Jabulani Zana Correspondent
The just-ended 2018 harmonised elections were truly watershed. They were remarkably and refreshingly different from prior elections, as evidenced by new faces on the ballot paper, a peaceful run-up, enjoyment of freedom of speech and freedom of association, and the involvement of foreign observer missions.
Freedom of speech allowed contestation of ideas in public fora and healthy dose of political satire to which politicians from across the political divide fell victim. This epitomised a turn from the old dispensation under which Pastor Evan had been arrested for what every Zimbabwean could now freely say in public places and on social media. However, a broad section of the social media space became increasingly intolerant, vile, unreasonable and cult-like as the elections drew closer.
Recognising this, the Elder and former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, warned: “We should be careful what we say because the idea is not to incite. You never know what will happen.” While the regrettable post-election violence has been widely discussed, it is just as important to discuss how we found ourselves in a position where Kofi Annan could see that the seeds of the violence had been sown.
Robert Greene in his book, “The 48 Laws of Power” describes 48 methods by which business leaders, kings, politicians and religious figures have attained and maintained power. One method in particular, which he lists as “Law 27”, is to play on people’s need to believe in order to create a cult-like following. People have an intense desire to believe in something, and in a country where poverty is prevalent and employment opportunities have been limited, people have deep desire to believe that quick solutions can be found for their problems.
Robert Greene notes that a person can attain power by becoming the focal point of such desire by offering people a new cause or a new dream to follow. He adds that in order to do so one has to keep their words vague but full of promise while emphasising enthusiasm over rationality and clear thinking.
Robert Greene advises that there are five simple steps that one can follow in order to create a cult. The first step is to keep your messaging vague and simple. You initially have to attract attention, not through actions, but through words that are hazy and vague. Your initial speeches have to achieve two things: make a promise of something great and transformative while remaining vague.
In the 2016 US presidential elections, Trump did this by promising a wall that Mexico would pay for and to make America great again. In Zimbabwe, one Presidential candidate, Nelson Chamisa, promised a bullet train, airports in all small towns, a two-week solution to the cash crisis and a $15 billion package from the aforementioned Mr Trump. No details were provided of how these promises would be fulfilled, leading to the disastrous showing during Chamisa’s BBC HardTalk inter- view.
The second step, Robert Greene says, is to emphasise the visual and the sensual over the intellectual. After fulfilling step one, one would have supporters gathered but there are two threats to any gathering: boredom, which leads people to go elsewhere, and scepticism which arises from people thinking rationally about your ideas and seeing them for what they are.
To pre-empt these threats, one has to ward off the cynics and amuse the bored using theatrics. We watched as MDC-T stalwarts who were sceptical of Chamisa’s promises and leadership were pushed out of the party but we had no time to focus on that, as we were entertained by the press-ups, the bicycle-riding and the insensitive gambling of an 18-year-old sister. The entertainment attracted many more followers to replace the few sceptics that left.
The third step is to borrow from organised religion and emphasise your gathering’s quasi-religious nature by talking and acting like a prophet. We all remember the images of Pastor Chamisa praying for a child, praying with Biti and reading the Bible in the proverbial wilderness. This was followed by the omnipresent #GodIsInIt.
The fourth step is to disguise your source of income. This is important in order to hide your desire for money and the power it brings. There are allegations of Chamisa’s dalliance with the former first family in providing trucking services for their Alpha & Omega company, and in receiving millions of dollars in campaign funds in exchange for a vice-presidency for a Mugabe proxy. However, such allegations were quickly brushed aside by eager followers and sections of the media that too seemed to have joined the cult.
The final step is to create an “us-versus-them dynamic” which is typical of most religious belief systems and is critical in keeping followers united. Followers feel like they belong to an exclusive club, unified by a bond of common goals. By manufacturing the notion of devious enemies out to ruin you, you create a scapegoat to blame for any of your own shortcomings and an outlet for your followers to vent against. In the US, Trump did this with the media, painting it as an evil monolith out to get him.
With Chamisa, it was rather remarkable that it was almost any woman who opposed him. While his differences with Elias Mudzuri and Thokozani Khupe were similar, it was Khupe that faced physical attack and was called derogatory names, while Mudzuri remained silent among the ranks.
While both the female British Ambassador, Catriona Laing and the male US Ambassador, Harry Thomas, wore the Zimrocks scarf, it was only Ambassador Laing who was ridiculed by Tendai Biti for her short height and attacked by “Nerrorists” on social media for wearing the scarf.
Tsvangirai’s own mother was not spared during the funeral of her son. She was verbally attacked and ridiculed on social media for expressing her discomfort with Chamisa’s behaviour during her son’s last days. ZEC chair Justice Priscilla Chigumba was called derogatory names and accused of sleeping with married men. Even the First Lady, Amai Mnangagwa, and the Vice President’s wife, Mary Chiwenga, were not spared by Chamisa and Biti.
Robert Greene warns, however, that the danger of creating a cult is if at any moment the group sees through you, you will find yourself facing not one deceived soul but an angry crowd that will tear you to pieces as avidly as it once followed you. One wonders, now that the followers are starting to see the hazy, vague promises and excuses for what they are, if Chamisa will succeed in keeping his flock together, or whether the monster he created will come after him.
Jabulani Zana is a published researcher and political economy analyst. He writes this article in his personal capacity.