Beyond Rhetoric; Towards Strategic Refocus Of The Democratisation Agenda: A Think Paper On Zimbabwe Opposition

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By Pride Mkono


Since the coup of November 2017, Zimbabwe has been faced with the intensification and consolidation of authoritarianism which is actively closing the democratic space, reversing democratic gains and seeking to annihilate the opposition. Simultaneously, the opposition’s own contradictions have deepened and are spiraling out of control to the point of almost rendering the opposition internally dysfunctional.

This think paper seeks to generate dialogue by critically looking at the history of the opposition, how the military preemptively took over after the March 29 2008 elections and created a system to ensure prolonged dominance.

The paper further discusses possible pathways for the opposition and also looks at the ideological ground and the communication strategy of the opposition. Further, the paper also comes as the nation marks two years since the 14 and 15 January 2019 peaceful protests against austerity, fuel hike and general hardships which was violently thwarted by the state using military force resulting in the death of 17 people and injuries to hundreds of unarmed civilians.

Key words: Zimbabwe, Opposition, Democratisation, ZANU PF, Military


Zimbabwe faces multi-faceted political, economic and social crises which have been stretching and deepening in the last 2 decades. At the turn of the century, when the restive and militant workers unions under the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) had realised that the promise of liberation that is: independence in a socialist society hinged on scientific principles of a Marxist-Leninist order; had become a mirage they organized an opposition party.

The party named the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) was formed with the core of its leadership drawn from ZCTU structures supported by the student movement under the auspices of the Zimbabwe National Students Union (ZINASU), Civic Society mainly the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA) and progressive academics, war veterans and the church.

Later, the MDC would be joined by white commercial farmers whose land tenure was under attack from the Zimbabwe National African Union Patriotic Front (ZANU PF) regime under the leadership of Robert Mugabe.

The social base of the new movement constituted of the large number of unionized workers in urban, peri-urban and farms, thousands of workers in the informal sector who had been laid off during the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (ESAP) of the early to mid-1990s, the unemployed youths, sections of peasants and war veterans who were disgruntled by what they saw as betrayal of liberation war ethos.

Soon after its formation, the MDC registered an impressive score in successive elections, which were violent and marred with manipulation and rigging, so much that in 2008 harmonised elections its factions won local authorities, parliament and the presidency.

This victory represented the apex of the opposition’s electoral performance to date and was only undermined by a combination of terror, lack of strategy of the top leadership of the opposition and a compromised regional diplomatic intervention by SADC.

After 2008 and through the GNU, instead of the envisaged democratic consolidation which the opposition should have done, it was the military faction in ZANU PF which regrouped and plotted authoritarian consolidation. The first step was to create a billion dollar war chest from proceeds of diamonds from the rich fields of Chiadzwa in Manicaland between 2009 and 2013.

Secondly, it was to directly control the election management body, the Zimbabwe Election Commission (ZEC), and manipulate its key processes such as voter registration, Election Day logistics, collation of votes and custody of the voters roll. The result was an unprecedented defeat of the opposition in the rail roaded 2013 plebiscite which saw ZANU PF emerge with a super majority in parliament and its presidential candidate, Robert Mugabe, winning by over two thirds majority.

So meticulous was the electoral manipulation that even some ZANU PF candidates were shocked by how they had won including taking some key seats in the heart of the opposition stronghold, Harare the capital.

Following the resounding defeat of the opposition and its subsequent split, the military faction in ZANU PF fronted by the now President Emmerson Mnangagwa went for internal rivals first those led by then Vice President Joice Mujuru.

The faction was vanquished and before long they turned to the other faction organized under Grace Mugabe, the wife for the then President Robert Mugabe. The events would culminate in a military coup on 14 November 2017 and followed by dramatic events which saw the ascendancy of Emmerson Mnangagwa as President of ZANU PF and Zimbabwe along with leading figures of the military faction such as then Commander Defense Force, Constantine Chiwenga, Airforce Commander, Perence Shiri and Chief of Staff cum coup announcer Major General Sibusiso Moyo.

As Mnangagwa set out to settle with his new team and exert control of both his party and government, he parroted reform and democratization. So deceptive was his pretence that even sections of the international community, such as the British, sent in delegations seeking to reengage with a country they had isolated for decades because of human rights violations and the seizure of land from white commercial farmers during the chaotic land reform programme.

The Mnangagwa regime was also able to appropriate and deploy the opposition language of change, announcing themselves to be a ‘new dispensation.’ However, it was not to be long before the charade was exposed for what it is, the 2018 elections though held in a relatively peaceful environment, was held without implementation of requisite reforms and the military was clearly running the process behind the scene.

The post-election violence of 1 August 2018 in which armed forces shot and killed unarmed civilians in the full glare of international cameras provided a glimpse into what the Mnangagwa regime was in reality; a military junta.

The election was widely condemned, especially by the international observers from western democracies, as failing to satisfy the requirements of a free, fair, credible and verifiable process and thus not a true reflection of the will of the people of Zimbabwe. Since that election, the regime has intensified repression and its anti-west rhetoric, rekindling the Mugabe era mantra of sanctions being the root and main cause of all the problems in Zimbabwe.

The regime has also went into overdrive, arresting, abducting and torturing opposition activists and any who have dissenting opinions while it has not hesitated to deploy the military into the streets to shoot and kill protesters a case in point being the 14-15 January 2019 fuel protests in which 17 civilians were killed in cold blood by soldiers. Human rights organizations also reported that Dozens of women raped and sexually abused by security forces during the crackdown while hundreds were arrested and summarily sentenced to prison without fair trials.

When in early 2020, the novel corona virus strain SARS-COV-2 struck and the country imposed regulations to control its spread including a nationwide lockdown enforced by the security organs, the Mnangagwa regime used this as an excuse to further clampdown on dissent.

Opposition activists were arrested, abducted, tortured and some jailed for various reasons.

The regime also took advantage of the squabbles in the opposition to aid a faction which effectively further split the opposition and saw a large number of elected opposition officials in councils and parliament being recalled by the faction which took charge of the former MDCT name and headquarters. Further compounding the challenges facing the opposition are that some CSOs

who have been key allies in the democratic struggles are either too weak or have been coopted by the regime.

The sum total of all this has been that in 2020, the opposition has been crippled and appears to be at sea on what steps to take. Factors crippling it are both endogenous and exogenous; they are also complex and adaptive thus requiring a new model of leadership and strategy. If the opposition fails to refocus and adapt timeously then Zimbabwe’s democratization quest will be postponed further with unimaginable consequences on the political, economic and social wellbeing of citizens.

This think paper is therefore an attempt to answer the question of what is to be done. The paper is not prescriptive but attempts to give insights and generate debate on how the democratization agenda can be kept on track and multi-party democracy saved from apparent asphyxation by the ruling regime.

Unpacking the Zimbabwean opposition crisis

The opposition in Zimbabwe as organized under the MDC when it was formed in September 1999 was born with a defective body. While the workers dominated its founding structure, the inclusion of a motley of other functionaries under the ‘big tent’ for change made its ideological grounding very weak. It brought together capitalists in the form of former white commercial farmers who were in it to defend their land and wealth, neo-liberal professionals disillusioned about ZANU PF rule together with the poor working class.

While the diversity and inclusion was important to attract popular support across all sections of society, it also meant that internal contradictions were inevitable. Indeed many just identified with the popular slogans and rhetoric of the opposition such as ‘Chinja Maitiro/Guqula Izenzo’ catch lines or the ‘Mugabe must go’ mantra than any ideological position of the movement.

Another major defect the opposition had from its formation was that its primary political objective seemed to be premised on winning the next election and not deepening democratic culture and political consciousness.

Granted, the objective of any political party is to assume state power as soon as practicable after its formation and in electoral democracies that means focus of the party is on the next election to win or to grow its electoral constituency. However, in an authoritarian context of suppression, state capture, violence and general disdain for democracy and fundamental rights, then building political consciousness and developing a broad political programme of action away from electioneering is a must.

This is not to say that over the years the opposition has not engaged in any other means to advance its cause; it in fact it has done so with campaigns like the ‘Final Push’ (2003), the ‘Save Zimbabwe Campaign’ (2007) and the ‘No Reforms No Elections Campaign’ (2016-2018) being flagships in this category. What is observable in all this is that the campaigns were in fact part of the drive towards the next election rather than being a broad political drive towards building resistance from below and deepening political consciousness. This then explains why they had no lasting legacy beyond token electoral reforms or in most cases just headlines in the press and international human rights agenda.

With these two major defects, the opposition while enjoying expression of popular support was internally fragile and also not calibrated for the long haul in politics. These weaknesses soon showed themselves as early as 2002 when the opposition had to decide its position on land. In other words should it inform its supporters to also grab land in the farms or they should not partake of this.

In the end, the opposition broadly decided to stay out and those who had differing views, Munyaradzi Gwisai and company, were summarily expelled from the party and recalled from parliament.

In 2005, another contentious issue came to the fore which was around the participation of the opposition in the senate elections which ZANU PF had introduced as a way to expand parliament and address its own factional battles.

The question which arose in the opposition was whether or not to participate in these elections.

Again, factions quickly emerged around the question with one faction around the then Secretary General Welshman Ncube and another around then President, the late Morgan Tsvangirai.

When the matter was taken to vote with the Tsvangirai faction losing in the board room, it resulted in the first major split of the opposition into two distinct factions. With 2008 beckoning, the two factions battled ZANU PF and defeated it but through a combination of lack of unity from the opposition and ZANU PF brutality, the victory was undermined and reversed before and during the GNU which was formed after the election.

During the subsistence of the GNU, the opposition factions would be on many occasions at loggerheads with each other instead of cooperating. This illustrates the inflexibility of the opposition leadership to a politics of tolerance and inclusion perhaps a reflection of the broad winner take all political culture in Zimbabwe.

In the end when 2013 elections came, the opposition was vanquished in ways it could not explain yet it was to take it until 2016 for them to find common ground and still then new fissures emerged which are still haunting the opposition to date.

Post-2013 plebiscite, the opposition split again into factions one led by then Secretary General Tendai Biti calling itself the MDC Renewal Team and the other under longtime leader Morgan Tsvangirai. The key question at play was how to reconfigure post the devastating electoral defeat? Biti and company felt it was time to renew the party and retire Tsvangirai while the latter felt he still had one more fight come next election.

Again, this illustrates the limitations of creating a political programme around the next election.

The one time that the opposition almost seamlessly worked together including with a faction of the ruling party was during the coup in November 2017.

All the Members of Parliament and leading figures of the opposition sided with the military and the ZANU PF faction under it. This is another example of how reliance of a politics of electioneering and rhetoric can limit political stratagem. The ‘Mugabe must go’ mantra blinded the opposition leaders and their core urban support into endorsing a military coup at a time when they could have leveraged and pushed for democratic gains. Lacking a long-term strategy and simply focusing on the next election, the opposition was swept in the euphoria of the moment and failed to assert the democratization agenda when it mattered most.

In February 2018 following the passing on of the founding MDC president, Morgan Tsvangirai, the opposition entered another crisis as the fight for his replacement reached a crescendo.

Eventually, the faction led by the youthful Advocate Nelson Chamisa emerged in control but not after Tsvangirai’s longterm deputy Thokozani Khupe had left and with her faction under the auspices of the MDC T. Chamisa enjoyed support and endorsement of the former leaders who had split and formed different parties but had been brought back under an election pact called the

MDC Alliance, however court battles would keep raging until the Supreme Court ruling of 31 March 2020 which has brought fresh problems for the opposition and threaten to extinguish competitive multiparty democracy.

As 2021 begins, it is apparent that the opposition needs to be aware of this and also take stock of how its own endogenous factors have fueled the crisis it is facing.

In the next instalment, I shall address some of the pertinent issues the opposition need to confront in order to emerge stronger, establish a durable and resilient movement and develop an ideologically grounded organic leadership that can deal with the complex adaptive challenges of the struggle for democracy in Zimbabwe. First however I will deal with the pathways which the opposition can take going forward if it seeks to refocus its strategic thrust on the democratization agenda.

NOTE: This is the first part of a serialised position paper by Pride Mkono.

Pride Mkono is a social scientist studying towards an LLB with UNISA. He is also an FES and MWF fellow. As a leader he is a former president of ZINASU and former Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition Youth Chairperson. He is a thought leader and professionally he is into leadership training, communication strategy development and strategic planning. He is also a social justice activist and human rights defender and was arrested and charged with treason following the 14-15 January 2019.