“To be called a sellout in Zimbabwe is to be condemned to death.”
This simple, matter of fact observation in the political documentary Democrats makes crystal clear the brute forces that govern politics in the troubled southern African country.
The 2014 film, which was directed by Camilla Nielsson, chronicles the drafting of a new Zimbabwean Constitution in 2008 and all the menace and corruption that governed the process.
At the time, the presidential incumbent, Robert Mugabe and his party Zanu-PF, had been forced by the international community into a power sharing agreement with Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the opposition party the MDC-T.
The two sides had agreed to come together to author a new Constitution for Zimbabwe, which would reflect the political will of the people and be fully democratic in its formulation.
Of course, these noble goals were undermined by the harsh reality of Zimbabwean politics in which Mugabe and Zanu-PF brook no dissent.
Democrats captures this power differential perfectly by following the men leading the creation of the Constitution: Douglas Mwonzora of the MDC-T and Paul Mangwana representing Zanu-PF.
Both men come from a legal background and appear, on the surface, to cooperate with each other in a friendly manner. But it quickly become apparent that Mwonzora struggles to control the course of events and prevent Zanu-PF from derailing their supposed shared mission.
The harsh reality of Zimbabwean politics in which Mugabe and Zanu-PF brook no dissent.
The film begins with the two politicians conducting “outreach meetings” all over Zimbabwe, the purpose of which was to seek the opinion of the citizens on what the new Constitution should contain.
From the outset, there are whispers amongst MDC-T representatives that Mugabe’s party is playing dirty. Zanu-PF supporters, it is rumoured, are being bussed into meetings to outnumber and intimidate MDC-T supporters.
In one very revealing scene, attendees at an outreach meeting are asked to step forward one-by-one and say whether or not the president should have the power to appoint judges. Each and every person says the exact same thing, “Our President should appoint judges.”
Were they coached or bullied into saying that?
It wouldn’t be unreasonable to suspect as much.
In 2013, the Zimbabwean blogger Cathy Buckle wrote, “… a number of towns, mine included, had interrupted, shortened or cancelled constitutional outreach meetings…when rowdy youths arrived in numbers and disrupted the gatherings making sure peoples voices were silenced or left them scared to air their views.”
In the film, a frustrated Mwonzora is shown raising this issue with Mangwana who blithely refuses to acknowledge that such things are happening, dismissing it as gossip.
Mwonzora doesn’t let the matter go, however, and insists on holding some meetings again in areas where observers recorded particularly raucous or disruptive meetings. Despite initial opposition from Mangwana, he manages to convince him to rerun meetings in certain districts.
Nielsson’s camera is ever-present, hovering unobtrusively in the background, capturing key moments and allowing the story to tell itself without interference. It is incredible how much access she and her crew had to the daily dealings of Mwonzora and Mangwana who seem totally unguarded in front of their camera, almost as if it were invisible.
One really becomes aware of Nielsson’s silent omnipresence when the film shows relations between the constitutionalists beginning to sour.
Things turn ugly when Mangwana is accused of being party to a plot to oust Mugabe after a draft clause is leaked to the press, which proposes to limit the amount of time a president can serve in office to two five-year terms. Mugabe has held power in Zimbabwe for 29 years.
Earlier in the film, Zimbabweans at a rerun outreach meeting were recorded suggesting this idea.
Mangwana looking visibly shaken, and obviously fearing violent retribution from President-for-life Mugabe, is filmed in a meeting bellowing at Mwonzora and his colleagues. He threatens to fire everybody and to shut the whole process down if the offending clause is not removed, which he accuses them of underhandedly inserting into the constitution.
In this very tense scene, the cameraperson appears to be crouched down behind someone at the meeting, as if trying to escape notice and somehow succeeding.
The film contains many shocking and ruthlessly honest scenes like this, too numerous to mention here; but that will leave you under no illusions as to the true nature of “democratic” politics in Zimbabwe under Mugabe.
Democrats is available on Netflix UK and Netflix South Africa.