A Feudal Society

We watched a film the other night depicting life in a feudal society in Central Europe about 1000 years ago. The film producers tried to depict life as it was in those days based on what we know of the society from history and fables.
I found it very interesting - partly because it was a part of European history that I am not very familiar with and partly because I had a strange feeling that something was awfully familiar. It has slowly dawned on me since then that what we have witnessed in Zimbabwe in the past 25 years, has been a rather rapid slide (in historical terms - very rapid) from a small, modern settler State allowing all the trappings of life in modern Europe or the USA, to a feudal State where a tiny elite totally dominate life and power and extract tribute from the rest of society to maintain a life style so far above the rest as to be totally immoral.

It was no different in feudal Europe. A tiny elite enjoyed huge wealth, advanced education and a vice like grip on power that gave them absolute control over the people they governed. Life was cheap and the taxes (tribute) high. This elite built the largest dwelling places ever seen on the earth - buildings that could not be replicated today because of the massive cost.

The Church was corrupt, compliant, and in many cases simply part of the system. Very often also extracting tribute from the same people and assuming a secular power far beyond their real status, also building edifices that could not be replicated today. Life under these tyrants (secular and holy) was short and nasty, human and political rights were not imagined and few dared to stand up to these tyrants of old. Those that did became legends in their day - Robin Hood and William Tell are examples.

What we have seen after independence in 1980 has been five years of reasonable government under a constitution drafted in London with the unholy help of Whitehall. This creature of Westminster gave us all the trappings of a modern society - Parliament, the vote, a certain disbursement of power through the State and civil society. When drafted in London, none of the parties to the process had any stake in what was being created - the British just wanted to get out with their pants intact and clean, the Nationalist leaders did not believe a word - just saw it as a pathway to power. The Whites, defeated and tired after 15 years of sanctions and war, just wanted to get on with their lives and protect what they had.

They each got what they wanted, but the Nationalists lost little time in white anting the legal and political arrangements so neatly laid out in the Lancaster Agreement. First order of business - wipe out your opposition, by 1988 this was achieved. Then neuter the whites and reduce them to the place of serfs who pay tribute and have no say in anything to do with the way they are governed and the country managed. This was achieved in very large measure by 1990.

Then move from a modern, liberal, State to a one Party dominated political system and then to rule by dictate from State House. This is exactly where we were in 1995.

The state of affairs that has prevailed since 1995 strongly resembles a feudal State - the government has destroyed the modern economy, largely because independent business persons with assets and intellectuals with education are a threat to feudal power. We all thought that Didymus Mutasa was simply playing devils advocate when he said to a reporter "we would be quite happy to have a population of 6 million people who supported Zanu PF." The fact that at the time Zimbabwe should have had a population of close to 16 million was not an issue.

So the feudal elite who have ruled Zimbabwe since 1980, have systematically driven out of the country any group who might threaten their hold on power - the educated, the business elite, independent workers and private farmers - just as the Kulaks were a major threat to Stalin's power in the Soviet Union. Morgan Tsvangirai calls this the silent Pol Pot revolution.

I have just come back from walking my dogs to a development nearby. While there I walked onto a building site where a Zanu connected family is building - it looked a substantial structure from nearby but when I got close I realized it was an absolutely massive home. The new house being built for Mugabe in Harare covers 10 000 square metres, has two dams on site filled with water from the city and sits on a large piece of ground that is being landscaped. The Governor of the Reserve Bank - once a lowly worker in a Bank, owns a house with over 100 rooms.

Obscene in a poor developing country where the majority live on les than US$1 per day? Yes, but in feudal terms, even these palaces are rather modest compared to what they did with our money in the middle Ages! Life for the opposition in such an era was not pleasant; if you were caught your life expectancy was rather short, if you were not caught you spent your life on the run.

If this is a true analogy, then how do we live through such an era in our history? Its quite clear that to survive you have to encapsulate your life to protect your immediate interests and if you choose to try and defend the principles that sustain a modern State and freedom with democracy, then you must be prepared to fight with everything you have. The third alternative is to simply pay tribute and plead for peace. Perhaps a fourth option is to just cut and run to anywhere that has a reasonable government and will respect your rights. We choose to stay and fight for the fundamental principles we believe in.

Fortunately for Africa our feudal era will not last 500 or a 1000 years. Recent history suggests that when this generation of leaders passes on - as they are, one by one, new leaders who do not have the baggage their predecessors brought to the seat of government, will come to power. How long will this era last? Probably about 10 years and we are about halfway through. Once this present nightmare is over then we can start to rebuild our lives and our country.

Hopefully when we next sit down as a nation to draft our own constitution, the resulting product will have our universal buy in based on our own painful experience of what works and what does not work. Then we can bury our feudal masters with all due ceremony (none) and open their mansions to the public as tourist attractions.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo 17th May 2005