The Democrats, a review

Featured image courtesy of Upfront Films.

By Mercy Idindili

Among the many themes that were part of the African Week that took place at Yale from November 5th to November 10th was “My Africa is: Political,” which aimed to show the complexity of African politics as part and parcel of the African narrative.

The event involved the screening of The Democrats, a documentary that follows two politicians from opposing parties in Zimbabwe as they led the constitution-making process, which started in 2008 and lasted three years. Directed by Camilla Nielsson, the documentary shows the hurdles that the country had to face as they tried to draft a new constitution that not only had the people’s say in it but also fit the interests of all the political groups in the country.

By the time the new constitution was being drafted, Zimbabwe had emerged from a highly contested and violent election that concluded with a power-sharing agreement between the main parties in the country. The constitution-making process was meant to introduce true democracy in Zimbabwe by giving people a say in politics and introducing political reforms, such as limits on the president’s executive powers. The main political parties also seemed to have very different stances on the whole constitution-making process, posing a challenge. Their stances were represented in the documentary by their respective chief negotiators – the focus of the film. Douglas Mwonzora of MDC-T, the main opposing party, stated belief in the constitution as a tool for a second revolution in Zimbabwe – one that would oust Robert Mugabe (who was still in power during the time the documentary was filmed, and had been in power since independence of Zimbabwe in 1980) while Paul Mangwana mobilized people to ensure that the new constitution consolidated the power of the ruling party, ZANU-PF.

One of the things that struck me the most about the documentary was the filming technique. It was completely observational, which ensured that the documentary represented the events in the most authentic way possible. According to Nielsson, however, one of the politicians was said to act in a more calmly manner when the cameras were around than when they weren’t – which was a positive effect, considering that the nature of the events taking place created an atmosphere for argument and misunderstanding.

In addition to the filming technique, the character development of Paul Mangwana also made the documentary very engaging. Mangwana seemed very overconfident and boastful at the beginning of the documentary. Being chief negotiator for ZANU-PF, the party that had ruled Zimbabwe since independence, perhaps gave him this confidence, as he was used to being powerful. He refused to answer journalists’ questions, denied claims that there were problems with constitution-making outreach programs while there was clear evidence of such issues, and tried to dictate all meetings during the process. A particular clause in the draft constitution however caused him enough trouble that it humbled him. It was the presidential clause that stated that a presidential candidate can not have held office for more than 10 years which disqualified the incumbent president at the time – Robert Mugabe. Although Mangwana was the one who pointed out the consequences of the clause as being provocative to the government and was trying his best to get it removed from the draft, journalists reported about the clause and Mangwana was labelled a sellout and thought to be part of a campaign to oust Mugabe. The situation meant that his life was in danger, and most of his efforts to stop the false reports went in vain. The clause was eventually edited to be applicable for only the future presidents: a resolution that satisfied the needs of both ZANU-PF which were to keep Mugabe in power and of MDC-T to limit the presidential terms in future Zimbabwe. The ordeal made Mangwana more ready to cooperate with journalists and other politicians in the drafting process because he had been subjected in a position of weakness and perhaps learnt from it.

An important aspect covered by the documentary was the challenge of making the constitution-drafting process one led by the people, especially in a country divided by political parties. ZANU-PF trained people in rural areas on how to answer questions on various constitutional clauses and transported their supporters in various urban areas for constitution outreach meetings. This ensured that ZANU-PF had the most influence in the process – reducing the legitimacy of equal opportunity for each citizen from each party to contribute. There was also violence in some of the outreach meetings, which led to injuries and death in one circumstance. The unrest also caused a delay in drafting of the constitution, since the meetings marked with violence and unrest had to be redone to ensure that people’s views were accurately collected.

By the end of the film, the constitution was completed and voted for adoption as the official constitution of Zimbabwe through a referendum. Mangwana described the whole drafting and review process as one of “national healing” because it brought people from different parties together. This healing was represented by the improvement of the relationship between  Mangwana and Mwonzora, who despite having started the process with disparate interests were able to collaborate and find the middle ground in most issues during the reviewing of the constitution. The fact that both of them faced personal challenges during the process, with Mwonzora being jailed and Mangwana being accused of trying to oust the incumbent president, may also have aided in the improvement of their relationship. Nielsson described the changing relationship between the main characters, “It was beautiful, almost like a love story.”

A conversation with Nielsson and political activist Alex Mugaisha, who was advisor to MDC-T during the making of the constitution, followed the screening. The audience among many things was interested in knowing whether the Constitution of Zimbabwe (that was being drafted in the documentary) had any role in the ousting of Robert Mugabe in November last year, after 37 years in power. Alex Mugaisha affirmed that it did help in the ousting because in the old constitution, if the parliament had made a move to impeach the incumbent president, the president would have had the power to dissolve the parliament and therefore block the process. In the drafting of the new constitution, they edited the clause, removing this power from the president. Thus last year, when Robert Mugabe had to either resign or face an impeachment, he had to resign, as he had no power to stop the impeachment.

While many can agree that Zimbabwe still has a lot to do to become a true democracy – what the constitution had aimed to create – it was refreshing to see that the initial steps of change towards the direction of democracy was coming from within the country itself. The documentary serves as proof of the power and ability Africans have to control and influence their own politics and because of this it will remain an important film for Africans to watch.

Mercy Idindili is a first-year in Ezra Stiles College. You can contact her at