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Zimbabwe has a long history of political violence, with victims of past attacks waiting in vain for justice


Election violence: Let’s avoid good-versus-evil characterisation in media




ELECTION season is upon us, and what a way of kickstarting it in 2023. We started the year on the political calendar, the way Zimbabwean politics always works.

An incident of political violence occurs in Murewa North constituency in Mashonaland East province. A video is recorded and circulated on social media vaguely showing what the public quickly said was a perpetration of political violence on elderly opposition supporters by Zanu PF members.

Before police could even begin investigations, the media and the public had already taken a position – good-versus-evil approach – that it was a Zanu PF against the opposition CCC affair. No evidence was provided by media, including the NewsHawks, which is not helping the situation beyond polarisation and stoking political tensions across society ahead of elections.

I hold no brief for any political party, but I want to question this practice of labelling without evidence or instead of giving readers information to make up their minds about what is happening. The media reporting template in Zimbabwe on politics, especially during elections, is based on giving a dog a bad name in order to hang it.

As I watched that video on the Murewa violence, I asked myself some questions. The obvious one being, if those are Zanu PF members or supporters, why are they recording evidence of violence incriminating themselves and their party?. Why did they record the incident in the first place?

For sadistic pleasure, for their records, for showing others what they do with those from the opposition, or it was an act of stupidity?  Was it to show their bosses what they do to their opponents or feedback on an assignment?

The thing is the video and the subsequent debate do not make sense to me. I hoped the media and platforms like The NewsHawks, which have branded themselves as investigative projects, would provided answers to these questions. Who were those perpetrators of the violence? Are they Zanu PF or not? Who were the victims? Are they CCC or not? What was the background to the incident? What caused that? What is the balance of political forces on the ground in Murewa North in the context of the incident and upcoming elections?

The CCC, which positions itself as the victim all the time even though we know its predecessor the MDC sometimes perpetrated violence within its own structures and against comrades, quickly sought to make political capital out of the Murewa episode.

Zanu PF, which has been historically accused and linked to violence against the opposition, denied those were its members. It actually denounced them. That added to the confusion and fuelled conspiracy.

In fact, Zanu PF spokesperson Chris Mutsvangwa spoke about this, alleging a conspiracy against his party and saying the incident was premeditated by the opposition.

“For people to jump into a conclusion that the violence was caused by Zanu PF shows that there was a premeditated agenda to try to collar our party with accusations which has been typical of the MDC since its formation…and the CCC. They only specialise in trying to give a bad name to Zanu PF; call a dog a name to beat it. That is their approach to politics.”

Police arrested a suspect, but his political affiliation is not clear. Yet we have already drawn conclusions that we know the villain and the saints in this situation.

However, we have not been able to explain why that video was recorded. It is like a gang of armed robbers raiding a house to steal some money and one of them records a video of the scene. What would be the motive of that? How do we explain that?

I am not saying Zanu PF did not commit the Murewa act of violence or did. Similarly, I am not saying the CCC is telling the truth or lying. I am saying let us  investigate first and then comment from a position of facts and truth, not speculation, innuendoes and falsehoods.

This is not about defending anyone. It is about trying to encourage people to approach issues with an open mind.

Before some people start wrongly citing terrorists as an example of perpetrators of violence who record themselves and distribute their videos and audios to explain the behaviour of those accused of committing the Murewa violence, let me address that.

Unleashing political violence or armed robbery activities are different from acts of terrorism. Those who commit acts of political violence or robberies have a reason to cover their tracks and to hide their activities compared to terrorists.

Terrorists record and distribute their videos and messages to the public, and use media to gain traction, attention and support among their sympathisers. It is a complex symbiotic relationship between terrorists and the media. It needs to be critically examined.

Modern terrorism relies on media for its sustenance. The media always covers terrorist acts not only because it is their duty to report on any major events and that they are newsworthy anyway, but also because terrorism attracts readers and huge attention. Terrorism stories bring eyeballs, clicks, likes and shares; they drive traffic among media audiences.

Around the world, terrorists know that and have picked up this dynamic, hence take action not only to make their victims suffer and leverage force to achieve their agendas, but also to draw maximum attention and make themselves known, in the process attracting followers and funders within the realm where they operate and among those who consider them as heroes.

Terrorists have become media savvy and have strategies of drawing media attention in most of their activities. Not only do they now have equipment and take advantage of digital technologies to distribute their nefarious activities, they also usually know how to time them and create those images which can guarantee them maximum impact through the media.

This modus operandi could easily lead to the conclusion that media is a partner in crime in terrorism, hence prevention of terrorism should include prohibiting journalists from giving huge coverage to terrorist activities, but then that would not be addressing the root cause of the problem.

The opposition in Zimbabwe is necessary, legitimate and important, not just in terms of the constitution and multiparty politics, but also in terms of development and progress. We need the opposition, particularly quality and sound opposition that becomes a government-in-waiting. Not just noise-makers and jokers.

However, the opposition should not be deified. We should not worship them. We should take them to task as much as we scrutinise the ruling party. Of course, the ruling party must not be worshipped as well. Actually, it must be criticised more and held accountable.

But the problem we have is that Zimbabwean media does not scrutinise the opposition. If it is the state-run media, they just condemn them without professional coverage. By contrast, the private media lets them get away with anything all the time, including with murder, metaphorically and literally.

On the Job Sikhala issue, for instance, the media is not unpacking what he did and whether there was a connection between his remarks and the subsequent violence in Nyatsime. Does Sikhala deserve bail? Why is he being held for so long in pre-trial detention?

What has been Sikhala’s bail conditions before his arrest in June last year and did he violate them or not? Naturally, the media must investigate who killed Moreblessing Ali, but then again it must not be politically driven coverage.

In the Murehwa incident, if it turns out that opposition members had stage-managed the violence and evidence is provided, would the private media in this case report that story? In turn, if it turns out its Zanu PF to blame, would the state media report that?  We all know what most likely would happen in both instances and that is where the problem is.

Media must do their job professionally and responsibly.

Ask the ruling party hard questions, and do the same with the opposition. Scrutinise their activities and engage with an open mind. No doubt, the ruling party is in government and must be held to account more, but all the same media must be professional in doing their job.

If you are not open-minded and open to other ideas and perspectives, it is hard to see all the factors contributing to problems at work or come up with practical solutions. In an increasingly polarised society like Zimbabwe, being able to overcome your blind spots and consider other perspectives and ideas is essential.

Journalists must be open-minded and critical thinkers, not sycophants or cynics.

Critical thinking is an endeavour to develop reliable, rational evaluations of what is happening and reasonable for people to believe and disbelieve. It makes use of the tools of logic and science because it values scepticism over gullibility or dogmatism, reason over faith, the science of pseudoscience, and ​rationality over wishful thinking.

Of course, critical thinking does not guarantee that we will arrive at truth, but it does make it much more likely than any of the alternatives do.

On the Murewa incident, we have not seen any open-minded and critical thinking approach from the media and the public. We have seen the familiar polarisation: Accusations and counter-accusations.

A person, especially a journalist, who wishes to think critically about something like politics or religion must be open-minded. Investigative media platforms like The NewsHawks must be open-minded and thrive on critical thinking.

We must learn to separate emotion and reason. Supporters of political parties, especially in this country where politics is like war, have serious difficulties in doing that.

As for the private media, if you allow the opposition to be treated with kid gloves, if they get into power do not be surprised when they become monsters, particularly when they already have a personality cult politics mentality and do not want to be asked anything, hence unwilling to be accountable.

Even basic things like asking them do you have party structures elicit emotion and condemnation from the opposition. If you ask that, you are quickly labelled Zanu PF even if you are well-meaning or just a critical thinker. How then do you become an alternative to the ruling party with that attitude and mentality? How do you bring change with that mindset? How different are you from those you criticise and seek to replace?

I’m deliberately focusing on the opposition because Zanu PF is always criticised compared to its competitors. The media should not encourage and perpetuate partisan and one-sided coverage, particularly going to elections as we are. If Zanu PF does wrong things, criticise them. If the opposition does the same, treat them the same way. The reverse should also apply.

That way, we can have a proper conversational and debating society on politics and accountability issues compared to a toxic one where labelling and insults dominate public discourse.

At the moment, Zimbabweans’ debate are not brainy. We have a partisan approach, which only entrenches polarisation and divides society into good people and bad people – righteous and evil citizens.

Societies are far more complex than that and cannot mirrored in binaries. We need to change our politics and begin to engage with ideas and issues more deeply than we do.

The Murewa incident got me thinking about this. Media should not fall into the trap of rushing to conclusions before investigating, checking and verifying these things.

As for the opposition, it should avoid the Nietzschean gaze and must stop acting holier-than-thou. Look at what is happening in the opposition, does that inspire confidence?

“Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.” ― Friedrich W. Nietzsche.

In his book Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche argues that concepts of good and evil (morality) are culturally constructed rather than inherently “true”; different cultures develop different moral laws in order maintain social order.

However, that is not what we are necessarily talking about here. Violence against each other over politics and different opinions is the issue.

As a result, my interest here is the Nietzschean gaze.

When one looks long into nothingness, one becomes nothing, empty. And the monsters here are (from Beyond Good and Evil) the result of a false morality. Nietzche would have called out modern priests and pastors, of which there are so many examples, who fall from grace in fighting monsters (for instance the pastor who preaches against homosexuality only to find that he has been hiring and paying male prostitutes for years).

The story of Catholic Bishop Pius Ncube is well-known in Zimbabwe, and needs no repeat here. Without evidence, the opposition would have said he was framed.

Nietzsche shared a lot of insightful wisdom with the world, much of which has taken a long time to be appreciated. The “stare into the abyss and the abyss stares back” is just one of them, but it encourages us to acknowledge and overcome some of the darkness within ourselves.

The opposition must acknowledge and overcome its own darkness for it to be better than Zanu PF. The media must do their job professionally and not lionise or glorify the opposition, lest we reproduce and perpetuate the problems we are already facing. In that context, let us ask questions and investigate with an open mind who perpetrated the Murewa political violence, and let the law take its course. Let us not foreclose different outcomes in investigations and public debate.

About the writer: Henry Chamunorwa is a Maputo-based humanitarian affairs analyst who manages projects in zones of conflicts, natural disasters and other complex environments.

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