MDC leaders dying of thirst just as palm trees appear
At the beginning of August this year I wrote an article entitled The Pitfalls of Opposition Politics in Zimbabwe. Little did I realise that by the end of the year, those challenges would have knocked down the young and vibrant political pugilist, which at one time had the most promising career in all of Sub-Saharan Africa. Fans of the sweet science are at once reminded of the meteoric rise of one lad from Brooklyn, New York, who took the world heavyweight title at the tender age of 20 but a few years later was serving a jail term and thereafter was biting an opponent’s ear. His name is Mike Tyson – a man who was set to dominate the game of boxing but fell apart when he could have achieved more. He lost his title and the aura of invincibility in 1990, to a less known opponent and was never the same again. Boxing connoisseurs generally agree that he lost largely because he had begun to take things for granted.
Barely six years after its glorious entry into mainstream politics in Zimbabwe and capturing the attention of the world with a promising future ahead of it, the MDC appears to have struck the self-destruct button. This internal struggle for survival will be its biggest test to date, forget the national elections, which all being equal, it is generally believed the party would have won.
Apportioning blame and throwing harsh words against one or more persons during a period of crisis is the easy part. Flowing water always follows the lines of least resistance. But internal bickering will hardly solve the situation. Rather it detracts attention from the real cause, which as a party they have been trying to pursue. The mudslinging and vitriolic personal attacks between members of the two factions of the MDC leadership are reminiscent of petty verbal wars normally encountered in student politics. Listening to the use of the biggest and harshest words being traded against individuals reminds one of those overzealous students in a school debate who were always eager to impress by the enormity of the vocabulary they used. Like those misguided students, little do the leaders realise that they are not communicating any valuable message to the people, whose concerns centre on survival and re-establishment of proper living and working conditions. The people are not interested in who is good-looking, engages in sorcery or uses the most beautifully-scented soap. There is hardly any substance directed at resolving the current difficulties in the speeches other than attempts to massage their personal egos.
Perhaps ZANU PF was right after all – that these people in the MDC leadership lack firm foundation in politics and have no interests beyond their own personal agenda. To that extent, they are birds of a feather. The public expects their leadership to take a mature and sober approach to the issues at hand, even if they include differences on matters of substance. This is an opportunity for the MDC to demonstrate that it is different, that it tolerates difference and that it is capable of solving the differences in a fair, sober and civilised manner.
There is one good lesson for the public though: as stated by one wise one, that there is a tribe called politicians. Forget all this issue of Shonas and Ndebeles – that, after all is a vague and fallacious distinction between people of Zimbabwe. It assumes that there are only two tribes in that country. Yet by categorising everyone into either of those labels, there is a deliberate attempt to bury the many smaller tribes and communities that exist in Zimbabwe. People need not be distracted by these tribal accusations. The real tribe is that of politicians. They, the politicians are the same, no matter how well they try to appear different in their speeches. After all, as Talleyrand the 19th century French diplomat remarked, speech is given to man to disguise his true thoughts. Ultimately, in the present context their behaviour, tactics and approach are the same, whether or not they belong to the same party. The political party is simply a form of acquiring space within the body politic so that the politician can advance his interests. Listening to the public statements, watching the violence and the allegations of misconduct in the MDC, a foreign observer would be hard-pressed to distinguish between Zanu PF and the MDC. As things fall apart in the MDC, and the public begins to see beyond the veil of democracy one wonders whether things would really be different for Zimbabwe, under the leadership of that party. That people are beginning to question that is a serious dent on the credibility of the MDC leadership.
The MDC has always found sympathy and support within the international community. It has largely been portrayed as a victim of an orchestrated attempt by the state to stifle its march towards assuming the reigns of power. All the while, there has never been an attempt to question its own democratic credentials. In an attempt to keep the ship on sail, there has been a conspiracy of silence from within and outside, until now. This episode has caused a dissipation of the goodwill that the party had built up over the last six years. This goodwill gave the party a high profile and provided an avenue to get audience at high levels of the international community. They were supposed to be different. But given the prevailing scenario, there will be murmurs in the corridors of Tshwane, Washington and London to the effect that they are all the same. It will be very hard for the MDC to rebuild that goodwill unless they put their act together. They must understand the meaning of democracy and practice it in the way they preach. Make no mistake, once the current international attention wanes, the MDC will be treated just like any other party in Africa and without sources of moral support and funding, it will surely pass away unnoticed.
Rather than apportion blame, the key issue is to focus on the way-forward which lies squarely at the doorstep of the leadership as a whole. But instead of doing so, they seem to be diverting attention from their failure to take bold decisions by engaging in their personal battles. Both sides here have made big mistakes and miscalculations and as long as they remain steadfast in their individual belief that they are right, a solution is unlikely to be achieved. The pro-senate faction failed to read the political mood of the general public – that essentially people are tired of voting but the anti-senate faction also failed to do what is expected in the decision-making process – that it is vital to stick by the rules, even if they produce a result that is unfavourable to their side.
International capital, which is generally in favour of the MDC, requires that set rules must be respected. By refusing to play by the rules, and instead using the amorphous “people’s will” as the basis for taking decisions in this matter, international capital gets worried. It knows that Zanu PF uses the same slogan – zvido zvevanhu – people’s will – to avoid rules and justify for example, the violation of property rights. There is every reason for Zimbabweans to be worried by this tendency to use the “people’s will” to circumvent rules because even though it appears right under the current circumstances, what guarantee is there that it will not be used to justify the wrong outcome in future? Once you permit a leader to get around rules simply because he says that is the people’s will, you have created a bad precedent and opened the floodgates to similar decisions in the future and it will be hard to stop it – one just has to look at the way Zimbabweans allowed the ruling party to change and avoid rules in the past that it now believes it has a right to do so.
The suggestion that the two factions ought to talk to solve their differences might appear absurd and misguided given the rising temperature. But let us consider it from a wider perspective by looking at the bigger picture. For six years Zanu PF and the MDC have been at loggerheads – to say the contest has been bitter is probably an understatement. Indeed there have been many casualties, including fatalities. Yet there are members of both factions of the MDC that were prepared to have talks with Zanu PF – even pleading with regional and international leaders to force President Mugabe and his party to the roundtable. The only reason they have not talked is that President Mugabe has refused to have talks. Now, given the bitter history between Zanu PF and the MDC and the readiness of the MDC leadership to engage in talks, one is baffled by the suggestion that the two factions, erstwhile partners in the struggle against Zanu PF would themselves be unwilling to resolve their internal differences. The point is: It is not impossible to resolve these differences which are common in every political organisation the only difference being that some mature ones handle them better while others like the MDC exhibiting its juvenile characteristics seem to fail to place their problems in the context of the bigger picture. Once they look at the bigger picture in which their differences are located, they will realise that they are quite minor and there is more to worry about and address their collective attention.
One view that is emerging is that rather than being confined to the senate election, the divisions actually run deeper and centre on an internal power struggle. One suggestion is that Tsvangirai is dictatorial and reports have emerged alleging that he has leaned towards autocratic tendencies in the last few years. Another view is that the pro-Senate faction is actually interested in toppling Tsvangirai from power. There is in both cases, an attempt to make a big issue out of a normal and ordinary matter. This simply because leadership contests are natural in any organisation. Leadership is not sacred territory. By the very nature of it being elected office, it is often highly contested territory. Contesting leadership should never be seen as being disrespectful of the leader. Whether or not Tsvangirai should remain at the helm should be a matter for the people to decide – It is a political issue that must be resolved politically.
People must advance their arguments for and against their preferred candidates. Where a political party has contested elections and failed to secure power, whether fair or foul, it is natural for others to seek to challenge the leadership skills of the person in power. Tsvangirai should not see the challenge as anything bad – if anything he should be using the contest as an opportunity to demonstrate his commitment and ability to lead the people into the future. It should be a chance to remove doubt against him and renew the mandate from the people. If he fails to tolerate such contests and if people who challenge him are seen as traitors, then there is no point of distinction between him and the person he is trying to replace in the leadership of the country – whose position in the party has long been considered sacred and few, if any, choose to publicly state their leadership intentions. It is not a divine right to remain in power nor is it a permanent seat that cannot be challenged.
The pro-senate faction has decided to take the legal route to resolve the dispute over the leadership of Tsvangirai whom they wish to be barred for violating the part constitution. They are well within their rights to call on the courts to solve legal problems within their party. Nonetheless, one cannot ignore the fact that this is not simply a legal matter but one that is essentially political in character. Notwithstanding the legitimacy of the legal claims calling for a legal solution, it is arguable that what this matter actually requires is a political solution. Arguably, such a matter cannot simply be viewed within the narrow confines of law so that it can be put to rest through the legal process. One can a foresee a situation whereby the pro-senate faction wins the legal claim but that victory may not in itself solve the political crisis within the MDC. If Tsvangirai broke the rules of the constitution, the pro-senate faction was right to insist on the importance of abiding by the rules. And even though they have been slated in some sections, it seems to me that they were right to insist on the importance of observing the legal parameters. After all, that is precisely what the MDC has been fighting for in its battle against the ruling party. By refusing to observe rules, Tsvangirai may have alienated some of his more important backers in the international community.
However, what the pro-senate faction appear to be failing to read is that having made their point about Tsvangirai’s failure or refusal to observe rules, they are now entering muddy waters through the legal action. They have failed to read that now that the senate election is history, the anti-senate faction has to face the bigger challenge of what to do after the boycott. The anti-senate faction has to justify its stance on the boycott by taking a different approach, which as yet the public remains unsure because the proponents of the boycott have not been bold enough. It is not enough to celebrate the electoral boycott because it has changed nothing for the people of Zimbabwe. The crucial question is, after the boycott what strategy is there to confront the problems in the country? That, more that the legal challenge, is the big question that Tsvangirai and the anti-senate faction have to face. So far there is nothing of substance that has been put forward and advanced to extricate the country from the quagmire. In any event it seems dangerously naïve to celebrate the low voter turnout as an indication of the people’s support for the electoral boycott. It may be true that some people boycotted in support of the call but it cannot be ignored that people are simply tired of voting when there is no change in their socio-economic conditions other than for the worst. It is arguable that the voter turnout might still have been low even if the MDC had contested as a united bloc.
But more importantly, people would like to know the alternative option given that part of the MDC leadership has discounted the electoral route as a viable means of achieving political change. The pro-senate faction is misreading the political situation by taking legal action where clearly the MDC leader has a bigger political challenge to confront in the wake of the electoral boycott. Indeed, this legal action might even give Tsvangirai a good excuse to divert attention from the real challenge that he faces: what next after the boycott. There has to be a plan of what to do next if Zanu PF were to call for an early presidential poll next year. If the electoral landscape does not change, will the MDC contest? If not what is the alternative? So far, the public is waiting for the alternative to the boycott of the senate election. That search for the alternative approach, rather than whether or not the MDC should have contested the election is the key issue at stake. As they take Tsvangirai through the courts of law, which as a party they have previously attacked as being biased toward the government, they are in effect drawing sympathy toward him. They are perpetuating an argument in which they themselves failed to read the political mood at the time and it does their interests no good. It seems to me that though probably right in law they may still be misreading the political scene.
By continuing their personal battles in the public domain, they only help to cement the image of a party that is led by petulant political infants. The public does not expect future national leaders to be making some of the unnecessary personal attacks that have become commonplace in the public domain. I cannot help but refer again to Talleyrand, who is reported to have said that a man’s reputation is like a shadow, which is large and tall when it precedes him but very small when it follows him. The MDC must now take a look at its shadow. As for the decision on leadership, again a few words from the same man provide interesting counsel. He said, "I am more afraid of an army of 100 sheep led by a lion than an army of 100 lions led by a sheep."
This may yet be
the darkest hour just before the dawn. The leadership of the MDC seems
to be dying of thirst just as the palm trees begin to appear on the
horizon. Are they really giving up?
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