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A disabling case of writer's block
Brian Chikwava
May 03, 2007

To a man who has only a hammer, every problem he encounters looks like a nail.

So said the American psychologist Abraham Maslow -- and, being a writer, I find myself in a similar position. I happen to have only a pen, and every problem that crosses my path resembles a story in need of fixing.

Because of this, I have come to think that the art of story writing has a lot in common with the art of politics.

A glance at Zimbabwe tells me that this is a bad story. It needs more than thorough editing; it needs a complete rewrite. Whether the script can be fixed depends not just on its main protagonist, Robert Mugabe, but also on the opposition. Their part is to put new ideas on the table, to carry the story in another direction.

Mugabe believes he is living an epic history, something like War and Peace. Except that his story is packed with more heroic exploits than Tolstoy, and can end only with the triumph of his will over history. The opposition, and many others, thinks it should be shelved under "tragedy".

Mugabe has scripted himself into a role in which there is no room for fresh thinking. If a mhondoro spirit (the mythic lion spirits that are the custodians of the people) were to appear before him with an offer to give the president anything he desired, but on condition that this wish shall be given twice to every citizen, it would not be out of character now for Mugabe to request that one of his eyes be gouged out.

This is a failure of the imagination. But it also reflects a failure of the opposition to articulate its vision. Nowhere was this better illustrated than the week after Morgan Tsvangirai's brutal assault at the hands of the police. Tsvangirai's wounds were paraded on television stations worldwide -- the veritable victim.

I am not suggesting that Tsvangirai should not be in pain, or indeed that he is not a victim. What I seek to understand is how the people are supposed to reconcile this sorry spectacle with the inspiration required of an indomitable and populist leader?

For his part, Mugabe probably suffers sleepless nights and fierce headaches. But we have yet to hear about that. In an age in which the art of image-making is mastered even by teenagers on MySpace, it seems odd that Tsvangirai has not grasped this.

Or maybe the problem is deeper than that. Tsvangirai has two audiences, after all. One is outside Zimbabwe, to whom he must look like a victim. The other is in Zimbabwe, to whom he must at least try to act the part of irrepressible opposition leader. He is not sure if he's a victim or a fighter.

There is no language to convey an alternative political project. With a trade-union background, one would have expected Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change to speak a language that inspires the common people. Instead he has flirted with neo-liberal policies.

The opposition do not know whether they are free marketeers or a grass-roots movement. Lacking the right words to spell this out clearly, Mugabe has been able to pose as a people's leader, monopolising the idiom of the left -- with all its leftist language.

This may explain why Tsvangirai, given a chance to script a new plot for Zimbabwe's future, is still holding his pen in mid-air. A better story lies somewhere inside his head, but he does not have the language for the task. Staring at a blank sheet of paper in front of him, Tsvangirai must confront the first question of characterisation: Is his protagonist hero or victim?

*Brian Chikwava is a Zimbabwean writer and winner of the 2004 Caine Prize for African Writing

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