MDC Implosion Sets Back the Struggle for Change

Zimbabwe is stuck in mud. People of my generation were in their late 20s or early 30s when Zimbabwe attained independence in 1980. Those fortunate to be still alive are now elderly and on the cusp to bequeath to their children and grandchildren a ramshackle country destroyed beyond recognition by 40 years of Zanu PF rule.

Every generation has a sacred duty to pass onto the next one a country in better shape than the one they inherited. History will judge my generation harshly for gross dereliction of duty. The terrible state of the Zimbabwe economy has been well documented by many experts. There is nothing I can add to the already existing body of knowledge and analysis. Equally well documented is the central role played by Zanu PF in 40 years of untrammelled power. Efforts by Zanu PF and its apologists to locate the blame elsewhere are laughable.

What is missing is a critical evaluation of the role the MDC is playing. Fractured as it is now, does it have the capacity to effect change in Zimbabwe? Why has a party which won elections in 2008 been torn apart by squabbles over positions and scraps it gets from being in Parliament? Is the situation redeemable or does a new force have to emerge? Among the current crop of leaders fighting for power is there anyone with the qualities to rescue a dire situation?

My view is that the MDC has lost whatever capacity it had to deliver change in Zimbabwe. In fact it has become an impediment to that objective. It seems to have little understanding of the nature of the beast that is Zanu PF. It fails to understand that Zanu PF regards the liberation war, not elections, as the primary source of its mandate to rule. Elections are a secondary source of that mandate. As Robert Mugabe famously said in Bulawayo in 2008, “what was won by the gun cannot be erased by a pen.” Moreover, following its defeat in 2008, Zanu PF has now put in measures in rural areas which make it extremely difficult for other parties to harvest votes there. The infrastructure of oppression in rural areas has been strengthened and the party, using state resources, is able to maintain a permanent campaign posture. Yet the MDC acts as if its fight against Zanu PF is similar to that of the Labour and Conservative parties in the United Kingdom.

The MDC received massive support from the people of Zimbabwe when it was formed in 1999. For a party only nine months old to win 57 out of 120 House of Assembly seats in June 2000 was a remarkable achievement especially given the massive violence unleashed by the state. The MDC, not knowing the nature of the beast they were dealing with, never developed a strategy to effectively respond to a sustained violent backlash. Tyrants have been deposed by the sheer weight of numbers of people who resist their rule without firing a single shot .People in Zimbabwe especially in rural areas showed raw courage to support MDC at great peril to themselves and their families. The urban and peri-urban centres had overwhelmingly rejected Zanu PF. The MDC could not harness this support, beyond mobilisation for elections, to maintain a multi- pronged high octane pressure on the regime. Parliament became the only theatre of the struggle and Zanu PF, unrestrained by any scruples, was determined to win that fight.

The most important non-violent but devious response by Zanu PF to the MDC’s electoral threat was to increase the number of seats in the House of Assembly from 120 to 210 before the 2008 elections. Mount Darwin in Mashonaland Central which was one constituency had three more added. This was replicated throughout rural Zimbabwe. It was gerrymandering on steroids.

It came as a shock when the then divided MDC won 110 of the 210 seats. The party had made serious inroads into what Zanu PF thought was a captive electorate.

Morgan Tsvangirai won the first round of the presidential election. This was a huge game changer the MDC seemed not to grasp and respond to strategically. When the African Union and Sadc refused to recognise the run-off election in which Mugabe was the sole candidate the MDC seemed to have been caught unawares by this seismic shift in Zimbabwean politics.

At this crucial moment pregnant with opportunities to peacefully end the Zanu PF regime’s reign, the monumental incompetence, naivety and timidity of the MDC leadership allowed Mugabe to regroup and outwit his opponents whose ineptitude must have shocked the old wily fox. The AU resolution said two things. First, that the election run-off of the presidential election was illegitimate. Second, that the two parties must form an inclusive government to create conditions that ensure a free and fair election. Beyond that it was not prescriptive. This meant that Zimbabwe had no legitimately elected president. It was a fact of profound importance that should have been a starting point of negotiations for a unity government. The first thing Mugabe said when he returned from Egypt was that he was still president. Jonathan Moyo realising on his own how crucial this issue was repeatedly said Mugabe’s mandate as president was bestowed by the run-off election.

This wrong assertion was not challenged by the MDC. It is impossible to overstate the immense magnitude of this inexplicable blunder. The MDC missed an opportunity to break the nexus between the executive presidency and the military where all power in Zimbabwe resides. This allowed Mugabe with all his powers intact to co-opt the MDC as junior partners into the inclusive government on his own terms.

The raison d’etre of the inclusive government was to enact reforms that would create an even electoral playing field. Yes the normal business had to continue but it was a transitional government with a core mandate to end Zimbabwe’s perennial problem of violent and rigged elections.

Again when they became part of that government the MDC slept on the job. A source who attended Sadc meetings on Zimbabwe during this critical period told me how he was shocked by the MDC’s weak contributions on the issue of reforms required for free and fair elections. President Jacob Zuma’s two envoys to Zimbabwe, Charles Nqakula and Lindiwe Zulu, were reportedly shocked by the lukewarm engagement of the MDC in these discussions. No wonder Mugabe called Zulu a “street woman” when in another forum she called for free and fair elections in Zimbabwe. It is as if he was angry with her for telling the MDC to wake up.

While the MDC was distracted by trinkets and petty privileges, Zanu PF plotted to ensure that there was no repetition of 2008. The inevitable outcome was the electoral massacre of the MDC in 2013. The MDC’s protestations about rigging were hollow because it was complicit in the failure of the unity government to enact the necessary reforms.

The cumulative effect of the MDC’s blunders over the years killed the party as an effective challenger to Zanu PF. There is a tendency among many Zimbabweans to lionise the late Morgan Tsvangirai as a great leader. Some suggest that if he were still alive the shambles in the party today would not have happened. This is clearly false. Tsvangirai was a weak and flawed leader.

I applauded Tsvangirai when he stepped up to form the MDC to challenge Zanu PF at a time when the chattering classes were terrified of the comrades. But as time went on his glaring weaknesses were plain for all to see. One of the understated but extremely important responsibilities of a leader is to maintain unity in his party. Divisions and splits largely fuelled by personal ambition weaken parties and demoralise supporters. The 2005 split in the MDC over Senate seats could and should have been avoided. Strong and secure leaders manage to maintain unity. On Tsvangirai’s watch Welshman Ncube, Tendai Biti, Elton Mangoma and Job Sikhala all formed their own parties.

Efforts to reunite the party were commendable with Ncube, Sikhala and Biti returning. Tsvangirai’s blunders undid some of that progress. Why on earth did he appoint Nelson Chamisa and Elias Mudzuri as deputy presidents when a congress had elected Thokozani Khupe into that position? It was a senseless decision that is responsible for the shambolic state of the party now. Tsvangirai was terminally ill.

He should have called for a special congress to elect his successor as prescribed by the party’s constitution. It is easy to blame Zanu PF for ruthlessly exploiting the chaos in the MDC family but MDC is responsible for this mess. There is total confusion.

The main man, Chamisa, seems overwhelmed and is now reduced to tweeting biblical prophecies about the imminence of change. It is a dog’s breakfast.

The MDC factions have to take a cold hard look at themselves if they want to be a relevant force moving forward. Fighting an entrenched regime is no child’s play.

It exposes their supporters to the violence of a regime that has shown repeatedly a willingness to arrest, abduct, maim, torture and kill all those it deems a threat. So a level of seriousness is required from those who offer themselves to be leaders of this struggle. Individuals who place a premium on the comforts of middle class suburban life and high social status are not equipped to confront the regime in Harare.

Even a peaceful struggle against a violent regime requires raw courage and a willingness to forgo the comforts of life. The MDC signed that long suicide note called the Global Political Agreement partly, in my view, to stop the violence by Zanu PF against the party’s leadership. I draw this conclusion because the MDC leaders are intelligent people, some with legal training, who could not possibly have failed to realise how bad that agreement was. They opted for safety not confrontation. They failed to heed the words of Benjamin Franklin that “those who give up liberty for a little temporary safety neither deserve liberty nor safety.”

The implosion of the MDC has set back the struggle for change. If the many parties that lay claim to that name do not get their act together and focus on the mission they will all be buried in the 2023 election? And the fault, dear friends, will not be in Zanu PF but in thee.

Dumbutshena is a journalist who worked for The Zimbabwe Times, BBC Focus On Africa and Times Media Group (now Tiso Blackstar) in South Africa. He is based in Johannesburg.

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