Time to depersonalise political parties

In Zanu-PF some servile comrades said then President Robert Mugabe should in the future chair the Politburo and Cabinet from the Heroes Acre as a dead hero. They could not let themselves be outdone by his wife who had said that he should rule from the wheelchair.

By Nick Mangwana 

This columnist wrote in The People’s Voice then that this was insulting to both the President, Zanu-PF members and the broad Zimbabwean citizenry. The party and country had just entered the most obsequious period of its existence, which involved the personalisation of the party and country and turning them into personal possessions.

Some even invented a crime called, “Disrespecting the First Family”. Even though this was not on the statutes, people were arrested all the same. That was another chapter and another era. We are now in the new dispensation.

Naturally families inherit the estate that’s left either at the demise or retirement of the owner. But a party or country should not be treated as such. It has happened three times in North Korea. In Cuba they are on their second Castro. It’s unlikely they will have a third. In Zimbabwe, well we have restored the legacy, ethos and ideals of the liberation struggle, haven’t we? But the risk of personalising our parties remains alive.

Ndabaningi Sithole pretty much died with his Zanu (Ndonga) because it failed to have a life of its own to perpetuate its existence. We hear Muzorewa’s brother is trying to revive UANC. He believes it’s his responsibility as a brother to resurrect his brother’s party. That’s the problem there. Why does he feel the party belonged to his brother? Zimbabwe’s official opposition party, MDC-T is in conflagrations because of the seemingly general feeling within that it belongs to Mr Tsvangirai.

The fire found dry and wind conditions and it is being fanned by the hero-worshipping and deification of the tragically sick Tsvangirai. The internecine feuds between different party players, which has roped in stunned family members epitomises exactly what is wrong with our politics. A political party is not a personal possession of its founder or leader. It’s a people’s project.

The media have not helped. They have focussed a great deal on individuals and their personalities, instead of on policies. The party has to be an institution of great debate and aggregation of collective visions. Political parties should not be an audience of their leaders. They are supposed to be the governance body that exercises democratic values.

The party should be the domineering entity in our polity. We shouldn’t continue to gravitate towards the person. But Zanu-PF is one of the parties that have shown that loyalty does not lie with the personality, but our collective entity, which is our party. Those asking for Mr Tsvangirai to nominate a future leader for them are also showing their loyalty is with their leader and not the party. Zanu-PF experienced it with the former First Lady imploring the then President to “show us the horse.” She then said that if that was done everyone would fall in line and back that horse. She must have had a name (possibly hers) in mind. We know the rest of the story.

This is what is happening now in the MDC-T where Mr Tsvangirai’s word (regardless of whatever condition he is in) remains the be all and end all. Now lies are being peddled. Instead of people holding prayer vigils with burning candles outside the hospital showing solidarity with their stricken leader, they are trying to outdo each other to steal in and manipulate him.

The fact that they all come back with no audio/ video clip or even a small directive inscribed at the back of an envelope is indicative of the chicanery and subterfuge that is being deployed here. They just come back with their own word and everyone is supposed to believe them. Why when they clearly have no integrity?

And the despairing family is set against each other as efforts are being made to isolate and manipulate key members. The party has been driven to the anointing zone. A political party is an institution, which is the nexus between a vision and the people. If this is a way these guys run their own institution can there be an expectation that they would put in place governance infrastructure in the institutions of the State in the unlikely event of them gaining power?

Parties need to gain a life of their own so that their appeal is above that of their leader. They should be the institutional framework for governance. But when they are so personalised they become the antithesis of both governance and democracy.

These parties should be an aggregation of interests. Not personal interests, but interests that explain why people are in that one organisation. These are interests that bind the people together such as a value system and ideology, certain ideals or history.

But we are seeing an aggregation of personal interests above all else. In its current crisis the MDC-T has exposed a serious lack of a coherent system beyond the wishes or whims of its leader. There should be an accumulation and articulation of interests. What are the common interests at the moment beyond the acquisition of power?

It is time for political parties, including Zanu-PF, to revamp their political cultures. The cult culture does not work. It kills the party. The current political party attitudes, behaviour and style do not work. It is time to depersonalise these institutions. This is why that One Centre of Power stuff was gross to say the least. We said it then, we say it now.

It was democratically disgusting. But we continue to see it in the official opposition. They are not just being honest about it like Zanu-PF was, but it is there in deed, in style and substance. It puts a person at the centre of an institution and everyone and everything subordinate to a personality regardless of their condition of health or state of mind or age. Everyone starts to pay homage to a person fighting for their life, not out of love but seeking the elusive “endorsement”. A political party should not become a centre point for personal and family conflict. It is not an inheritance, which everyone wants bequeathed to them.

Parties have no homogeneity of membership, therefore, would naturally have internal contradictions. But these cleavages must be ideologically based and not based on vested personal interests. That’s pathetic. Look at what it has done to the MDC-T. Whole adults are laying siege to an oncology unit seeking patronage.

A whole executive full of lawyers and other elite professionals can’t decisively politically euthanise (for want of a better word) their leader. Probably Mr Tsvangirai is hanging on, not because he is power hungry.

But because he is apprehensive about a potential implosion of his party so close to an election. The leadership themselves allowed so much personalisation that nobody has enough nether spherical objects to call for the national committee meeting to act as an august body to elect an acting president among itself in a democratic way until the fate Tsvangirai is clear. They can easily retain him as their candidate for now if they wish, but more decisively euthanise his political career, which at the present must be the least of his worries. But this nonsense of “not inheriting the estate of the living (kusagara nhaka yemunhu mupenyu)” should come to a stop. A political party is not someone’s possession. It belongs to the people therefore it has a life of its own. Let’s look around us.

A few days ago the inimitable Gerry Adams of Sein Fein stood down as its leader and Mary Lou McDonald took over. This is how parties should be. Right now Mr Tsvangirai is being treated much graciously by the Zanu-PF leadership than by his own comrades. With the current goings on it would be a surprise if some members of Mr Tsvangirai’s family vote Zanu-PF. The MDC-T leadership is dismally failing to effect a democratic change of leadership as their name suggests.

A change of leadership helps with fresh thinking and reinvigorates an organisation to refocus and realign to remain fit for purpose. That is what is happening in Zanu-PF. It is the depersonalisation of an organisation.

You cannot continue to have a party which appeals to the voters’ emotions over the ills of yesteryear when clearly the voters themselves have shown their own adaptability by choosing looking ahead against driving with their eyes only fixed in the rear-view mirror.

Personalised parties only serve the interests of the elite whilst pretending to have those of the population at heart. They whip sentiment and emotions of the people but it’s all a ruse. It is only parties that are genuinely controlled by the people in which the people don’t get so personal about their leaders, parties, which only focus on their vision, which will remain fit for purpose.

Personal outfits, which play on sentiment or tribal emotions, have no place in our polity and in the direction which we all want our country to take.

Party members should be wary of being hypnotised by a personality cult. The party is bigger than any single individual.

As they say, “only a foolish fly follows a corpse into the grave”.