Opinion Piece

Mako Muzenda: Male politicians send a message that a culture of violence and dominance is acceptable

There is a disturbing pattern in men who are in power and the masculinity that men in Africa practice. It is aggressive, wholly self-serving and intolerant of difference and opposition.

As a Zimbabwean, I’ve coined a phrase that encapsulates what’s so frustrating about Zimbabwean men. I call it “ndini ndinoziva” or “I’m the one who knows”. A ndini ndinoziva mentality speaks to the belief that they are the only ones who are the sole guardians of knowledge, wisdom and power. No one but them can lead because they are the only ones who know how to lead. No one is as intelligent as them because they are the most intelligent, period. They and those who think like them enjoy exercising control over their underlings, with no room for negotiation or debate. It’s a mentality I’m very familiar with, from family life, to the church, to political leaders.

Nowhere does this mentality play itself out quite like in politics. Already a space that lends itself to theatrics and showmanship, it’s a breeding ground for men steeped in a patriarchal culture that instils an unshakeable entitlement to authority and power. However, to ascribe this line of thinking to all men is inaccurate. Yes, #MenAreTrash, but this particular kind of behaviour is practised only by a select group. The phrase “dominant masculinity” comes to mind, a system of male behaviour and identity that fits into Connell’s bigger web of gender theory. Dominant masculinity drowns out other voices so its own can be amplified. Dominant masculinity dismisses any other interpretations of what it is to be a man. Dominant masculinity thrives on subservience and silent complicity, especially from other men.

This masculinity is an indelible part of African politics. From ruling party stalwarts, opposition party members and business moguls, to men in power, all have displayed similar traits. Starting from the first wave of independence in the 1950s to the Big Men of the 1970s and 1980s, and now in 2017. Flamboyant lifestyles, financed through legal and not-so-legal enterprises. A penchant for spectacle and ceremony: parades and commemorative celebrations where they can display their power and continued public admiration for the world to see.

Praise, they love praise. They feed on it, because it validates their self-importance and natural superiority. They are hardliners, uncompromising in their position, unwilling to cede any kind of authority or standing. This makes them look like firm, unwavering leaders: a man’s man, someone who you can rely on to succeed. Dominant masculinity gets the job done, no matter the cost, no matter the consequence. However, this becomes a problem when they forget what that job is, or when they fail. When they lose sight of their mandate to govern and serve the people, and when someone dares highlight their shortcomings, they turn hostile. These men believe that we should be grateful for their leadership, for were it not for them we would collectively be in ruins. Questioning their leadership capabilities cuts right to the heart of their masculinity. As a result, they abhor opposition. They hate anyone who disagrees with their ideology and leadership. They hate anyone who can mess with their carefully laid plans. From Jammeh trying and failing to hold on to power in The Gambia, to a recent fight in the Ugandan parliament when opposition party members protested against an amendment bill that would allow President Yoweri Museveni to run for another term, there is a history of men in power being resistant to change, even when it comes from other men.

Power and dominant masculinity go hand-in-hand, amplifying and normalising particular systems of male dominance and behaviour. Dominant masculinity isn’t stagnant: it morphs and changes according to the times and the people that govern. Masculinity is a means of entrenching ideology, and politics is the tool of choice. The idea behind the theory of dominant masculinity and power is that whichever political party or individual ascends to power entrenches and normalises their masculinity. They give a blueprint of what acceptable male behaviour looks like.

Liberation war movements in Zimbabwe and South Africa promoted a radical and confrontational masculinity, one that put men at the forefront as soldiers in the fight for independence. The desire for liberation overrode anything else and excused any immoral behaviour – including abuses of power and violence against women. The erasure of women from liberation movement narratives implies a particular message: men, and only a particular group of men, played a role in ending systems of oppression.

In 1996, Ingrid Sinclair directed and released the movie Flame, which detailed the experiences of female freedom fighters in Zimbabwe’s liberation war. When it was released, war veterans were outraged, claiming that it was full of lies and was not a true portrayal of their conduct in the camps. Fast-forward to 2006, when Jacob Zuma was acquitted of rape, going on to become the third president of the Republic of South Africa. His tenure has been marked not just by corruption scandals and a yo-yoing economy, but by a certain swagger that comes with knowing that he’s at the top. He’s manoeuvred around those who have tried to go against him (Kgalema Motlanthe comes to mind), and cultivated a cult of personality that has led to the ANC being inseparable from the masculinity that Zuma embodies. These two examples demonstrate dominant masculinity in its most visible form: no tolerance for dissent, no space to challenge and question, and only space for one line of thinking.

Therein lies one of my biggest problems with Africa’s leadership. There is a disturbing pattern in men in power and the masculinity that they practise. It is aggressive, wholly self-serving and intolerant of difference and opposition. It is a masculinity that has fuelled wars and conflict: look no further than Liberia. Tired after years of civil war and all its violence, Liberian women rallied together to bring a woman into the presidential office. They believed not only that Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was the most suitable candidate for the job, but that men had been allowed to rule for too long and had fuelled the conflict. Dominant masculinity was the problem, and still presents a major hurdle in governance. When political leaders and governments – which are still predominantly male – display particular behavioural patterns in a country’s parliament, drown out or silence voices of opposition, and refuse to admit fault and failure, it sends a message to other men and society in general: that a culture of violence, dominance and intolerance is acceptable because that is what’s needed to get and maintain power. DM

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