Lack of political tolerance is a major problem in most African countries and elsewhere too. Very often, it manifests itself when political leaders refuse to give space to opposition parties in politics, when political parties do not tolerate dissent from their membership and more generally, through a rejection of different views. In this report,Sifelani Tsiko (ST), our senior writer, speaks to Dr Lawrence Mhandara (LM), a University of Zimbabwe political commentator on various issues that highlight the importance of creating a culture of tolerance in our society and in politics in particular.
ST: This week, the country’s two major political parties – ZANU-PF and the MDC Alliance – staged peaceful demonstrations to push their political agendas. There were no reports of violence, skirmishes or deaths. There were no reports of damage to property or assets within the Harare central business district. What does this show, both to Zimbabwe and the world?
LM: The premise of departure in understanding the recent marches or demonstrations by the major political parties as part of their political strategies and its significance is the nature of political and social reality itself and how people approach such reality.
Politics happens in a social context, which is replete with contradictions. The contradictions are, however, more pronounced whenever there is a looming contest for political office as is the case in Zimbabwe. Contradictions cannot be wished away since different people have different interests. The choice or formula for responding to the contradictions that arise in the course of political interaction and competition will determine how political parties conduct themselves on their own or in relation to others.
The conduct demonstrated by both ZANU-PF and the MDC Alliance is, therefore, telling in as far as an emerging political culture is concerned. The absence of threats to public order and safety at a time when the date of the harmonised elections has been fixed affirms at least three important points to both Zimbabwe and the world: one, the salience of violence in the country’s political corpus is declining, although concerns still remain at intra-party level.
The culture of confrontational politics is being supplanted by political restraint, a prerequisite for political maturity.
The two demonstrations suggest that while political competition is still alive, fear, enmity and mutual perceptions of threat that defined past political interactions generally and elections periods in particular are weakening from the country’s political culture.
What is certain is that the major political parties, while still suffering from other ills like hate speech and demonisation, the political climate created by the country’s political leadership is reassuring in reducing the inter-party dilemma.
The political system is on a trajectory in which political parties no longer expect to prepare to use violence or other destructive strategies and tactics either in their relations or the generality of the citizens.
Secondly, it is possible to exercise political rights (individually or collectively) within the framework defined by the law without endangering other people’s rights, especially those outside the political parties concerned.
The import, therefore, lies in the message that political parties in Zimbabwe respect the rule of law.
Thirdly, the two points I have mentioned here show the yet to be fully acknowledged responsibility assumed by the political parties (the most important agents of the process) in socialising their membership to embrace non-violence, tolerance and respect for political diversity. The ruling party and opposition parties in the MDC Alliance have been categorical and consistent in exhorting their members to embrace a culture of peace and imparting greater awareness against violent conduct.
ST: What could be the major reason for this peaceful conduct by the political parties?
LM: There are always difficulties whenever questions of causality are raised. Nonetheless, my conjecture is that the peaceful marches were conditioned by the macro-political environment which the Government has facilitated with consuming passion. I am strongly convinced that the political parties marched in peace to reciprocate the peace overtures demonstrated by ED’s Government since it came to office late last year.
ED’s administration was structured around a transformative agenda, which included far-reaching political and economic reforms, to which peace is a key ingredient. Even would-be “peace spoilers” are compelled to respect the Government’s loud commitment to peace. The marches demonstrated a glimpse of the domino effect of ED’s call for peaceful political conduct. Political parties are shifting towards a philosophy of democratic competition.
Perhaps, the peaceful conduct may be an indicator of embryonic patriotic politics where all political parties understand that the national interests are grander than sectional or group interests.
The extant discourse articulated by the Government, and resonating with the majority opinion, is the economy where foreign direct investment and robust international trade are the “heart and soul” of economic transformation. This does not require the Fanon style of politics. I assume that the political parties now share the basic understanding that good ends are never achieved through bad means (violent conduct is an anti-thesis to the national interests).
ST: What is the significance of political tolerance in the build-up to the July 30 vote?
LM: An election in a democracy must be peaceful, credible, free and fair. Elections are the most important source of legitimacy in a representative democracy like Zimbabwe, although they are not synonymous with democracy.
Tolerance promotes understanding and national cohesion, which is a key pillar for building a culture of peace. Tolerance is about a fair and objective attitude towards those whose political opinions, practices or identities differ from one’s own. It is a way of thinking, feeling and acting that gives individuals respect for those who are different; a skill acquired ers peacefully. Tolerance acknowledges political diversity and uniqueness, society as organic, despite having diverse political players, they are all interdependent for they belong to the same Zimbabwe and solidarity without conformity.
A greater degree of tolerance is, therefore, important towards the 30 July election date as it promotes respect for rights of others to campaign freely. By and large, tolerance is a product of understanding, which ensures that perceived differences do not lead to election violence. Tolerance has the potential to minimise, although it is not the only variable, the possibility of uncontested outcomes – a perennial challenge in past elections in the country.
ST: Political analysts say a culture of tolerance involves debate and dynamic exchanges of opinions and arguments, whereby people can learn from others, get closer to the truth and benefit from a vital public life.
They further add that developing a culture of tolerance is a long term undertaking that can help end intolerance and promote democracy. What do you think are the key ingredients to the development of political tolerance in Zimbabwe?
LM: In my opinion, tolerance is a culture, whose development requires four major ingredients, namely: agents of political socialisation, primarily political parties must nurture the virtue of tolerance among their members, dialoguing on key questions of public policy.
This improves better understanding among the political players on realities and perceptions relating to areas of conflict or potential areas of conflict. Strategic communication among political players, including face-to-face exchanges, to debunk assumptions, misinformation and demonising narratives that inflame political tensions during election periods and joint political activities are all critical.
ST: What role do you think President Emmerson Mnangagwa and MDC-T leader Mr Nelson Chamisa can play in promoting tolerance and peace as we move closer to the July 30 elections?
LM: Theirs is an onerous responsibility for they need to lead by example. Tolerance and peace must be seen to be practised. The ideology of rhetoric is the greatest weakness for most politicians. But ED is consistently leading the call for peace and tolerance.
This largely explains the diminishing trend in electoral violence and the environment of peace that defines the election period at the moment. The momentum fashioned by ED must be sustained and be an example for other political leaders.
ST: If Zimbabwe manages to maintain a peaceful environment in the build-up, during and after the July 30 elections, what could this signal to the Commonwealth, EU, SADC, African Union and the rest of the world? Is Zimbabwe succeeding in breaking from its tainted past?
LM: I am convinced that since the disengagement from the Commonwealth, indeed the frosty relations with the Western countries and institutions was rooted in the governance and legitimacy questions around the conduct of elections. The peaceful electoral environment provides a unique opportunity to demonstrate that the country is taking a different direction from the past and addressing the democracy deficit.
Remember, the country had so many cynical labels such as “tyrant”, “autocracy”, and so on, because of the environment tainted with electoral violence.
In fact, some called the past elections as “elections without a choice”. The dispersal of this tag was set in motion by the change of guard from former president Mugabe to the incumbent with the commitment to restore the meaning and substance of democracy – peaceful, transparent, credible, free and fair elections.
The invitation of international observers was inconceivable under ED’s predecessor, but he has broken with the past when this was least expected, even by some who have been invited. This commitment on its own and the attendant peace has restored confidence among key international actors and institutions such as the Commonwealth, EU, UN and the rest of the world that Zimbabwe is committed to full integration into the international community – a fundamental pillar of the new foreign policy thrust.
For the SADC and AU, the peace in the country signal an end to the political problem in Zimbabwe that isolated the country and divided the international community for close to two decades.
ST: Calls for a peaceful, free and fair election are growing as Zimbabwe gears to hold its election next month. Are you optimistic that the country will manage to uphold these values as we get nearer to the polling date?
LM: My prognosis is positive that the peaceful environment will promote free-and-fair elections. The responsibility of the Government must be the sustenance of this environment to yield legitimate outcomes. This also demands absolute vigilance in deterring, detecting and defending space for peace against “peace spoilers”. Of course there are other variables that are considered in freeness and fairness, but a peaceful environment is one of the core elements.
ST: The media plays an important role in developing a culture of tolerance. Is the Zimbabwean media playing its role to present diverse and critical views which encourage a wide array of ideas and beliefs among individuals, civil organisations and political parties?
LM: With a few exceptions, I am perturbed by the insidious trend in which the traditional gatekeeping mechanisms in the media that used to filter information professionally and ethically within the bounds of facts and objectivity have been weakened by the benefits brought by the information age and tolerance has been the biggest casualty.
Two chronic challenges have emerged to undermine the role of the media in the majority of cases, namely, disinformation – falsehoods and unverified claims deliberately circulated to shape public opinion as part of a political agenda; and misinformation – falsehoods and rumours spread without malicious intent or knowing that it is untrue. How the media has carried fake news, both online and through print platforms has mostly promoted intolerance and inflamed political tensions.
This has killed dissemination of critical views and proper analysis of public policy and political events. The media in Zimbabwe is now legendary as platforms of demonisation and counter-demonisation among political players – a platform to propagate hate speech, intolerance and mistrust. Perhaps, this is one noticeable consequence of a polarised past.
ST: If not, how best can it promote this?
LM: Professional ethics must be reinstated and the media will rediscover its rightful role in a democracy.