The trouble with Zim’s ‘Balcony Class’


KENT – Six years ago, in the run-up to the March 2008 elections I dared to suggest something that was almost taboo at the time, about Morgan Tsvangirai and the MDC.

Tsvangirai was a brave man, I said. He was a courageous man who had served the democratic movement well.

But, I added, it was time for engagement with realism and that realism was that there were forces in Zimbabwe that would never allow him to take power and lead Zimbabwe.

That impediment, I argued, was steeped in the Establishment, which was heavily militarised.

They had threatened already, in 2002 and would do so again in 2008, that they would never allow him to lead Zimbabwe.

There was Simba Makoni, a former Zanu PF man whom, it was widely rumoured had the backing of big figures in Zanu PF, like Retired General Solomon Mujuru.

My calculation was that Makoni was more likely to lure the understanding of his erstwhile colleagues — he was one of them, he would understand them and they would understand him.

A unified force, with Makoni as the face of it, was probably a more potent force to achieve the change that most were yearning for, so I reasoned.

But such a plan would involve making what I called, “the ultimate sacrifice”, by Tsvangirai.

The matter divided opinion. I was pilloried for daring to make such a strange suggestion.

Tsvangirai’s supporters were apoplectic with rage. A few others understood the reasoning.

It was not because I did not like Tsvangirai, no. It was the reasoning of someone who was trying to find the best possible solution to an intractable problem.

Later, I tried, and with some hindsight rather unwisely, to soften the blow, with a follow-up article that summarised the responses that had come, which showed overwhelmingly that people did not want Tsvangirai to step aside for Makoni.

Commentating on politics is unlike commentating on the weather.

It involves making factual predictions on what people might (or might not) do and the consequences of those actions or inactions.

Predicting the behaviour of human beings is an inherently problematic exercise.

There are bound to be differences in the way people see things, even informed and intelligent minds.

I accepted that I was probably wrong in my thought process then.

It might have appealed to reason but it was completely out of sync with the prevailing sentiments and spirit of the time.

Later, when I worked with Tsvangirai and the MDC, I saw first-hand why that 2008 proposition never stood a chance. If it was the right idea, it was certainly the wrong time.

These days, I look back at that time with some fascination, not because I think I was right but especially because many of those who hammered me for my reasoning have become the most virulent critics of Tsvangirai, describing him in very harsh terms most of the time.

In the interim, I have gone on to work with Tsvangirai — very closely, and got to know and understand the man behind the political mask a little better than I did before.

I also got a better understanding of the MDC family and how it operates.

My upbringing and professional training, means there are things that I will take with me to my grave.

I do not betray trust. This may disappoint those who relish the prospect of what the younger generation refer to as “juicy details”.

I know there has been some discussion about the constitutional amendments and their implications.

I shall explain my own thoughts on that in a different piece, based on my understanding of the MDC.

For now, I only wish to address an issue that concerns me greatly.

I made reference to that article of six years ago to illustrate the difference that often exists between those who sit in the balcony and those on the dance-floor.

Those who have followed my writings will have come across the metaphor of the balcony and the dance-floor.

But today, I use it in a different context. In respect of political participation, I see Zimbabweans as being divided between those who prefer to sit in the balcony and those who are on the dance-floor.

Those on the balcony sit and watch the multitudes on the dance-floor.

They sit in the comfortable seats, popcorn and Mazoe Orange in hand, watching and engaging in tittle-tattle about the characters on the dance-floor.

I call this the Balcony Class and many of those reading this — yes, you! — are in that class.

The others are the Dance-floor Class and that is where the action is.

I have been on the dance-floor and I have a fair idea of what goes on there but I have also been on the balcony.

When I wrote that article six years ago I was reasoning from the balcony.

I was not in tune with what was going on the dance-floor.

Let me tell you something I observed on the dance-floor about supporters of political parties in Zimbabwe and this probably applies in many other places.

Political supporters are bit like sports fans — they support their teams for different reasons but most of all they are driven by passion and less by reason.

They believe there is honour in sticking to your football team, no matter how poorly it is performing or how lowly it is in the league.

Most football fans do not believe in switching teams just because it has fallen on hard times.

They are loyal to their team and passionate about it. The few fans who hop from one team to another are referred to derisively as glory-hunters. I saw something similar on our political landscape.

For all his faults, and hard as it might be to admit for many, I realised that President Robert Mugabe has his die-hard supporters.

They are passionate about him. They love him and will not say a bad word about the man.

And it is not even that they are benefiting materially, NO!

Most are very poor people.

But they like him. And they will dance for him all day long.

Likewise, for all his weaknesses, Tsvangirai has people who love him dearly. They are passionate about him and would do anything to defend him.

While his critics pick and list his shortcomings and argue that his time is up, this finds little resonance among the majority of supporters.

This is something that opponents of both men have yet found a formula to attack.

And it frustrates their respective opponents no end. One of the reasons is that while the Balcony Class has all the propositions about how those on the dance-floor should behave, they themselves will not go down to the dance-floor.

I have called it the Balcony Class but I could have called it the middle-class.

I did not because I do not think Zimbabwe has a middle-class in the true sense of that term.

If it has, perhaps it is of the Fanonian type — the one that Franz Fanon called “the under-developed middle class’ — which is generally useless, unproductive, selfish, greedy and predatory.

The Balcony Class is largely engaged in the business of analysing politics as opposed to the business of actively participating in political activities and processes.

Newspapers have a tendency to refer to a few individuals, like myself, as “political analysts” but, in my view, that is inaccurate as there is a whole Balcony Class that qualifies as “political analysts”.

We are all political analysts and very few political actors.

The Dance-floor Class is the one that makes decisions while the Balcony Class looks around and asks, “What are they cheering for? Are they mad? Are they cheering for that clown?” They even feel pity for the people on the dance-floor.

The Balcony Class will not join the dance-floor and yet it wants to tell people on the dance-floor how to behave.

It refers to those on the dance-floor as “them”. Dai madai. (Why don’t you do this?) Apa marasika. (You are getting lost). I heard this many times last year when I was on the dance-floor. Too many times.

Of course, sometimes, it was genuinely directed to the leadership of the MDC, as things that the leadership should do.

But oft-times it was directed to “vanhu veMDC” (the MDC people). Upon hearing this, I would often ask myself — who are these people? Who are you? How do you see yourself? But I was polite and I would listen patiently.

I often heard people complaining about the quality of Harare City councillors, saying some were unschooled.

There were cases where the poor gardener at a suburban mansion stood for and became a councillor while his boss, a member of the Balcony Class, was reluctant to do so.

But the old adage rings true — people get the government they deserve.

Unless the Balcony Class is ready to assume a role on the dance-floor, it is those on the dance-floor who will continue to hog the limelight and determine who the champion is.

Meanwhile, those on the balcony can watch, engage in tittle-tattle while drinking the Mazoe Orange and eating pop-corn.

And yes, as I write this, I am on the balcony, catching my breath, but unlike six years ago, I have a better understanding that the people on the dance-floor have their way of thinking which is different from mine and a right to make their decisions and that if I am unhappy about it, I will do something to change it.

If you are Zimbabwean and have issues with the politics, pause and ask yourself, where are you – on the balcony or on the dance-floor?

And in this regard I ask not in respect of physical location by your mental location.

*Magaisa studied law at the University of Zimbabwe (LLB) and the University of Warwick (LLM & PhD) in Great Britain. He is a former adviser to the then Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai. Magaisa has worked at the University Warwick, the University of Nottingham and is presently based at Kent Law School, the University of Kent.


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