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The language of change in Zimbabwean politics
Dr Alex T Magaisa
January 07, 2007

Most readers may recall situations when they have either faced resistance to change or they have been the ones that have resisted change, for no reason other than that that it is the way things have always been. If not, it is probably just a matter of time.

Change is a phenomenon that most people find difficult to deal with. Even when it is necessary and inevitable, many people still find it hard to come to terms with change. Sometimes, the mere thought of change strikes fear into the hearts of most people.

Having observed events and circumstances obtaining within Zanu PF circles in recent times, it is arguable that perhaps the single greatest challenge it faces is to overcome the fear of change. This is not simply change on the broader political and economic landscape, but change within its own ranks.

Given the malady currently affecting the MDC and the consequent loss of momentum within the opposition movement generally, most attention now focuses on Zanu PF and whether or not it has the capacity and will to change. This has admittedly been a narrow focus, which is centred not on the wider politics and policies of Zanu PF but simply on the issue of succession of President Robert Mugabe.

It is part of what has termed the biographical approach that has been largely applied in conceptualising, analysing and understanding the Zimbabwean problem; an approach under which the circumstances of the country are viewed and analysed via the person of President Mugabe. This biographical approach posits that if Mugabe retires sooner, things are more likely to get better in Zimbabwe, since essentially all the shortcomings and challenges facing the country are invariably blamed on the leader of the ruling party. Simple and straightforward as it might appear, it is not entirely convincing that his departure will easily wash away the myriad of problems, given that they arise from multiple sources.

The weaknesses this approach notwithstanding, it is difficult to dismiss the view that, even if only for image purposes, change in leadership is a necessary consideration at this stage. It matters no more whether it is right or wrong, since it seems clear that the problems of Zimbabwe have become so closely aligned to the name of the President that one would be forgiven for suggesting that whoever replaces him, whether or not he belongs to Zanu PF, there is likely to be a change in perceptions, both locally and internationally, putting aside the argument that the changes in perception may be misguided.

Implicit in this approach is the assumption that new leadership could usher a new approach to the political and economic issues affecting the country. Perhaps that is why even the staunchest critics of Zanu PF have probably been willing it to drive change from within, seeing as it is that the body and spirit of the MDC seems to be dithering at critical times.

This approach may be too simplistic and narrow since it ignores the myriad of causes of the crisis and the impact of the political culture in Zanu PF, which even President Mugabe himself has struggled to control and contain. Yet still, in a country where hope is waning by the day, anything that represents change is probably regarded as a credible goal and achievement.

The Zanu PF Congress held at Goromonzi in December 2006 suggests that there are some voices in Zanu PF that realise that change is necessary and ultimately inevitable. There fact that there was reportedly no consensus on the key issue of extending the Presidential term from 2008 to 2010 indicates the differing views and presence of those willing to effect change. Perhaps the most visible sign of an appetite for change was what is now commonly referred to as the Tsholotsho Declaration, a euphemism for the plan under which it is said, some sections of Zanu PF were apparently orchestrating changes in the leadership of the party. Nonetheless even if these are indications of an appetite for change, there is no visible will to go the full mile. It seems to me that there is the familiar reluctance in Zanu PF; perhaps even fear to accept and cope with change.

My favourite book, Paolo Coelho-s The Alchemist, tells the story of a man who finds it very difficult to embrace change, even when he knows that it could benefit him materially. The man in the story is a merchant, who is in the business of selling crystal glass. A boy in his employ eager to create wealth brings fresh ideas and proposes that business could be enhanced if they install a display cabinet outside the shop, showcasing the crystal glasses. However, the merchant is reluctant at first because he fears people might knock over the cabinet and break his glasses.

After some persuasion, he concedes to the plan and sure enough, the level of business increases. Later on, the boy notices that people walking up the hill where the shop is located often complain of thirst and tiredness. He proposes to the merchant that they should start selling tea in the crystal glasses. The people would find something to quench their thirst and having tasted tea in crystal glasses, they might even end up buying the glasses as well.

One would have thought this would be a good plan for the business, which any merchant would be keen to embrace. But our merchant reacts rather differently. He explains to the boy that he has been in the business of selling crystal for three decades and knows the character of crystal very well. He admits that if they start selling tea in crystal glass, his business would expand but he says he is reluctant to do it because he fears that it would mean he would have to change his way of life. In a classic statement of fear of change, he says,

"I am already used to the way things are . . . the shop is exactly the size I always wanted it to be. I don-t want to change anything, because I don-t know how to deal with change. I am used to the way I am."

I sometimes wonder whether this is the same mode in which Zanu PF operates. Perhaps they cannot even imagine a world without President Mugabe. He has led the party and the country for so long that for them he is now part of the natural order. They see no reason to change anything. They probably fear change because they do not know how to manage it. Unlike his detractors, they see him as a victim of external machinations.

They are used to the way they are and do not know how to deal with change, especially given the factional divisions centring on the battle for succession. They cannot even dare talk about succession openly because they do not know how to deal with it. Like the merchant, they do not want to be forced to "look at wealth and at horizons (they) have never known". But in the end, as did the merchant, Zanu PF just has to realise that, "sometimes, there is just no way to hold back the river".

Hard as it might be for many people to swallow, it is futile to deny that Zanu PF remains a critical player on the political landscape, primarily because it is the party that holds the levers of power and more so now than a few years ago when the MDC was seen as the primary agent of change. The MDC leadership in both factions must pick up the pieces and realise what most of their ordinary members have said all year — that they ought to become a more solid and focused unit. Arguably, attention is shifting to Zanu PF not because it promises greatness but because it has remained entrenched in power and observers see little chance of overcoming it especially with the opposition in its current sorry state. Perhaps some people have come to the point where they think that sometimes you just have to face the harsh reality and live with what you have, hoping for the best. Zanu PF has never had a better opportunity in recent years to make positive steps and rehabilitate its image in the eyes of the people. Yet Zanu PF has shown a remarkable reluctance to embrace change. It has postponed inevitable change whilst not reducing the burden on the citizens. In fact, the postponement serves nothing except to perpetuate the misery of the citizens.

In the story of the merchant and the boy, it is gratifying to note that when our dear merchant finally accepts the boy-s proposal to sell tea in crystal glasses, business flourishes and he realises he has done well to overcome his fear of change. To cope with change he hires new staff and introduces other ideas. Perhaps one day, as did the merchant, Zanu PF will overcome its fear of change and shall embrace it and learn to cope with it. It is a big player on the scene and Zimbabwe desperately needs it to change. Just like Zanu PF, the MDC must learn that things do not always stay the same. In the tropical rainforest, the competition for space and light is fierce. In that jungle, there are giant trees that grow to great heights. Sometimes these giants live for hundreds of years. But sure enough, one day, each giant faces its end. When the giant falls, it does not mean that the rainforest ceases to grow. Instead, the fall of a giant creates space and in that space, new plants begin life. There are those that are quick, but they do not live long. Then there are slow growers, the hardwoods that take their time, but ultimately have the strength and power to live much longer. Whichever way, the tropical rainforest is always replacing itself. The language of the rainforest is the language of change. It is the same language that Zimbabwean politicians must embrace.

* Dr Magaisa can be contacted at

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