1963-2018 - 55 years of Research for Social Change

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The Herald - Zimbabwe News Online: "Government of national unity should be rejected"

8 Apr 2002

The referendum of 2000, the parliamentary elections of 2001, and the just concluded presidential elections, however flawed they are, point to a significant development in African politics and democratisation. The elections signal a decentring of ethnicity and assertion of policy issues over sentiments in public debate.

Zimbabwe is a multi-ethnic society in which the Shona account for well over 60 percent of the population. The second largest group, the Ndebele, is slightly less than 15 percent of the population, and the third largest group is about 2 percent. There are about 15 ethnic groups in the country. There has been a tendency in academic and policy circles to view ethnicity as pathological. Two development economists, William Easterly and Ross Levine, have even identified ethnic fragmentation as a major cause of "Africa’s growth tragedy."

A recently launched project entitled Ethnic Structure, Inequality and Governance of the Public Sector at the UN Research Institute for Social Development questions this reading of politics in multi-ethnic societies. It develops a typology that distinguishes countries according to their levels of polarisation or dispersion of ethnic segments.

One of its hypothesis is that if the largest group accounts for an overwhelming majority of the population, it is likely to fragment, allowing individuals from smaller groups to play active roles in the parties formed by the dominant group. Ethnicity may constitute less of a problem in such societies than in those with only two or three ethnic groups, or in multi-ethnic settings in which groups have coalesced into regional formations that may limit the scope for bargaining.

As in all post-liberation countries in which nationalism was an organising principle, Zimbabwe’s first elections were a referendum on white settler rule. The tendency for dominated groups to act as a single entity in the first years of independence is usually very strong.

The ruling party, Zanu-PF, embodied the aspirations of all sections of society disadvantaged under white rule. Despite problems of funding, the party held out the prospect of land reform in order to keep its rural constituency happy.

At the same time, its inheritance of a healthy budget and economy meant it could pursue progressive social policies in the educational and health fields for all Zimbabweans, as well as provide job opportunities and good incomes to the urban middle class and workers.

The major political divide among Africans in the early years of independence was ethnic: Shona versus Ndebele. Cde Joshua Nkomo, who was Ndebele, and his Zimbabwe African People’s Union, were worried about marginalisation for good reason. Nationalism, use of State resources for political ends, and majoritarian electoral rules would prevent the fragmentation of the Shona vote, thus ensuring that Zanu-PF would govern without reference to Zapu, which had its base among the Ndebele.

The decision to form a Government of national unity, following the violent conflicts between the two parties in the mid-1980s, was a rational and welcome development. It brought the Ndebele into the social contract that underpinned nation building. Indeed, Zapu’s policies, unlike those of Bishop Abel Muzorewa’s party that was sponsored by the white regime to obstruct socio-economic transformation, did not differ from Zanu-PF’s on the core issue of national development.

The situation today is different. Nationalism is in decline and the State is no longer able to meet much of its obligation under the social contract that helped it hold together two different constituencies, the rural and the urban. It can only appease the peasantry by speeding up land reform, which is not interesting to most urban dwellers.

Significantly, the Shona vote has fragmented, allowing elites from the Ndebele and other minorities to play central roles in both parties. In the 2000 referendum which the Government lost, most urban dwellers voted against the Government whilst the rural people supported the Government. In the 2001 parliamentary elections, the opposition MDC won 57 seats and Zanu-PF 62. All 15 seats in Matabeleland, the heartland of the Ndebele, and most urban ones were won by the MDC. Zanu-PF won most rural seats.

The two largest cities, Harare (with a majority Shona population) and Bulawayo (majority Ndebele) voted overwhelmingly for the MDC. The pattern in the 2002 presidential elections is similar to previous ones except that the Ndebele vote fragmented for the first time. The cities in Matabeleland still went to the MDC but Cde Mugabe was able to make substantial inroads into that region’s rural areas, winning about 33 percent of the regional vote. The MDC won the majority of the council seats in cities for which elections were held.

These trends suggest that ethnicity is becoming less important in Zimbabwe’s politics. The major dividing line is now rural-urban, and the two main parties reflect this. Zanu-PF has failed to connect with the urban workers and middle class, whereas the MDC, which is heavily supported by the West and local whites, offers no credible message to the land-hungry peasantry. Indeed, it is seen as an instrument to reverse the gains of independence and block land reform.

Zanu-PF supports State intervention in the management of the economy whereas the MDC, like many new opposition parties that depend on the West for support, champion neo-liberal economic policies. As an opposition party, the MDC is strong on the rule of law, whereas Zanu-PF still has to shed its authoritarian baggage.

A unity Government will not work in Zimbabwe under these conditions. This is one of the few cases in African democratisation in which policies rather than ethnicity or sentiments are driving the political contest. Let the policies contend as they do in Western democracies where ethnicity is an insignificant predictor of political behaviour. A unity Government will fudge, not resolve, the issues.

Unity governments work best when countries are in a state of war or emergency, or when they are polarised by ethnic conflicts with no clear policy differences between contenders. The control of city councils by the opposition gives them a stake in governance and may force both parties to dialogue and tone down the unsavoury aspects of their discourse. The international community should help Zimbabwe resolve once and for all its land problem, which makes it difficult to organise free and fair elections.

A mobilised peasantry and nationalist party with a liberation history will not accept a situation in which 4 500 white farmers control 42 percent of the agricultural land and 1,2 million black families subsist on 41 percent of the land.



This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.