Zimbabwe: Polls Sabbatical Call, Defence of Non-Existent Democracy

opinion

WHEN the churches issued a statement calling for a seven-year sabbath on national elections, there was an overflow of criticism. People of Zimbabwe, with our well-known polarisation, saw many things in that call. Some called it an attack on "democracy". While other "democrats" felt the church must not be involved.

I saw in that call a deep cry for radical measures to address a national crisis that has lasted for so long. In this deep cry, I was impressed by the audacious proposal to get the politics out of the way of a genuine conversation on how we all wish our country to look like. It takes courage to make proposals that immediately provoke fierce criticism.

While at face value the national sabbath call may look like it is about a seven-year suspension of elections, a deeper analysis shows us that this is hardly about seven years. It is about time to put in place measures to restore the key pillars of our country. Whether that process takes seven years, or 10 years or three years is a subject of dialogue.

I wholeheartedly support the proposal that for the next seven years or so -- could be more or could be less -- Zimbabweans should have an obligation to talk, act and think about one thing only, namely how to fix their country as opposed to agonising about which of our not-so-gifted representatives gets an opportunity for the next five years to waste our time. What a pleasure it would be to spend some years putting in place processes that will substantially minimise the chances of staging disputed elections which have been our curse as a country since independence in 1980.

I do not think that seven years as a time frame is cast in stone or means just that. The clergy sought to ring alarm bells about the magnitude of the challenges we face as a nation. They are challenging us to reflect on all that has gone wrong in the past 39 years. Why have we had so much violence and disregard for the sanctity of human life on numerous occasions in the formation of our nation state? Why have those we have placed in positions of responsibility with respect to the management of state affairs been insensitive to the needs of the people and downright incompetent?

We need a period, outside the application of constitutional provisions in a cynical manner, to reflect on why in our country the constitution does not in practice protect the dignity of citizens? Why does a state that some consider a constitutional delinquent profess to be bound in all of its dealings by the dictates of the constitution? There must be something manifestly wrong in a country when the government's interpretation of its constitutional obligations differs fundamentally with that of the generality of the populace.

Ask an average citizen who cares to follow events in the country and they will tell you without hesitation that government has no regard for the constitution. We need a period of reflection that enables us to develop a common understanding and appreciation of the constitution as citizens of Zimbabwe.

When the army stages what appears to all and sundry as a coup d'etat and we find a judicial process that pronounces such an event as being not a coup some among the populace begin to wonder whether we all have a similar understanding of the provisions of the constitution.

Zimbabwe was born out of a Rhodesian constitution that condoned racial superiority, in the process denying the majority protection by the constitution; it is not surprising that the majority government in the same habit of the colonial regime tends to manipulate the constitution to achieve its partisan interpretation of the same.

We need a period of reflection to ponder all these issues. As democratic processes go, I am not aware of any that betters periodic elections conducted in accordance with laws provided for in the constitution of the country. Elections are supposed to be the highest expression of a people's sovereignty. It is through elections that "we the people" supposedly elect our representatives in parliament and elsewhere.

The political parties that today are so eager to lecture the churches on the tenets of democracy suffer from huge democracy deficits if we are to judge their own primaries and how they are managing transitions internally.

Political parties have invested a lot in what should be their internal democratic processes. One sympathises with them when they balk at the thought of taking a sabbatical from what they consider their constitutional mandates. There are huge economic repercussions for such an idea eventuating. How do they forego funds from Treasury destined for parties that have reached the 5% threshold in the electoral vote? What happens to salaries of MPs and other benefits?

The fact that these are difficult issues cannot in any way trash the suggestion of a sabbatical.

All it does is challenge Zimbabweans to put their creative and thinking caps on. They would do this inspired by John Fitzgerald Kennedy who suggested that America intended sending a man to the moon specifically because it was a difficult thing to do.

The "easier" solutions have not worked. They have left our people severely impoverished, unhappy and in despair. Those "solutions" have left some in the country questioning their citizenship of the entity called Zimbabwe.

Day in day out, issues relating to shared citizenship, loyalty and the national question confront us. The patchwork that was the Lancaster House agreement that ushered in our independence achieved a ceasefire among warning combatants but provided no roadmap for nation building. Gukurakundi, Murambatsvina, the coup and killings thereafter serve to train a spotlight on how shaky our republic is.

The state should exist to serve the interests of its citizens. Such basic things as ensuring that our children are well fed fall within some of the responsibilities that a state has towards the citizens.

A report such as the recent one from Unicef indicating that only four children out of 100 in Zimbabwe are "fed according to the minimum recommended diet" should send shock waves to all of us. We have miserably failed our children. This has happened despite the fact that we have a constitution that stipulates that we hold elections dutifully every five years.

Countries like Norway, Denmark and Canada pride themselves in measuring the levels of their people's happiness. We seem to have a ministry of misery whose role seems to ensure that our people are as miserable as they can get. We need to be happy -- why are we so unhappy as a nation? Let us take a seven-year break from all things that make us unhappy. At the top of all which makes us unhappy is politics.

Nyathi is the executive director of Masakhaneni Projects Trust and deputy chairperson of the National Transitional Justice Working Group (NTJWG). He writes in his personal capacity.

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