A while ago, the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops’ Conference published a pastoral letter in which they called on all Zimbabweans to ‘Let us work for the common good. Let us save our nation’. The call is pertinent to our situation for it identifies a critical quality that our country desperately needs. Zimbabwe has never experienced a sense of the common good. Zimbabwe as a nation has always, since 1890, been monopolized by a few. It has always been, since colonialism, a fort protecting a few people against the majority. Our lives were, therefore, moulded by institutions and processes of war, surveillance, suspicion. We perfected the language and practice of protecting group interests and expressing hatred towards those outside our respective interest groups. Some of that hatred, disrespect and suspicion of others is expressed in humour, the other through violence. We have historically developed strategies for working towards the destruction of others and have developed cultures of humiliating others. We celebrated our independence by humiliating those who lost the elections. We continue to do so even today. This is our culture. We are all in our respective forts. Yet this laager mentality doesn’t build a nation or democracy. It does not bring us together.
Colonialism, tribalism, sexism
The colonial humiliation of black people was very deep. Up to now, some white people who benefited from that racist system still want to live in that colonial world. There is need for them to culturally get out of the laager mentality that is informed by their history. They need to seriously begin to develop a culture of human solidarity and trust with blacks in this country. A sense of the common good can help them in doing so. As the Catholic bishops write, ‘Everyone has a responsibility to contribute to the common good of all members of society. A better society is not for the benefit of an elite but for all’ .
The humiliation of blacks in colonialism was so deep that blacks internalized it, and so we are today reproducing it among ourselves. This sounds a bit like blaming it on colonialism. Yes it is. But we must also take responsibility for our contribution to colonial culture. We must take responsibility for our active creation and re-creation of tribalism, sexism, and abuse of the environment. Culturally, we Zimbabweans, black and white, men and women, old and young, have never, as a nation, lived in comprehensive solidarity with one another. In this sense we have never experienced the sense of the common good. We have never, at a national level, developed the virtue of trust and being socially comfortable with all members of the nation.
Our solidarity has always been limited and narrowly partisan. Our solidarity has always tended to be limited by racism, ethnicity, ageism, class politics and sexism. These are our various traditions and political means for shutting out others from full political, social and cultural participation. Our idea of political community is still largely informed by pre-colonial experiences of social reality. We still think that politics is about fighting for and defending our narrow group interests, ideologies, identities and resources by whatever means necessary.
This has affected our understanding of the nature of citizenship. Most Zimbabweans have an idea of citizenship which politically closes out some Zimbabweans. The colonial system struggled to give equal citizenship to the majority of its citizens-the black people. The post-colonial regime is struggling to develop a more comprehensive and inclusive idea of citizenship that includes whites, Asians and many others. In fact, thousands of black Zimbabweans have lost their citizenship under a post-colonial government which calls itself revolutionary and pan-Africanist. Women are yet to be equal citizens and the natural environment is yet to receive its due respect.
Survival lies in the search for the common good
The Apartheid system that we experienced, prevented blacks and whites from learning how to live with each other as human beings. Colonial strategies and the development of various forms of ethnic interests ensured that black people were divided. Labour migration which took most African men from their families to work in mines and on farms, deepened the gender divide which already existed even before colonialism.
Now, as Aristotle demonstrated, virtue is always learned through practice, we have never, as a nation, learned in practice the virtues of comprehensive political and social solidarity-the sense of the common good. This is what the bishops have called ‘a spiritual and moral crisis’. Zimbabwe has not yet conceived itself as a comprehensive political association that implies a genuine sense of commonality and political community where politics is practised without deteriorating into some kind of war. This is our crisis.
To get out of this crisis, we must widen what we imagine ourselves to be in such ways as to accommodate each other. We need to develop ways of conducting politics that allows us to fight without dehumanising others; to disagree without getting violent and to oppose without disrespect. We must cultivate our emotional responses to each other in ways that are commensurate with Zimbabwe as a modern nation.
By now we must have discovered that whites cannot wish away black people, and neither can blacks wish away the whites. Men cannot hope to dominate women for ever and neither can human beings ignore the welfare of the natural environment without threatening their own lives.
All this must tell us that it is time to listen to the call to search for the common good for it is there that our survival lies. Historical anger, political violence, social exclusion and the spirit of cultural superiority, no matter how historically justified, will never build a peaceful and prosperous Zimbabwe. It is when we think seriously about the welfare of others that peace is made possible.
Director of the African Forum for Catholic Social Teaching, Harare