By Dr Tafataona Mahoso
THE date for the 2023 harmonised elections in Zimbabwe has not yet been fixed, but political parties and individual politicians are already designing and finding clever and various ways of campaigning.
It is at this time that those concerned with safeguarding the public and national interest must come to the fore and offer, as objectively as they can, some insights on public communication in times of elections; times when all political parties and most politicians and their supporters are preoccupied with propaganda for short-term and partisan purposes, times when the ordinary patriotic citizen is exposed and vulnerable to distortions, exaggerations and lies in the public arena.
The kind of public communication one would want to see can be explained by pointing to interventions such as the one made by Cde Charles T. M. Dube through The Patriot article of August 24 2017 and titled ‘Danger of Ignoring the Real National Agenda’.
That article appeared before the 2018 harmonised elections. It is now March 2023. We are not far from the 2023 elections.
The first vulnerability of the povo toward elections arises from domination of the media and methods of public communication by a linear Eurocentric approach shared by all elites in journalism, politics, the public bureaucracy and the economy.
All these elites in all sectors share the assumptions of this linear view.
The view assumes that development planning proceeds from the adoption and pronouncement, ex cathedra, of a national strategic plan with a vision and mission statement; onward to key result areas; onward to strategic objectives; onward to strategic outcomes and key indicators, all envisioned in terms of a linear projection very similar, at a global level, to the UN 16 Millenium Development Goals (MDGs).
So, in Zimbabwe for instance, in addition to achieving uppe-middle income country status by 2030, there
are sector-by-sector goals such as a US$12 billion value for the mining sector alone by 2023.
Then there are slogans and soundbites for the media intended to go with the plan. One such mantra is: ‘Leaving no-one and no place behind’.
Linear approach vs African relational approach
The first observation and critique from a relational approach is that, in real development time and history, there is no straight line between the objective to break away from Biblical slavery in Egypt and the achievement of God-promised liberty in Canaan.
In linear terms, the distance can be measured in minutes, at most in hours.
But the real journey took Moses 40 years.
There is no straight line between the strategic objective and the result or goal because the linear image and imagination always leave out or under-estimate what the African dariro always recognises as ‘the field’ and the Bible calls ‘the wilderness’ which lies between objective and goal/result.
Indeed, the content of ‘the field’ is too complex and too thick for slogans and soundbites.
Every slogan and soundbite skips over the field.
This is why our ancestors preferred the dariro to the queue because the former always leaves open ground in the middle of the dariro to stress the permanent presence and density of the field.
The dariro also aspires to eliminate the proliferation of blind corners typical of squares and oblongs.
The space in the centre of the dariro is always left un-occupied, to mean that it belongs to all of us and to no individual; to mean that there is always room for surprises and un-answered questions.
The second major relational criticism of the linear approach is that it relegates the povo to those passive bodies whom the plan just has to make sure are not left behind.
What kind of a role is that?
Even in terms of public information and communication, what exactly is the status of such people and places whose role is mainly to make sure not to be left behind by a planning process to which they did not contribute?
The third relational critique of the linear plan is that, by leaving out the field in planning, it automatically forfeits the fielding approach to deployment of agents and workers.
The linear approach will automatically favour top-down hand-picking over fielding.
For fielding means the field is recognised as critical and those occupying its space(s) contribute to the fielding.
This is complex and it requires us going back to the pungwe as dariro because the pungwe foregrounded fielding as a mandatory methodology and process during the liberation struggle.
That is why, to this day, we celebrate and recognize vana chimbwido as volunteers in the field who could not just be hand-picked.
The fourth and final critique of linear plans, for the purpose of this instalment, is that those leading or approving the plans are vulnerable to their own ‘echo chamber’.
In The Harvard Business Review for June 21 2022, Dina Smith published an article: ‘How Leaders Can Escape their Own Echo Chambers’.
She wrote the following, among other points “The higher leaders go, the more likely they are to find themselves in an echo chamber, surrounded by (yes men and yes women) people who think like them and agree with them (without offering fresh, original perspectives).”
This happens partly because of what Smith calls ‘the affinity bias’ replacing the field and fielding approach or balance.
Here affinity may be based on colour, ethnicity, religion, regionalism, nepotism and even religious affiliation.
Zimbabwe 2023: Fore-seen and un-forseen content of ‘the field’
There is no doubt that the field, as I have defined it here, has spawned several challenges which seemed insignificant or did not seem to ‘exist’ when the five-year strategic development plan was put together.
Some of these challenges include the following:
- Global events, including the far-reaching impact of the NATO sponsored war between Ukraine and Russia
- Global inflation feeding local hyperinflation which now threatens the viability and utility of the Zimbabwe dollar
- The escalating emigration of skilled personnel from the fields of health, education, engineering and the sciences, among others, partly as a result of hyperinflation and fast deteriorating living conditions.
This development undermines the industrialisation policy of the country and renders doubtful the goal of achieving an upper-middle income country status by 2030.
If no-one and no place is being left behind, which is questionable, at least concrete national statistics show increasing numbers of our professionals leaving behind their country and their institutions for ‘greener pastures’.
The earnings and working conditions of public workers have significantly deteriorated ahead of the 2023 elections, where the same workers are needed to staff voting operations throughout the country.
Not only is it essential for these workers to stay put and not to emigrate; those who stay put need adequate remuneration to safeguard professionalism in general and to protect the electoral system against corruption in particular.
Severe power shortages leading to prolonged load shedding which threatens to wipe out small to medium-scale industries and entrepreneurs while also rendering doubtful all digitisation and computerisation programme timelines: this challenge directly strikes at innovation projects and prospects.
A worsening debt burden leading creditors to call for rescheduling at a most inconvenient time in terms of the resulting publicity and attention ahead of elections
A deteriorating business and policy climate for the majority of resettled African farmers at a time Government attention is being brought upon the Global Compensation Agreement with former white settler-farmers which some may blame for the worsening debt situation and hyperinflation.
There is a growing shift in policy away from prioritising the small-scale farmer to focusing on big agribusiness, thereby creating a paradoxical situation where food is available but unaffordable to too many people because of skewed pricing.
These critical issues are interlinked and complex.
What they all have in common is the capacity to make questionable all previously set goals, timelines, slogans and soundbites.
Fast and effective revision is next to impossible because of the rigidities of the linear approach, its echo chambers and oracular pronouncements presented ex cathedra.
Resonance approach to public communication
The resonance approach to the role of the public communicator is similar to the field and fielding approach:
Both assume that there is more useful information and knowledge of what is going on in the field, among the povo, than what is held or known by the so-called communicator.
The role of the communicator is to evoke and elicit a mindset among those people occupying the field which motivates and mobilises them to bring out and share what they already have and know in interaction, of course, with the professional communicator.
That is how resonance is achieved between communicator and audience.
The best of our liberation fighters understood fielding and resonance mostly through practice, using trial and error.
The pungwe was an ingenious organic field structure and Julie Frederikse’s book, ‘None but Ourselves: Masses versus Media in the Making of Zimbabwe’, is a befitting tribute to indigenous African ingenuity which most current communicators ignore, even in 2023, to our own peril.