How Zanu PF is winning battle for voters’ hearts, minds

Thousands of Mugabe supporters supporters carry his portrait while gathering at the party headquarters in Harare, Wednesday, July, 20, 2016. Tens of thousands of supporters of Zimbabwe's ruling party are marching in the capital in response to a series of recent protests against the government of 92-year-old President Robert Mugabe. The supporters sang and chanted slogans Wednesday in support of Mugabe, who has been in power for 36 years. (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)

With elections drawing closer by the day, the battle for the hearts and minds of Zimbabweans is in full swing, a battle which I dare say is going Zanu PF’s way unless something drastic changes in the months leading to the polls.

Candour: NQABA MATSHAZI

Let us forget about electoral and security sector reforms for a moment, which have been in the public domain for a while, and talk about media reforms for a second, which I think the opposition have been quiet and complacent about, yet they are no less important.

For the purposes of this article, I would like to appropriate the term “soft power”, which is a diplomatic approach in international relations involving economic or cultural influence.

The media is an avenue for soft power in this context, where Zanu PF has perfected the art of using culture to win the hearts and minds of many people — both its supporters and fence sitters.

Thus, the importance of State media such as ZBC and Zimpapers, which Zanu PF employs as if they are part of the ruling party’s information department, cannot be overemphasised.

The opposition have been conspicuously silent about media reform and I bet my bottom dollar this will be an issue that will rise a few months before elections, when they will demand equal access to ZBC and use electoral laws to make this demand.

They will get some form of coverage and this will seem like a victory or they will think some incremental gains have been made, but in reality they would have been hoodwinked.

Zanu PF has in the past four years been using State media to make its point, with a campaign that reaches the most rural parts of the country.

The ruling party has literally had a four-year headstart and when the opposition finally get their equal coverage in State media, it would be too little too late.

Zanu PF has had the leverage of “soft power” for years and has used the media and cultural influence to win over its electorate and there is little that the opposition can do.

This is why I felt a little bewildered when MDC-T legislator, Jessie Majome went to the Constitutional Court to challenge the constitutionality of ZBC licence fees.

To me, it was as if she was conceding that ZBC is a Zanu PF tool, which she wants nothing to do with and had ceded that platform to the ruling party, which is tragic.

What I think she should have done was to instead challenge Zanu PF’s grip on ZBC and ask that the State broadcaster be open to everyone and not solely be in the hands of the ruling party.

About a year ago, the Constitutional Court issued a ruling on ZBC licences and reaffirmed the broadcaster’s mandate as a public service broadcaster and the opposition should have been expending its energies on testing this and ZBC’s compliance with the ruling.

Just as a rudimentary point, one of the opposition parties could have produced an advertisement, which they took to ZBC for airing and then waited on the broadcaster’s response.

Had ZBC refused to air the advertisement, then the opposition party would have gone for another court hearing and the broadcaster would have been obliged to follow court orders and floodgates would be open for such commercials.

Had the broadcaster agreed to air that political advertisement, then the doors would have been opened for others to send in more adverts, thereby, fighting Zanu PF’s hegemony.

Thus, instead of seeing ZBC and the State media as an extension of Zanu PF, the opposition should be looking for ways to manipulate the system, legally of course, and ensure that the State broadcaster works for everyone.

I am convinced Majome’s court application was ill-conceived and was doomed to fail and emphasis should have been on reclaiming ZBC from Zanu PF.

In that same breath, Zimpapers is launching a number of publications on the market, which is quite astounding because of the shrinking advertising and circulation environment the media are operating in.

I know I can be easily accused of professional jealousy, as I work for Zimpapers’ competitor.

But my gut feeling, and I could be wrong, is that Zanu PF understands the importance of using the media and culture in convincing people to vote for it.

The numerous papers that Zimpapers are launching could be nothing more than Zanu PF trying to saturate the market so that by the time the elections come, the opposition would have no voice and would literally be invisible.

The proliferation of many Zimpapers titles, such as Herald Eastern Edition, Southern Edition etc may not have anything to do with profits, but it could be for ideological reasons.

Even the way radio licences were issued; they were issued to people who have a connection to Zanu PF and these radio stations, come next year, will be important in disseminating the ruling party’s message and blurring out the opposition in both subtle and not so subtle ways.

And with DStv subscriptions increasingly becoming harder to pay, Zanu PF’s dominance on media and culture will be all but complete in the next 12 months in time for the elections.

What we have now is a plurality of voices, but not necessarily diversity and its effect could be telling in the next elections.

Because of these many radio stations, newspapers and ZBC TV, Zanu PF’s message will become ubiquitous.

It’s like a song that you hear often, even if you do not care much for it, but because it plays too many times, before long, you would be subconsciously singing along to it.
This, for me, is the strategy that Zanu PF is using and it is important that the opposition wises up to it.

What most opposition players and civil society players have been campaigning against is “hard power”, which in this context is characterised by coercion, force, violence, a security sector that dabbles in civilian politics and an electoral commission that is clearly not independent.

But very little emphasis has been placed on “soft power”, the use of the media and culture to dominate what people are reading and listening to, which has been going on for donkey years.

An election is not won on voting day, but it is a process, which for Zanu PF started the moment 2013 election results were announced.

Where the opposition stopped appearing on ZBC and other State media, except in cases where they were being crucified and vilified, while Zanu PF were portrayed as the only party with the people at heart.

In the contest for hearts and minds, Zanu PF long started campaigning and is well ahead of the opposition.

The party’s staunch supporters could have been won over by Zanu PF’s asphyxiating presence on ZBC and the token appearance of the opposition next year may not be enough to convince them to change their minds.

  • Article appears on Newsday