Zimbabwe Review

Reflections on Zimbabwe

Overcoming Zimbabwe’s ‘Messiah Complex’

Posted by CM on August 30, 2007

by Chido Makunike*

Many Zimbabweans are desperate for change from the ruinous path that the country has been on under the long ruler ship of Robert Mugabe. Much of the frustration that the change did not come about at the recent general election is focused on the leader of the main opposition MDC party, Morgan Tsvangirai.

It is natural that passionate, disappointed party members as well as sympathizers call for the scalp of the head of the losing party’s leader. It is not uncommon for many such leaders under pressure to be forced to resign. In Zimbabwe the anger at Tsvangirai may simply be part of this universal reaction to disappointment, but I believe there is an additional interesting dimension that is a reflection of where we are in our development as a society. That element is Zimbabweans’ desire for a “messiah.”

To succinctly illustrate the sentiment, I will quote Bob Marley in his classic protest song, “Get up, stand up.” “Some people think, great god will come from the sky, and take away everything; leave everybody feel high.”

Many Zimbabweans are similarly waiting for some great leader to emerge among them to sort out the terrible mess. Hence the anger directed at Tsvangirai, every bit a mere mortal as the rest of us and one who has done more for his country than most of us will ever do. The anger is partly because more of us than ever before are disappointed to realize that he cannot be our single knight in shining armour. Many had hoped he would swiftly depose Mugabe the Destroyer, but do it with little danger or cost to the rest of us, miraculously making everything all right after he has sent Mugabe packing. Many are not sure exactly what they think Tsvangirai should be doing differently, but nevertheless want the ease and convenience of thrusting the responsibility of meeting our political challenges on one man.

It is beginning to sink into an increasing number of Zimbabweans that the struggle that faces us may be a long one, and that it certainly will not be easy. Those who had hoped that it will be waged and won while we watch from the relative safety and comfort of nice homes, cars and offices in Zimbabwe or from exile without getting hurt, only emerging to cheer, now
realize that we may be forced to play a more active part when we would rather not, whether out of lethargy or fear. We would like someone else to do the dirtiest aspects of cleaning up the mess Mugabe is leaving us.This “messiah complex” of hoping for easy, one-man solutions to complex challenges applies in many other aspects of life as well, not just politics.

When the national soccer team loses consistently, coaches are blamed and changed one after the other. Few people are interested to also ask if issues like psychological and material motivation of the players could be more of reasons for the poor performance than who occupies the position of the coach, as important as that may be too.

Various fundamentalist religious sects have taken hold in Zimbabwe in recent years. One man, whom the followers relate to as a virtual god in his own right, effectively runs many of them. In many of these sects it is difficult to tell whether the entity that is being worshipped is God, or whether it is the all-powerful, “anointed” pastor/preacher/bishop/”prophet.”

Otherwise intelligent people who would normally expect and demand accountability at work, the golf club or elsewhere are often very timid and over-trusting of the often larger-than-life head of the sect. It can be run as a private fiefdom for years as all sorts of things go wrong while the flock cow-tow to the unquestionable “shepherd.” Often what forces some members to say “enough is enough” is sexual or financial scandal involving the “anointed” leader, by which time there is so much dissension and disharmony the “messiah” can never quite regain his credibility and the organization is in shambles.

On the economic front, the media in general in Zimbabwe very much treated Reserve Bank governor Gideon Gono as a miracle worker who could walk on water when he was first appointed a year and a half ago. We read his lavishly, reverentially written profile many times, sometimes accompanied by a colourful portrait-type picture taking up more than half a newspaper page!

Glowing editorials were written about his every guess or prediction; interviews were often slavish and completely un-edifying. He was billed not just as a dedicated professional (which he was and is) who might help the country deal with just a few of the symptoms of its many self-inflicted problems, but also as pretty much an economic messiah. No one was much interested when it was pointed out that however competent and dedicated the man was, it was inevitable that he would be constrained by the un-enlightened political environment obtaining under the ruler ship of Mugabe.

Many who should have known better, including Gono himself, chose to believe that where many others before him had come up against that ultimate political brick wall, he would somehow be able to transcend it and achieve a miraculous economic turn-around. Like any believer in a fundamentalist cause, they did not want to be confused with facts!

Any one pointing out the issues of the country’s declining productivity in agriculture and all areas of industry and commerce, its terrible international reputation and so forth as political impediments to any abiding economic turnaround that had to be dealt with first, was dismissed as a “heathen” detractor of the “one true faith,” obviously sent by the devil to lead us astray from the “messiah’s” efforts!

Alas, less than a year later, the poor hard-working Gono is crashing against the reality of all the political causes of Zimbabwe’s economic mess. My only hope for poor Gono is that if and when his efforts come to naught because of the clue-less ruler ship we have, he will not be used as a convenient scapegoat by that vicious and cruel regime. Some of the media
hired guns who followed orders to feature him in the most favourable, unquestioning light in TV and radio interviews, newspaper editorials and even cartoons might just as easily “turn around” and slaughter him when given the word to do so, should it be found politically expedient when the “economic turnaround” fails to materialize!

For both Zimbabwe as a society, as well as for the individuals who have the crown of “messiah” thrust upon them, there are many pitfalls. The society will have to learn that the kind of problems we face are not amenable to simply having a charismatic leader to lead us to their solution, as might be more the case in a guerilla war or a labour protest, for instance. They are complicated issues to do with national and international political and economic structure that require thinking and strategizing on a broad scale, rather than by a “messiah” waving his magic wand.

For the individual “anointed” with the unenviable but flattering title of “messiah;” whether in the religious, political, economic or sports sphere, there can only be a messy decline from that lofty position. As ego-boosting as it may be for a short while, for an ordinary person to accept the unrealistic mantle of “messiah” thrust on him by a desperate public unwilling to play its proper role in its own salvation; the end is often quick, his good work forgotten in the recrimination of him having predictably failed to do the impossible.

Zimbabweans, there is no individual messiah who is going to emerge from the sky to lead us to the Promised Land. Charismatic, enlightened leadership certainly has its role to play in rallying people around a cause. But a cause as important and daunting as snatching a beautiful, ruined but potentially great country out of the hands of a ruthless, dim-witted clique
who have dragged it through the mud will involve the deeper and greater involvement of more of us than many of us have been willing to face up to.

Perhaps that realization among more Zimbabweans will have been one of the positive long-term developments to come out of all the reports and evidence of the many structural ways that the political process has been deeply flawed in recent years. If that is one of the outcomes of the last three elections and the atmosphere that accompanied them, then it can be counted as Zimbabwe’s welcome evolution out of the messiah complex that has not only
been so unrealistic, but has failed us so miserably.

The worse things get, the more fervently many of us pray for a messiah to relieve us of the scary burden and responsibility of being the agents of change. Yet more of us, collectively and individually, will have to “get up, stand up for our rights” rather than waiting for some lone saviour out there to bring change, freedom and prosperity to Zimbabwe. We should spend more time looking at ourselves in the mirror than at blaming Tsvangirai and other supposed “messiahs” for what has not yet come about, but that we would like”someone” to bring about. Whom, if not you/me/us?

*This article was originally published on an online publication on April 27, 2005.


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