BZS Research Day 2014: Politics, Culture & Identity in Zimbabwe – By Diana Jeater
On 21st June 2014, the Britain Zimbabwe Society annual research day at St Antony’s College in Oxford focused on the theme of “˜Politics, Culture & Identity in Zimbabwe and its Diasporas’. It was a lively day of presentations, debate and discussion, which threw light on how much has changed in Zimbabwe in the past year. No single theme emerged. Rather, what we saw was a society in a moment of ambivalence, in which continuity was evident within change; stability within disruption; and new identities within old institutions. Diana Jeater summed up the presentations in this address at the end of the day.
Ambivalence and transition
It is clear that this is a moment of ambivalence and transition in Zimbabwe. It feels as though this recognition of being in a moment of profound change has crept upon us unawares. While all eyes were fixed upon land redistribution, political violence and the MDC/ZPF dramas, other undercurrents were gaining momentum. Various speakers have noted new configurations, primarily rooted in the churches, which are disrupting and transforming the role and meaning of the state and of social agency. As Khanyisela Moyo pointed out in her presentation, a transition need not mean an overthrow or a regime change. Zimbabwe is in a new time, when the “˜moment of politics’ has passed, and new struggles and identities are beginning to emerge.
Identities, boundaries and politics all seem to be disrupted in this new moment. This is a time of profound ambivalence, characterized above all by uncertainty. The Janus-face of the ZimAsset policy, looking on the one hand to external investment and on the other to indigenization, is emblematic of this ambivalence. JoAnn McGregor’s presentation had described a moment of uncertainty for Zimbabwean nationalist exiles in the UK in the 1970s. Is this a similar moment of unfolding potential, in which there is everything to play for and a world to win? Or are we teetering on the brink of further collapse?
Ambivalence in the wake of the MDC meltdown is dissolving political boundaries that the 2000s had hardened. Some of these boundaries had, in any case, always seemed counter-intuitive and unsustainable. In particular, we see the unravelling of the dichotomy between civil rights and human rights on the one hand (MDC) and economic justice/land redistribution (Zanu-PF) on the other. These issues no longer seem self-evidently in opposition to each other.
Presentation after presentation during the day has drawn attention to the fact that the real political issue now is, once more, “˜the economy, stupid’. In his keynote address, Brian Raftopoulos noted that both the Zimbabwe Human Rights Forum and the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition had called for a move away from the focus on only human rights issues, and to begin to prioritise economic stability rather than democracy. This approach dominates policy thinking not only in Zimbabwe, but across SADC (the topic of Macdonald Lewanika’s presentation) and in the Diaspora, where, as Chofamba Sithole explained, business matters are increasingly coming to dominate over asylum and oppositional politics in the Zimbabwean community. But whose economy is this? The political positions oscillate between support for neoliberal external investment, and for indigenization of the economy. Neither seems appropriate to meet the diverse needs of the economy, with its infrastructural crises, industrial stagnation and youth unemployment. And surely politics can’t abandon human rights as it focuses on the economic?
In the face of this ambivalence, the sense of transition is powerful. During the day, we got the sense that new ideas may/must emerge from the debates and fissures within and between ZPF and MDC. We heard about profound new conversations, not only about the economy, but about the state and democracy, too. Raftopoulos suggested that the ZPF victory in last year’s elections will encourage the emergence of new concepts of citizenship, that don’t revolve around the central state, but are rooted in other claims upon community. Both Wendy Willems and Bruce Mutsvairo drew attention to the possibility, and even the necessity, of reimagining the nation and the forms of democracy that might exist within it.
Stability and disruption
In the midst of this ambivalent moment of transformation, Blessing-Miles Tendi drew our attention to structural stability within the Zimbabwean state, pointing out that ZPF operates through stable hierarchies. Attempts by external interests to cultivate some factions within ZPF at the expense of others are unlikely to succeed, because all decisions depend upon approval through the hierarchy, up to the top. Tendi argued that it is the office of president, which can be understood as distinct from the person of Robert Mugabe, that keeps the system from collapsing. The hierarchy remains stable and paramount as a structure, even when some of the placeholders within the pyramid are absent or quiescent.
We saw that stable hierarchies operated as defining structures of Zimbabwean politics, culture and identity in other ways, too. For example, we heard from historian Pathisa Nyathi how the fundamentals of Nguni hierarchy provided stability throughout huge upheavals and challenges to Ndebele society in the twentieth century. Many presentations illustrated how gender and kinship hierarchies have continued to reproduce patriarchal households, despite the profound challenges to households, which have faced violence and conflict; exile both in the 1970s and the present day; huge economic difficulties and opportunities; and the present moment of transformation and change.
Nonetheless, we also heard about disruption, in which stable hierarchies have changed into distorted reflections through cracked mirrors. In particular, we heard how the experience of living in diaspora communities disrupted familiar forms of politics, culture and identity. There was a strong desire to maintain stable hierarchies, but these were forced to transform. The emergence of new economic hierarchies and new gender relations in the Diaspora were evident to see. But there have been other transformations in culture and identity, too. Film-maker Simon Bright discussed how his identity was constantly being redefined by others, as the political world changed around him. Over the decades, while remaining, in his view, in much the same place, he has been consecutively redefined as a traitor to Rhodesia, a leftist nationalist, a patriotic cultural worker, an enemy of Zimbabwean patriotic history, and a voice of the Zimbabwean Diaspora. The novelist Tendai Huchu spoke eloquently about how Zimbabwean literature has been transformed in the Diaspora, becoming something that speaks of Zimbabwe, but with a foreign inflection and in an adopted genre. A “˜Zimbabwean’ writer today is necessarily a product of postmodern cultural hybridity.
Continuity within change
We were reminded that Zimbabwe (like South Africa) is neither exceptional in its problems, nor easy to predict. Nonetheless, it was salutary to learn that much of what we see is old problems in new conjunctures. This includes some problems (gender inequality; trade union rights) that had been occluded during the extended “˜moment of politics’, when all social and economic problems had been subsumed within the oppositions of the MDC/ZPF political contest. In his keynote address, Raftopoulos spoke about how the churches are re-emerging as a focus for community and political identity, alongside decreasing faith in the secular opposition. Issues that had been marginalized, particularly gender struggles, are re-emerging as matters of concern within civil society.
What we are seeing, it seems, is the recreation of old tensions, old ontologies, old identities, in the face of new conditions. We heard, throughout the day, of precursors of the current moment. We heard of succession disputes in government that date back to the early 1990s; of experiences of migrancy and exile that date back to the 1970s; of mistrust of UK Labour governments that date back to the 1960s; and existential threats, both internal and external, to the Ndebele polity that date back to the 1880s. We heard, in a resonant phrase, of “˜anger based on previous anger’.
An idea that recurred throughout the day was the concept of interpolation. We heard on the one hand how the politics, practices and structures of the MDC have increasingly come to mirror those of ZPF. Meanwhile, on the other hand, Raftopoulos argued that ZPF is being forced towards neoliberal economic policies that had previously been the preserve of the MDC and its western allies.
In this process of interpolation and mirroring, old experiences can be found at the heart of new struggles; new experiences have been inserted in traditional contexts. In Willem’s presentation, we heard how approaches to memorialization – speeches, heroes, celebrations of warfare – recreate existing patterns even while trying to challenge them. Nyathi noted how Nguni culture was mirrored by client groups within the old Ndebele kingdom and then claimed as part of their identity. In Dominic Pasura’s presentation, we heard how men in exile in the UK have appropriated the language of UK visa control to describe their domestic relations, bringing into the everyday both a rueful recognition of the state’s capricious control over their fate and an acknowledgement of how gender struggle is transformed in the UK context. And, in Simon Bright’s presentation, we heard how a school rugby chant, which in Bright’s schooldays had represented white supremacy over black Africans, could, decades later, be claimed, shared and celebrated by both its white and black alumni, all Zimbabweans in exile, as a way of connecting with each other and with home.
Intervention and invention
In this moment of change, we need to understand politics, culture and identity within Zimbabwe itself. The nature of effective public intervention was itself put under scrutiny. If political parties end up mirroring the institutions they wish to challenge; and if stable hierarchies perpetuate power relationships even while the placeholders can be removed and replaced, then what can effective intervention in the public sphere look like?
Mutsvairo asked how far freedom of expression, and the ability to monitor the powerful, was a constituent of democracy. Rather, he suggested, the issue was what one does/can do with the monitoring and the knowing. There was no evidence that social media, such as the notorious Baba Jukwa Facebook page, constituted an extension of the public sphere or led to any meaningful democratic empowerment. Indeed, it may have the opposite effect, enabling government agents to engage anonymously and identify containment strategies. Similarly, we heard from Joseph Mujere about how independent radio stations can be used to perpetuate hegemonic, as well as counter-hegemonic, political messages. Meanwhile, Moyo drew attention to how a UN resolution on gender could not become the basis for effective intervention, unless accompanied by transformative social movements and active political will.
These presentations helped us to recognise how the current changes in Zimbabwean politics, culture and identity are rooted in an array of lived transformations, rather than in conscious attempts at intervention. Two significant forms of lived transformation provided a constant bass-beat running through all of the panels: transformations in gender roles; and the growing role of the churches in all aspects of public life. These two themes – gender transformation and the rise of the churches – also feel as though they came upon us unawares. Profound socio-cultural changes had been taking place almost without comment. Researchers will need to reorient themselves to understand the new Zimbabwe that is emerging.
Many of the presentations noted how women’s household and economic roles have been transformed, particularly in the diaspora. Sexuality in the diaspora, apart from the controlling gaze of the extended family, has become decoupled from marriage. Gay sexuality has become a valuable coin in asylum claims. Men are attempting to find satisfaction in new roles as supportive partners to more economically-powerful wives. Moyo, meanwhile, demonstrated that, back in Zimbabwe, “˜gender’ is an important and contested category in both the politics and practice of transitional justice projects. As she noted, women’s involvement in transitional justice and reconstruction projects is essential, but not because women are inherently peaceful, any more than men are inherently breadwinners. The point, rather, is that contexts are always gendered, whether these are political, economic or cultural contexts.
Perhaps most important outcome of the Research Day overall, however, was the recognition of the movement of the churches to centre stage. It is not that the contemporary churches have been ignored by researchers (in particular, David Maxwell looked at Pentecostal churches in the 1990s and Sara Rich Dorman considered how churches provided an independent voice within civil society in the same decade). But the churches, and in particular the Pentecostal and Apostolic churches, have become politically and culturally important in ways that have not been seen before.
There are various reasons for this, some of which were itemized by Raftopoulos. Churches are unfettered by state control; but equally they are unfettered by the agenda-setting of NGO funders. During the extended economic crisis, churches have (as in the UK) filled the welfare role of the state. Willems noted how the churches provide an older narrative of struggle and an alternative narrative of nationhood. Overall, the secular opposition has not succeeded in transforming the lives of the poor, leading to disillusion with the injunction (following Nkrumah) to “˜seek the political kingdom’ as a means of redressing social and economic ills. Moreover, in a time of unprecedented ambivalence, stability itself can be a source of identity; and the churches represent a rooted and community-based stability. With the collapse of the political arena as a site of transformation, and disillusion with the neocolonial agendas of aid agencies, the churches are filling a gap in civil society, around which both oppositional and government voices want to coalesce. Just now, it seems, the churches are the only game in town.
At the end of the day, we were surprised, if perhaps also disturbed, to discover how very interesting Zimbabwe has once again become.