BSR: Beware the tyranny of the majority


The dramatic rise to power of Zimbabwe’s new leader, President Emmerson Mnangagwa has attracted a great amount of attention. The magnitude of the acclamation is partly due to the demise of the colossal figure of his predecessor, Robert Mugabe, who was forced resign when Zimbabwe’s parliament began a process of impeachment. After ruling the southern African country for 37 years and reducing it to ruins, Mugabe had attracted much revulsion. Mugabe’s regime was notorious for its harsh treatment of dissenting voices. It is a vice that the Mnangagwa administration must now avoid if it is to mark a difference from its predecessor. This article explains why it must work hard to prevent the potential tyranny of the majority.

Cult of majoritarianism

A great challenge for the Mnangagwa administration is to avoid the temptation of being drawn into a cult of majoritarianism, driven by the popularity of the circumstances by which it assumed political authority. The coup which brought the new administration to power was popular, having generated widespread support across the country and beyond. Thus, although the new administration did not assume power through a popular election, it nevertheless commanded popular support among the people. When Zimbabweans marched on 18 November 2017, it was as much against Mugabe as it was in support of the military intervention which paved the way for Mnangagwa.

The phenomenal response to the coup is a reminder of the old cliché that success has many fathers, while failure is an orphan. It means many people want to claim credit for success, while no one wants to take responsibility for failure. This is why a lot of people in ZANU PF who were vociferously supporting Grace Mugabe and G40 have suddenly become the most zealous defenders of the Mnangagwa administration. This type of politics has no basis in principle. It shows that people generally tend to follow the wind. The same lot will swiftly abandon Mnangagwa to follow a new wind as soon as it appears.

An important feature in all this is the emergence of a large majority that tends to follow the new leadership. This majority is usually loud, vociferous and boisterous. It has a tendency to shut down the minority, claiming all political space and demanding loyalty while condemning any voices of dissent. It claims the title of progressiveness while condemning and excluding alternative voices as negative and unprogressive.  Indeed, the minority are cowered into submission, giving an artificial picture in which everyone appears to be in unison. This is akin to one of the dangers associated with direct democracy, one which the ancient Greek philosopher Plato identified as the problem of mob rule. It is also referred to as the cult of majoritarianism or the tyranny of the majority. It is a problem that has exercised the minds of political actors and philosophers for a very long time and one that is important to guard against at this moment in Zimbabwean politics.

Plato’s fear of mob rule

In the words of leading British philosopher, A. C. Grayling, Plato feared that democracy “could too readily degenerate into what is called ochlocracy, that is, mob rule, driven in unruly fashion by emotion, self-interest, prejudice, anger, ignorance and thoughtlessness into rash, cruel, destructive and self-destructive action”. Plato feared that direct democracy could easily descend into rule by the mob, under the auspices of majority rule. This risk is exacerbated by what Grayling calls “manipulation by a hidden oligarchy” – where a cabal uses “the figleaf of appeals to democratic licence to carry out their agenda.” In this case, “fiery rabble-rousing speeches … which target those very things – emotion and prejudice – so inimical to producing sound government” are used to manipulate the views of the public.

What Plato was saying as beautifully summarised by Grayling was that while democracy represents a claim by the majority to be the source of political authority, there is an ever-present danger that it can “collapse” into either ochlocracy (mob rule) or rule by a hidden oligarchy (rule by a cabal). Grayling refers to this as the dilemma of democracy : that in trying to promote rule by the people, there is a danger of creating a tyranny of the majority. Much thought has been invested over the years, into resolving this dilemma so that, again to use Grayling’s words, “democracy might be made possible by means of institutions and practices that would honour the right of the many to be source of political and governmental authority in their society, while securing that arrangement against the danger of ochlocracy or hidden oligarchy.” In other words, how can the rule of the majority be guaranteed while at the same time avoiding the risks associated with a tyranny of the majority? Even in Europe, where much has been done and written on this dilemma, Grayling concludes that this “remains a burning question”.

Grayling credits the work of the America’s Founding Fathers, such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison for crafting institutions that enabled the realisation of rule by the people while at the same time ensuring sound and stable government. This and the work of European philosophers such as Alexis De Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill laid the foundation for the formulation of democratic constitutions which recognised the idea of democratic consent while promoting sound government. It is by no means perfect, but it demonstrates attempts at resolving the dilemma of democracy. The outcome of these historic experiences was that while democracy was important, it was by no means sufficient on its own. To use Grayling’s words, “democracy is necessary, but [is] not by itself sufficient. More is needed, both in the way of further necessities, and of desiderata”.

For Grayling necessities include constitutional checks and balances which limit the power of government, and remedial measures where there are breaches of those limits. Desiderata include “an informed and reflective electorate, a responsible media as a vehicle for distributing that information and providing a platform for debate and analysis”. There must therefore be a constitution that provides for clear checks and balances. In addition, society must have an informed electorate, supported by an independent media which informs and allows for debate and scrutiny of the leadership. Above all, the political environment must be tolerant of alternative and dissenting voices.

Tyranny of the majority

I have made extensive reference to Grayling’s account of the dilemma of democracy and efforts to resolve it because it provides important lessons in light of Zimbabwe’s current situation. As we have noted, the ascension of President Mnangagwa to the presidency on the back of a military intervention was widely and popularly backed by a majority of the population. The parliamentary process of impeachment that prompted Mr Mugabe to resign was popularly backed by both the ruling party and the opposition. The historic march on 18 November 2017 which called for his resignation was also a show of popular sentiment against Mugabe and his allies. Therefore, while it was a military intervention that caused a change of government, it was also in many ways a show of popular support by the public and their parliamentary representatives. The response and reaction of the new administration supporters is consistent with a cult of majoritarinism, which raises the risks of a tyranny of the majority is the leadership does not sufficiently attend to it.

One of the casualties of this popular and diverse movement against Mugabe and in support of the new militarised establishment is the voice of political minorities or generally, politically divergent views. Any cautionary views or critical thoughts have been swiftly snuffed out and dismissed as negativity. In some cases, the opposition has been classified as ether retrogressive or negative for challenging the new administration or as irrelevant in the new scheme of things. The popular movement in support of the new administration is driven by high hopes and expectations so that anything different is viewed as negative and derailing progress. The popular chant is that this is a “New Era” for Zimbabwe and that bygones must be bygones. There is virtually no tolerance for different views. The majority has adopted a “hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil” posture. There is a mob which is violently defensive of the new administration and keen to thwart any different views. In short, we run the risk of collapsing into mob rule – driven by emotion and prejudice, where rational thought is considered an expensive luxury. This does not bode well for the country. We must remain tolerant of diversity and difference. This is why this article cautions against a collapse into a tyranny of the mob.

Government’s responsibility

The responsibility for ensuring that the popular movement does not collapse into mob rule lies squarely with the new administration. The military are the drivers of the process that brought the new government into power. Their intervention was so popular that they became heroes overnight, their past transgressions forgotten, if not entirely forgiven. One would have thought the military would withdraw once the new government was in place. However, it has remained in situ, with the consent of government as part of the so-called Operation Restore Legacy. Presenting the 2018 National Budget Statement, the Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa stated that Operation Restore Legacy was being extended to Beitbridge Border Post, the country’s busiest port of entry in order to restore order. It raises questions as to when, if at all, Operation Restore Legacy will stop. It could be that Operation Restore Legacy will be an on-going operation, which will stay possibly until, if not beyond, the 2018 elections. Already however, there have been instances of violence by rogue members of the military. This conduct is an ominous sign which demonstrates the dangers of having a popular coercive machinery of the state in operation.

History has several examples of dangers that come from the cult of majoritarianism, which can easily descend into a tyranny of the majority. There are instances where the majority has turned into villains, but they have gotten away with it because they command popular support. We don’t have to go far as our own experience in the 1980s is a grim enough reminder of the perils suffered by the minorities when the majority is caught up in the euphoria of victory and buries its head in the sand in the name of hope and positivity. There are people who now say they did not know what was happening during Gukurahundi in the 1980s. But they probably did not care enough to understand what was really going on against their fellow citizens. They were part of the majority and bought the line that this was a campaign against the menace of dissidents.

The trouble is that when the majority is in control, dissenting voices are muted or ignored. Indeed, even students at the University of Zimbabwe in the 1980s marched in support of government actions in Matabeleland and the Midlands, with some even declaring their availability take arms to fight the so-called dissidents. No effort was made to question whether or not the response to the problem of dissidents was disproportionate. Western countries and the media were aware of what was happening but they also found it inconvenient and with a few exceptions, simply swept it under the carpet. This was a big mistake which everyone concerned must be careful not to repeat. It was only much later that people woke up to the reality of the atrocities that had been committed against the political minorities.

However, what happened during Gukurahundi is typical of what happens when the cult of majoritarianism reigns supreme. Majorities are harsh on minorities. They shut down dissenting voices which are classified as unpatriotic. Reason is suspended and emotion reigns supreme. All this is a reminder as to why it’s important to avoid the cult of majoritarianism in the wake of the popular rise of the new administration.

Preventing a tyranny of the majority

The Constitution has in-built mechanisms that are designed to prevent a tyranny of the majority. These include a set of fundamental rights and freedoms enshrined in the Declaration of Rights such as freedom of expression and media, freedom of assembly and association, freedom to demonstrate and to present petitions, protection from unfair discrimination and the recognition of the diversity of languages and cultures. There are however laws, such as the Public Order and Security Act and the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, which undermine some of these freedoms and are in dire need of reform. Laws such as the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act under which people have been arrested and detained for allegedly insulting or undermining the president during the Mugabe era are also retrogressive interferences in these freedoms and rights. They must be repealed.

The Constitution itself is an important safeguard against arbitrary actions of the majority since all conduct must comply with its terms. Thus, for example, the Declaration of Rights cannot be amended unless the change is designed to improve existing rights. The courts are supposed to provide an important safeguard for minorities, since they can challenge acts of the majority which affect their rights. The facility of judicial review of the acts of public authorities or private actors that perform public functions is important in this regard. This is why judicial independence is fundamental as these rights can only make sense if there are independent and impartial judges and magistrates.

Is the opposition finished?

A moribund opposition?

A view has been peddled in recent weeks that somehow, after the fall of Mugabe, the opposition has lost its purpose and has somewhat become irrelevant. This argument has gained currency in the wake of the first national budget of the Mnangagwa era, which contained a lot of the language that is normally associated with the opposition. Indeed, as I have written on this blog, the national budget seems to have come straight from the opposition manual. Others also argue that the opposition must work with the ruling party and not oppose it. They must work in the “national interest” and not merely in pursuit of power, it has been suggested. Does this mean the opposition has lost its purpose? Has the opposition become moribund? This in some ways, represents an “end of history” type of argument, which seems to suggest that the struggle for democracy and sound government came to an end after the fall of Mugabe; that the new establishment has all the answers and must not be disturbed the opposition in its mission to provide for a better Zimbabwe.

This line of reasoning is not only myopic but it is also inimical to the idea of democracy and sound government. Unless the call is for Zimbabwe to adopt a one-party state, the opposition is still a critical component of our nascent democracy. The idea of a one-party state, which this line of reasoning seems to promote, was fought bitterly and valiantly at both intellectual and political levels in the late 1980s. It was defeated and should never be entertained by any right-thinking Zimbabwean. Our constitution recognises the principle that Zimbabwe is “a multi-party democratic political system” which is also a firm rejection of the idea of a one-party system. Apart from the constitutional argument against a one-party state mentality, there are other good reasons why opposition parties remain relevant in today’s Zimbabwe.

First, the raison d’etre of every opposition party is to take power because it believes it has better ideas than the incumbent. That is why opposition parties exist. The fact that the current government has adopted the language of the opposition does not mean the opposition has become moribund. If anything, the opposition must celebrate that what they have campaigned for has been adopted but they must now monitor implementation of those ideas. They still have a chance if they can demonstrate that the ruling party is failing to implement the good ideas they took from their manual.

Second, the opposition is part of the checks and balances that are necessary to produce sound government in a democracy. With an active shadow government, the opposition can shadow ministers and hold them to account every step of the way. It is a shame that the shadow government has been weak and invisible. By now, the official opposition should have reshuffled its shadow government to reflect that there is a new government which needs new responses. By holding the government to account, the opposition parties are an important player in improving sound government.

Third, the opposition gives a voice to political minorities who are not represented in government. Opposition parties represent the diversity of views on the political landscape. They must be allowed to speak out, rather than be silenced.

Finally, the government can learn from the opposition. The ruling party will raise its performance when it knows that there is an opponent that can take power come the next election if they do not perform. The recent national budget is a good example of how a ruling party can take lessons from the opposition, adopting their ideas and using them for development.

Renewal in the opposition

The opposition is not finished at all. It still has an important purpose. That purpose will always be valid as long as there is politics. The alternative is one-partyism which is a far more dangerous proposition. The main challenge at the moment is that the opposition does not seem to be responding to the concerns of citizens. In recent months, ZANU PF has undergone a process of renewal. Indeed, for many people, after the departure of Mugabe, there is a sense that this is a new ZANU PF, or at least they want to believe that it is new. The national budget appeared like a statement from a former opposition party that is now in power. The opposition on the other hand, despite preaching change over the years, is now the one that seems to be stuck in a time-warp, unwilling and unable to change. The opposition’s biggest challenge is not that the new ZANU PF government has adopted its language and ideas but that its major opponent seems to have embraced change in leadership whereas it has not and it is still struggling with that idea. It is a question that is increasingly become important and harder to ignore as Zimbabwe prepares for the next elections in 2018. The opposition will be judged according to the standards set by ZANU PF. ZANU PF has appeared to have undergone some changes, while the opposition has not and this will be hard to explain to the electorate.


Even as the new Mnangagwa administration enjoys popularity and goodwill, it is important to avoid the cult of majoritarianism because this could very easily descend into a tyranny of the majority. Zimbabwe has good reasons to fear a tyranny of the majority. We have a dark parts of our history where the majority has paid scant regard to the rights and interests of minorities and the effects have been devastating. Political minorities tend to suffer gravely under the tyranny of the majority. Yet dissenting voices are an important and vital part of a democratic system. It is never too early to hold leaders to account. Accountability is both horizontal and vertical. It is horizontal in that formal institutions such as the judiciary and parliament provide checks and balances on government. It is also vertical in that civil society, the media and lately social media also hold the government to account. When people question their government it is not because they are being negative or motivated by ill-will. It is because it is the duty of every person to hold their government to account. It is important to tolerate the diversity of views.

While the Mnangagwa administration has shown positive signs in these early stages, the opposition is by no means moribund. It is too premature to pronounce its demise. Nevertheless, the game has changed radically and the opposition cannot act in the business as usual mode. The new administration presents a new challenge to which the opposition must respond in an innovative and radical fashion. Part of it is to embrace the idea of change which it has been preaching for the past 20 years, appreciating that it faces an uphill task unless it embraces renewal in the manner that ZANU PF has done. For its part, the new government announced a “New Economic Order” as the title for its approach to the management of the economy. It may also wish to consider coining a “New Political Order” in relation to political management, and in which tolerance is a core part of that approach.