Mugabe’s Zimbabwe: Why politicians still lie when everyone has ceased to believe

I don’t really know what to say about Zimbabwe. Words seem paltry before so much human suffering; my authority to publicly extemporise, which I would never normally question, seems hollow. That’s why this post has been so long delayed, in spite of the injury even at considerable cost to the blogger’s monomaniacal obsession with traffic. There is an unreality to what is going on in Zimbabwe for me. There is no way in which I can make such violence and oppression real – they are so far from my common experience that I can only assimilate them to fiction. Perhaps that’s why it’s the representation of this whole affair that I want to address.

A great deal of politics is marked by an insidious gulf between what is said and what is really going on. In British politics the 10p tax controversy and the circus surrounding 42-day pre-charge detention had little to do with the substance of what was ostensibly being discussed. In Zimbabwe this incongruity, which can give an uncanny air to politics, is grotesquely exaggerated. In the media presentation of his own country, Mugabe is the great revolutionary leader, the national liberator who freed black Zimbabwe from the colonial exploitation of cruel, white Britain. He is a friend to the people of Zimbabwe, a father to them, weary from a life of struggle and self-sacrifice, encircled by hostile neo-imperialists, but courageously unbowed. He is a great reformer, patriot and democrat. Zimbabwe is a persecuted nation and God (the Marxist God, presumably) will not release him from his vocation until she has been vindicated.

Mugabe has a story, a narrative of considerable force and emotional resonance in his country, to mask his egoistic motives and to justify his politics of violence. From what I hear, this siege narrative of black self-assertion sounds ever-more hollow to the people of Zimbabwe. They no longer believe in their government’s self-representations. But Zanu-PF continues to tell this discredited story. I think that there’s something very telling in that. No matter how empty and formalistic these positive self-representations are they have to keep making them. Even when the point is reached where they have almost completely lost their efficacy as implicit appeals for support, they still have a powerful symbolic value for their disseminators. There are non-instrumental reasons why power-fiends, megalomaniacs and egoists will not explicitly admit that this is what they are.

In considerable part this is a banal phenomenon: some of these men will not want to surrender their narrative of heroic resistance to colonialism because long association with anything breeds attachment; others will be living in a sort of twoness of self-denial, not fully aware – yet not fully unaware – that they are living on a lie. What interests me is those members of the regime who have ceased to believe the Mugabe panegyric, who despair of it as a tool of proselytism and yet continue to use it.

Partly it is a social psychological phenomenon. This nostalgia for the lies is a function of the way that our view of ourselves, our pronouncements and our behaviour interrelate. The explicit accounts that we give of ourselves before others matter. In explicitly admitting that we make mistakes, tell lies, love power for its own sake and perpetrate acts of violence, we confront ourselves with an alienated self-image; and, in so doing, we discover that we are the sort of person who does these things. Somehow that explicit statement of low motives and disreputable behaviour forces us to acknowledge ownership of our actions. We accept that the things we have done are a part of us, that they are somehow integral to who we are. This confrontation between our sense of our selves and the things that we have done, challenges our prior sense of identity; it undermines our favourably self-conception. And so we sanitise these accounts. We allow ourselves the indulgence of inexplicitness; we unreliably narrate our own lives to ourselves and to anyone who might overhear. This sort of identity trap, the need to defend a certain socially-consituted idea of ourselves, is what some of Mugabe’s myrmidons are caught in.

Perhaps just as important is the magic quality to this scenario. By that I mean not just the pervasive sense of unreality, but the way in which both parties to the deception lose the ability to disentangle themselves; they are in thrall, enchanted. Almost unbelievably, in a situation where lies are told which are universally recognised as lies – their power over people persists; in fact, it may even increase. There is no simple relation between the power of a public utterance and the extent of its truth. In this sort of encounter the ritual telling and listening that makes up public discourse persists, but its character is totally transformed. The normal communicative mode – the explicit dissemination of information from one party to another; the assessment of the truth-content of that information – is no longer operating. In its place you have a ritual exchange of empty words which somehow gains its coercive force because of the implicit contrast with what it has replaced. Instead of a substantive mode of communication, communication comes to take on a purely ritual form in which it is nothing but a chilling enactment of power relations. Both parties stand eyeball-to-eyeball in full knowledge of the reality of the situation – the leaders know they’re lying, the public knows they are being lied to, the leaders know that the public knows – but the sham discourse of the public realm is continued. It continues as an exemplary proof of the instrumentalities of power. The regime, as if to demonstrate the arbitrariness of its power, enacts that power through the rehearsal of a great charade of empty discourse in which everyone is forced to participate. What could be more menacing than the grim maintenance of this eminently gratuitous discourse?

It is a minor point alongside the other two, but I wonder also whether knowing and inefficacious lies aren’t told because our world is so completely constituted by the media. The thought struck me the other day when I heard John Humphries interviewing a Zimbabwean official on The Today Programme. I find it hard to understand why anyone would ever choose to be interviewed by Humphries, but that a representative of Zimbabwe’s government was doing it absolutely bewildered me. What hope could any Zanu-PF stooge have of successfully presenting a positive image of his party and its conduct on the BBC? It makes me think that perhaps coping with the media, and the sorts of behaviours which that coping evolves, is so embedded in politics all over the world that it continues to condition political action even in instances like this where Zanu-PF has long since lost any hope of positively influencing media coverage. It is as if a sort of instrumental conditioning is functioning. Governments have suffered pain for so long at the hands of the media, that they have been conditioned to respond to that stimulus with certain strategies of self-preservation. They will never admit to having made mistakes, told lies or acted on unworthy motives – and they will continue to operate on this logic even when is clear that such strategies will be hopelessly overmastered by the strength of the media hostility.

I don’t know what to do about Zimbabwe’s problems. Whether we ought to intervene militarily or strengthen sanctions, or leave things to Africa and to the internal decay of the regime, isn’t clear to me. It is one of those subjects that can easily lead one to despair of human beings and of political agency. Perhaps I will come back to it in a future post. My final reflection is simply that the Zimbabwe can act as a sort of political parable for us. It presents itself to us as a grotesquely exaggerated example of the dangers to the public weal of the distance between public pronouncements and underlying realities. As well as eliciting our compassion, it exhorts us all to vigilance and responsible scepticism.

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