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The Psychology of Political Oppression in Zimbabwe

The Psychology of Political Oppression in Zimbabwe

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Zimbabwe’s history, marred by colonial subjugation and post-independence governance challenges, has imprinted profound psychological scars on its people. Interwoven within the intricate web of power dynamics and systemic control, the psychology of political oppression in Zimbabwe tells a poignant tale, unveiling insights into the human psyche.

In this exploration, I delve into the complex psychological mechanisms at play within Zimbabwean politics, establishing parallels with established psychological concepts, and casting light on the intricate tapestry of struggles faced by the nation’s unwavering citizens.

1. The Anatomy of Power: A Hierarchical Social Order

In Zimbabwe, political leaders adroitly manipulate and sustain a hierarchical social order, drawing inspiration from French and Raven’s (1959) seminal work on power bases. This framework suggests that power manifests through various sources such as legitimate, coercive, and reward-based power. Zimbabwean leaders skilfully leverage these sources to construct an intricate lattice of control, positioning themselves as dominant figures within the political sphere. This intricate hierarchy resonates with the power dynamics proposed by French and Raven, eerily echoing the unsettling echoes of the infamous Stanford prison experiment (Zimbardo, 1971). Here, akin to the experiment’s authoritative figures, Zimbabwean leaders wield their power to instil psychological distress among those subject to their control.

Power bases provide a comprehensive framework for understanding how Zimbabwean leaders establish and perpetuate their dominance over the citizenry. This framework therefore offers insights into the mechanisms through which leaders wield different sources of power to maintain control and suppress dissent. Moreover, the parallels between the power dynamics observed in Zimbabwe and the findings of the Stanford prison experiment underline the profound psychological impact of unchecked power on both the wielders of authority and those subjected to it.

2. Learned Helplessness: The Psychological Toll of Repression

Amid the relentless backdrop of political oppression, Zimbabwean citizens confront the profound psychological phenomenon of learned helplessness, as expounded by psychologist Martin Seligman (1972). This phenomenon unfolds as individuals internalize their apparent inability to alter or influence the circumstances that envelop them. Within the context of Zimbabwe, the perpetual interplay of political repression intertwined with economic turmoil acts as fertile ground for the cultivation of learned helplessness within the populace. This disheartening mindset becomes an agent of perpetuation, sowing the seeds of disillusionment, passivity, and a debilitating cycle of despair that echoes through generations, as evidenced by the inability of Zimbabweans to rise up against oppression and injustice.

The concept of learned helplessness, first studied in the context of animal experiments, sheds light on the emotional and psychological toll inflicted by prolonged political oppression. By understanding the cognitive processes underlying learned helplessness, we gain insight into how citizens’ perceptions of their agency shape their responses to oppressive regimes. The continuous cycles of political repression, through threats, intimidation and lawfare, and economic instability serve as reinforcing factors that perpetuate the sense of powerlessness among Zimbabwean citizens, leading to a cycle of resigned acceptance of their circumstances, as noted by the voting decision of those in most rural constituencies, in the just ended elections.

3. Cognitive Dissonance and Justification of Oppression

The actions of Zimbabwean political leaders catalyze profound cognitive dissonance among citizens. Rooted in Festinger’s theory (1957), cognitive dissonance surfaces as individuals grapple with the daunting task of reconciling their internal beliefs with external realities. In the realm of political oppression, citizens traverse treacherous terrain as they attempt to rationalize the oppressive actions perpetrated by the regime. This, defines Zimbabwean politics. The internal conflict that ensues, wherein one’s values clash with prevailing circumstances, creates a crucible of psychological turmoil, often accompanied by heightened anxiety and a disconcerting dissonance between thoughts and actions.

Cognitive dissonance offers a profound lens through which to analyze the psychological tension experienced by individuals when their beliefs clash with their observations or experiences. In the case of political oppression in Zimbabwe, citizens find themselves torn between their values of justice and human rights and the actions of the oppressive regime. This internal conflict leads to emotional turmoil, anxiety, and a need to reconcile their beliefs with the prevailing circumstances, often resulting in complex psychological responses.

4. Polarization and Fragmentation through Social Identity

Political oppression in Zimbabwe functions as a crucible that forges the moulding of distinct social identities, each tethered to opposing allegiances—whether to the regime or the opposition. Through the lens of Tajfel and Turner’s theory (1979), citizens engage in a process of self-categorization, seeking to enhance their self-esteem through alignment with a particular group. This intricate process of social identity formation gives birth to polarization, nurturing in-group favouritism while concurrently fostering out-group discrimination. Consequently, the already fragile social fabric has become taut with intergroup conflicts, perpetuating the cycle of oppression, and exacerbating societal fragmentation.

Tajfel and Turner unveil the intricate dynamics of group behavior and intergroup relations. In the context of Zimbabwe, their theory helps us understand the formation of distinct social identities among citizens, aligning themselves with either the oppressive regime or the opposition. This polarization, in Zimbabwe, has accentuated the divisions within society and led to a cycle of conflict, as individuals seek validation and a sense of belonging within their chosen group.

5. Reinforcement of Oppressive Norms through Social Learning

Within Zimbabwe’s socio-political matrix, the tenets of the social learning theory unveil a riveting mechanism through which behavior is acquired, transmitted, and perpetuated. Zimbabwean citizens, both the oppressed and the oppressors, have become the conduits through which oppressive norms are internalized and perpetuated. The constant exposure to patterns of power dynamics and control, manifested through the actions of political leaders, have culminated in the normalization of such behaviors. As the cycle of oppression persists, these learned behaviors have been repeatedly reinforced, ultimately creating a self-perpetuating cycle that has entrenched the norms of oppression.

The social learning theory offers a lens to understand the ways in which individuals learn and adopt behaviors by observing the consequences of others’ actions. In the context of Zimbabwe, this theory elucidates how the behaviors of political leaders and the responses of citizens have created a feedback loop that reinforces the norms of oppression. As citizens witness the rewards and punishments associated with certain behaviors, they have learnt to adapt to these norms, perpetuating a cycle that is difficult to break.

6. Collective Trauma and Resilience

The overarching narrative of political oppression in Zimbabwe reverberates with the resonance of collective trauma, a trauma that spans generations and inflicts profound pain and suffering upon the collective consciousness. Yet, amidst the shroud of trauma, the resilient spirit of the Zimbabwean people emerges as an indomitable force. This resilience, defined by the capacity to endure, adapt, and transcend, exemplifies the remarkable ability of the human psyche to persist despite insurmountable odds.

The concept of collective trauma sheds light on the enduring impact of political oppression on a society’s psyche. As Zimbabweans experience recurrent waves of political turmoil and repression, their collective memory has become scarred by the traumas of the past and the present. This trauma is manifesting in various ways, including feelings of anxiety, mistrust, and a deep sense of loss. However, the remarkable resilience exhibited by Zimbabweans reflects their capacity to navigate and cope with the aftermath of trauma. This resilience is evident in the determination to create positive change, despite the overwhelming challenges they face.

I would like to conclude by emphasizing that the psychology of political oppression in Zimbabwe is an intricate tapestry woven from the threads of power dynamics, learned helplessness, cognitive dissonance, social identity, social learning, collective trauma, and resilient determination. Each psychological mechanism acts as a lens, illuminating the complex layers of struggle endured by Zimbabwean citizens. As Zimbabwe aspires to forge a transformative path, the comprehension of these psychological processes becomes an indispensable tool for cultivating healing, unity, and a future grounded in justice and equity.


Pepukai Muchazondida Svinurai

Great analogue of Zimbabwe situation, indeed we need to puts heads together and collectively claim our power back from the powerful elites, who often subdue basic rights of the vulnerable people. Interesting

Roselilly Ushewokunze

This is a great piece. Indeed, Zimbabwe finds itself in myriad of problems.There is also a notion of negative peace and the realization of all the struggles you have mentioned is a start to transformation.


Quite an intriguing read. Well put

Alfred Towo

This is an honest discernment of issues manifesting in the motherland.


Great article, this is what we have been experiencing…. Keep it up

    Monde Sibindi

    How long will this keep on? , till we cannot stretch no more? Pouring from an empty cup is psychologically draining, missing out on the fulfilling thrill of self-actualization. A transformative path is indeed needed.

    A masterpiece! Great job.

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Good post however I was wanting to know if you could write a litte more on this
subject? I’d be very thankful if you could elaborate a little bit further.
Bless you!

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