Who really is an “ordinary” Zimbabwean?

Welshman Ncube

A few years ago, I heard an Afro-American rhythm and blues singer named John Legend sing this about ordinary people: “We’re just ordinary people/ We don’t know which way to go /Cuz we’re ordinary people /Maybe we should take it slow…”

By Welshman Ncube

In my long experience as lawyer and politician, I have heard, on numerous occasions, politicians habitually use the “ordinary Zimbabweans” phrase.

This “amorphous”, almost legendary demographic group attracts both attention and pity in equal measure.

Our government has committed many “quasi-fiscal transgressions” in the name of “ordinary Zimbabweans”.

Legislators and councilors of diverse political provenance claim to represent “ordinary people’, while residents’ associations boast how they are doing the bidding for “ordinary rate payers and lodgers”.

Women’s groups also attempt to attract funding for “ordinary women” as youth organisations associate themselves with the “cause of the ordinary young man and woman”.

I want to deal with this subject for good reason.

As a president of a political party, I am oftentimes confronted with (justifiable) criticism that we leaders are detached from the expectations of “ordinary Zimbabweans”.

We are said to talk above them in pursuit of self-preservation.

Our ideology, critics continue, is academic and cannot be “broken down” into bread and butter essentials affecting ordinary citizens.

We live in lofty ivory towers and levitate on egocentric self-delusion.

The tragedy of high office is that once we are elected, we not only drift from but also despise these “ordinary people” that sacrificed time, money, life and limb to get us into these undeserved positions.

But who really are these ordinary people? Has this anything to do with one’s income, class, location, level of education, political position, race, creed, tribe, ethnic group or religious affiliation?

Where do we find, identify them and know what their needs are?

The Oxford dictionary, inevitably blunt, says that ordinary people have “no special or distinctive features … (and are) normal”.

Other sources refer to them as people “of no special quality or interest; commonplace; unexceptional, plain or undistinguished, somewhat inferior or below average; mediocre, of no exceptional ability, degree, or quality; average”.

Those who sympathise with President Robert Mugabe’s seemingly eternal and nauseating cling on political power always claim that his “success” (more like domineeringly suffocating presence) can be traced back to that Zanu PF has “better grassroots links” than any of the MDC opposition parties.

In other words, his party has stronger umbilical connections and is identified with the “masses”.

My interpretation of this is that there is Zanu PF the “organisation” and then the ordinary membership “as distinct from the active leadership of a party or organisation”.

From this perspective, it would mean that those of its members at village or cell level are the “ordinary” who define the party’s electoral pattern and its performance at national level.

A social scientist would, therefore, be correct in saying the “ordinariness” – for want of a better term – has income class connotations, because this group tends to be mainly composed of peasants, villagers and resettled farmers.

Tragically, it is the same group that Zanu PF has intimidated, impoverished and fettered with criminal benevolence over the past 35 years.

Whenever my party, the MDC, or any other opposition party for that matter, attempts to “sell” issues to this group of “ordinary” citizens, we tend to come short because we do not have access to massive State resources to buy allegiance.

However, winning the masses’s hearts involves engaging them in programmes that transcend superficial promises and short-term freebies.

My colleague in the struggle for democratisation, Tendai Biti, popularised the phrase “the grandmother from Dotito” as his own description of the ordinary person.

Listening to him speak, one would get the impression that we in the opposition would not win her heart as long as our politics was about the huge government deficit, the IMF debt, quasi-fiscal expenditures, foreign direct investment and a host of other Zanu PF “economic transgressions”.

We are aware that Zanu PF preyed on the political frailties of this proverbial grandma in Dotito by convincing her that her village had no roads, electricity, water and clinic because the white man – Tony Blair – had imposed sanctions on Mugabe.

This Machiavellian approach presupposes that the deficit in service delivery and other social inadequacies – including the drought – can be (mis)understood as originating from some distant bad white man.

This is the same grandmother made to queue behind her village head and “assisted” to vote because she is “ordinary and illiterate”.

As a working people’s party, we know that our “ordinary” political base – the blue collar worker, the farm worker and the civil servants – have been savaged by retrenchments and pitiful wages.

They are weak, miserable and now vulnerable to Zanu PF manipulation and exploitation.

They are ordinary because they are poor, unemployed and stressed up, so we need to find a way of unlocking this mass and responding to their needs.

Unlike John Legend, our ordinary people know exactly where to go, because just after independence, they were there.

They cannot afford to take it slow, because they are far behind people of similar “ordinary status” in Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, Mozambique, South Africa and Malawi.

Our ordinary people carry the key to unlock the shackles of Zanu PF oppression and expose its lies.

Our ordinary people need running water in their kitchens; electricity in their sitting rooms; books in their classrooms and clinics in their wards.

They need affordable education and safe housing. As I observed last week, our ordinary people are desperate for safe and secure jobs; salaries above the poverty datum line; safe transport and quality social services. In the bigger scheme of things, everybody is equal – the grandmother from Dotito and the grandmother from Burnside or Borrowdale.

It is our responsibility, as a party, to raise their hopes that not all is lost – they can be retrieved from being ordinary to extraordinary – only if they rediscover their people power.