Barstool Analysis

An experienced international journalist once recounted to me how they operated in many areas of the world. He said they always moved into a local hotel that was secure and being used by the majority of the Press, then they canvassed their colleagues as to what was happening and got down to work. They would follow all the contacts that they could establish and track down leads, but in the end they often relied on ‘barstool talk” in the local hang outs.

This explains the consensus that one so often finds building up in a volatile situation where accurate and reliable information is difficult to find. It is even more important where there is a deliberate programme of misinformation designed to mislead and confuse observers. Observers include the Diplomatic Community who are always an important constituency and the local and international Press.

Today, with the decline in the print media and the rise and rise in social media where information simply overwhelms every other voice, the rise in television with its 30 second “sound bite” and the need of everyone to “sell” their views or news (they are very different!), it is not difficult to understand that the day to day consensus of views held by this volatile community, not only changes rapidly but is often completely wrong and misses critical shifts in emerging crisis situations.

So this past week I heard an analysis of the Zimbabwe crisis which had been given to a senior diplomat by his colleagues. It was disturbing because it was so wrong in many ways and was significantly out of date. Zimbabwe is an analysts nightmare, because we have been treated like mushrooms for so long (long before Independence), and this process is broadly defined as being kept in the dark and fed on manure, that we are a society with a great rumor mill. Very few have any real content. The State media is so used to telling lies and in fact is quite good at it, and the “facts” are always suspect. People used to accepting that when a Minister makes an official statement, it is accurate, have to understand that here he is simply spouting the mantra that is the flavor of the day. The Zanu PF regime is very disciplined in this respect.

Officials who have access to the real facts are skilled at staying mute – fear drives the whole process and is a very effective “enforcer”. So the barstool becomes the main source of analysis and consensus and this is dangerous. Counter views, no matter how well founded are often brushed aside as being conjecture.

Good intelligence and analysis is very valuable and this explains why a whole industry has sprung up which provides analysis to key stakeholders in society. Business is a leader in this process as are States. It is expensive but accurate knowledge of what is going on and likely outcomes, is so important that they commit significant resources, both human and financial to the exercise. The media; much more poorly resourced and with few of the skilled and experienced journalists of yesteryear, are poorly placed to compete.

I am not saying that the barstool is not important, it is, but we all have to be very careful about whatever consensus is being constructed at any time in these local centers of analysis. There is no short cut and the process always requires hard work, good intelligence and information and then the capacity to evaluate what is going on and who is who in the Zoo at any one time. Most of all, never underestimate the power and speed of change.

The other guiding principle I follow is to accept that in politics, there is no word such as “never”. Everything is possible if sufficient pressure is brought to bear or conditions change. Who would have ever thought that an Afrikaner in the form of De Klerk in South Africa or “Gorby” in the Soviet Union would lead their countries out of the dead end that they were locked into and engineer a stable, non violent transition? But it happened; sure it took massive pressure led by Mrs. Thatcher in the UK for South Africa and Mr. Reagan in the USA in the case of the Soviet Union, but the impossible became a reality.

Here in Zimbabwe the consensus has shifted so often in the past few years that I warn people that I speak to, to be aware that we are very skilled at confusing people and that the longer they stay here the more confused they are likely to become. Since 2013 I have seen major shifts – post elections, the MDC is “finished”, Tsvangirai is “yesterdays man”. Then Mnangagwa was going to take over from Mugabe and lead the country into the path of reform and reconstruction, “engagement” became the key word and might have become a reality if those with power and influence had moved in time.

Now the consensus is that Mugabe is finished, on his way out. I agree but how and why and who remain questions that need answers. His health is clearly failing and no matter how much spin they put on the situation, the evidence is all too visible. He is a shadow of his former self and the stumbling, uncertain old man we see does not have many more years of decent life left and could become incapable of carrying out his responsibilities at any time.

We seem to now have a road map – retirement, a Transitional National Authority to take us to elections and then a new democratically elected Government. But the devil is in the detail and many questions remain to be answered. What is very evident is the following:

Clearly Mr. Mugabe’s health is of real concern and will remain an issue. In addition the evolving economic crisis fueled by a runaway budget deficit and emerging as a severe cash shortage and other shortages in the wider economy and the inability of the State to fund itself. These pressures will come to a head this month and there are no ways in which this regime can survive without external help on a massive scale. They know it and are increasingly desperate, so desperate that they might issue the dreaded “bond notes”, an exercise that will immediately bring about the collapse of the regime itself.

The potential for violence is very evident – street violence is escalating; people are angry and impatient and are not going to take police brutality and corruption for much longer. The Army and all those with guns in their hands are also frustrated and angry about their inability to access their salaries or savings. Warnings this past week that a civil war was looming cannot be dismissed.

What is also clear is that the center of power in this country – the center that has run the government for the past 30 years, has disintegrated. With the expulsion of the Mujuru faction from Zanu PF Party and the government, has created a huge gap in its ranks, the now final split between the G40 and the Mnangagwa faction has meant that one or the other must now gain the ascendency in order to survive and to try and control what is left of the center. The G40 is suddenly ascendant and seems to have ample resources at its disposal. But who are they – a tiny minority in the Zanu PF and even less in the country.

This disintegration of the State is both dangerous and irreparable. The split with the Veterans of the Liberation war and their military elements is a final blow to the status quo. Only a genuinely free and fair election can sort out who has the popular democratic mandate to form a Government and only such a government can garner the international support, both financial and political, to secure the massive financial resources needed to bring back stability and growth.

As in Europe and South Africa, a single power center with the leverage to exercise its influence over the State, has to once again step into the ring and force sanity to prevail. In our case that is South Africa and its regional allies.

Eddie Cross
Harare 7th August 2016