The bullet before the ballot

Legitimisation strategies of Mugabe as Zanu-PF vanguard

Claske Dijkema


Report of a field research mission to Zimbabwe carried out in September 2010

Through Western mainstream media one gets the impression that the regime in Zimbabwe might collapse any time soon. This image has been portrayed over the last 10 years. How to explain that despite an economy in crisis, increasingly authoritarian tendencies and the existence of growing opposition in politics and civil society, Zanu-PF stays in power and its president, Robert Mugabe remains Head of State?

This research poses three questions.

1.What are the legitimation strategies used by Zanu-PF in general and its leader, President Mugabe, in particular?

2.Which groups of citizens are sensitive to which kind of strategies?

3.What is the trend, are his legitimation strategies durable and what might be factors undermining/strengthening them?

The hypotheses underlying the research questions are:

Hypothesis 1: Political rule cannot be based on force alone. The (threat of the) use of force is undermining a leader’s legitimacy1. The research therefore focuses on other driving factors for the support of Zanu-PF rather than fear for being hurt in physical or material terms alone.

Hypothesis 2: The acceptation of a « strong State » is positively linked to the degree of identification with the State. Zimbabweans have a common sense of belonging at national level. The struggle for ending white minority rule is a marker of collective identity.

Hypothesis 3: Zanu-PF is effective in appealing to the concerns and preoccupations of many Zimbabwean people. Different people are sensitive to Zanu-PF’s discourse for different reasons. One of the strengths of Zanu-PF is to play effectively into these differences.


The methodology to test the hypotheses is twofold. Firstly it looks at Zanu-PF political discourse in state-controlled media and a selection of Zanu-PF jingles on public television. Jingles are campaign songs that sing praise to a group of politician or party, often in opposition to another group. Public television regularly broadcast jingles during election time and other politically important moments such as the constitutional outreach process in 2010. They can be understood as a highly concentrated version of the message that political parties want to carry out. In addition, debates about issues of political concern with regard to Zimbabwe in online discussion forums and chat rooms provide information about the way in which people perceive their leadership and the way in which they understand the developments in their country. The second research method applied here are qualitative interviews with people living in Zimbabwe. The results of of both methods are placed in the context of -and compared with- existing literature through a literature review.

Analysis of political discourse

Political discourse is a rich source to study legitimisation strategies. This is especially the case in Zimbabwe where in 2000, after having lost a referendum on constitutional reform, Zanu-PF decided to intensify its efforts to control public discourse about identity and belonging as an important part of their strategy to legitimise their claim to power. Zanu-PF dissolved the Ministry of Information, Posts and Telecommunications and created a new department for Information and Publicity, which was placed directly in the President’s Office. Under Jonathan Moyo’s leadership the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) provided programmes that reflect Zimbabwean national identity according to « vision 30 », a government vision stating that 75% of content should be locally produced1. This led to the broadcast of growing numbers of documentaries on the liberation war and programmes on farming, such as “New farmer” and the ‘Chimurenga Files’. The latter attempt to cultivate a sense of patriotism and national consciousness within the Zimbabwean nation2. These new strategies in the domain of media coincide with the emergence of « patriotic history », which reinterprets Zimbabwean history in a narrow fashion, dividing the nation up into revolutionaries and sell-outs3. This version of history was to be taught as part of the program of the National Youth Service, training youth militia4.


The results presented in the article are based on 24 in-depth interviews with informed people over the period October 2009 – October 2010. Interviewees responded to open questions according to a pre-established analytical framework. The general profile of the people interviewed is as follows: young, urban, educated and articulate. Most of them belong to the opposition. None of them benefit from the current system, apart from a few that may benefit indirectly by working for foreign funded NGO’s as a result of which they earn, in a few cases, a decent salary. Still they suffer from stress, threat of violence, lack of a future perspective and for a few from frustrations that are linked to exile. Among the interviewed, two have been active members of the Zanu-PF, one as minister of Education. Both have taken their distance with the party since. Furthermore, four current youth leaders participated in the interviews. Their studies and careers have stalled as a result of the political situation and all of them were currently unemployed or employed at a very irregular basis. Finally, one interview has taken place with the president of a Zanu-PF aligned student union.

In addition to the formal interviews I have conducted around 10 informal interviews with people I met on the street, in bars, in taxis. Generally they were less educated people, over 40 years old and shared their religious beliefs as source of inspiration for the country. They served as a sort of control group, reminding that opposition against Mugabe is generalised in urban areas across educational levels and living standards but that the solutions proposed are very different.

Even though urban, interviewees have for the most part lasting ties to the rural areas because a part of their family still lives there. The rural-urban contradiction in Zimbabwe is at the same time pertinent and not pertinent. It is pertinent for historic reasons. As a result of the guerilla type of war that was fought between 1966-1979, a close relationship was constructed between the ‘freedom fighters’ and civic population in the rural areas. The former depended on the latter for cover, food and clothing. During nightly sessions, called pungwe’s the fighters of the liberation movement instructed the rural population about the ideology behind the struggle but was also a place for transmission of strategic information and singing songs and slogans that contributed to strengthening the ties between them. The guerilla fighters have become the symbol of the struggle for liberation in Zimbabwe and have not been able to penetrate in the urban areas. Zanu-PF’s stronghold remains in the rural, Shona speaking areas, even though they are also slightly losing ground here as demonstrated by the 2008 election results. It is therefore not surprising that opposition against the party started among the educated in the urban areas. The rural-urban divide however should not be understood as a clear divide because roughly 80% of the population in town is from the rural areas and they go back on a regular basis1. Most people in urban areas are part of a rural a community, have a rural home, Kumusha, ‘the place where one comes from’.

Limits to this study

This study is not representing the population based in rural areas and misrepresents the older generation that has been part of the struggle and whose ambiguity towards ZANU-PF logically speaking is largest. A focus on youth is interesting because this is the generation to whom the transmission should take place to assure the stability of ZANU-PF.

Missing in focus of the article is comparison with MDC discourse. This is a serious gap that might be needed to cure before publication of the article to be fair. What further misses is an analysis of the relationship between Mugabe and the party and the role of military in upholding his power. I have observed contradicting views on his real power. This study over-represents voices voting for MDC, Zanu-PF’s opposition party, presents a clear bias. One of the respondents, Amy Tsanga warned for the tendency to only see the side of those that we feel comfortable with. It is beyond doubt that there was a connivance with those interviewed, based on a similar educational level, similar values, progressive and pro-democratic political views. What justifies this approach is that it is exactly this group that is capable of proving the inaccuracy of my hypothesis about Zanu-PF’s legitimisation strategies because they are known to be most critical of its discourse and exercise of power. Zanu-PF discourse in print media, television programs, jingles, Chimurenga music and speeches provided the input for an analysis of Zanu-PF discourse. All state-controlled/owned newspapers are available online and have search functions that go back several years. All people interviewed confirmed that Zanu-PF is coherent and consistent in its discourse.

At this stage of the research process I am able to present some results in relation to hypothesis three about the legitimisation strategies of Zanu-PF.

Analysis of Zanu-PF discourse

Zanu-pf’s use of symbolic sources for political legitimisation

Coercive strategies are the argument most often put forward as explanation for Zanu-pf’s longevity. They have been accurately described by authors such as Meredith1, Godwin2 and civil society organisations such as Solidarity Peace Trust3 and Human Rights Watch4. Moore recognises the importance of the coercion as one of a series of strategies. Other factors he distincts are a lack of alternatives; ideology and allies; the election time violence and trickery, the declining support for the opposition since 2005, the cultivation and betrayal of intellectuals and finally Zanu-pf’s control over the chiefs and the liberation party’s international comrades. Sara Dorman agrees that Zanu-pf has pockets of support as a result of its attempts to reinvigorate the ‘liberation discourse’, which proved effective in some constituencies, but not in others. Henning Melber denies the effectiveness of the party’s legitimisation strategies when he states that: “(..) legitimacy is a remote goal under the current circumstances in Zimbabwe, where the governing regime already lost any degree of legitimacy some years ago”5. His suggestion is a reminder that there is no direct relationship between legitimacy and staying in power. Moore stresses the material reasons for the support Zanu-pf enjoys among peasants: the new farmers, grateful for their plots and those residing in the communal areas where they are under the control of chiefs. We believe coercion and legitimation strategies are complementary in describing why Zanu-pf has remained in power for over thirty years. An analysis of the coercive nature of its power however is much more developed in media and academic circles than its use symbols. This article therefore focus on the latter.

The following strategies of legitimation will be analysed further

Zanu-pf’s legitimisation strategies intend to tap into shared experiences and sentiments of people in Zimbabwe. Firstly the founding event of the nation is the liberation war which led to the country’s independence from white minority rule in 1980. The party appeals to people’s loyalty to the party that liberated the country from white minority rule. Secondly, Zanu-pf presents its land reform program as an extension of the liberation struggle and the continued need to fight against anti-imperialism. It thereby appeals to a sense of humiliation as a result of colonisation. References to empowerment, sovereignty, sanctions, land reform, indigenisation and African nationalism serve to counter the sense of humiliation felt. Thirdly, as a result of nationalist struggles, national identity is an important component of one’s identity. This has two consequences, people want to be included in the national definition of what being Zimbabwean means and the echo of what Zimbabwe stands for internationally is important. For example, support and admiration for Mugabe internationally (among Africans) contributes to his legitimacy locally. Fourthly, Zanu-pf draws on the respect for elders that is a custom in many African cultures. Ffthly, the reference to totems and historic lineage and the insistence on knowing “where you come from” appeal to the need to belong, and people’s need for pride and positive identification. Finally, in its speeches Zanu-pf refers to a symbolic lineage of heroic ancestors like the famous heroine of the first liberation struggle (1896–1897) Mbuya Nehanda. It also presents Mugabe as a messianic figure, giving back the promised land to his people, which resonates with people’s sacred beliefs, paying attention to the different religious orientations that might adhere to. Vehicles for Zanu-pf discourse since this unfolding crisis are media, school curricula, slogans, music, rallies, and national events.

In the following section, we will explain the power of each of these legitimation strategies/ discourse in more detail. Comme on a expliqué les stratégies de légitimation font l’objet d’une analyse différentielle distinguant les différentes parties de la population. We are especially interested in the way Zanu-pf addresses youth. While the older generation is bound by the experience of the liberation struggle and the ideology in which it was framed, that of African nationalism as well as a sense of sacrifice for a larger goal, that of a free country. This is less obvious for the younger generation who is “born free”. 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’6. 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”7. They are presented as possibly dangerous especially when they have been born and brought up in urban contexts.

1 - Legitimisation by reference to the rôle that Zanu-pf has played in the liberation struggle

In response to the problem that Zanu-pf faces of how to appeal to the post-independence generation, the party came up with a strategy to ‘re-educate’ youth about the historic allegiance that they owe the party8. The Zanu-pf decision to bring both the written press and television under the responsibility of the Department of Information and Publicity in the President’s Office is key to this strategy. It should be interpreted as the intensification of Zanu-pf’s efforts to control public discourse about identity and belonging, considered crucial to legitimise their claim to power. In 2000, Jonathan Moyo was appointed as the new Minister of Information. Under his leadership the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) provided programmes that reflect Zimbabwean national identity according to « vision 30 », a government vision stating that 75% of content should be locally produced9. The new vision wants to “provide world class quality programmes and services that reflect, develop, foster and respect the Zimbabwean national identity, character, cultural diversity, national aspirations and Zimbabwean and pan-African values”10. Values that Zanu-pf aligned journalists argue are being undermined as a result of the access to Western media: « The West is well aware that history creates a shared identity in a people. They know it is based on that shared identity that people act collectively. So they plot to take away that history, to degrade that history so that they can degrade that sense of shared identity. »11 There is a sense among Zanu-pf leadership that youth needs to re-connect with their roots and should be reminded what it means to be a good Zimbabwean. The broadcasting rules prescribe that 75% of public broadcasting should be locally produced. Programmes such as “Nhaka Yedu”, Shona for our inheritance, “National Ethos” and “New Farmer” are outcomes of this policy. They interpret Zimbabwean history and national identity in a very narrow way. Journalist Innocent Sithole’s captures this as following : “The nation is daily bombarded with grim images of grotesquely mutilated and decomposing black bodies from the liberation war (…). [It is] an attempt to edit the nation’s collective memory in order to rewrite the history of the struggle for independence (…). By virtue of being the government of the day, Zanu-pf has access to and control over the recorded signs and symbols that denote and connote our history as a nation (…) ”.12  A 2002 poll found that these programs are unpopular with viewers13. People watch them as a result of a lack of alternative.

Jingles are another form of communication that is key to Zanu-pf strategy of popular education. They are campaign songs that sing praises to politicians or a party, often denigrating others. They can be understood as a highly concentrated version of the message that political parties want to carry out. In the 1 minute and 51 seconds that a Zanu-pf jingle, broadcast in 2004 takes, the song Hondo Cminda, ‘land war’ is sung by Tambaoga accompanied by the following images. The first shot is that of a “fingerharp” providing the background music on which people are dancing. From a young man dancing in traditional attire, the camera shifts to black leather boots that belong to a soldier, dancing with a rifle in his hands. Images are quickly following one after the other and tell the following story. The country has gotten rid of its foreign domination through armed struggle, a danger for neo-imperialism remains though through MDC’s connections with the West. Our armed forces guarantee our access to land which is at the heart of our pride as a nation as it is the land of our ancestors. To remind people of the liberation war, the jingle shows soldiers dancing with rifles around their shoulders. These images are alternated with grainy footage from the liberation struggle of the 1970’s and pictures of its heroes that have passed away since. Historic images of the signature of the Lancaster agreement, the lowering the British flag and the raising of the Zimbabwean flag. A reminder of the looming threat of imperialism is caught in the following scene. An image of a smiling Blair is followed by a close-up of cheque books and white farmers in the company of a clapping Tsvangirai. The images make the mental connection between the financial support of white farmers to MDC with the objective to take over power, in order to give it back to Great-Britain. The importance of land is caught in the following images. A toddler in the field with a tool to work the land, an older man opening a maize cone to look at its grains, young people in urban dress with farming utensils. Images of subsistence farming are mixed with those of industrialised agriculture that show bags of maize flour being delivered from an assembly line; tractors and maize kernels being spat out of a big combine. The jingle ends with the words “Sendekera Mwana wevhu”, Our land is our prosperity, written under an insignia “Work the land, Reap prosperity, Build the nation”.

The new strategies in the domain of media coincide with the emergence of « patriotic history », which reinterprets Zimbabwean history in a narrow fashion, dividing the nation up into revolutionaries and sell-outs14. This version of history was to be taught as part of National Strategic Studies introduced in all tertiary education and the program of the National Youth Service15. The latter’s mission is to train a class of youth, the elite of the nation, that ‘correctly’ remembers the past and that shares the same values the party stands for. Originally the programme was presented as a voluntary, small scale training that aimed at skills enhancement, patriotism and moral education. It has increasingly been understood as a compulsory, large scale, paramilitary training to force youth into the party and to serve as militia16 The youth militia that are trained there must defend the nation against “imperialists” and “neo-colonialists”. Since the MDC is seen as a tool of these forces, Solidarity Peace Trust understands the role of the youth militia to “defend” the nation against the political opposition. In the second half of last decade, the National Youth Service training programme was less practised. Beginning 2011 however media reports appeared about its reintroduction in view of the next elections, whenever they might take place17.

2 - Legitimisation through claiming land

The reference to land ownership is key in Zanu-pf leaders’ strategy to present themselves as the true vanguards of the gains of independence. How to understand the key role land is playing, as has been demonstrated through the jingle’s images of citizens reaping the wealth of the earth? There is an obvious connection with the anti-colonial struggle which was about the sovereignty over the land. The land reform is presented as a form of empowerment in the form of the restitution of land that was taken from “our forefathers”. This narrative appeals to a sense of humiliation as a result of colonisation and its institutionalised racism. James for example, a young man who lives in the rural areas but frequently travels to the city, says he votes MDC, but sometimes feels that the statements at Zanu-pf rallies18 are right, especially with regard to “empowering people”, “giving them opportunities, to own their own land and resources”. Based on the direct or indirect experience of the consequences of imperialism, which are reinforced by propaganda, the struggle against imperialism is a real one in Zimbabwe. A young man commented that:

“You can’t say that Mugabe is talking about things that are in the past. For most African people, for most African leaders these are real things that are happening. (…). The struggle against colonialism is not over. It is unlikely to end, not even with our generation. It is something that is going to be passed from generation to generation to generation. We must distinguish between the abuse and the opportunistic use of the anti-imperialistic struggle and its real essence. What Mugabe does, is use it and hide behind that rhetoric.”19

Ownership equals empowerment, disregarding the fact that the land reform has had catastrophic economic effects and has led to the loss of livelihood of thousands of black farm workers employed on white-owned farms. Much of the land that has been requisistionné is left bare because the people that have come to own it have no intention to use it for agricultural purposes. Its sense lies in a reversal of the white settler privileges and serves as a legitimisation of the patronage system through which farms are allocated to its new owners. When speaking of ownership this does not mean that people approve or accept corruption and patronage, it simply means that they disapprove even more of the system that preceded it.

The insistence in the importance of sovereignty over land serves Zanu-pf as reason to perpetuate the struggle against white imperialism through its land reform program, creating a continued need for armed intervention. Mugabe inscrit the take-over of white-owned land in the country’s historic struggles, naming it the ‘Third Chimurenga’. Chimurenga means revolutionary struggle in Shona. The First and Second Chimurenga, designate the 1896–1897 Ndebele-Shona revolt against colonial rule by the British South Africa Company and the guerilla war, fought between 1966–1979, leading to its liberation from white-minority rule in Rhodesia. The leaders of the first Chimurenga are seen as ‘the spiritual direction givers to the soul of the nation’20. Mugabe is one of the leading figures of the Second Chimurenga and initiator of the so-called ‘Third Chimurenga’. This term has not enjoyed popular support but it can be analysed as an attempt to remind the people of Mugabe’s role as spiritual direction giver to the nation.

A strategy behind Zanu-pf’s war terminology (Chimurenga (2000), Operation Murambatsvina which means ‘remove the filth’ in Shona (2005) and Operation Hakudzokwi Kumunda or “No return” (2008)) is that during war rules and laws become subservient to larger objectives that justify the use of violence. By framing the land reform as a struggle against imperialism Mugabe also justifies its unlawful means, in which military logic prevails over a civilian one. The idea that the State continues to be under threat as a result of the acts of the evil West, plays into the fear that people have to defend what their parents have fought for.

Images of land are linked to the rural areas. Their valorization is a historic phenomenon. During the 1930’s and 40’s Shona identity got reinforced in the urban areas in relation to other sociopolitical events (Vambe 1976, Ranger 1989). Strong links with the rural communities were stressed as Shona cultural nationalist metaphors next to the attachment to traditional culture, the control of women and ethnic solidarity. They became popularised through oral discourse, popular culture and creative writing. (Mashiri p.7) In addition to its symbolic value, rural areas are very important for Zanu-pf politically speaking. The party (Zanu at the time) created strong links with the rural population during the liberation war fought between 1966-1979, when guerilla fighters relied on the civic population in the rural areas for cover, food and clothing. During the struggle the armed wings of the nationalist movements have not been able to penetrate in the urban areas. Zanu-pf’s stronghold is still to be found in the rural, Shona speaking areas, even though the election results of 2008 show that they are also slightly losing ground here. The link between the civil population and the freedom fighters was slightly different in the Ndbele speaking areas.

We have mentioned before that the significance of land is beyond its material and symbolic function. It also has a spiritual meaning as it provides a house for the spirits. Mugabe, during his address to the nation at Heroes Day in 2005 referred to benefits of the land reform program in relation to the buried national heroes at Heroes Acre: “Their spirits are unbound [now], free to roam the land they left shackled, thanks again to the Third Chimurenga.” He implicates that the land reform programme has set the spirits of the nation’s heroes free. Zanu-pf feels it is especially entitled to this land as a party because its freedom fighters have liberated it.21 Ownership over the land also gives them the right to determine to whom it belongs. Their message makes it very clear that if one is not Zanu-pf, one does not belong.

3 – Legitimisation by the definition of national identity

As a result of Zimbabwe’s history of nationalist struggle, the identity framework that the State and therefore Zanu-pf as the ruling party provides, is an important source of identification for the people in Zimbabwe22. Zanu-pf has been able to define a good Zimbabwean as one who knows where he is coming from, historically speaking. Departing from Mugabe’s inclusive nationalism in the early period, the party has adopted a radical exclusive nationalist stance (Muzondiya 2004: 225). Ndlovu even argues that it has become nativist (Ndlovu 2009) and Muzondidya observes that essentialist notions have increasingly been used to exclude subject minorities from the nation and other entitlements. (Muzondidya p. 227). In Zimbabwe therefore, national identity is an important source for the definition of one’s personal identity.

Positive identification with a social group and a sense of belonging are human needs. How do people balance their need to belong and their observations and judgement of the politics Zanu-pf stands for? Brian Raftopoulos mentions this internal negotiation, which is especially prevalent among Zanu-pf’s opponents. He argues that ‘within Zimbabwe the opposition to Mugabe is not only expressed in the political polarisation in the country, but often in the more complex forms in which the nationalist messages are interpolated within ‘our selves’, given both the historical resonance of the messages and the unpalatable coercive forms of the delivery of such messages’ (Raftopoulos 2004: 161).

Particularly prone for internal negotiation are those parts of Zanu-pf discourse that can not be easily discarded as propaganda, because they touch on wider held popular sentiments that are the basis for an overarching identity. Key to the narrative that binds Zimbabweans together is the recognition that the liberation from colonial and white minority rule is the founding experience of the nation. The attachment to sovereignty and to land as a good that was taken from black Zimbabweans during colonial rule and which should be returned to them is an extension of the latter. Land therefore plays a key role in the definition of identity at national level. Land provides a “home” in the symbolic sense, a place where one belongs, but it also has a more spiritual meaning, it provides a house for the spirits.

People interviewed indeed feel ambiguous towards Zanu-pf in general and Mugabe in particular. While criticism of “the old man” is omnipresent in the capital, even among the older generation, he remains the symbol of the struggle for national liberation, signing the Lancaster House agreement in 1979 and raising the country’s new flag for the first time. Feelings about Mugabe can be summed up as following: He is theirs, they know him; he is the hero with whom they grew up; they pardon him for any misdeeds because they have known worse (colonial rule and white minority regimes); they want him to go without losing face.

A disapproval with the authoritarian character of Zanu-pf’s rule on the part of the citizenry does not contradict with a sense of awe, respect and in some cases appeal of his messages. Many people find a coherent framework in Zanu-pf discourse to understand who they are and why they lack « food on the table ». One of the people interviewed described Zanu-pf as “a clever machinery that gives answers”. In the first decade after independence, the answer to the question “why am I poor?” was: “because you are uneducated”. The government put in place massive education programs. “Now people are educated but still not in control of things”23. The answer has shifted to putting the blame on the West in general and Britain in particular. The messages that Zanu-pf conveys in newspapers, on radio and television respond to questions around identity, colonial heritage and poverty.

4 – Legitimisation through customs

In addition to the need of being taught national pride, youth are said to struggle with an identity problem. They are presented as especially dangerous when they are born and brought up in the city, less held by custom. The importance to ‘know where one comes from’, therefore appeals, in addition to the historic context, also to the cultural value of respect for elders and one’s ancestors. These should be understood here beyond family relations in the context of the nation as a large family. The heroic forefathers that died in the war become the ancestors of the entire nation to whom people should owe allegiance and respect. In extension of the family metaphor, youth are presented as sons and daughters of the struggle. The party’s appeal to loyalty to the liberation struggle should be understood in the cultural context of Zimbabwe, where respect for elders is the norm. This is the reason why it resonates with, or at least creates some confusion among youth that juggle between social norms and their own observations and morals. A young MDC activist based in South Africa demonstrated this ambiguity when he explained that:

“I can’t…challenge Mugabe. He would simply tell me, “you don’t even know where you are coming from”. “You must go back and reread your history and know who you are. You have an identity problem”. They were extreme intellectuals under extreme difficult conditions. Now we are to fight sitting politicians who fought the most difficult of liberation struggles while in fact we have no idea of the basics of politics or the basics of intellectualism.”24

He stressed this generational tension, and his doubts about his generation’s capacity to challenge the older one which after all was able to end “the worst of all enemies, racist white regimes25”.

“The MDC is junior, immature, inexperienced and therefore unable to grapple with very complex Afro-sensitive issues(..) The struggles against colonialism were led by ‘deep seated’ African intellectuals. I don’t think that young Africans can invent anything spectacularly different from the foundation that was laid26.”

The attribution of heroism to the nationalist leaders is widely shared. Since they are seen as having conquered the worst enemies ever, younger people, even when they are very active in the opposition, do not allow themselves to think of themselves as equally capable as the previous generation, since this would indirectly mean that Mugabe’s regime is comparable in oppression to Ian Smith’s one. What are the implications for a young generation to grow up with an older generation that they are never allowed to bypass?

It is ironic that the old guard of the Zanu-pf leadership have in their youths been the driving force of social transformation. Their mobilising has created a dynamic within society, it changed power patterns with regard to elders. They took a role in society that was previously considered impossible. They are therefore aware of youth’s potential and fear their capacity to think for themselves, especially those that took the decision to diverge from the path designated for them by Zanu-pf.

5 – Legitimisation by historic lineage and identity

A recurrent example of Zanu-pf’s strategy to negatively describe what defines a good Zimbwean, dates from 2000 when Mugabe scorned the citizens of Harare’s high density suburb Mbare for voting MDC. He called them a derogatory name normally only used for Zimbabweans of foreign descent, from Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia; who are considered by some as “subject minorities”. Deputy Minister of Industry and International Trade said in Parliament on 23 June that “90% of all people who have been voted into Parliament from the other side (MDC) are not indigenous and the constituencies they talk about have no identity and recognition”.27

The reference to totems and historic lineage and the insistence on knowing “where you come from” appeal to the need to belong, and people’s need for pride and positive identification. As a result of nationalist struggles, national identity is an important component of one’s identity. This has two consequences, people want to be included in the national definition of what being Zimbabwean means and the echo of what Zimbabwe stands for internationally is important. For example, support and admiration for Mugabe internationally (among Africans) contributes to his legitimacy locally.

Since its creation in 1999, MDC poses the most important threat to Zanu-pf’s hold onto power. Mugabe scornfully described MDC in his revolutionary manual ‘Inside the Third Chimurenga’ as a party with ‘a black trade union face, a youthful student face’, with ‘salaried black suburban junior professionals’ and ‘its rough and violent high density lumpen elements’ that should never be trusted because behind these ‘human superfices’, it was ‘moored in the colonial yesteryear and it embraces (..) the repulsive ideology of return to white settler rule’28. Zanu-pf hereby presents itself as a party that is resisting white supremacy while the other party (MDC) is portrayed ‘to be in bed with the West’. It hereby plays into people’s shared experience of subjugation to white minority and its determination that that will not happen again. The depicting of the MDC as ‘puppets of the West’ and therefore as alien without a legitimate claim on the land has been abundantly demonstrated quote. What is lesser analysed, is ZANU-PF’s strategy to link the MDC to Zimbabweans of foreign descent who have a subject status and are equally considered alien and lacking a claim to land and therefore political participation and national politics. This section will focus firstly on those who are included in ZANU-PF’s definition of good Zimbabweans, the ‘children of the soil’ and then on those that have become an example of exclusion, the ‘totemless of Mbare’.

Children of the soil

‘In the post-2000 scenario, the nation-state has increasingly been conceived as the political expression of a single or a dominant and relatively homogenous ethnic or racial group: ‘native Africans’ or vana vevhu (Shona for ‘children of the soil’) as they have been projected not only as the original and true inhabitants of Zimbabwe but also as having pre-eminent rights over the country’s land and other resources’ (Muzondiya 2004: 225). It is an inherently political statement referring to those that are conscious of imperialism and understand their national sovereignty and the true meaning of the independence according to the definition put forward by ZANU-PF and Mugabe. Those excluded from this definition were those in opposition, especially MDC supporters, who see their claim to the soil denied. Over time, the meaning of vana vevhu has changed. It has become slang to just indicate that one is Zimbabwean. Currently one can also hear members of MDC saying to one another mwana wevhu (‘son of the soil’) meaning that one is Zimbabwean and proudly so and patriotic. The fact that words Zanu-pf used to denigrate others are taken up by the opposition and changed in their sense indicates the limits of Zanu-pf’s power to name and to determine social relations.

In Zimbabwe the different value that is attributed to ‘the soil’ in rural and urban areas is of special significance. Pius Wakatama, a journalist of the independent newspaper, The Standard, for example comments that “since most of those in our government are from a rural background, they despise township residents”. He recalls that when he grew up, those from the rural areas used to regard urban dwellers as stupid and derisively call them « Vana vemapiritsi”29. Vana vemapiritsi is Shona for children born through the use of medical tablets. It is a denigrative term for inhabitants of urban high-density areas where people were born in hospitals and where hospitals were readily available in case they fell sick. The term is much less political in connotation though than vana vevhu.

The totemless from Mbare

A good ‘child of the soil’ has a musha, which in Shona means a rural home. An urban man in his early thirties explained the importance of having a home in the rural areas. “We are rural from pre-colonial times. Since 1819, there is urbanisation, but migrant labourers have their long term home in rural areas. Two homes is a sign of our double rootedness. It is hard to digest not to have a rural home.” Especially for the Shona people, “the city was where one went to gather wealth that one used to develop a proper home in the rural areas. For this reason many opted to have lodgings in the city rather than their own places of residence while maintaining a family in the rural areas – the real home” (Chikowero 2008:?). Permanent urban residence is a mark of inferiority and synonymous with foreigners from neighbouring countries who came to Zimbabwe for economic reasons, to work as labourers in farms and mines and the nascent industry. Mashiri reports that “in the African locations, beer halls constituted a key interactive space for people of different ethnicities, leading to confrontations and stereotyping among those of foreign descent and Shona” (Mashiri :7). Some Shona terms for Zimbabwean people from Malawi descent that they esteem debasing and which include a reference to land are: Mabvakure, meaning ‘aliens’ and Mabwidi ‘the stupid, homeless ones’ (Mashiri). To be considered homeless has a deeper implication. It also means being “totemless”, which in Zimbabwe means having no roots.30 A totem stands for the place one is coming from. Totems refer to animals or symbols and give a name to a clan. Common last names in Zimbabwe are for example Moyo (Shona for heart) and Shumba (Shona for lion), and Ncube (Ndbele for baboon). A young, urban, male respondent explained the meaning of totemless as following:

“Totemless refers to people without a history. Identity is based on history, so MDC is not [considered] part of national identity. It [totem] is deeper than name. [It has to do with] issues with rainmakers in those areas. For example, the Mofute totem. You can not have a rainmaker that is not Mofute. They are traditional owners of that area.”

The singer of the Khiama Boys, himself of Malawi origin claims in the song “Kubva Kure” that their families also have totems, that they are just cast in a different language: “As for myself, my totem is Phiri, Phiri is the same old Soko (Shona for baboon), Phiri is also Ncube (Ndbele for baboon), Only the names are different”31. Above respondent indicates that the importance of totemage as a marker of identity has changed, especially in urban areas. Another example comes from a mother who told that her son, a young man living in the united Kingdom sent an SMS to know his totem. Being denied a totem has become more an issue of concern than the type of totem one might have and the recognition or distinction this creates among people from the same or different totemage32. Its use has thus become political.

From being applied to immigrants the label ‘totemless’ has also come to include MDC supporters. According to Gandhi and Jambaya, the workers have since the 1990’s, when a strong opposition emerged, been consistently derided as “totemless”, deracinated and at the periphery of the liberation legacy. They have been characterised as ‘the ones who lead the nation astray’, unlike the peasants who are always on the right path … not distracted by issues that are peripheral … [and] know the fundamentals’ (Gandhi and Jambaya 2002:6 in Raftopoulus 2004). The term has become particularly infamous when during the countdown to the 2000 general election, President Robert Mugabe told a rally in Bindura that “people from Mbare were totemless elements of alien origin and mocked them for supporting the opposition MDC”33. He angrily denounced the residents of Mbare for allegedly abandoning the ruling party that led the liberation struggle of the country, for a newly formed opposition party that enjoys the support of the white minority” (Raftopoulos 2004). A young urban man from Zimbabwe explains Mugabe’s statement as following:

“When Mugabe referred to the totemless of Mbare, his statement meant a number of things. Firstly, that by abandoning ZANU-PF the people of Mbare (who had voted overwhelmingly for MDC) had forgotten “where they came from”- to him they were throwing away their heritage behaving like people who are not Zimbabwean, who do not care about their country.” quote

One of the words Mugabe used was « Maburantaya » which means people from Blantyre Malawi. This is another derogatory word used for foreigners.

This naming does clearly not have the capacity to deter. The message behind the naming however reinforces stereotypes. The strategy of Zanu-pf plays into colonial cleavages and gives them a political meaning. Mugabe’s message was that all those voting for the opposition were alien and not entitled to be called Zimbabwean. In a country where the nationalist discourse ways heavily on one’s identity, people have a difficult internal negotiation to make.

Vehicles of Zanu-PF messages

  • ZBC, music galas, jingles

  • Rallies

  • Chimurenga Music

  • Written Press

  • Pungwes, night vigils

  • National events (State burials at Hero’s Acre, Hero’s Day, etc)

  • Slogans

Liberation struggle rhetoric in media broadcast plays into a sense of guilt and of owing to those who sacrificed for the liberation of the country. Jonathan Moyo’s modernises and multiplies the platforms for these messages. He introduces music events around 2001 (Solidarity gala in Mozambique, Heroes plush gala August 2004) that were were very popular, especially in the rural areas people where people live in a state of “cultural starvation”. The galas vaguely remind pungwe’s as they are all night events. They lost appeal since because “people now want new issues, they don’t just entertainment and a platform to propagate ZPF”1.

In this period [the State sponsors?] the production of a series of albums in which artists sing about the “current liberation war”, the land reform. This is a new form of Chimurenga music. They are ideologically loaded songs in extension of a music form that was popular during the struggle and that stems from an adaptation of traditional folk music. According to one interviewee Chimurenga music has lost its attraction after 2000, when the legitimisation of the land reform lost popularity. Brian Mteke and India Brown for example felt compelled to transform their music shows to prevent boycotting.

A classic vehicle for Zanu-pf messages are rallies. They are meetings where people chant Chimurenga songs and cite slogans. Their frequency depends on events, they are not necessarily planned long time in advance. In the rural areas, attending rallies is the norm. One interviewee compared it with church attendance in Europe 100 years ago. “People feel obliged to go to rallies, scared for the consequences and looks if one won’t go and to be stigmatised as sell-outs and MDC supporters which can have dangerous consequences.” At political rallies people listen to the message of “another war and the threat that whites may come back and recolonise the country” and hear repeatedly about the threat of invasions.

Jingles are introduced for political messages in the period after 2000, when Moyo was Minister of Information. Jingles are still broadcast on television. They are different now. From a reference to the liberation war they have become more praise songs of Mugabe, such as the jingles by the Mbare Chimurenga Choir. In 2010, these jingles were broadcast every half hour on ZBC, which led to a contestation on the side of MDC who felt that it should benefit equally of this broadcast time. Jingles that focus on land issues attempt to appeal both to an urban and rural population: (jingle 3: young people, with urban dress are dancing in the fields in an attempt to appeal to both urban and rural population).

All these vehicles are used in an intensified mode during election campaign periods. An electoral campaign reflects liberation war structures especially in rural areas since the 2000 election. The force of Zanu-PF lies in the coherence of their message.

Resonance, Receiving information: different people, different discourse?

Citizens’ agency in receiving information

Despite Zanu-PF’s insistance on above-mentioned three narratives through different vehicles, people are not simply receivers of information. They actively engage with it and draw their own conclusions. In Harare there is a generalised distrust towards State media. The wide availability of satellite dishes, also in the high density areas, demonstrate people’s agency in the search for information and entertainment. A refusal to pay broadcast tax is another indicator. The Zimbabwe Telegraph notes that ZBC “has been struggling to air quality programs with viewers resisting to pay the much needed licenses arguing that they were not realizing the value for their money”1. An indication that views about what should and shouldn’t be broadcast are divided, comes from a Copac outreach meeting in Mashonaland East where those attending have demanded strict censorship of television programmes and movies to discourage homosexuality and loose moral behavior2. People receive messages differently, based on their level of education, their economic situation, their identity which impact their priorities. What appeals to people is determined by societal divisions and identity markers. The most important dividing lines in the country are political, geographic/socio-economic (rural versus urban), ethnic (Shona/Ndebele), generational (born before and after “national liberation”) and levels of education (educated « traitors with pens and laptobs 3» and un-educated quote?). These cleavages play a role in answering the question who is sensitive to which type of discourse. Zanu-pf lost the support of the south very rapidly as a result of the Gukurahundi massacres. The rural roots of the struggle, which was led by peasant, explain why the support for Mugabe comes mainly from the rural areas.

Religiously the country is homogenous, predominantly Christian. The differences between the denominations are beyond my sensibility.

Further need for research in discourse to look at:

  • the use of language. Differences in political discourse between Shona and English? Are more threats used in speeches in Shona (which remain invisible for international actors)?

  • Which shared discourse is available?

Support for Zanu-PF

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. But, as Andrew Moyse pointed out, “you can not bribe an entire nation”4. Which symbolic factors are motivations for their choice beyond their material interests? The older generation shares the experience of the liberation struggle and shares the ideological base of African nationalism that has been fostered these years. What bonds them together is also a sense of sacrifice for a larger goal, that of a free country. Then there is a new breed of people that did not participate in the war, but as a result of history, they can identify with the struggle of black people and the need for black consciousness. It provides them with answers to the question « why am I poor? ». Beyond symbolic resources, a selection of youth feel represented by Zanu-pf because they have the feeling that it does something for them. They are present in the rural areas, they propose programs, they give youths something to do. They provide t-shirts and organise football tournaments. Moreover 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. MDC has more appeal to the middle generation.

Then there is a group that is not actively supporting Zanu-PF, not even voting for it, but that is nevertheless sensitive to its discourse. James is a good example. He is a young man, in his early thirties and finished his studies in international business administration. He lives in the rural areas but travels often to Harare, where he is importing farming supplies. He also has an advertisement company. 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 fought for”. He 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. They empower people through giving land; changing the constitution so it can empower rural folk; through the indigenisation policy” which is, according to him, “more crafted by the ZANU-pf than by MDC5”.

Zanu-pf applies divide and rule tactics in its distribution of symbolic resources. Its Heroes Acre policy is an example. The opposition claims that the attribution of a hero status is more determined by the loyal allegiance to Zanu-pf and that the shrine is a Zanu-PF rather than a national shrine. If we look at who gets a place at Heroes acre we moreover see that the definition of heroism is limited to military terms. This becomes evident during the discussions about the War Veterans Administration Bill in 1992. The bill defined ‘war veterans’ as those who had undergone military training and participated consistently and persistently in the liberation struggle between 1 January 1962 and 29 February 1980 but it excluded ex-political prisoners. (Kriger, 2006: 1155).


Mugabe’s legitimacy is crumbling but this is what is left of it (this was true in September 2010 but I have the impression that it has changed since, is that correct?):

Consistency of Zanu-PF message

Mugabe is clever, intelligent

Mugabe has the power to defer

Zanu-pf is the most structured party

Mugabe puts a face on the struggle and offers a coherent identity framework

Consistency of message

While disagreeing with the content of the message, all interviewed agreed on the consistency and the coherence of the message. Zanu-PF speaks with one voice and whether you demand a person in a rural area or in the city what Zanu-PF stands for, he or she will give the same answer. According to Dinkamai Mashingwa, who works at program manager at the Media Monitoring Project, Zanu-pf disseminates a coherent and consistent campaign message. “If you go the rural areas, an unsophiosticated person will tell you the same message as the Zanu-PF information officer6”. The strength of Zanu-PF lies in the fact that people can repeat their statements.

Zanu-PF most structured party

ZANU PF is more structured than any other party in Zimbabwe.

  • Councillor

  • chiefs

  • headmen

  • youth leaders

Each plays their role, with a clear chain of command. The Chairman of the party will inform the chiefs, who consequently inform the headmen who then inform youth leaders.


Chitando, Ezra “‘Down with the devil, Forward with Christ!’ A study of the interface between religious and political discourses in Zimbabwe”, African Sociological Review, 6 (1), 2002.

Chari, Tendai “Recapturing a Nation’s Fading Memory through Video: An Analysis of Chimurenga Files Videos”, paper presentation, Ife film festival, Nigeria, 2009

Chiumbu, Saray, “Redefining the National Agenda: Media and Identity – Challenges of Building a New Zimbabwe in Melber, Henning” (ed.), Media, public discourse and political contestation in Zimbabwe, Current African Issues N°27, Nordic Africa Institute, Uppsala 2004

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

Kriger, Norma, ‘From Patriotic Memories to ‘Patriotic History’ in Zimbabwe, 1990 - 2005’, Third World Quarterly, 27: 6, 1151 — 1169, 2006

Melber, Henning” (ed.), in Media, public discourse and political contestation in Zimbabwe, Current African Issues N°27, Nordic Africa Institute, Uppsala 2004

Melber, Henning “Botwana, Namibian Zimbabwe – Anything in common? Introductory remarks” in Melber, H. (ed.) Governance and State Delivery in Southern Africa, Examples from Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe, Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, Uppsala 2007

Moore, David “When I’m a century old, why Mugabe won’t go” in Southall, J. and Melber, H. (eds), Legacies of power, Leadership change and former presidents in African politics , Cape Town: Blue Weaver, 2006

Lagrange, Marc-André et Vircoulon, Thierry, “Zimbabwe : réflexions sur la dictature durable”, Politique étrangère, 2008/03

Meredith, Martin, Mugabe: Power, Plunder, and the Struggle for Zimbabwe, Public Affairs, 2007

Raftopoulos, Brian and Mlambo, A. Becoming Zimbabwe, a history from the pre-colonial period to 2008, Johannesburg: Weaver Press, 2009

Ranger, Terence, “Historiography, Patriotic History and the History of the Nation: the Struggle

with the Past in Zimbabwe”, 2003 and Kaarsholm, Preben “Foreword” in Chung, Fay, Reliving the 2nd Chimurenga,

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