Vox populi: The role of citizens in a democratic republic

By Richard Gandari

Vox populi, vox Dei, is a Latin phrase first popularised by a Whig tract published in the United Kingdom in 1709. The Conservative Party of today can trace its roots back to the Whigs, a political party active between the 1680s and 1850s.

The Latin title of their tract means “the voice of the people is the voice of God.” In a constitutional democracy, the people are the real source of power with state actors, including the President of the republic, serving as civil servants, at the pleasure of the people. When its definition is simplified, democracy is often said to mean ‘rule by the people’. The Preamble to the United States Constitution, begins with the words, We the People.

Following the military coup that toppled former Zimbabwean strongman, Robert Mugabe, his successor, Emerson Mnangagwa, entered the scene in sheep’s clothing. Claiming to be “soft as wool,” President Mnangagwa popularly reaffirmed that “the voice of the people is the voice of God.” For good measure he would add a resounding “Hallelujah!” It was merely political grandstanding to sanitize Mugabe’s unconstitutional ouster. Fortunately, the illusion only lasted a few weeks, as Zimbabwe soon found itself at a constitutionally stipulated interval for general elections. Mr Mnangagwa led ZANU PF to ‘win’ the watershed elections of 2018. Since then, the state has detached from the general citizenry. This is because the government is a product of successive, stolen elections, the political equivalent of a serial rapist. Election results are at variance with the people’s general mood before and after the polls.

Nevertheless, We the People must continue to play our civic roles. Regardless of the machinations and excesses of ZANU PF, there are sacred obligations towards our hard-won common suffrage that we should never relinquish, not even under duress. First and foremost, every eligible citizen must register to vote, and be in a position to participate in electoral processes, barring any unforeseen, extenuating circumstances. Secondly, a citizen must at best be a member, or at least a supporter of a political party of his or her choice. This can accommodate every citizen including anyone who claims to be apolitical due to career or religious obligations. For instance, cricketers Andy Flower and Henry Olonga, protested by wearing black armbands during the 2003 Cricket World Cup to “mourn the death of democracy in Zimbabwe.” Again, the impactful #ThisFlag social movement in 2016, was spearheaded by Pastor Evan Mawarire.

There is no wisdom in leaving politics to politicians. As Plato, the Greek philosopher aptly said it, “If you do not take an interest in the affairs of your government, then you are doomed to live under the rule of fools.” You cannot expect other citizens to provide you with the government of your liking when you have no interest in your country’s electoral processes. Voter apathy is the easiest own goal that We the People can score against ourselves. If ever ZANU PF members pray, they only pray for voter apathy especially in opposition strongholds. It is very difficult to rig an election in which nearly all registered voters vote. Doctoring numbers is simpler when there are fewer voters at polling stations than on the voters’ roll. It gets even easier when opposition parties field no polling agents while citizens ignore civic calls to become observers.

Above all, citizens should resist tyranny with the contempt it deserves. To borrow a leaf from Advocate Chamisa’s handbook and quote the Bible, James 4:7 says, “Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” With the same measure, twice shaken and pressed down, resist ZANU PF and it will flee from you. As the affable former US First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt famously said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” ZANU PF is the Zimbabwean equivalent of the Taliban in Afghanistan. It is a rogue regime with neither shame nor collective conscience. It is a political cult that thrives on brainwashing its adherents. One effective way to undermine ZANU PF is to resist everything it stands for. As a citizen, try your best to shun ZANU PF rallies and refuse its handouts. Have no regalia or anything that glorifies ZANU PF, not even a bumper sticker. Most critically, withhold your precious vote from ZANU PF.

However, there is a growing school of thought which suggests that voting in Zimbabwe is an exercise in futility. Such thinking is actually sponsored and encouraged by ZANU PF. Added to voter apathy, losing faith in elections only serves the interests of ZANU PF. There is futility only in apathy. No one else gains anything from low voter turnout on polling days. The ruling party does not like genuine elections for it knows too well that power can be lost quite easily. The only shield protecting ZANU PF from the dustbin of history is the people’s ignorance in the power that they collectively have, to effect regime change through elections. In spite of glaring irregularities, We the People must never give up on elections even if they are invariably held by candlelight at midnight. Voting is not a choice like dinner plans, it is a civic duty.

As Zimbabwe prepares for by-elections caused by Sengezo Tshabangu’s recalls of CCC lawmakers, political violence has reared its ugly head once again. The recent killing of CCC activist Tapfumaneyi Masaya in Mabvuku is yet another tragic reminder of the impunity with which ZANU PF literally gets away with murder. As usual, there will be no consequences for the perpetrators, no justice for the deceased and no closure for the bereaved. Citizens in Mabvuku cannot fight back by throwing stones or burning cars. The only weapon at their disposal is the barrel of the pen, to mark their ballots and shame tyranny. The biggest way to honor Masaya’s legacy is to ensure the candidate he died campaigning for wins resoundingly. Those who sponsor violence against political opponents must never be allowed to win elections.

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