Zimbabwe: Media content and context

Updated February 2002

An increasing sense of insecurity has been pervasive in Zimbabwean politics. President Mugabe has progressively entrenched his grip on power, inevitably degrading fundamental features of democracy.

At present, food deficit threatens to starve the country's rural areas, just weeks before polling. The economy faces unprecedented crisis, contracting by about 5% in 2000, with unemployment and inflation looming at an ever-growing rate (World Bank Group 2000). The increasingly chaotic land resettlement programme and unfavourable rainfall patterns have contributed to a dramatic decline in maize production.

With the formation of a viable opposition in September 1999 the incumbent ZANU PF found itself confronted for the first time with a real competitor in the electoral arena. In February 2000, the dramatic defeat on the government over its constitutional reform bill earned the opposition some standing and launched its challenge as possible successor to ZANU PF. The Parliamentary elections in June 2000 inflicted another stunning blow on the ruling ZANU PF.

Recent opinion polls presented by the Zimbabwean Financial Gazette found Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition, ahead by six percentage points, with at least 20% of the respondents either unwilling or unable to state their preferences due to the climate of intimidation (Nyathi 2002). Capitalising on economic discontent and the ensuing crisis, the MDC could claim a victory without precedent.

It is important to notice that Zimbabwe's democratic terrain is thin. The pervasive sense of failure to govern through representative institutions and increasing isolation of a besieged government has reinforced an "autocratic culture of executive domination" (Diamond & Plattner 1999). At independence, reconciliation came about as a necessary compromise in the wake of a negotiated transition, which entrenched the dispossession of land held by the white minority. As Ruth Weiss (994) points out, at the time, ZANU PF's lack of leverage over key constituencies like the powerful white settler middle-class and the Ndebele community were a source of formidable instability.

The subsequent emergence of an indigenous bourgeois class whose fortunes directly depended on its proximity to the state was a phenomenon common to other African countries. Ruth Weiss and Scott Taylor both subscribe to the conventional wisdom that the state's alliance with white interests occurred in the absence of a vibrant civil society in Zimbabwe. This in turn enabled the ruling elite to engage in the deliberate suppression of democratic freedoms (Taylor 1999).

In such a context, the Zimbabwean media bears considerable responsibility towards promoting democratic consolidation. Yet the media appear at times as much divided and polarised as to mirror the polarity of political debates and arenas between the ruling party and the opposition. Reports on political violence often reflect the political swing between alternative stances.

Journalism seems increasingly divaricated, where it should be aware of responsibilities involved when operating in such a political vacuum. Providing analysis and, most of all, avenues to improve the quality of leadership is an inevitable obligation of the Zimbabwean civil society and media operating at present.

References

DIAMOND, L & PLATTNER, MF 1999, Democratisation in Africa.

NYATHI, N 2002, "Tsvangirai leads Mugabe" IN The Financial Gazette, 8 November.

TAYLOR, SD 1999, "Race, class and neopatrimonialism in Zimbabwe" IN Richard Joseph, RA (ed), State, Conflict and Democracy in Africa.

WEISS, R 1994, Zimbabwe and the new elite, British Academic Press.

WORLD BANK GROUP 2000, Country-At-A-Glance Zimbabwe, 2000.