Zimbabwe and the US mid-terms

THE following are remarks by United States Ambassador to Zimbabwe Charles Ray at a public lecture at Chinhoyi University of Technology, November 2, 2010:

IT IS a great pleasure for me to be at Chinhoyi University of Technology this morning. I wish to thank your Vice Chancellor, Professor Simbi, for so graciously inviting me to speak here today. He has done me a great favour by giving me a compelling reason to escape from my office and the capital, even if only for a brief time.

I am also grateful to Mr. Tapera for his kind introduction.  And let me say good morning to the assembled staff and most especially to the students.

Old people like me are often inclined to remind young people that they are the country’s future. I am here today because you are Zimbabwe’s present and its future.

In Harare, it seems everyone is talking about elections. Maybe things are different out here in Chinhoyi, far from the Harare rumor mill. We will have some time for discussion at the end of this sermon. I am eager to hear what you think about the prospects for elections, and I look forward to answering any questions you might have.

I cannot say when Zimbabwe will have its next election—some say next year, some say the year after.  Whenever it is held, I hope there will be institutions and an environment that will make the election credible and truly reflective of the will of the people.

But I can tell you when the United States will have its next election: It starts about five hours from right now.

Today Americans will elect a new House of Representatives, more than one third of our Senate, some state governors, mayors, city councilors, school boards, and a long list of other officials.

That’s a lot of electing to do in one day, but we Americans have a lot of practice at this. The United States is a big country—there are more than 310 million of us now—with many levels of government. We elect leaders for our towns, cities, counties, states, and the nation as a whole. And we do that over and over again.

I come from a small town in east Texas, where we take democracy—and politics—pretty seriously. In Texas we choose not just our mayors but also our police commanders and judges through elections. I don’t necessarily recommend that to everyone, but I can say that it makes Texas an interesting place to live. Where I come from, if you throw an apple in the air, there’s a good chance it will hit an elected official, someone who used to be an elected official or someone who wants to be one.

Some of our elected officials in the United States serve terms of only a year or two.  Others get to stay in office longer—the president’s term is four years and can only be repeated once. Senators serve for six years at a time. So maybe you will see what I mean when I say that it is election time in the United States not just today but more or less every day.

If we are not on our way to cast a vote on a given day, there is someone asking us to think about how we will vote on a day not too far in the future.

The election taking place today in the United States is an important one. We call this a "mid-term election" because it happens halfway through the president’s term of office. President Obama was elected exactly two years ago, and if he wants to be president again, he will have to stand for election in two years.

Today, Americans will elect most of the national legislators that President Obama will have to deal with for the next two years. That’s why today’s election is important. The outcome will have a big effect on what kind of policies the President can pursue and what he can get done.

This puzzles a lot of people who have never lived in the United States. What’s the point of being President if a bunch of legislators can push you around? Isn’t the President of the United States the most powerful person in the world?

Here’s an important thing to know about my country: If the President wants to be powerful, he has to get out of bed every day and persuade a majority of our national legislators—there are 100 in the Senate and 435 in the House of Representatives—that he knows what he is doing and that they should keep on giving him enough money to do it.

You see, the United States Congress—the Senate and the House of Representatives together—decide how much money the President can spend and what he can and cannot spend it on. If the Congress decides not to give the President any more money, then our government stops working (and I don’t get paid).

That does not happen often, thank goodness, because our elected officials are people who want the government to work so that it can get things done for the citizens who elected them.

That sounds good, and I can assure you that it is. As a rule, elected leaders in the United States find it necessary to build broad political support for any big decisions they make. I don’t mean this as an advertisement for the American political system. 

Just as I am reluctant to recommend Texas politics to other people, I also hesitate to suggest that any other country use the American political system as a model. Over the last 240 years, we have developed our own peculiar brand of American democracy. I think it works well for us. That is partly because our political system has gone through a lot of changes over the years, and it is still changing.

But American democracy is like Zimbabwean sadza—it is best enjoyed at home, not far away. Even though I do not think American democracy is likely to work outside America, I do think democracy can work in any country. That includes Zimbabwe, and I think almost all Zimbabweans would agree.

It is certainly the case that countless Zimbabweans take risks every day to restore democracy in this country. I would even say that those who have undermined Zimbabwe’s democratic institutions understand as well as anyone the power of democracy and the irresistible force of popular will. Why else would they devote so much effort to suppressing criticism, controlling the airwaves, and threatening their political opponents?

Democracy has strong roots in Zimbabwe, even if some of the foliage above ground has wilted. You don’t need to hold elections every year or two, as we do, in order for the rest of us to see that.

Democracy starts with a positive regard for those around you—your family, your neighbours, people you meet on the way to the shops or your church. Over the year that I have lived in Zimbabwe, I have seen each day that this attitude is part of your country’s national character. People here listen to each other and generally seem to care about each other.

The problem, of course, is that Zimbabwe’s government seems to have lost the habit of listening to Zimbabwe’s people—all of Zimbabwe’s people. As university students, you know how important it is to have open, unfettered debate. That is how scholars discover the truth.

As students, you also know the difference between a debate and a shouting match. In a debate, people with opposing views show respect for divergent opinions. A debate is more about listening than speaking—it’s about reconciling differing views to the mutual benefit of all parties to the debate.

In the same way, a country’s citizens must be able to listen to each other as they voice their opinions. There is no other way to reach compromises that work, and compromise is what the machinery of democracy produces. Whether today’s elections put Congress under the control of President Obama’s party or the opposition party, he will still not be able to push through whatever he wants. He will have to consider what others want and find compromises that respond to the needs and desires of all the people.

But dialog is not enough for Zimbabwe’s strong roots of democracy to flower and bear fruit. It is also essential that when the people speak, the government listens. One year in your country does not make me an expert. But as I have already said, I have seen enough to know that the government sometimes finds it difficult to listen to the people.

I have also noticed that the government is eager to persuade you that the United States is out to get Zimbabwe. By now, you have probably heard the official fairy tale about the "illegal sanctions" and the "punishing embargo" my country has allegedly used to destroy Zimbabwe’s economy.

I understand many of you are studying to be engineers. Perhaps one of you will be clever enough to invent a machine that will allow us to visit the imaginary place where all this happened.

The truth, of course, is that the United States blocks business transactions and visas for a little over 100 Zimbabwean leaders who have supported or participated in political violence against their fellow citizens.

When leaders named on the U.S. sanctions list tell you that these limited and largely symbolic measures destroyed Zimbabwe’s economy, what they are really doing is pretending they are not responsible for a disastrous decade. They are saying, “I am not the one. I am not responsible!”

Zimbabweans fought and died for this country’s independence, so it is way too late for leaders to say they do not bear responsibility for what the people are required to endure.

President Obama recently said it better than I can, so I will use his words: "… development depends on good governance. That is the change that can unlock Africa’s potential. And it is a responsibility that can be met only by Africans."

I cannot control how well the government listens or what its officials say or do while they are not listening. And fortunately, these are not problems that I need to tackle. As Zimbabwean citizens, you already understand these problems much better than I do, and I know that a great many Zimbabweans are working hard at helping their government get better at listening, and that is as it should be.

Only Zimbabweans can do what has to be done. That is vitally important work, and I think you will agree with me that this work must succeed before Zimbabwe has its next election. For what is an election if not an opportunity for the government to listen? An election should unite, not divide.

As President Obama has said, "All of us share this world for but a brief moment in time. The question is whether we spend that time focused on what pushes us apart, or whether we commit ourselves to an effort—a sustained effort— to find common ground, to focus on the future we seek for our children, and to respect the dignity of all human beings.”

Because I am a long way from home, as has been the case in most elections since I became old enough to vote, I cast my vote weeks ago for today’s mid-term election. I have to say that it makes me proud of my country to know that I am part of our national conversation—the speaking and listening that involves millions of voters—even when I am on another continent. As a visitor to Zimbabwe, I am not part of your national conversation, but I am listening.

To demonstrate that, I would now like to listen to what you have to say and see if I can answer a few of your questions before we hear from Professor Simbi.

But first, let me pass on to you some wisdom from a great American philosopher who was even better at preaching than I am.

In 1944, as the United States was engaged in a world-wide struggle to preserve democracy, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote this: "Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary."