It is all Donald Trump these days. That is the natural outcome of a trajectory that began with the rise of political television advertising some three decades, culminating in the reversal of journalists’ and politicians’ roles today. Journalists now strut like politicians while politicians are more media savvy than journalists.This role reversal has created a public sphere in which how things look is more important than how they really are. Which is why the host of what is oxymoronically called a reality TV show is now president of the United States. Trump is merely a culmination of the dumbing down of politics that saw the likes of Gerhard Schroeder, Tony Blair and Barack Obama rising. Today, how politicians look in the media is more important than what they are actually doing or supposed to be doing. But before the circus of today, there was Gary Hart and his death by media in 1988. Hart was caught in a sex scandal, apologised and bowed out of the Presidential race. What he could not understand was why the media were being allowed to turn political administration into a grotesque caricature of the ideals and principles of public service.
“And then after all that, ponderous pundits wonder in mock seriousness why some of the best people in this country choose not to run for high office,” Hart said. “Politics in this country, take it from me, is on the verge of becoming another form of athletic competition or sporting match.”
The growing and unhealthy reversal of roles between media and politicians, he said, provided little capacity for thoughtful reflection. These are issues we increasingly have to contend with in Zimbabwe. The role reversal is in full swing: politicians are more concerned with their media image than they are with actual service; and the media are more concerned with exerting a measure of political control than they are with constructive reporting.
We have an emerging crop of public officials and politicians who can loot with impunity and expect the media to look askance. The media are supposed to cheer their charade. They have no right to report on them if they have nothing flattering to say.
They think political administration is some sort of TV pageant where the media are supposed to merely highlight how smooth their skin looks when we all know what ugliness lies under the thick layers of foundation cream.
They seek to muzzle those sections of the media that resist the nascent role reversal. They issue thinly veiled threats, they threaten court action. They reach for whatever coercive tools their grubby fingers can when they are not too busy in the public till. They forget that ultimately they are accountable to the millions of men and women who put them in office.
Their increased obsession with form over substance means greater disregard for the basics of public service. Perhaps now would be a good time for all to reflect on the words of Group Captain Sithabile Sibanda as captured in her biography, “A Woman’s Choice, The Untold Story of the ZPRA Women’s Brigade”.
“The war against the Rhodesian Front demanded that we were not only physically fit but also strong as far as ideology was concerned. “It was … the commissar who ensured that we treat civilians with care, without inflicting any harm, since they were the base of the party.”
Or we could reflect on the words of another war veteran, Cde Elias Hondo. Now a humble farmer far from Harare’s madding crowd, he says: “We were taught about the lumpen proletariats — such people would join the liberation struggle vari mbavha but vochenjera kukunda vamwe in such a way that you can even promote them to become commanders.
“Such people, if you deploy them to the war front, they use their positions or the gun to terrorise the masses … The instructors told us to be on the lookout for all these people. It’s unfortunate that there are now so many of these weak characters in Zanu-PF these days.”
In a sense, every publicly elected official is a political commissar for both the State and the party. They should not be pseudo-media personalities who care more about how they look than how they really are. They should conduct themselves in a manner that recognises that power comes from the people.
The war against poverty and underdevelopment requires public officials aka commissars with a strong sense of nationalism and regard for the aspirations of the people. There is no room for destructive self-interest, there is no space for arrogance when confronted by a public demanding accountability.
Public officials must live and work to the high standards expected of them by the people. Surely it cannot be too much to ask these so-called shefus to fulfil the public promises they made when they assumed office, to strive to uphold the ideals that birthed an Independent Zimbabwe, and concentrate less on applying foundation to hide their warts.
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