Support for Mugabe

Zanu-PF political discourse as a source of legitimisation

Claske Dijkema, 29 November 2010


  • Political legitimacy
  • political discourse
  • Zimbabwe


Research project legitimisation strategies authoritarian regimes

Support for Zanu-PF is not limited to the older generation that was adult during the liberation struggle. A part of the youth feels represented by Zanu-PF because they have the impression that it “does something for them”. The party is present in the rural areas, it proposes programs, provides for example t-shirts and organises football tournaments. In addition, there is a sense of frustration among youth who feels that the opposition party MDC does not represent them and does not make place for them.

Zanu-PF still has genuine supporters. For a large part they are beneficiaries of the system, like ministers and lower-ranking bureaucrats, war veterans, chiefs, police and those awarded presidential scholarships.

Are material benefits for Zanu-PF’s constituency a sufficient explanation for its hold onto power? The director of the Media Monitoring Project Zimbabwe (MMPZ), Andrew Moyse, points out that patronage is not enough. “You cannot bribe an entire nation”1. In addition to patronage, political rule cannot be based on force and coercion alone. The use of force or even its threat, is undermining a leader’s legitimacy in the long run. It is therefore useful to look at the symbolic factors as a complementary explanation why Mugabe and Zanu-PF are still ruling the country.

The older generation obviously shares the experience of the liberation struggle as well as the ideological framework of African nationalism. What bonds them together is also a sense of sacrifice for a larger goal, that of a free country. This is less obvious for the younger generation who did not participate in the liberation movement. Youth in Zimbabwe forms a potential threat to ZANU-PF because it does not share the same experiences and repertoires of the older generation. When time passes, the amount of people having experienced the struggle decreases, this source of legitimisation therefore has an ‘expiry date’[2]. In its discourse Zanu-PF has presented youth as problematic. It is “restless”, “under the influence of international media” and it has a “diminished sense of national pride”[3]. They are presented as possibly dangerous especially when they have been born and brought up in urban contexts, less held by custom. The former liberation movement in Zimbabwe found a solution to this threat by ‘reinventing itself’ in order to enable the increasingly elderly survivors to hold on to power through the indoctrination of youths via education and national service programmes (…)[4].

The story of James is an interesting example of how youth engages with Zanu-PF discourse [5].

James is a young man, in his early thirties, he holds a degree in international business administration and lives in the rural areas. He often travels to Harare, where he is importing farming supplies. He also has an advertisement company. In the rural areas, where James lives, people are supposed to go to Zanu-PF rallies. They are scared not to go and then be seen as “sell-outs”, as MDC supportes, which can have serious consequences. James sometimes attends the ruling party’s rallies if he is not in Harare, and sometimes he goes to the capital to escape them. Listening to Zanu-PF’s discourse during rallies, he disagrees with many things, he votes MDC, but he understands that others vote Zanu-PF because “it empowers people, it empowers the poor and it reminds people of their history, what they [Zanu-PF war veterans] fought for”. The reference to ‘empowerment’ is central as a source of legitimisation for the ruling party’s. James defines empowerment as “giving preference to disadvantaged by giving them resources like information and political power to live up to their aspirations, to do what they want to do, to venture their own business”. Zanu-PF is seen to empower people through giving out land, its indigenisation policy and through “changing the constitution so it can empower rural folk”.

Interviews in September 2010 were only conducted in the capital, Harare. To get a more complete image of the way in which Zanu-PF’s legitimisation strategies resonate with people in Zimbabwe, further research needs to be done into regional differences. Foe example, Zanu-PF lost the support of the South very rapidly as a result of the Gukurahundi massacres at the end of the 80’s, targeting the supporters of ZAPU, a rival liberation movement under the leadership of Joshua Nkomo, existing mostly of Ndebele speaking people. Large scale resistance against Zanu-PF arose in the urban areas at the end of the 90’s as a result of mass mobilisations of the labour union in collaboration with Zimbabwe’s student union, the Council of Churches and women groups. Since, Zanu-PF no longer counts on votes from the urban areas6. The ruling party’s support is strongest in the resettlement zones in the Shona-speaking rural areas. Here, land was redistributed to war veterans. The latter know that to keep this privilege they have to show active support to the party, as the State remains in control of the land, as Zanu-PF’s lifeline.

For the older generation, reasons to support Zanu-PF are more obvious than for the younger generation. The proposed research will further focus on the latter because ZANU-PF’s hold onto power depends on its capacity to make youth adhere to its message and to appeal to its priorities.


Interview KtM with author, 27 September 2010

Andrew Moyse, director, Media Monitoring Project Zimbabwe, September 2010

Dorman, Sara R. “Post-liberation Politics in Africa: examining the political legacy of the struggle, Third World Quarterly, Vol 22, No. 6 pp 1085-1101, Palgrave, Routledge, 2006

Solidality Peace Trust, National Youth Training – « Shaping Youths in a Truly Zimbabwean Manner”. Report launched in Johannesburg, 5 September, 2003.

Interview with author, Harare, 27 September 2010