Theory in Action

By: Serina Woo

There shall be no justification for what the government of Zimbabwe has done to its citizens. Led by republican President Emmerson Mnangagwa, the government has once again failed the people of Zimbabwe. In Mnangagwa’s election speech in 2017, he promised to improve the quality of the government and reach across political ethnic and racial lines to strengthen Zimbabwe’s democracy (Zimbabwe: An Opportunity for Reform?). Filled with hope, Zimbabweans anticipated a political evolution. Yet, after Zimbabwe’s military brought an end to 37 years of rule by former president Robert Mugabe’s authoritarian regime, it’s continual presence as a key political player complicated Mnangagwa’s task of reinstituting effective governance (Zimbabwe’s “Military-assisted Transition” and Prospects for Recovery). On August 7, 2020, Zimbabwean police transferred prominent journalist, Hopewell Chin’ono, and opposition leader, Jacob Ngarivhume, to the infamous Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison (Chigumadzi, 1). Both were arrested and accused of inciting police violence, while in reality, the government played a prominent role in unreasonably enforcing violence amongst the protesters (Chigumadzi, 1). The treatment they received was terrible, being put in leg iron casts, and denied of bail, private visits with lawyers and family, food and adequate covid-19 precautions (Chigumadzi, 1). However, this is only one of the many issues that encapsulate the political persecution and public repression of Zimbabwe’s military state, marking the beginning of social unrest among Zimbabweans. In response to the thousands of protesters who marched on the streets, the government ordered a vicious attack – deploying soldiers as well as police force (Piguo, 1). To say the least, groups of protestors have also engaged in intimidation, vandalism, and looting. Though some of it was undeniably orchestrated, most appeared to be spontaneous (Chigumadzi, 1). By referencing the political ideology of the philosopher and economist, John Stuart Mill, it justifies the protests and serves as a framework for the defective government’s reconstruction. On the contrary, philosopher Edmond Burke’s political ideology fails to draw on the issue at hand, undermining the significance of innovation within a political context and favouring President Mnangagwa’s absurd policies and decisions.

John Stuart Mill was a liberal during the nineteenth-century, and in the modernized society, his ideology and written work continue to resonate with politicians. He is often brought up during discussions of social justice and income inequality, and his theories criticized privilege, oppression, and injustice. Mill’s theory of three liberties: the absolute freedom of opinion of sentiment, liberty to pursue one’s own tastes and pursuits, and liberty of combination among individuals, justify the protester’s motives of protesting. In his first liberty, he understood that silencing the expression of an opinion as peculiarly evil, “robbing the human race.” His theory supports the protesters’ purpose for attacking the government’s decision to subjugate opposing voices through violence. Further, this theory also validates the protesters’ resentment towards the government’s resolution to block internet services, suspending the flow of information and bringing about the prevalent confusion (Piguo, 3). Hence, giving the protesters justified reasons to protest for their concerns about the absence of freedom. Nonetheless, in Mill’s second liberty, he truly believed in “the liberty to pursue one’s own taste and pursuits,” where people should be allowed to live their lives exactly how they see fit, as long as this does not harm others in their society. Though modern-day politicians might refute Mill’s theory for it offers society a disproportionate amount of independence and freedom, but his individualistic values support the citizens’ protests for their futuristic expectations. However, only if we exclude the casualties from the physical encounters between the police force and protesters that created disunity within Zimbabwe. Mill’s liberal individualistic conception is also seen in his third liberty which underlines an individual’s freedom of choice to form groups of human rights activists, as long as this does not harm others in their society. If individuals of Zimbabwe wish to form an opposing stance to the government in the hope of advocating the respect for fundamental human rights, they should be entitled to do so. These ideas from Mill’s political philosophy strengthen the motives of protest and directly contradict Zimbabwe’s traditionalism, and unless convictions turn against this mindset, the demand for continuing traditions will only increase.

In addition, Mill valued individualism, his theory could be used to remodel and embellish the dictatorial government as a whole. Mill’s Harm Principle embodies the notion that “the sole end for which mankind is warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” This could prompt the government to limit its unreasonable use of assault towards opposing groups and politicians as it is unreasonable to exercise power over protesters, except a minority of protesters who participated in lootings. Though the government’s order of violence on its citizens could be appropriated as an act of “self-protection” for state owned properties and police officers, it is evident that the government has a distorted idea of restricting opposing voices to retain its power. Accordingly, the government should reevaluate its attitude towards individual rights and achieving social utility based on Mill’s values, striking a balance between individual autonomy and government interference to limit freedoms in the interest of preventing harm to others. Individual protesters should have the freedom to defend their rights subsequent to the unlawful arrests and restraint of freedom made by the police and military, rejecting the government’s long term abuse of power. In order to achieve a balance, the government should cease its human rights violations, such as the invasion of privacy, obstruction of movement and limitation of access to information by peacefully reaching a consensus with the protesters and acknowledging their stance. Effectively, the government should utilize Mill’s Harm Principle to amend its structure, and manage opposing groups democratically.

On the other end of the political spectrum, the philosophy of Edmond Burke, the founder of conservatism would support the Zimbabwean government in defending contemporary arrangements against both idealistic desires and innovative schemes of reform though it is shown to be over-optimistic and out of date. Given that Burke’s ideology outlines the tradition and custom of the social contract, he does not consider innovative reforms suggested by citizens as necessary to the success of a country. He regards innovation as the result of a selfish temper and confined views, reinforcing the government’s desire to deny democratic changes from an authoritarian state. This theory also highlights the characteristics of conservatism seen in our contemporary society. Along with the rejection of innovation shown by the Zimbabwean government, Burke’s theory rejects the idea of changes in the government because he believed, “the entire progression of the commonwealth would be demolished.” Despite that, the government of Zimbabwe failed to take into account that the dismissal of these proposed changes violates democratic principles in our modern society, which are different from Burke’s conservative theory. The government’s disbelief in new changes to prevent the loss of power, similar to Burke’s theory, led to Zimbabwe’s failure in achieving democracy. Burke implied that the present generation does not have the right to ask for a change in politics because it would risk the country becoming a disaster: “It [is not] among [this generation’s] rights to cut off the entail or commit waste on the inheritance by destroying at their pleasure the whole original fabric of their society, hazarding to leave to those who came after them a ruin instead of a habitation.” This further empowers the Zimbabwean government in casually making decisions to benefit itself, and continues to justify public repression and freedom violations. Despite he urged people to understand the significance in teaching these successors as little to respect their contrivances as they had themselves respected the institutions of their forefathers, the consequences of his conservative thinking contradicts his belief.

Contrary to Mill’s theories, Burke’s perception of a government body implies the idea that citizens cannot depose an oppressive government due to the risk of a disaster. Despite that, the Zimbabwean government’s introduction of fiscal and economic reforms led to the hyperinflation of goods and services (Piguo, 10). As well, the values of ordinary citizens’ income and savings have been cut by more than half, further impoverishing an already struggling population (Piguo, 10). This counters Burke’s theory, indicating that an oppressive government is the cause of disaster, not the opposing opinions of citizens. Further, Burke believed that social achievements should be built up over time and suggested governments to find a compromise between what everyone wants and what’s beneficial to society from a historic point of view. However, as society develops, fixating on historic views in modern-day democracy brings on contradiction. After the ousting of Zimbabwe’s former authoritarian government, it marked a change, defying historical political values, and submitting to presentist democratic values. Yet the government’s response to violence towards the protests shows the embedded military influence in decision making, reflecting the fear of losing power. Similar to the government’s worries, Burke believes a change in government operation might trigger the fall of a government. He believed that the experience and obstacles a government had endured in its past should be recognized and preserved, hence rejecting the disposition of a government. Further, there was not an adequate structure that he approved of to act as a guide for changes during his time. Lastly, he viewed the state of government as a living organism, underlining the complexity of a society. Therefore, no one should be able to redirect the power as it might lead to a disaster. Although he recognized that a change in the law is necessary, he thought reforms should be made from a historical perspective. However, this would lower the efficiency of his reform in the ever changing society. Similar to the situation of Zimbabwe, laws aren’t likely to change as it is proven over time that the current system gives the government power over the citizens. Hence, it is seen in both Burke’s theory and the Zimbabwean government’s actions that they both value having power more than beneficial and efficient changes to the community.

Zimbabwe is in desperate need of reform if the government’s aim is to maintain stability and transition into a democratic country. John Stuart Mill’s liberal theories embody both sociality and freedom, guaranteeing freedom to individuals from different ideological groups. His theories underline Zimbabweans’ right to fulfill their interests through the uninterrupted expression of opinions. Supporting Zimbabweans’ humanitarian concerns and holding the faulty government accountable, the Zimbabwean government should take into account Mill’s theories and carry out changes to become a democratic state. On the contrary, Burke’s theories challenge the effectiveness of innovation based upon his old-fashioned thinking and support the Zimbabwean government to a certain extent where both Burke and the government value power over change. His theories are relatively controversial considering many aspects support the authoritarian government’s decisions. Critics believe that the Zimbabwean government is likely to be able to “put a lid” on the unrest and take activists off the streets, emphasizing the need for a reform of the government (Piguo, 22). As time goes by, though both philosopher’s ideologies were beneficial to future generations, being part of the foundation of the establishment of parties and the role of the member of Parliament, we should not be restricted by the views of historical philosophers as their ideas might not be up to date. Politicians should incorporate citizen’s current needs and desires, taking into consideration its effects on the future while making political decisions to form a harmonious society. 

Works Cited

JS Mill, On Liberty, 1859.

Mutsaka | AP, Farai. “Scores of Zimbabwe Protesters Arrested, Military in Streets.” Washington

Post, WP Company, 31 July 2020, www.washingtonpost.com/world/africa/empty-streets-in-zimbabwe-as-security-forces-thwart-protest/2020/07/31/cda13416-d309-11ea-826b-cc394d824e35_story.html.

“Opinion | In Zimbabwe, Two Political Prisoners Are a Symbol of a Repressive State.” Chigumadzi, Panashe. 

The Washington Post, WP Company, 17 Aug. 2020, www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/08/18/zimbabwe-two-political-prisoners-are-symbol-repressive-state/.

Piguo, Piers. “Revolt and Repression in Zimbabwe.” Crisis Group, 31 Jan. 2019,

www.crisisgroup.org/africa/southern-africa/zimbabwe/revolt-and-repression-zimbabwe.

“Zimbabwe’s ‘Military-Assisted Transition’ and Prospects for Recovery.” Crisis Group, 20 Dec. 2017,

www.crisisgroup.org/africa/southern-africa/zimbabwe/b134-zimbabwes-military-assisted-transition-and-prospects-recovery.

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