Beginning on Wednesday November 18th, the Film Forum in New York will be showing “Democrats”, a cinéma vérité documentary judged best at the Tribeca Film Festival this year. Directed by Camilla Nielsson, a Danish director trained at NYU who has made political documentaries since 2003, it consists exclusively of footage of two Zimbabwean lawyers as they go around the country making the case for and against Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF. On the pro side is Paul Mangwana, a former Minister of Information; on the con side is Douglas Mwonzora, an adviser to Morgan Tsvangirai, the head of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
Both men have been assigned by their rival parties to work on a new constitution. It is 2008, when Mugabe and Tsvangirai rule Zimbabwe in a nominally power-sharing arrangement that resulted from political and economic pressure, particularly from the USA and Britain. Serving on the Constitutional Parliamentary Committee (COPAC), they traveled across the country over a three year period to monitor community meetings tacitly organized to hear ordinary people express their views on matters such as term limits, etc.
Almost as if on cue from central casting, the ZANU-PF representative Paul Mangwana is cynical and mocking, implying on numerous occasions that he regards the whole exercise as a dog and pony show. By contrast, Mwonzora is sober and thoughtful.
However, don’t expect a simple morality tale to unfold. The film is much more interested in demonstrating the tangled nature of Zimbabwean politics where Mugabe’s continuing rule after 35 years is only partially based on violence. To a large extent the dominance of the ZANU-PF is a function of the ineptitude of the opposition as can be gleaned from a key scene. When Mwonzora shows up at rural village to get a report on how the meetings on the draft constitution went, an MDC member tells him it did not go well at all. Their party members showed up drunk and unclear about their purpose. For Mangwana, the domination of the meeting by ZANU-PF members was easy to understand. Smiling like the cat that ate the canary, he says that his party was better organized.
Strictly on the basis of cinéma vérité techniques, “Democrats” succeeds as a character study of two personalities with a major stake in Zimbabwe’s future. Despite the frequently violent assaults on the MDC by Mugabe’s goons, Mwonzora remains cordial with his adversary who responds in kind. Obviously, like all lawyers they are ready to exchange pleasantries in the hallway and revert to savage invective once they get back into the courtroom. However, as might be expected with cinéma vérité, you really have no clue what the MDC stood for or how ZANU-PF became entrenched. That would require academic experts like Patrick Bond to weigh in, something that of course would be key for a different type of film so sorely needed.
The film takes a dramatic turn when word is leaked to the press that the draft constitution contains a clause preventing a President from serving more than two terms. This would obviously disqualify Mugabe from running in the next election. When Mangwana learns about the clause in a daily newspaper, he goes ballistic (it is not clear why it had evaded his detection beforehand) since his comrades in ZANU-PF would regard him as a “sellout” for allowing it to be included. As Mangwana readily admits, being called a “sellout” is tantamount to a death sentence. Days after the report, panelists on a state-controlled TV station stated that Mangwana also supported homosexuality and was paid by imperialists to sell out Zimbabwe’s interests—offenses that clearly deserved an assassin’s bullet.
Overriding his party’s determination to get rid of Mugabe once and for all, Mwonzora agreed to remove the troublesome clause. Mangwana’s life was spared in the process and Mugabe went on to rule until now. He is 91 years old and eager to run Zimbabwe until he is dead, maybe even afterwards. As Mwonzora points out in the closing moments, none of the democratic guarantees of the new constitution that was approved in a referendum in March 2013 have ever been implemented.
Due to its rigid adherence to cinéma vérité, “Democrats” fails to provide much context outside of the legalistic framework. Democracy is seen strictly in formal terms as if a piece of paper meant more than socio-economic realities, or could ward off the “deep state” that would defy any attempts to level the political playing field. Given the fact that Stalin’s constitution for the USSR was the most democratic in history, would we expect anything much different from Mugabe who readily admitted to being a “Stalinist”?
Seeing “Democrats” got me thinking again about Zimbabwe, a country that was the focus of discussion on the Marxism mailing list in year’s past, particularly when International Socialist Organization members (a fraternal organization of the British SWP) were being arrested on trumped-up charges in 2011. Their crime? Organizing a meeting in solidarity with the Arab Spring. According to the NY Times, “a dozen of the activists had been beaten with broomsticks, metal rods and blunt objects on their bodies and the soles of their feet.”
This year China awarded Mugabe the Confucius Peace Prize, evidently overlooking this incident. After all, nobody’s perfect. In keeping with China’s impeccable democratic standards, the prize was awarded despite the fact that only 36 out of the award committee’s 76 members approved of the choice of Mugabe. One hopes that the forty who disapproved were spared the broomstick treatment afterwards.
Long past the point when Western sanctions can make a difference, Zimbabwe’s economy is booming, mostly as a result of the export of minerals to China. As is the case throughout Africa, Chinese investments are transforming the country. In a new world order that is open to rival hegemonic blocs, the Zimbabwean and Chinese elites get along famously. Sam Pa, a Chinese billionaire with a large stake in Zimbabwean diamond mines, was kind enough to donate $100 million to Mugabe’s Central Intelligence Organization (CIO). Evidently, the Zimbabwean agency not only shares a name with the Langley thugs; it also has demonstrated a willingness to carry out one of its key policies under the George W. Bush administration: extraordinary rendition. Along with Malawi, the “anti-imperialist” bastion was eager to collaborate in the war on terror. One supposes that the men who got shipped to CIO dungeons in Zimbabwe got waterboarded as well as the tried-and-true broomstick treatment.
While no one can doubt that Mugabe is largely to blame for Zimbabwe’s lack of democratic rights, the MDC must be held to account for failing to address some of the more deeply entrenched legacies of colonialism. In his campaign against ZANU-PF, Morgan Tsvangirai opposed land reform. He sided with the white farmers who owned huge estates growing crops for exports such as tobacco. When Mugabe finally acted decisively against the agrarian bourgeoisie, it was clearly meant to shore up his flagging political base. That being said, it was a measure that benefited the rural poor who could now sustain themselves by growing food for the local market rather than tobacco for export.
In 2008 Mahmood Mamdani wrote a piece for the London Review of Books titled “Lessons of Zimbabwe” that is essential reading. Mamdani acknowledges the dramatic change that took place:
Zimbabwe has seen the greatest transfer of property in southern Africa since colonisation and it has all happened extremely rapidly. Eighty per cent of the 4000 white farmers were expropriated; most of them stayed in Zimbabwe. Redistribution revolutionised property-holding, adding more than a hundred thousand small owners to the base of the property pyramid. In social and economic – if not political – terms, this was a democratic revolution.
But when those living in the towns and cities got the notion that this democratic revolution applied to them as well, they soon learned that occupying white-owned tobacco farms and urban spaces were not the same thing. In 2005, urban squatters were removed from occupied land as part of Operation Restore Order/ Murambatsvina. At least 700,000 people and up to 2.5 million were evicted from shantytowns by the cops and the army.
It is of some interest that “cleaning up” the city was seen as instrumental in solidifying ties with China. According to Wikipedia, anti-Mugabe activist and Catholic archbishop Pius Ncube saw this coming:
Speculation over the motives behind Operation Murambatsvina has pointed to the removal of local competition threatening newly arrived Chinese businessmen whose stores sell cheap and often poor quality goods. It is estimated that, as a result of the government’s aggressive ‘Look East’ policy, up to 10,000 Chinese citizens have moved into the country, and some have moved onto farms taken from highly skilled commercial farmers, notably to grow tobacco for China’s 300 million smokers.
That’s what “anti-imperialism” has come to apparently. Growing tobacco for China’s smokers, smacking ISO’ers with broomsticks, and making the lives of homosexuals a living hell. Please excuse me for saying that I’ll have none of it.