Zimbabwe's war of empty slogans
Many years ago, I listened with amazement to a Zanu-PF luminary embarking on his party's eternal preoccupation: violent sloganeering. That was in the 1985 elections, in the Midlands capital, Gweru. The sloganeering was made by none other than the late Benson Ndemera, whom I happened to know as a homeboy, when he mistakenly used to call himself "the agonising secretary of the Midlands United African National Council party", led by Bishop Abel Tendekayi Muzorewa.
But by 1985, the music and dance of politics had changed for him. For the sake of political expedience, his notes had shifted to making slogans for President Robert Mugabe's party. The Muzorewas of his previous political map had ceased to exist. It was as if Ndemera's past had been erased by the heavy herbal concoctions prepared by the masters of the art of forgetfulness. Selective amnesia is a serious art of survival in Zimbabwean politics.
"VaMugabe havafi. Kana vakafa havaori. Kana vakaora havanhuwi" (Mr Mugabe does not die. If he dies, he will not decay. If he decays, he will not smell), the Ndemera slogan went, to frenzied cheers from the newly formed dogs of war, the Green Bombers (Mugabe's youth militia).
It was not that Ndemera had invented the sloganeering agenda for the ruling party. Liberation-war guerrillas were masters of sloganeering. The so-called pungwes or all-night political education meetings in the mountains were nothing more than chains of slogans, extolling the unproven virtues of Zanu.
They were also used as a prelude to the cold-blooded murders of those condemned by Zanu kangaroo courts as witches, sellouts and political opponents, aptly labelled "quislings" by Zanu's Radio Maputo, whose chief sloganeer, former DJ Webster Shamu, is the current information and publicity minister.
Come election time in 1980, and Zanu had not moved up a gear to develop the art of persuading the voters to cast their ballot for the party. It was all slogans: "Pamberi neZanu" (Forward with Zanu) and "Pasi nevatengesi" (Down with sellouts). Although we are now in the 21st century, Mugabe's party has not changed its approach one inch.
But then, are the new parties any different? The Movement for Democratic Change formations each have their own repertoire of slogans and party symbols, for which they are prepared to die. They are clung to with the same fervour as the Mugabe slogans, with Zanu-PF's added symbols: the clenched fist and a cockerel.
Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's party symbol is the open palm, which symbolises openness and transparency in public governance. The MDC slogan is "the party of excellence". The break-up of the MDC into several camps resulted in a furious war of words as each camp claimed to own the party symbol.
When Zimbabwean parties campaign, they usually produce a chain of newly invented, juicy slogans and clever political sayings rather than persuading voters with substantive issues, analysis of community and national problems and solutions.
Anyone who dares to ask Mugabe's politicians about real issues is deemed a traitor who should be punished with torture, harassment and possibly death.
Zanu-PF has never bothered to persuade anyone to vote for it. It is still the same old slogans: "Forward with Zanu [PF]", "Down with sell-outs". It is clear that the more politicians make empty slogans, the more likely they are to believe them, even though they carry no weight in the hearts of voters.
There will be war
"Down with sellouts" is simply the slogan of violence against political opponents that Mugabe's party has been using for the past 32 years. Every election is a rebirth of the old slogans and a re-entry into the same cycle of violence that has made ordinary Zimbabweans detest the idea of elections.
For Zimbabwean citizens, elections are a time of extreme fear and possible death. During all the elections, Zimbabwe's armed forces, secret police, prison services and uniformed police have been put on full alert as if a crime was about to be committed, the crime of possibly voting for someone who is not the sitting president and his cronies.
"If you don't vote for me, there will be war", Mugabe declared in the 2008 elections. "The ballot cannot be more powerful than the gun", the president publicly threatened voters.
"Simba rokutonga rinobva mumuromo wepfuti" (The power to rule comes from the barrel of the gun), the slogan of returned guerrillas went. And when they were not allowed to carry real guns to election rallies, they were imaginative enough to sculpt and carry wooden ones to improve the effect of the performance. Violent slogans continued and anyone who fell into the pit of "down with ..." faced a bad death.
Unfortunately, young politicians in the new parties tend to follow the only political tradition they have ever known: violence, threats and insults. And can anyone blame them, when persuasive politics and peaceful campaigning is considered weakness?
During the liberation war of the 1970s, if you so much as fell on the "down with" side of the slogans, you were surely dead. The manner of your death was the only thing left to decipher. Some faced death by bayonet, others by having their heads crushed to a pulp by villagers ordered to take up huge logs with which to murder the sellout or witch.
There does not seem to have been much movement along a positive tangent, especially in Mugabe's party, whose other tool is to post party militias in all villages to keep the possibility of death visible to innocent villagers if they do not allow themselves to be pulled by the collar to Zanu-PF's destiny.
All the elections in which Zanu-PF has participated since independence in 1980 relished in the art of sloganeering. All the rallies Mugabe and his cronies addressed were nothing more than sloganeering shows. Zanu-PF functionaries competed to emit huge quantities of slogans, some of them frighteningly serious and others bordering on the comical.
I remember a newly converted Zapu man standing in front of a Zanu-PF rally and shouting "Pamberi neZapu" (Forward with Zapu) several times before the stunned Zanu-PF crowd reminded him he was now in Zanu-PF. With much laughter from the audience, the man returned to the Mugabe slogans with the same volume and enthusiasm. And my mind wondered whether in his heart he really cared for Mugabe's politics and party. His heart was elsewhere, but he had to change slogans like underclothes to suit his bread and butter – and, of course, his life.
Zanu-PF rallies also invented another spectacle: the parading of defectors from other parties. They are usually brought in front of a loyal crowd and forced to recite new slogans with their heads drooping like captured prisoners of war.
Political commissars derive much pleasure in seeing and parading such humiliated human beings. When the captives perform their new repertoire of slogans, it is clear to all that the defectors have been captured from somewhere and made to perform as defectors. They do not even show any sign of believing the slogans. But, all the same, Zanu-PF is satisfied with the shallow sloganeering forced upon the poor men and women. And, of course, the Zanu-PF crowd usually has a field day, laughing and mocking the poor victims as though it was a ritual of reconversion to the political mother church. The rally becomes a tragicomedy, whose main theme is the capacity to humiliate those who dare to differ in their political views.
New parties are not to be outperformed in the art of parading "defectors". Whereas Zanu-PF forcibly took the old party cards of the renegades and sometimes burnt them in public, the new parties take the defectors, collect their old party cards and take them away, probably in case someone in the new party needs to defect to the old party. One never knows. But what we do know is that clever Zimbabweans buy several political party cards for production at convenient times to avoid unnecessary suffering at the hands of violent youth and armed militias.
As the country faints under heavy economic and political burdens, the politicians would rather punch the air with empty slogans and worthless promises that are so unrealistic that even illiterate villagers wonder how a politician can be so dumb as to promise a bridge where there is not even a river.
"Punching the air with clenched fists will make them more muscular than gymnasts" one man was heard to say at a political rally. The joke cost him untold suffering after it was overhead by a member of the secret police disguised in the crowd. The Green Bombers captured the man, took him prisoner for a night of torture and humiliation and released him the following day with a face disfigured and swollen beyond recognition.
Chenjerai Hove is a Zimbabwean writer living in exile in Europe