The Neverending Presidency: An Unfettered Look at How Democracy Lost to Mugabe

Camilla Nielsson’s new documentary, Democrats, is a study in how a dictatorship can weather a ‘democratic transition’

Michael AtkinsonOctober 8, 2015

Paul Mangwana is the gregarious face of anti-democratic tactics in the new documentary "Democrats." (Susan Norget Film)

It’s hap­pened so many times: A poor nation fights the odds and attempts to join the mod­ern age by rein­vent­ing, yet again, the wheel of democracy.

Nielsson has unfettered access. ... Mangwana and his staffers are often openly amused and honest about their party’s brutal tactics, disingenuous cant and realpolitick ambitions.

What could go wrong? In post­colo­nial Africa, every­thing. Camil­la Nielsson’s new doc­u­men­tary, Democ­rats, eye­balls the nit­ty-grit­ty of democ­ra­ti­za­tion in Zim­bab­we since 2008. Watch­ing it, you’re astound­ed by the degree to which these lofty polit­i­cal prin­ci­ples are sub­ject to the pet­ty wills and bald pow­er-lust of men in cheap suits, hag­gling in con­fer­ence rooms over the fate of a nation.

Zim­bab­we is one of Africa’s longest-run­ning post­colo­nial klep­toc­ra­cies: Robert Mugabe has con­trolled the coun­try by hook and crook since win­ning the war for inde­pen­dence in 1980. On top of hair-rais­ing geno­ci­dal actions and human rights abus­es, the coun­try endured years of mis­man­age­ment and cor­rup­tion so obvi­ous that it was vis­i­ble from the U.N. Inter­na­tion­al and domes­tic pres­sure forced Mugabe to con­sent to the bipar­ti­san writ­ing of a con­sti­tu­tion, to which he would then be subject.

Eas­i­er said than done. The agents of change here are Mugabe’s chief nego­tia­tor, the gre­gar­i­ous and sple­net­ic Paul Mang­wana (a great role for For­est Whitak­er if this tale ever gets fic­tion­al­ized), and the point per­son for the rival par­ty, the calm, ele­gant and rather studly Dou­glas Mwon­zo­ra. Niels­son has unfet­tered access to both — which is aston­ish­ing, as Mang­wana and his staffers are often open­ly amused and hon­est about their party’s bru­tal tac­tics, disin­gen­u­ous cant and realpol­i­tick ambi­tions. There’s nev­er any talk about democ­ra­cy from Mugabe’s camp, even as ref­er­en­dum meet­ings are jammed with vot­ers bused in and paid to stump for the dic­ta­tor, and are also often beset by mys­te­ri­ous goon squads threat­en­ing and beat­ing any oppo­si­tion supporter.

Fac­ing this tide of cor­rup­tion, Mwon­zo­ra is a mod­el of Mar­tin Luther King-ish seren­i­ty and rec­ti­tude, befriend­ing the unpol­ished Mang­wana and man­ag­ing to twist this fierce but fool­ish man into eth­i­cal knots. As the face of the Mugabe machine, Mang­wana has to man­age Mugabe’s schemes (includ­ing hav­ing Mwon­zo­ra arrest­ed at a cru­cial junc­ture), and the pres­sure looks like it’ll make him implode. The man’s predica­ment is ear­ly-Sovi­et: When an unsigned draft of the con­sti­tu­tion is leaked, fea­tur­ing a clause that excludes Mugabe from any future elec­tions, Mang­wana is cast as a sell­out,” which could get him killed.

Democ­rats boils the very essence of pol­i­tics down to its fun­da­men­tal moral con­flict: doing what’s right vs. doing what you want. Mang­wana becomes the com­pro­mised schmuck in the cross­fire, a mob lack­ey rev­el­ing in his pow­er but smelling doom in the air. The bare­ly glimpsed Mugabe is unapolo­get­i­cal­ly devot­ed to self-ser­vice. In his post-con­sti­tu­tion speech (after the offend­ing clause was amend­ed), he sums up how things will remain the same by brush­ing aside the idea of democ­ra­cy, not­ing how some peo­ple do not under­stand where pow­er is derived from.”

He gets a big laugh with the line, which sug­gests Zim­bab­weans are cowed into empathiz­ing with his bully­boy dis­plays of pow­er. Some­thing that should not sound unusu­al to Amer­i­cans. We are a nation of great pre­tenders,” one of Mwonzora’s assis­tants tells Niels­son, dis­gust­ed with how his coun­try­men bow before their stern patri­arch. Mem­o­ries are long in Africa, and just as the 1979 war is oft-invoked, so is the sub­se­quent Guku­rahun­di, Mugabe’s sev­en-year geno­ci­dal cam­paign against pro­tes­tors and dis­si­dents that slaugh­tered over 20,000 peo­ple. Odd­ly, Niels­son nev­er men­tions the blood­bath; indeed, much of Mugabe’s lega­cy is left out, as if it was assumed we already knew.

Ide­al­ly we should, but like too many fea­ture films that explore sociopo­lit­i­cal real­i­ties, Democ­rats seems to require an hour of Googling to flesh out what hap­pened. Nine­ty min­utes is nev­er enough time to grasp some­thing as com­plex as his­to­ry. Niels­son favors the dra­mat­ic arc of the gang­ster movie: in the end, Mang­wana is squeezed out of the Mugabe admin­is­tra­tion, and ner­vous­ly awaits an inevitable acci­dent.” Oth­er­wise, nothing’s changed. Anoth­er new nation bat­tles for its soul, and yet again, the dev­il wins. 

Michael Atkin­son is a film review­er for In These Times. He has writ­ten or edit­ed many books, includ­ing Exile Cin­e­ma: Film­mak­ers at Work Beyond Hol­ly­wood (2008) and the mys­tery nov­els Hem­ing­way Dead­lights (2009) and Hem­ing­way Cut­throat (2010). He blogs at Zero For Con­duct.
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