This rather resembles a feudal system of power relationships. The powerful man or (occasionally) woman brings you benefits, protects you from the dangers of the world around you, but in return you must render servile obedience. The politician simply manipulates you; he or she does not represent you. You are used to serve his or her interests. Parliament becomes a chamber of the wealthy whose aim is to make laws that favour their own interests in maintaining and expanding their own wealth. Some development may be provided to the masses in order to keep them quiet, but they must have no share in policy-making. If they demand it, they will be silenced.

No democracy is perfect, and every one has evolved through struggle over a lengthy period of time. Even the oldest have their serious flaws, where government in the interest of the people is betrayed. When we got Independence we thought we had achieved democracy. It is now clear that we expected too much of ourselves and our leaders. We didn't realise that they would subvert the electoral system to serve their own selfish interests instead of the development interests of the people. We didn't realise that we had to carry the struggle further if we wanted our voices to be heard by our leaders. Now we know. If we want representative democracy, we will have to resist the forked tongues of politicians who come bearing gifts but in the other hand carry knobkerries. We have to learn to tell them that this fake democracy is not what we want. We have to learn to vote for those who will represent our interests not theirs.

The achievement of a smoothly functioning democracy is still a long way ahead, but if we walk down the right road we will get there in the end. If we are capable of recognising some of the problems, of understanding how we are being manipulated, used and abused, then we will be able to again move forward. A good starting place is to reject the ZANU (PF) idea of a legislator. We need to fight against the concept of the politician as godfather, and replace it with the ideal of politician as representative and servant of the people, committed to their participation and development.

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