Sunday, 30 August 2015

Mkapa and CCM find out, painfully, that grass-eaters have long memories

The campaigns are finally under way for the General Election. With only two months to do the necessary work of persuading Tanzanians to vote for them, parties are under considerable pressure.
Admittedly, two months seemed like a bad idea, until the daylong launch by the ruling party this past weekend. Suddenly anything more than six weeks is already looking like four weeks too long. Is this one of the effects of living in the information age?
I experimented for one day, tracking everything labelled “breaking news” in the new media, only to find that the definition of “news” as not one that I shared with roughly 90 per cent of the content producers. Or “breaking,” for that matter.Paradoxically, this has made me quite happy: The old media, especially slow-to-respond old media like print, still has a role in offering the reliability that our fluid online media clearly cannot afford. That said, there is nothing like the online life to keep one abreast of the minute-to-minute shenanigans of our political class.
Unfortunately, considering how suspiciously illegal it is becoming to use frank and salty language in public fora, these self-same politicians could get us into trouble.

In his brief speech during the launch of the CCM campaign, former president Benjamin Mkapa used a few disparaging terms when referring to the general populace’s apparent… um... let’s say ignorance’ of matters. As we all know, what can come across relatively lightly in English becomes fighting words in any Bantu language. I fear that even quoting some of our leadership class is going to result in pesky legal actions if they continue with this behaviour. In this case, a highly insulted, knowledgeable and communicative citizenry have brought that particular fight right back to Mr Mkapa and by proxy the GoP itself. For a long time, the political class, with very few exceptions, has displayed an unfortunate disdain for the citizenry. I lay the blame at Nyerere’s feet with his collective nouns and his dirigiste approach to politics. This has saddled us with a curious “us and them” attitude that delights me, considering our socialist flavoured rhetoric of Comrade this and Ndugu that. While France may never forget Marie Antoinette’s suggestion that starving peasants eat “cake” — she never said that by the way — Tanzanians were once told to “eat grass” so that we could afford a swanky presidential jet.

Yes, well. The GoP’s greatest asset, its many decades in power, is turning into quite the liability. Nothing like having a long history to let that history turn around and bite you in the election manifesto. What we have on our hands with this election, among other things, is a good old-fashioned class war.Tediously common of us, I concede, but wonderful nonetheless. Under the guise of regime change, the opposition is now challenged to do two things: First offer a credible plan for change and secondly bring back some semblance of moral competence. The second one is a tall order for any politician, ever. And as the backlash against Mkapa’s statements has shown, apparently the grass-eaters have long memories, like those of the mysteriously disappearing elephants of Tanzania.

It is in our interest to keep this class war as candid as possible. Paradoxically, our newfound obsession with “polite” language is emerging as one of the biggest threats to democracy we could have dreamed up. One of its more nauseating manifestations is the rendition of parties or their candidates as God-approved. Call this a secular republic? The nerve of it. As if we needed to experiment yet again with the dangers of conflating the rigidities of religion with crass, cynical and dynamic democracy.
As far as possible, we should be having our healthy, cathartic class fights in the form of public dialogue and debate. We’ll need a lot of salty language to tell each other what we really think.
If we insist on too much cleanliness, speechwriters will only offer us the most unobjectionable and soulless pap and politicians will be too careful, too self-contained to tell us what they really think.

By all means, let us parse the promises and the histories of candidates at all levels with the fastidiousness of certified public accountants. Let’s also at least give ourselves a chance to appreciate and protect the messiness of the human side of this engagement.Otherwise, it could be two long months of politicians not actually saying what they really think or feel. And a citizenry that is too constrained to respond to them likewise. And ultimately, a Sunday in October spent voting for paper cutouts of men who have never really shown us what they really think when in high dudgeon.

No comments: