BSR: Gaslighting, Moral Hazard and Change Management


Gaslighting in politics

You have been in a situation where someone has abused you but later, as you argue your case, they tell you that it never happened. You lose confidence and start asking yourself questions: Did it really happen? Is it all in your imagination? You know that it happened, but at that point, you begin to question this reality. This is because by denying its existence, the author of your abuse has introduced a new reality in which it never happened. Your world is turned upside down and you even doubt your sanity.

This is called gaslighting and it’s a form of continuing abuse. The perpetrator has not only caused the primary wound, but by denying its existence, they are adding salt to it. Therefore, in addition to the physical abuse, they inflict emotional abuse. A lot of gaslighting goes on in authoritarian regimes, where perpetrators of abuse deny its existence. An authoritarian regime might commit political violence, but when confronted it denies the existence of such violence.

Blame apportionment

Gaslighting comes in various forms, apart from denialism. A favoured strategy of gaslighters is blame-apportionment. The perpetrator shifts the blame from himself to the victim. The victim is made to feel that they are responsible for their bad situation. They might be told that the bad situation would not have happened if they had not done something. In this way, blame-shifting is designed to justify or excuse the actions of the perpetrator.

Imagine a situation where a group of men harasses a woman for wearing a mini skirt. The usual refrain is that it would not have happened if she hadn’t been wearing a mini skirt. The victim is blamed for her sexual harassment. People look for a reason to blame the victim instead of holding the perpetrators to account. A political example is where a group of opposition members is arrested while they are at a political gathering. Gaslighters will say they should not have been holding the rally in the first place.

Remember when Joanna Mamombe, Cecilia Chimbiri, and Netsai Marova suffered abuse at the hands of their abductors? The regime went all out to find fault with them. They are not the only ones who have suffered this type of abuse. But as the example of uncouth men harassing a woman for her choice of dress shows, gaslighting is not restricted to authoritarian dictators. Ordinary people, some of them purporting to be defenders of democracy and human rights all too easily use gaslighting. The moment to start finding fault in the victim of abuse, you are running a very serious risk of gaslighting.  

Gaslighting by false equivalence

Another common gaslighting strategy that is of great interest politically is the use of false equivalence and over-generalization. False equivalence is a logical fallacy whereby two unrelated situations are given equal footing. In the case of repression and abuse, the object of false equivalence is to say that the perpetrator and the victim are just the same. This is usually deployed against the opposition whereby although it is the victim of repression, it is flippantly equated to the ruling party.

“Vakangofanana” is the usual throwaway remark. The main purveyors of false equivalence are the so-called neutrals who purport to see no difference between the ruling party and the opposition. This is not to say that the opposition parties do no wrong. What purveyors of false equivalence overlook is the difference between systematic abuse by the ruling party and sporadic or isolated incidents that might be committed by some members of the opposition party. The isolated incident is over-generalized and presented as evidence that the other side is just the same.

A good example of false equivalence is how Gukurahundi denialists like to equate what the Fifth Brigade did to the actions of dissidents. They say the government was responding to the threat of dissidents and that the local people were harbouring or supporting the dissidents. This is also an example of blame apportionment. The fact that the government used excessive force and systematically killed civilians is ignored. These narratives of false equivalence are designed to justify the government’s genocidal acts.

False equivalence favours the incumbent

Politically, false equivalence creates an impression that there is no viable alternative, a situation that tends to favour ruling parties. This is because false equivalence suggests that the opposition is just as bad as the ruling party. In such a situation, people are more likely to go with the devil they know because they are already accustomed to it. That’s why narratives of false equivalence are to be watched carefully. They are not just spread by perpetrators. Instead, they are carefully planted and spread by individuals, including journalists, often wearing the hat of “neutrality”. They are deceptive because they convey a sense of logic, but ultimately, they are logical fallacies that are often based on over-generalizations.

The silencing effect of false equivalence

False equivalence also silences the victims of abuse. When someone says the victims are just the same as the perpetrators, the victims lose the legitimacy to challenge their abuse. How do they raise questions when they are accused of behaving like their perpetrators? For example, when victims of abuse question the inclusion into their party of an individual who has abused them in the past, they might find themselves at the receiving end of the accusation of “behaving just like ZANU PF gatekeepers”. In short, they are no different from ZANU PF supporters, the tormentors they are opposing.

This is a terrible form of gaslighting which makes the victims feel like they, not their abuser, are the problem. It turns the abusive individual into the victim and the abused into the perpetrators of abuse. Therefore, the reality of the CCC supporters who witnessed their old party being decimated by a few individuals is turned upside down when they are told that they are behaving like ZANU PF supporters for merely questioning the inclusion of those individuals like Dr Thokozani Khupe into the party. It’s continuing emotional abuse because straight from being emotionally harassed by the decimation of their party, they are still harangued and accused of being ZANU PF – making them worse than their abuser.

Gaslighting by the invalidation of feelings

The third form of gaslighting is when a perpetrator of abuse seeks to invalidate the victim’s thoughts and feelings. When the victim complains of abuse, the perpetrator says they are being unnecessarily sensitive and emotional. They will say the victim is creating a mountain out of a molehill. In the political context, statements such as “hapana zvaaitwa” (he/she has not suffered any harm) are not uncommon.

They might even cast aspersions on your sanity when they accuse you of not being rational but bending too much to emotions. “Don’t be emotional, use your head”, they might say, suggesting that you are weak for questioning certain decisions that you find disagreeable. They might even label you as foolish or crazy for holding a different opinion. You become the problem, not your abuser that you are questioning.

The same happens when victims of political violence go to the police and their reports are dismissed or perpetrators are let go without charge. These invalidations and dismissals make the victim doubt their sanity. They are made to believe that there is nothing wrong and the result is that the abnormal becomes normalized. When they question the inclusion of former abusers in their party, opposition members are told they are being “too emotional”. This form of gaslighting has been used against CCC supporters who are questioning the apparent attempts to bring back Khupe into the mainstream party.

Moral Hazard of political rescues

During the global financial crisis in 2008, several financial institutions were facing existential threats. A few like the investment bank Lehman Brothers went bankrupt and collapsed. However, several were rescued by governments. Governments pumped in taxpayers’ money to save banks like the Royal Bank of Scotland, Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, and insurance giant AIG. Supporters of these bailouts said they were necessary to save the economy. Critics argued that these bailouts were problematic because they rewarded and by implication encouraged reckless and selfish behaviour in financial institutions.

The argument by critics is based on the notion of moral hazard. Moral hazard describes a situation where a person engages in risky conduct knowing very well that they do not have to live with the consequences of the risk which are carried by other persons. In the case of bankers, they can take as many risks as they want knowing that if their institutions face collapse, they don’t have to carry the consequences but instead, they will be rescued by taxpayers. This is a bad situation because it does not stop them from taking on more unhealthy risks in the future. The moral hazard is that it encourages bad behaviour.

Let’s bring this economics concept closer to everyday life. If you continuously protect your kid who is being a nuisance at school, chances are that he will continue with their behaviour knowing that mum and dad will come to the rescue. Why would he stop when he doesn’t have to carry the consequences of his bad conduct because you are shielding him? Things will only get worse if his younger siblings observe how you are protecting him. They will do the same believing that mum and dad will also save them. This is a recipe for disaster in later life as such ingrained habits die hard. Since they have never had to carry the consequences of their actions, they are likely to grow into anti-social and problematic individuals.

We can see how the problem of moral hazard applies to political life. If you have a politician who behaves badly but you welcome them when they fall on hard times, you are creating a moral hazard. They will do it again in the future because they know they don’t have to live with the consequences of their bad behaviour. Even if they don’t, other politicians will be encouraged that they can behave badly and still return to the fold whenever they want. Some might think it’s about pragmatism. But really, it just encourages bad behaviour and instability in the organization.

Consider the situation of Dr Thokozani Khupe. She and Mwonzora are the reason why the country is holding costly by-elections after they went on a firing spree, recalling legitimately elected MPs and councillors. They were motivated by vengeance. In carrying out their actions, they were aided by the ZANU PF regime and in turn, they were enablers of authoritarian repression. They added the accelerants to the fire that consumed the MDC Alliance.

Khupe happily took up an undeserved seat in parliament that was created by the recall of a properly elected MP. She pronounced herself Leader of the Opposition in parliament and happily received public funds that were won by the MDC Alliance at the 2018 general elections. She was right at the centre of the subversion of the people’s will and enablement of the regime. She knew exactly what she was doing and would have happily continued had she played her cards right and retained power in the party.

Unfortunately for her, she did not because she had made a pact with the devil. When the devil demanded payback, she had nowhere to hide, and she found herself politically homeless. The same axe that she used to enter parliament was used by Mwonzora to remove her. If she is returning it is not because of a newfound love for the CCC but a desire to exact vengeance on Mwonzora. But more importantly, if she can stroll back after all the damage, she wilfully caused over the past 2 years there is a serious risk of creating a moral hazard that will cause problems for the organization. There is no guarantee that she will not do it again. More significantly, others will say if she can be allowed to get away with it, why wouldn’t they be allowed if they also behaved in similar ways?

While it is impossible to eliminate moral hazard there are ways to limit it. In economic terms, one way to minimize moral hazard is to add a cost to any rescue effort. Therefore, any lending to a bank that is facing collapse will be at punitive rates. This will mean that the bank that’s being rescued must carry some of the cost of the bailout. Similar punitive conditions can be applied in political terms. Therefore, when a member who has deviated in the past seeks to return, he or she can be permitted but on condition that they return as an ordinary card-carrying member with no direct claim to any leadership role. A party can have a rehabilitation clause whereby the returning member shall not occupy a leadership role until the expiry for a certain period, for example, 3 or 5 years.

Khupe wasted an opportunity to return to the mainstream party when she had leverage. She had leverage when she was the de jure leader of the MDC-T following the controversial Supreme Court judgment. She had control of the party, the headquarters, public funds, and the power to recall MPs and councillors. She had everything that Chamisa and his allies at the MDC Alliance wanted and she could have traded it for a key place in the mainstream party.

Unfortunately for her, she lost her mind when she was at the height of her temporary powers. She did not appreciate the transient nature of the power that she had at the time. It’s a sign of poor political judgment that she is now seeking to return in her moment of weakness when she has been used and discarded by Mwonzora. She has very little, if anything, to offer compared to her situation 2 years ago.

It is very difficult to trust a person who only seeks accommodation when they are in a position of vulnerability and yet behaved with sheer arrogance and abused power when they were in a position of advantage. Whatever her political merits there might be, it will take a huge leap of faith for the CCC leadership to accommodate Khupe in any leadership role. But they risk offending their multitudes of supporters who have suffered emotional abuse and pain over the past couple of years.

Any elite pacts will be contrary to the purported ethos of placing the citizen at the centre of decision-making. Besides, they should not take supporters for granted. If they are going to take any steps that are likely to cause controversy, they must communicate effectively. It’s the least that supporters who have endured a painful couple of years deserve.

No to political ransom

There are many lessons that the CCC must draw from its experience in its former life over the past 4 years. One of them must be that if you suspect that there is dissent in some quarters and potential for a rebellion, you had better believe it and deal with it decisively before it gets out of hand. Several people in the ordinary ranks saw that Douglas Mwonzora and Elias Mudzuri were behaving suspiciously and when they raised their concerns, they were not taken seriously. Many times, they were told to avoid destabilizing the party. I know this because some of these concerns were raised with me but as an elite, I succumbed to the temptation of wanting to see the best in fellow elites. This was a mistake. We allowed proximity and past relationships to cloud our judgment. We did not see what everyone else was seeing.

But as events unfolded, it became apparent that the suspicious ones were right after all. With the benefit of hindsight, the tell-tale signs of dissent became clearer to many others. The problem is that people don’t like to admit that there are problems around them. They don’t like to believe that their allies can betray them. So, they take the ostrich approach and bury their heads in the sand, pretending that nothing untoward is happening and hoping that if there is a problem it will somehow go away.

But problems rarely go away just because they are unacknowledged. In fact, like an untreated wound, they can become gangrenous, causing worse problems in the future. This is precisely what happened when Mwonzora and other disgruntled cadres remained in the party even as they were plotting their way to take over. They were able to use their positions to fight from within, leading to the ultimate destruction of the organization.

I fear the CCC may be sitting on a similar problem and if it is not dealt with decisively in these early stages, it will cause serious problems for the organization going into 2023. There should be no sacred cows in the party demanding or deserving of special treatment. There can be no room for small movements within a movement. Once that happens, it leads to the Balkanisation of the party, creating small fiefdoms presided over by godfathers and godmothers. This creates fault lines along which divisive factions are built. Such factions consume political parties.

If people want an organizational model in which power is shared in certain ways between the centre and the provinces, they have a perfect opportunity to put forward their proposals as the party builds its new constitution. That way everything is done by the book, following agreed rules that apply equally across the party. If there is no agreement, it is better to separate as allies than to remain together and become enemies. Pretending that all is well and everyone is together when the reality is otherwise is a recipe for disaster. Whatever happens, the party leadership should not place itself in a position where it is held at political ransom. No one in the leadership is indispensable, because ultimately it is the citizens who decide.

Experience has shown that most leaders project themselves to be bigger than they are. Past elections have demonstrated that many overestimate their political stature, both nationally and regionally. As Lord Varys says in Game of Thrones, “Power resides where men believe it resides. It’s a trick, a shadow on the wall and a very small man can cast a very large shadow”. The shadow is deceptive. The people have enough wisdom enough to choose their leaders and they understand that no local challenge can be resolved without confronting the national challenge.

Change management

The single biggest challenge that Nelson Chamisa faces as leader of the opposition apart from fighting the entrenched ZANU PF regime is change management as the organization transits from the old MDC Alliance to the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC). This is no ordinary change and needs delicate handling. There is not enough space to deal with all of it in this BSR but a few points ought to be made considering the urgency of the challenge.

Change management refers to the processes that guide organizational change from the beginning to the end. In simple terms, it’s about how you manage the process of change. It starts from the conception of the very idea of change to the preparations for change and its implementation and conclusion. This might seem simple, but change is a complex process that requires careful management otherwise a very good idea might go pear-shaped.

A basic rule is that everybody or at least most people in the organization must be on board with the idea of change. They must understand why there is a need for the change. Everyone must be mentally and emotionally prepared for the change. If they appreciate the legitimacy of the change, they are more likely to support rather than resist it. It is fair to say that most if not all members of the CCC understood the need for the change from the MDC Alliance. If anything, many of them were demanding change and were frustrated that the leaders were taking too long to decide. The situation was no longer tenable.   

Second, there must be an appreciation by everyone of what it takes to implement change. Change by its nature is disruptive. It takes people out of their comfort zones. It threatens positions but it also opens new opportunities. Some might see opportunities to outmanoeuvre rivals, while others see avenues of new alliances. The discomfort and insecurities that come with change can lead to resistance or efforts to hedge positions as everyone tries to protect their turf. I am not sure there was enough investment in this regard. People wanted to change but they might not have been properly prepared for what it would take.

Third, there must be a vision and roadmap for change. Everyone must know what’s going to happen and when. Any impact on current roles must be clear from the onset so that everyone is on board and does not feel insecure or threatened. A roadmap is a plan of how the change will be implemented and managed. This is a key issue because it helps everyone to move at the same wavelength. Even if they disagree, at least they know what’s going to happen and when. There should be no surprises or vagueness because this will only increase insecurities and disruptive behaviour. Some of the manoeuvres being witnessed may be motivated by insecurities.

Finally, there must be clear rules that will guide the change process. These rules must be known to all. They may be interim rules, pending the finalization of the final set of rules usually in the constitution. It is these rules that guide processes such as candidate selection, engagement with stakeholders, internal meetings, etc. Without a set of rules, it becomes a free for all. When there is a vacuum, something will move in to fill it and without guidance, there will be chaos and confusion. It is hard to say that someone has breached rules when there is a vacuum of rules.

I shall expand this discussion regarding change management in a future BSR but suffice to say it is one of the most urgent tasks for the CCC as it navigates the choppy waters of change. There is a huge amount of support out there, but none of this is enough to make up for the gaps in change management which need expertise and counsel. There are many experts out there on change management who can volunteer their expertise to assist the fledgling baby as it takes its initial steps.