Political office has never been for the faint-of-heart. Getting into office is often a dirty business, and staying there a trying one. There’s no denying, however, that legislators from developing countries — in the case of this article, Zimbabwe — face a particularly challenging set of circumstances.
The only woman councilor in Zimbabwe’s second-largest city of Bulawayo, Stars Mathe, is well acquainted with the pressures of political life. On the evening she was interviewed, she arrives home at a modest house in the working class area of Cowdray Park, only to have two women visit shortly afterwards.
While they appear to be older than Mathe, they call the councilor “mother”. One bluntly tells Mathe that she doesn’t have anything to cook for her family, and would like Mathe to provide her with assistance.
Without losing her poise, and clearly accustomed to such requests, Mathe politely turns them away. The moment she does so, however, she discovers a note, pushed under her door, requesting her presence at a nearby funeral.
“When they tell you this, they usually expect financial assistance,” she remarks wearily, while preparing to go.
Legislators from industrialized countries may well claim to have a “hands on” approach to dealing with those in their constituencies.
In the poorer areas of Zimbabwe however, especially rural settlements, a good representative is required to be nothing less than a dependable parent-figure: someone who is readily available to help individuals solve private matters, and dig into their personal resources to do so.
At the moment, there is no shortage of needs in the country. Farm occupations to redistribute land from minority whites, political violence, periodic fuel shortages and triple-digit inflation have combined to undermine Zimbabwe’s economy, impoverishing a substantial part of the population.
However, certain observers are sparing in their admiration of officials who take on the role of “provider-of-last-resort”. Instead, they criticise them for creating or perpetuating a “donor-recipient” relationship with their constituents.
“It is because when they campaign, they use money,” says journalist and feminist Miriam Madziwa.
Sheba Dube, who runs the League of Women Voters, observes “It’s a disease of the politicians.” This body is a pressure group modeled along the same lines as its American parent organisation.
Dube says many Zimbabwean voters hardly know what to demand from, or expect of, a political leader. If they did, she adds, they would not support a leader on one day â€’ then vote them out the next, with scant regard for performance.
Still, it seems the situation is sometimes more complex than these explanations suggest — and that Zimbabwe’s democratic institutions are maturing.
If money is all that is required to secure political victory, then Sikhanyiso Ndlovu would not have lost his parliamentary seat in 2000, when the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) stormed onto the political scene. During the preceding five years, this well-heeled entrepreneur had no qualms about spending money in his constituency, also a working class area.
He established a scheme through which residents could buy reconditioned “kombis” (mini-vans) imported from Japan. These vehicles were used to set their owners up in taxi businesses.
Ndlovu also organised an annual fair where women’s groups he supported could display the products of their home industries. Towards the end of his term, the politician â€’ a senior member of the ruling party â€’ even arranged for a “constituency ambulance”.
Ndlovu says he’s willing to stand in the next parliamentary election, scheduled for March 2005, but will only put his name on the ticket if people ask him to. “They shouldn’t expect me to keep pumping my own monies,” he adds, “It’s not fair to want me personally and not want the (ruling) party.”
Janah Ncube, who heads the lobby group, Women in Politics Zimbabwe (WIPZ), describes the expectation of financial help from leaders as a “developing world problem”, engendered by poverty.
“I’m not a political leader, but as a public face I still meet people who expect me to help them in one way or another,” she notes.
Voter demands also result from a “distorted image of what a parliamentarian is,” she adds. Constituents might be uncertain about what a candidate stands for — although they do have high expectations in other respects.
“We actually expect them to eat and look better than us, regardless of how poor we ourselves are,” Ncube observes.
Due to their general disempowerment, women are much more disadvantaged than men in what Ncube calls “this whole psyche that’s bought by money”.
It is perhaps not surprising then that women â€’ with fewer resources â€’ have also failed to make great inroads into Zimbabwe’s parliament.
Of the 150 legislators, only 16 (or 10,6%) are women, a decline of three percent from figures registered for the previous parliament. The Southern African Development Community (SADC), of which Zimbabwe is part, has set a target of having 30% of legislative seats in all member states occupied by women, by 2005.
Ncube says WIPZ intends to provide women candidates for the 2005 poll with advice on “image-building”, as well as assistance of a material nature.
But, she claims the largest obstacle to women’s participation in politics remains a lack of political will in the two main parties (the ruling ZANU-PF and the MDC) to have equal representation in their ranks.
Just as important, says Dube, is voter education to make Zimbabweans aware of what they should expect from their representatives. Unfortunately, this type of education has only been carried out shortly before the country’s previous elections — rather than on an ongoing basis, as it should be.
Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that conduct voter awareness initiatives have also received a hostile reception from the ruling party, which equates such education with campaigning for the opposition.
Only last month, the director of a Danish NGO (MS-Zimbabwe) was ordered to leave the country. Although a Danish citizen, Paul Eklof had lived in Zimbabwe for two decades while overseeing the organisation’s programmes, staff and training.
Another employee of MS-Zimbabwe, who requested anonymity, said that the deportation order included accusations that the Danish group had spread “political messages” via its voter education programmes in rural areas, particularly those in Matebeleland and near Binga.
The independent Zimbabwe Electoral Support Network has pressed ahead with its voter education campaigns, although a network official â€’- who also asked not to be named â€’- said the work was frequently (and illegally) disrupted by the police or local politicians.
“There are some people with certain powers, in certain areas,” she added. — IPS