Two weeks ago, I attended the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival. One of the highlights of my time there was the chance to see “Democrats”, a new documentary by Danish filmmaker Camilla Nielsson on the making of Zimbabwe’s new constitution.

Nielsson spent more than three years in Zimbabwe following the two men who led the constitution drafting negotiations on behalf of the two main political parties in the country – the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU–PF) and the larger faction of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T).

The story is a fairly straightforward one, starting with a recap of the 2008 Zimbabwean presidential election, in which opposition politician and MDC leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, led the first round of voting. But because neither he nor incumbent President Robert Mugabe could claim an absolute majority, a run-off was due. In the approach to that run-off the opposition MDC-T pulled out, alleging violence and intimidation against it; leaving the ZANU-PF to win by a landslide.

Following negotiations led by South Africa, the MDC-T was convinced to enter into a government of national unity, with Mugabe as President and Morgan Tsvangirai as Prime Minister. As part of the conditions it laid out for accepting to participate in the power sharing arrangement, the MDC insisted on a new Constitution for Zimbabwe.

A “Constitution Select Committee” – officially known as the Constitutional Parliamentary Committee–was set up to create the new constitution. It was led by two men, representing the two parties: Douglas Mwonzora for the MDC-T, and Paul Mangwana for the ZANU-PF. Both men were lawyers, and Members of Parliament; Mangwana had also been a four-time cabinet minister.

On the sidelines of the Copenhagen festival, I got a chance to meet and have dinner with the two Zimbabwean politicians. In terms of personality, they could not have been more different: Mangwana, rambunctious and mischievous; Mwonzora, soft-spoken and serious, given to calmly countering Mangwana’s continual teasing of the MDC-T. More than anything else, what struck me was the solidly evident friendship and respect between the two men, in spite of their political differences. And in spending time with them, I found a great opportunity to get acquainted with the nuances of Zimbabwean politics. It was interesting listening to the two Zimbabweans make strong cases for their political beliefs.

ZANU-PF’s Mangwana defended his party’s stance on land redistribution in Zimbabwe, arguing that in a country where the majority of the population is black, it is inconceivable to have most of the arable land in the hands of a white minority. It is not enough for black Zimbabweans to possess political control, he said, economic control is equally as important; and ZANU-PF is committed to upholding the dignity of black Zimbabweans.

Mangwana invoked the “neocolonial” card and accused the MDC-T of siding with white economic interests against the black people of Zimbabwe. And that seems to be the main grouse that the ZANU-PF has against the opposition – the belief that it is a party set up and funded by imperialist powers to represent its interests in Zimbabwe and thwart the economic independence agenda of the ruling party. He also repeatedly accused the MDC-T of supporting Western sanctions against Zimbabwe.

Mwonzora wasted little time countering Mangwana’s accusations. He told me: “There is a Nigerian proverb that if a hyena wants to devour its young ones, it starts by accusing them of smelling like goats. So, what the ZANU-PF is saying about us is not us. It is part of the name-and-condemn.” (This instantly reminded me of the great job the PDP is doing painting the APC as a party of Islamic extremists and Boko Haram sympathisers).

He also insisted that the MDC-T is not against the principle of ensuring that black Zimbabweans acquire. The party’s problem, he said, is with the “how” – the violent and thoughtless manner in which the redistribution was carried out, and the fact that the country merely substituted oppression by white people for oppression by blacks. His party, he explained, is built on “the realisation that a black government can be as oppressive as a white one” and “equitable distribution of Zimbabwean wealth.” (Indeed, by most accounts, the redistribution programme – in which blacks, egged on by Mugabe, forcibly dispossessed white landowners of their land – has been a fiasco, as the majority of the intended beneficiaries of the new land regime have not benefited).

The new Constitution was meant as an ambitious attempt to give greater power and confidence and dignity to ordinary Zimbabweans, long at the mercy of economic decline and political repression. The process of crafting it involved assembling citizens at venues across the country to speak their minds on the important issues. In a typical forum, a question would be thrown out to the audience (e.g. “Should the President appoint judges?”) and everyone present would be given a chance to air their opinion. On the face of it is seemed sufficiently grassroots-oriented and democratic.

But it wasn’t a hitch-free process. In the face of partisan tensions, violence broke out in places, at least one person was killed, and the process had to be cancelled and redone in some areas. Suspicion and recrimination hung thickly over the proceedings.

One of the biggest areas of contention was over the matter of term limits – a clause that said that a President would be entitled to a maximum of two terms of five years each. Under those terms, Mugabe would have been un-eligible for election upon completion of his term in 2013. Unsurprisingly, ZANU-PF would have none of that. Eventually, the ruling party had its way, and the clause was amended such that it would not apply to Mugabe, but only to those coming after him.

That explains the current situation, in which Mugabe appears set to hold office for life. After the five-year power sharing, the ZANU-PF convincingly won, with Mugabe as candidate, the 2013 presidential election. And Tsvangirai and his party are again firmly back in the opposition.

But the MDC is not giving up. Last month, Mwonzora was elected as the new Secretary General of the MDC-T, and he appears determined to lead the party into what he sees as an increasingly evident “post-Mugabe era.” (As he told me: “Already, Mugabe right now is giving telltale signs of failure. He is beginning to communicate through his wife… that’s a sign to us that the Mugabe of old has changed.”) In one of his final lines in the documentary, he describes the ZANU-PF as an “evil party, evil system, presided over by an evil man.” In Copenhagen, he told me he hasn’t changed his Mugabe will of course continue to be a divisive figure within and beyond Zimbabwe. Is he the out-and-out evil man that his local and foreign enemies portray him as, or is he a largely misunderstood man, bent on making important points about national sovereignty, and local control of national wealth, and about standing up to imperialist greed? Is Mugabe a man to be simply hated, or one to be simply pitied, or both?

On one score – in his clinging to power at all costs – he has failed woefully. It is tragic that the quest to cling to power at all cost remains a defining narrative in some African countries; judging not only from Zimbabwe but also recent experiences in Senegal and Burkina Faso. It is also sad that in many countries, political power is sought exclusively for the purposes of exercising absolute or near-absolute control of unrestrained levers of patronage and coercion and sanction, and not for the purposes of bringing maximum good to the maximum number of people.

By turns, depressing and inspiring, ‘Democrats’ is many important things. It is a film about Zimbabwean politics and the life-and-death struggle for control of it. It is also about the quest for a freer and fairer country; one in which the citizens will feel empowered to decide their future by themselves, confident that their wishes and voices will count. Most importantly, in my opinion, it is a film about two men who made the brave and commendable decision to not let their differences get in the way of a better future for their country.

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