President won a special jury award at this years Sundance Film Festival.
President won a special jury award at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute

In physics, there is something called quantum entanglement. This is a state when the independence of two particles is lost, and they behave as one, irrespective of their distance from each other. The famous phenomenon came to my mind while watching Camilla Nielsson's documentary of Zimbabwe's 2018 presidential election, President. The entanglement that the film triggers occurs in time, rather than space. Meaning, much of what happened in Zimbabwe's 2018 election also happened in the US's 2020 election. Though the entanglement is not, of course, perfect, there's still a whole lot of "spooky action at a [temporal] distance." For example, the struggle between a democratic leader (a young Nelson Chamisa) and an authoritarian (Emmerson "Crocodile" Mnangagwa), the weird delays in announcing or accepting the results, and the role of the courts in validating/rejecting the post-election day results.

But whereas the similarities are one-for-one, the differences are inverted. For example, the head of the Movement for Democratic Change Alliance (MDC), Nelson Chamisa (the star of the documentary), is the one who correctly claimed that the opposition party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), rigged the election; in the US, it was the head of Grand Old Party (GOP) who falsely claimed that the Democrats rigged the election. In the US, it was the GOP who contested the results in courts and also orchestrated a protest that stormed the Capitol Building and left one police officer dead. In Zimbabwe, the police did all of the killing. They fired live rounds at MDC protesters. Several were shot in the back and bled to death on the streets of the nation's capital, Harare.


At the end of Camilla Nielsson's 130-minute doc, which was made by Danes and includes the great Danny Glover among its producers, one is left wondering: Why did Donald Trump's coup not succeed? Why isn't the "Macho Man" in power like the "Crocodile"? This is where Nielsson—who is white but kept her cameras mostly on the black politicians, black reporters, black activists, black voters, and black lawyers—left something of a hole in her otherwise superbly assembled story.

Knowing that Robert Mugabe is in the background of these elections; that he ruled the country between 1980 (the year that marked the beginning of black rule) and 2017; that he was removed from power by a coup in 2017, lead by the Crocodile; and that the reason why many thought Zimbabwe would have its first "free and credible" elections since 1980 (the only free elections in the nation's black and white history) is because the coup's success heavily depended on popular support. Knowing all of this will not explain why the Crocodile today gets from A to B in a presidential motorcade and the Macho Man, his American counterpart, has an "Office of the Former President" in Palm Beach rather than an office in the White House.

This is where the entanglement between 2018 Zimbabwe and 2020 US snaps: Wealth is far more concentrated in the former than that it is in the latter. Zimbabwe, like the US, is a capitalist society; but it does not have anything like a middle class. You have instead, on one side, the very, very, very, too poor; and the other side, the rich (this tiny group would be defined as upper-middle class in the US and Europe). Because the documentary pins most of Zimbabwe's problems on politics, and mostly ignores its economic situation and its history, we end up with the idea that Mnangagwa's success as an authoritarian is simply a matter of him being a better Big Man than Trump. But Trump's year-long coup attempt failed not because his not made of the stuff of great and lasting dictators (indeed, being a Big Man might be the only thing he is good at), but due to the obvious fact that power in his country is much more diffuse. Sure the GOP packed the Supreme Court, but it's still nowhere near as packed and obedient as Zimbabwe's Supreme Court, an institution which, as the documentary shows, lacks any distinction from Mnangagwa's party, ZANU PF.

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The mistake made by President is that made by MDC, which is to find in black corruption the main source of Zimbabwe's troubles. But if we examine the country from an economic perspective, we will see that the unraveling of the country's once massive industrial and agricultural base was accelerated in the first half of the 1990s by its adoption of policies authorized by what's called the Washington Consensus (International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the US Treasury). None of these institutions, which commanded the removal of Zimbabwe's stabilizing capital controls and the downsizing of an institution that in all top capitalist countries absorbs a huge amount of labor, the government, were not based in Harare or run by corrupt black Africans. Sure, Mugabe was a terrible president (at least after 1987), but the Washington Consensus's economic structural adjustment program is what really finished the country and made possible a concentration power that can easily resist any challenge from democratic movements.

To conclude, please read the whole abstract of an excellent 2000 paper (PDF) by researchers at Western Michigan University School of Social Work:

This study examines the impact of structural adjustment policy (SAP) on the welfare of Zimbabweans, particularly women and children and draws some parallels with economic policy in the US and its effect on social welfare programs and the poor. The paper argues that economic structural adjustment programs (ESAPs), introduced by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund as major international financial institutions in economic globalization, have been an inappropriate public policy for Zimbabwe. These economic reforms inflate poverty, decrease the country's capability to develop a strong diversified domestic economy, increase the exploitation of workers through deregulation accompanied by environmental degradation. ESAPs' devastation of the poor translates into recurrences of socioeconomic crises that threaten peace and social justice and compounded by natural calamities and the relentlessness of the
HIV-AIDS pandemic. Human helping professionals like social workers are left to scramble for diminishing resources to meet the basic needs of more clients with less.

An encore screening of President, which won Sundance's Special Jury Award, happens today, February 3, until 11 pm PT.