By Phillip Santos and Stanely Mushava
Zimbabwe’s political theatre, currently dress-rehearsing for the next act in the aftermath of Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai’s vastly diverting title fight, is charged with irony.
As Zimbabweans celebrate what, for now, appears to be a break with the venal politics of fear, brutality, decadence, avarice and empty rhetoric associated with the Mugabe administration, they are once again ironically confounded, if not seized, by the cultist obsession with political leaders.
If you are not worried about the propagation of messianic narratives, effectively insulating the new MDC-T and Zanu PF leaders from democratic scrutiny, then you have no reason to celebrat Mugabe’s exit from the country’s political theatre.
Developments in the recent past suggest MDC-T is, and possibly will continue to be, nothing more than just a beguiling source of hope for many as it has failed to transcend the baneful proclivities associated with African politics by many in the so-called West.
To begin with, MDC-T seems now to be a direct clone of what was originally meant to be its antithesis, the ruling Zanu PF party, with only colours and slogans left to separate the two parties.
Like the biblical sons of Sceva who tried to exorcise a demon-possessed man only for him to pounce on them, MDC-T risks being ingloriously floored at this year’s elections if it tries to exorcise Zanu PF’s demons before possessing its own soul.
Similarities between MDC-T and Zanu PF include having a long-serving leader, using the one centre of power mantra to immunise the leader from criticism, taking sycophancy to mythic proportions, visceral factional conflict, misogynistic and ethnicised politics, violence as well as facile, mendacious and populist rhetoric.
Given citizens’ desperation for a Zimbabwe characterised by inclusivity, egalitarianism and equitable distribution of wealth, it is not surprising that we are too quick to ignore glaring indicators of an impending misadventure.
Legitimate or not, Nelson Chamisa, who has emerged as Tsvangirai’s heir-apparent and, for many, passes as the progressive torchbearer, thanks to his youthful exuberance and charismatic persona, has so far exhibited an obnoxious penchant for a politics of patronage, largely obscured by messianic hysteria across the party’s support base.
He has blatantly lied to party supporters on more than one occasion, engineered something of an internal coup for which the stage was set by a questionable amendment to the party’s constitution, and played outside the party’s labour-driven rhetoric for profit, pushing for a landmark court ruling that disenfranchised much of the workforce that forms the bedrock of the MDC-T’s support base.
These developments strongly invite an introspective evaluation of our body politic. We must ask ourselves hard questions on the state of progressive politics in our country. Evidently, the main opposition is dangerously tilting over to populism and post-truth politics, where sloganeering, personality myths, demographic-leaning narratives, ugly skirmishes and delusions of entitlement are drowning out its core messages of democracy and economic recovery.
Whether MDC-T can be a genuine alternative to Zanu PF, which has bent down to achieving economic gains without loosening its illiberal chokehold on state institutions and democratic processes in its post-Mugabe configuration, depends on how it deals with its succession crisis and defines its campaign.
MDC-T, having been the flagship proponent of democracy, cannot afford to house the demons for which it has fought Zanu PF with heavy collateral damage for almost two decades. The party needs to spell clearly, both at the messaging level and its internal politics, how it fits the bill as the Zion train progressive citizens have long awaited in vain.
A power-intoxicated Zanu PF has long prioritised acclamation over elections, soundbites over substance and saying one thing at the rally and doing the other on an executive level without batting an eyelid. MDC-T, which kept Zanu PF on blast and fashioned itself as an antidote, is losing its moral ground as it increasingly recreates itself in the image of the ruling party.
Shoring up power through cold calculus has its place but, by detaching politics from principles, any resulting victory is bound to be empty and unworthy of the cost.
Frontrunners for the late Tsvangirai’s mantle must look beyond power for its own sake which is, after all, Zanu PF’s original sin.
MDC-T may lament that a rebranded Zanu PF has stolen its policies but plagiarism in Zimbabwean politics, manifested itself before whatever misdirected attribution Mnangagwa may get for his liaisons with private capital.
While Zanu PF is selling its new dispensation narrative with considerable headway, making Mugabe the scapegoat for everything Zimbabweans hated the system for, the opposition is still slavishly copying Zanu PF’s game theory notebooks whatever the values at stake.
The current succession crisis has its roots in MDC-T’s secret admiration for Zanu PF. If the party emerges from its latest squabbles in one piece, it will do well to remember the classic aphorism that the solution to the problems of democracy is more democracy.
As the dust of the Mandel coup was settling, where then secretary-general Tendai Biti had fragmented the party like another secretary-general, Welshman Ncube, before him, Tsvangirai rummaged through Mugabe’s Machiavellian folders for a solution and came out with a dubious amendment of the constitution.
Just as Mugabe dealt with his first secretary, Edgar Tekere, by doubling himself to both president and first secretary of Zanu PF, Tsvangirai appropriated to himself the secretary-general’s powers and effectively imported Zanu PF’s one centre of power narrative, hence today’s succession crisis.
Around the same time, violence against dissenting party leaders like Elton Mangoma and Thokozani Khupe threw the opposition’s claim to be an antidote to Zanu PF’s intolerance into question.
The most recent skirmishes, where Khupe and Douglas Mwonzora were roughed up at the late party leader’s funeral, similarly indicates the sort of extremism, intolerance and violence that MDC-T must deal with before trying to exorcise Zanu-PF of the same demons.
It is increasingly difficult to align the rhetoric and actions of the MDC-T leadership to determine what the party stands for. Outside party politics, the MDC-T presidential frontrunner threw workers under the bus for the capitalist cheque, never mind the party’s labour credentials.
Recent incidents of outright lying for cheap applause, particularly at the Mutare rally, and sloganeering on an emotive level rather than a clear programme of action, are issues for full-length introspection now rather than later if Chamisa and the MDC-T will ever be the breath of fresh air Zimbabweans have long awaited.
Chamisa looks poised to take over the leadership of the MDC-T, but his ascendancy will not benefit progress if the heir-apparent breaches the principles that a democratic movement must stand for just to shore up power. Power for the sake of it is a dangerous trajectory that will derail the MDC-T from the progressive force that it is supposed to be.
Prominent supporters of Chamisa, like Promise Mkwananzi, have been supporting him to take over power without an elective process. Installing leaders by acclamation rather than election, in already muddied circumstances, defeats the democracy that MDC-T claims to stand for.
Progressive politics in Zimbabwe is in intensive care. Recourse to messianic narratives, the acceleration of post-truthist politics, mob-induced bully politics, intolerance, misogynist and ethnicist prejudice, short-termist solutions, which have become modus operandi today, provide the right conditions for the emergence of an authoritarian order.
As Mbembe and Posel (2005) intimate, the question confronting us today is: “what are the obligations and responsibilities which a democracy requires of its citizens, as much as of its state?” By extension, the same question can be asked of political parties as they represent citizen hopes and wishes, on the one hand, and seek to control state power, on the other. Have we, the citizens of Zimbabwe, mortgaged our obligations and responsibilities to “messianic” leaders?