Big Saturday Read: MDC – The challenge beyond Congress

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By Alex Magaisa

POLITICS questions are best solved in the court of politics. There is no point running around with a piece of paper without the people. This is what I wrote a few weeks ago after a High Court judge ordered the MDC to, among other things, hold an extraordinary congress. That decision was for the political players to make and to implement.

When a private voluntary organisation suffers procedural failings and it is clear that such failings can be corrected by its members on the basis of majority rule, then it is futile for a court of law to make orders that can easily be overturned by the members.

Since that contentious judgment, MDC has gone on to hold an elective congress, which was, by all accounts, a success. The congress is the court of politics where members make their decisions on the basis of majoritarianism. The majority made its decisions, unanimously electing Nelson Chamisa as the leader for the next five years. A team was elected to work with him.

While there are pending matters in the courts of law, the reality is that the court of politics has made its decisions. This is not to argue that people who are aggrieved in the court of politics must never seek recourse in the courts of law. Like all organisations, political parties are subject to the law to which they must comply. However, those called upon to make decisions will tread cautiously lest they make decisions that amount to exercises in futility.

You cannot force membership or leadership upon a private voluntary organisation where members themselves are in a position to make that decision. There is a reason why despite being provided for at law, election petitions to overturn electoral outcomes are very difficult. They impose a huge burden upon judges. This is why it is very difficult to overturn an election result, whatever the irregularities. This is why an electoral strategy that places faith in the judicial process is always tricky, therefore it is better to use strategies that obviate the need to ask judges to make such decisions.

The court of politics has now settled the leadership question in the MDC. Whatever contestations remain can only be of nuisance value. Those behind it will only generate more resentment and ridicule to themselves from would-be supporters. In all fairness, in the context of opposition politics, the lines between the different parties are now clear. The party led by Thokozani Khupe held its congress in 2018 and has operated as a separate entity for a year. Indeed, it is part of an engagement process with the government which is totally different from the position held by the MDC led by Chamisa.

These are, to the average onlooker, two different political parties. Parties live or die on account of political support, and that is where they must now focus – looking to appeal to the people as they build their political capital. As I argue later in this piece, going forward, the challenge is to find common ground not to deepen the divisions and acrimony. If anything, the MDC congress has reminded everyone that there are no permanent rivals. Rivals of yesteryear have become allies.

Challenge ahead

For the new MDC leadership, the great challenge post-congress is focusing on the primary mission of any political party: to win control of State power. In the 20 years of its existence, this has proved elusive. While much of this has to do with the machinations of a wily and devious opponent, the party must also use this opportunity to self-introspect and identify what needs improvement.

To be sure, there are lessons which ought to be learned and corrections which have to be made. The party must invest in a scientific assessment of previous elections, noting its weaknesses and the strengths of the opponent. For example, the rural dilemma is an issue that requires scientific analysis, going beyond anecdotes and rhetoric representations. By the last census, 67% of the population is rural. This is where the majority of voters and constituencies are located.

The MDC traditionally does well in urban areas but, according to official statistics, that’s only 23% of the population. By contrast, Zanu PF performs better in rural areas, where the majority lives. Since elections are based on the principle of majoritarianism, is it any wonder that Zanu PF tends to perform very well in parliamentary elections? It has won two thirds majority in the last two elections.

If Zimbabwe’s political system were like the British where the head of government comes from the party with the most seats in parliament, Zanu PF would probably be more comfortable because of its control of Parliament and the backing it draws from the rural population.

But why does Zanu PF do well in rural areas but not in urban areas? An answer to this question is complex. There is no single explanation. In the past, I have attributed the “Panopticon Effect” as an influential factor in the political behaviour of rural voters. The political economy of the rural voter creates a complex system by which the voter is highly dependent upon and fearful of the State which is represented by Znu PF. The traditional leadership and other local government apparatus aide and abate Zanu PF’s cause in these crucial areas.

But this is not enough. There must be other persuasive explanations for the seemingly incongruous behaviour of the rural voter – the most abused and impoverished but also the most ardent backer of a failing party. When I recommend a scientific assessment, it is to crack this rural dilemma and to find more effective ways of winning political capital from this vast reservoir. Elections are won and lost in this zone and this is a critical task for the new leadership.

The second major task for the new leadership is to be a more effective opposition. While challenging the legitimacy of the regime is an important strategy, it is not enough. As times move and the last election becomes a distant memory, the legitimacy issue will not have the same weight as it did in the months after the election. It is critical to go toe-to-toe with Zanu PF in all spaces – Parliament, media and other public spaces.

The idea of a Shadow Cabinet has never gained traction but that is partly because it is a foreign transplant that is not compelled by law or convention. It is also because the opposition has formal structures such as the standing committee which are elected and have far more authority than a Shadow Cabinet. Where it works, in the U.K. for example, the Leader of the opposition is recognised both by law and convention as is his Shadow Cabinet which also receives financial and material support for its activities.

The Standing Committee has to be the Shadow Cabinet, standing toe-to-toe with Zanu PF. For this to work the standing committee needs a back office which performs research and advisory services. This is why the party’s secretariat needs to be professionalised and strengthened.

I have said before that the party has to re-model itself administratively so that it runs like a blue-chip company. With its members as the shareholders and the leadership as the board, the party needs an executive management of competent persons with proven managerial skills to build a strong machine. Just as a company raises funds from its shareholders and by borrowing, the party must be able to mobilise financial backing from its members and also engage in productive investments.

Being an effective opposition means not only responding to whatever the ruling party does or presents but also setting the agenda. Big issues that demonstrate that the party is better than its rival do not have to wait until the months before an election.

The Economy

It goes without saying that the most pressing issue of the day is the ECONOMY. This has brought the proverbial “bread and butter questions” to the forefront of political debate. That the ruling party has failed to rescue, let alone manage the economy is self-evident. It is increasingly clear that it has no solution.

Against this background, the question is not therefore what is the problem. It is not even who is the problem. Any person can reasonably describe the nature of the problem. They can also pinpoint the author of the disastrous situation. What they want from the opposition is a demonstration that it has the solution and that it is a viable alternative government.

This can be shown not by the usual commentary of the government’s failings but by presenting a cogent set of alternative ideas that appeal to the people. That the people are in dire need of a solution is plain. Public discourse led by the MDC must be dominated by ideas, policy proportions and an action plan. The question that most ordinary Zimbabweans as is along these lines: saka mati toita sei? (what shall we do?). It’s the kind of question that is, in fact, a great plea for leadership. The people want a signal. They want a big idea and direction from their leaders.

This may sound daunting but that is the heavy responsibility that comes with assuming leadership. People from all walks of life place their hopes on your shoulders. They expect to be led. Leadership is not a game. It is life and people do bet their lives on their leaders to do the right thing; to show them the right way. That is why men and women slept outside on cold nights in notoriously chilly Gweru when they came for congress. They did so because they are true believers. Betrayal would be a great offence to humankind and common decency.

Public Trust

Zimbabwe is a small country; the community of elites is even smaller. All over the world, the general public is losing trust with political elites. Part of the reason is that political elites exist in a world that is far removed from the world in which the rest lives. They live in the same neighbourhoods, eat and drink in the same establishments and probably play old together. These proximities mean political elites from either side of the political divide often mix and mingle, something that members of the public cannot understand.

To be sure, there is nothing particularly wrong with establishing collegial relationships with fellow political players. After all, politics is not a declaration of war. You don’t become enemies simply because you have different political views. Some of the norms that I have encouraged, such as mutual respect and forbearance, grow in an environment where political players interact. Indeed, some potentially explosive situations are often prevented in informal spaces where political protagonists meet.

Nevertheless, there are limits. People lose trust in politics and politicians when they see their leaders doing things by night that they would have been opposing during the day. There are certain values that parties and people hold sacrosanct. They must be upheld at all times. Situations where political leaders accuse Zanu PF of corruption but they then do business together trouble the public and rightly so. Situations where political leaders rail against corruption but they are seen in courts of law defending the same people confuse the public.

Such situations create avoidable conflicts. They may not matter from a professional perspective but they are inconsistent with the political views and values they represent. Some things that are legally and professionally right may nevertheless be politically unwise. I hope the MDC leaders will for the sake of public trust in politics exercise better political judgment. The sight of an MDC political leader representing an allegedly corrupt character might not cause concern among the elites but it does leave a sour and confusing taste in the mouth of the average supporter. This is supposed to be common sense, let alone consistent with political sense.

The reason why concern has been raised over the appointment of High Court judge, Justice Loice Matanda-Moyo as head of ZACC is not because she lacks competence. It is that as wife of a powerful political player, Retired Lieutenant General S.B. Moyo, who famously announced the coup in November 2017, the appointment raises an unfortunate perception of conflicts of interest. It matters not that there are no actual conflicts. The mere fact that she is connected to a politically significant person and occupies a role that requires utmost degree of independence raises perceptions of a potential conflict. That perception is damaging. It is enough to cause embarrassment.

To the rest of the world watching Zimbabwe, the unavoidable impression is that the wife of a powerful former general, a securocrat, who is the country top diplomat is now the country’s Anti-corruption Czar. It doesn’t read well. For observers watching from a distance, it’s the stuff that is often found in banana republics. And in business, perception matters a great deal, often more than reality. She might well surprise her critics, and the hope is that she does, but she has a herculean task ahead of her, to persuade the non-believers.

This is why MDC politicians need to tread carefully in order to avoid situations that place them in conflict with their roles, principles and values as opposition leaders. Too many people have invested their hopes in them as political leaders. This is too great a responsibility to sacrifice on the altar of other professional obligations. Whatever their professional obligations and ethics, the ethics of representing the people in the court of politics must take priority. Do not betray their trust.

No permanent rivals

When I was in Nigeria as part of an international election observers’ team, two things left a lasting impression: one was how big Nigeria is, both in terms of territory and the population. It became clear from the onset that organising and running an election in that vast country was quite a daunting challenge. I was not too surprised when they failed to hold an election at the first time of asking. It had to be postponed by a week.

The second was how political players seemed to move seamlessly between political parties. Politics here is not defined by ideology, said a Nigerian colleague, explaining the political dynamics in Africa’s most populous country. It was fascinating meeting politicians speaking for one party who just months earlier had belonged to a rival party and vice-versa. It was like footballers changing teams – one team this season, a rival the next season. Speaking to more knowledgeable colleagues, this seemed normal.

In Zimbabwe, people are still suspicious when politicians who previously belonged to another party find themselves looking for a home in a former rival. Indeed, there is still a great deal of suspicion. This is partly because politics has been violent, highly acrimonious and vindictive. One is either Zanu PF or MDC, with very little room in the middle ground. A switch by a politician has often been presented as a major political scalp. New converts are paraded before cameras reminiscent of battles between religions in the past.

However, the fundamental ruptures in both Zanu PF and the MDC in the past decade have created greater opportunities for such movements and switches. The is something that people are going to have to get used to however hard it will be to receive in the formative period. The MDC Congress has just demonstrated that rivals today can easily become allies tomorrow. It also reminds us that when people contest politically they must remain civil and respectful to each other. You never know when you might find common ground.

The new reunited MDC in part represents an important legacy of the last years of the Morgan Tsvangirai era. He might not have been physically present at the recent congress, but his hand was all too visible and influential. Before his end, Tsvangirai took time to make amends with his erstwhile comrades and laid the ground for a reunification of their parties. The congress reaffirmed this vision. It would have been problematic had the tacit political settlement reached before Tsvangirai’s departure had not been upheld at the congress.

To his credit, Chamisa followed the path left by his illustrious predecessor, itself a mark of sound leadership. It’s a new era but one that is rooted in history. To their credit also, Professor Welshman Ncube and Tendai Biti exercised sound political judgment by continuing where they had left with Tsvangirai as they found common ground. Their recognition of and deference to Chamisa’s leadership has been an important cog in the rebuilding process and long may that continue.

It is this mutual respect, humility and political sense that has solidified the political settlement. It will endure if they all continue to cultivate those norms, including forbearance in the interests of the party and country. It remains clear that they are stronger together bringing their best qualities and therefore trumping any weaknesses. Both domestically and internationally, the unity of purpose raises confidence. Together they carry an enormous responsibility and one hopes they will carry it with dignity and never betray their multitude of supporters.

There is a big lesson here to: the door is not closed on those who are currently outside the party. Each side must continue to treat each other with respect. The histories shared by all these actors are too important to be thrown away in a moment of political pique.

To the leader, Chamisa, this is the time to build, which also includes rebuilding broken bridges. “Leave a way to life” is one of the principles of the great war strategist Sun Tzu. For the ancient Chinese war general, a dog that is backed into a tight corner, without an escape route, has no choice but to fight to the death. The only potential route is though you. Such an animal is extremely dangerous because it has nothing to lose. It’s different though when it is allowed a way out. In the current context, it means treating the defeated with dignity.

In any event, there is no better time to make allies out of opponents. A united house of both winners and losers is better than a house of winners alone: the great task of rebuilding after an electoral contest is to ensure that you carry not only those who won but also those who lost. By their very nature, electoral competitions cause attrition and produce divisions. The losers have to be gracious but more importantly the winners must show magnanimity.

As I have already stated in respect of my observations in Nigeria, an ally today is a potential opponent tomorrow and an opponent today is a potential ally tomorrow. If anything, the outcome of the Congress proves as much. Some were opponents not so long ago; others who are out were allies. Things don’t always remain the same. That water shapes itself according to the terrain is another Sun Tzu classic.

Finally, the great economic problems notwithstanding, the regime will keep hanging on. Regimes do not just collapse. The people might suffer but members of the regime will continue to extract from the state. In fact the grand heist will grow in size as members of the regime try desperately to grab every morsel from the state. They are now implementing a scorched earth policy – stealing, selling off and burning everything behind them. Future generations are at risk of finding virtually everything mortgaged off to foreigners. The main opposition has a legitimate and unassailable mandate from the court of politics. The leadership has a heavy load on its shoulders. But it is not an impossible load.