via Arrogance in Zimbabwean Politics | newzimbabweconstitution 7 November 2014 by Alex T. Magaisa
One morning, during the first few days of my sojourn in Harare, a man from the office ran up to my car, greeted me with generous respect and a lavish smile, as he extended his hand to take the laptop bag which I was holding. He also offered to take the newspapers that I had in my other hand.
“Marara mushe here, Dr?” he said, enquiring into my welfare that morning and if the night had been kind to me.
“Good morning, I slept well, thanks and you?”, I said as we exchanged the customary pleasantries of the morning.
“Regai titakure izvi, Dr” he said demanding to carry my bag.
I smiled and said it was fine and that he didn’t have to worry about the bags.
But he insisted, clearly refusing to take no for an answer.
“Vanhu vakuru havangatakure tiripo”, he added, almost pleading. He was saying that ‘big people’ would not carry bags while he was there. Which meant in his opinion, I was a ‘big person’ and he would not permit me to carry my bag while he was there.
I realised I was not going win that particular argument so, at that point, I agreed that we share the load. He took the bag and I carried the papers, and we walked up to the office. As we walked, we chatted along the way, although I was doing most of the asking and he only spoke when he responded. I observed that he seemed surprised that I was talking to him and was unsure how much and what he should say.
Over the coming months I got to know him more and he became more comfortable when he spoke to me. I got to know his colleagues too, dedicated a loyal men, whose rewards were not commensurate with what they offered.
“You know Dr”, he said to me one morning, “Forgive me if I am going ahead of myself, but I must say that you’re very different”
I was intrigued by this judgment. Why, I asked him, curious at his declaration.
“Well, at least you talk to us, Dr. You even shake our hands. Even my colleagues are saying the doctor even stops, greets and talks to us. They are saying you see us as people. I just wanted to say thank you, on their behalf, too”.
I did not know what to say but I felt very humbled by his words.
“I say this, Dr ” he continued, “because we feel that some of our leaders up there …” He paused while he stared at the floor and shook his head, “some of our leaders up there no longer see us as people, Dr. If it wasn’t for mdhara, we might not be here. But we do it for mdhara.”
It was a moment of revelation and from that point onwards, I began to observe more closely the conduct of my colleagues. And what I observed was in sync with the observations that the fellow had shared with me that day. The cancer of arrogance had almost become malignant.
But I must return to the first incident – the one of the laptop bag and the newspapers. The fellow was doing what was expected of him in the presence of someone whom he regarded as a leader. Even though I did not hold political office, I was still regarded as a boss of sorts by these guys. But I was unfamiliar with the behaviour of bosses and it was not my intention to behave like one. When he offered to carry my bag and newspapers, he was simply doing what he thought was expected of him. I did not think it was necessary. I resisted but they continued anyway. In some ways, I felt sorry for them. They had been conditioned that way. And while they complained of the arrogance of some leaders, they were oblivious of the fact that they themselves had, by their conduct and attitude towards them, become part of the problem. They tolerated the behaviour of those leaders who conducted themselves with pride.
In my mind, I was, as I feel always, Tawanda, the ordinary boy from the village who made it out of there by some combination of God’s grace, good fortune and a bit of work. I never thought there was anything special about me and there was any need for special treatment. Therefore carrying my own bags and newspapers for less than 100 metres was not an issue at all. That is what I had done for the previous 37 years and it wasn’t about to change. I had no fluency at all in the language of ‘political chef-dom’ and superiority.
Over the coming months, I would watch and listen to the ordinary people. They often complained about how big-headed and arrogant their leaders had become. “Since they became Ministers, they have become big people, very big people!” ordinary people would say in mocking terms. “They do not talk to us anymore. Vave kudada …” They have become arrogant, people would say, shaking their heads.
It was a matter that we would raise sometimes. We would be diplomatic about it and say people are saying our ministers have become less accessible. We were concerned because it wouldn’t be long before politicians would have to go to the people to ask for their votes and it was good to be nice to them. But people said the Ministers had lost their heads, that they were feeling too important for them.
It was almost a replication of the old Zanu PF-culture, the ‘shefu-mentality’ where leaders were on a high pedestal and the ordinary people were located far below, where they could only yell to be heard. Some of it was down to limited exposure and limited experience. In this regard, I often reflected on my time away in a foreign environment and how that experience had shaped my own perspectives, cementing the values that I had learnt back in the village, values that books and a sense of arrival in my early university years in Harare had nearly diluted.
When I first arrived in the UK, back in 1999, I was armed with a handsome scholarship and therefore, was relatively comfortable by the standards of student life in these isles. I received a tidy sum each month and did not need to work. But then someone encouraged us to consider a few part-time jobs, as a way of gaining some experience. This, my friends and I did and I have always valued the experience.
I took up a few jobs on campus. I cooked burgers and chips and ran the till at the students’ café. It was a hectic shift but the free food was a bonus, although it could not have been healthy. I can do a smooth silver service, after I moved to a more posh establishment also on campus. In that role, I gained a new-found respect for waiters, because silver service is no mean feat – it requires skills that are not given to persons of a clumsy disposition. The free food there was of a posh and more sophisticated variety and it is easy to see why those who are occupied in such environments tend to develop a more rotund figure.
My favourite job was usually advertised as ‘envelope-stuffing’ by the campus job shop. I was fortunate to gain the affection of the kind lady who gave out jobs there and I often had the right of first refusal on such tasks. The task of a so-called envelope-stuffer is menial but also the simplest job in the world. You take a letter, fold it, put it in an envelope, seal it, stamp it and that’s it! Universities send thousands of letters to prospective students and alumni, so they need someone to fold letters and put them into envelopes. And you can stretch the one hour job to two or three – for extra income!
The most boring job was when I ventured outside the campus environment and took a job in a clothes shop. I would do 2 – 4 hours once or twice a week during the Summer but it always seemed like a whole day. It was boring because there was very little to do. The moments of activity and excitement arose when a thief tried his luck and got caught. We were not encouraged to run after them but the security guards gave chase. Such thieves were familiar characters and I got to know how to identify their type in shops.
But oft-times, we would get so bored that my colleague and I would, sometimes, go to the shoes section and tip over a shoe rack, so that we could spend the next 20 or so minutes fixing it and re-arranging the shoes. All this just to pass time. Two weeks before I quit, to return to university where I was also a teaching assistant, the shop manager learnt with a great amount of shock that I was a doctoral student of law. The story had found its way from the shop-floor. He called me and said I should have told him before so that he could have given me a task commensurate with my station but when he tried to move me to the office, I very politely turned it down and said I was very happy on the shop-floor. I had made friends there and as uninspiring as it was, I felt one of them and was not impressed by the new status that the boss now wanted to bestow upon me.
Looking back, I value the time that I spend in these little part-time jobs. I had already practiced as a lawyer in Zimbabwe and there I was now – a student and doing odd jobs that I never thought I would ever do. But they taught me a lot and I am grateful that I was able to do them. Many students in the UK go through this whether or not they come from rich families – they do these tasks for ‘work experience’ but really, it is ‘life experience’ in that it equips you for life. For sure, you learn to value every person and their contribution to the team and the organisation.
From that time, I learnt to look at the office cleaner in a different way. I learnt to appreciate the guy who looked after the toilets. I learnt to be kind to the waiter and the waitress and that if I was not happy with something, I didn’t have to shout and rant at them. I learnt to forgive and smile if the silver service waiter accidentally dropped a piece of broccoli on my suit – because that smile means a great deal to him.
But above all, it cemented by belief in the importance of standing for the small guy, the little man or woman who is often thrown to the margins and forgotten. I appreciated the importance of a thank you and what it means to the other person.
These are small things that matter a great deal in life. Our politicians – most of them, anyway, oft-times do not appreciate this. Instead, they like to show their power. They like to be felt. They even answer their mobile phones by announcing to the caller that they are speaking to ‘The Honourable so and so’. The ordinary people, too, have been conditioned to treat their political leaders like gods – they carry their bags and newspapers, they address them like demi-gods. They must call them ‘The Honourable so and so’ even when they are having a drink at the local pub. If they are late for a rally, they wait because in their minds, that is what all big people do.
I witnessed political colleagues who used the most uncouth language in front of people, and politicians who dressed down elderly people – mothers and fathers of children – in public, notwithstanding that they would have walked long distances and sacrificed to come and talk to them. When people wrote offering suggestions and ideas, from wherever they were, they were barely acknowledged. One political colleague even had the temerity to ask me why I was responding to those emails.
I saw politicians who set a meeting but never pitched up or if they did eventually come, they arrived hours later and never apologised. And expected everyone to wait for them. Instead, they would berate people.
I saw politicians who never picked up their phones or responded to messages. In short, I saw politicians who took people for granted. Some of these politicians are revered by their ardent supporters and are held in high regard. And the media, uncritical as ever, has deified them. It is partly for this reason that there is a disjuncture between what detached observers think and what the ordinary people actually know from their experiences. Political arrogance alone does not explain the MDC’s misfortunes in last year’s disastrous elections but it was a problem and it is something that requires attention.