Part Two: Critical Reflections on Nelson Chamisa’s Leadership

Nelson Chamisa


A week ago, I wrote an article in which I offered some critical reflections on Zimbabwe’s main opposition leader Nelson Chamisa’s leadership style and approach. I opined that Nelson Chamisa is both a product of and a victim of a political environment characterised by a two-party system steeped in a society that is generally intolerant, lacks a democratic culture, and has high affinity for messianic or individual centered politics. I argued that this political environment appears to be constructing him into a populistic and autocratic opposition leader. This may undermine Zimbabwe’s quest for a substantively democratic society.  The article can be accessed here.

I have received various kinds of responses to that article. Regrettably, most of the responses were in the form of social media posts rather than well detailed arguments. For that reason, Dr Tinashe Gumbo deserves my salutation because he actually penned an article titled “In Conversation with Dr Justice Alfred Mavedzenge, but not necessarily in defence of Advocate Nelson Chamisa.”

Overall, I am pleased that there was some level of critical engagement with the substance of my previous article and several important issues were raised in the process of that engagement. In the interests of democratic debate, I have decided to dedicate this article to engage with those issues.

Of dissenting judgments and dissenting political opinions

In my other life I work with judges, and I get the privilege (sometimes) to have private chats with some of them. To be clear, they are not from Zimbabwe. I work with judges from across the world but mostly outside of Zimbabwe.  Some of the judges with whom I have shared a glass of wine have told me of their experiences after handing down dissenting judgments on sensitive matters. I will never forget the chat I had with Dame Linda Dobbs, at a dinner when we hosted United States Supreme Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor. In October 2004, Dame Linda Dobbs (DBE) became the first non-white high court judge in the UK. A phenomenal woman that one!  We were seating by the fire in Cape Town and she told me of her own experiences.

Judges who make dissenting judgments on sensitive and emotive issues are often vilified and accused of being out of touch with reality. However, in many instances and later on, their dissenting judgments become the popular law. When the emotions have died down and the reality has sunk in, many will start paying attention to the contents of the dissenting judgment. It is at that point that they start appreciating the value of the issues raised in the dissenting judgment. For that reason, as lawyers we often say “be careful because today’s dissenting judgment may be tomorrow’s law.”

The late United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Ginsburg once said “The greatest dissents do become court opinions and gradually over time their views become the dominant view…and it’s the dissenter’s hope that they are writing not for today but for tomorrow.” When I penned my previous article in which I was critical of my brother Nelson Chamisa’s leadership style, I was doing it mainly to equip you and him for tomorrow not today, but more importantly for the sake of multi-party democracy in Zimbabwe. In a way, I made a dissenting judgment of Nelson Chamisa’s leadership qualities and, much of what I said in that article may start making sense during the first week of August in 2023 and beyond, if corrective measures are not urgently undertaken by the opposition CCC and its leader Nelson Chamisa.

Summary of responses received

As I mentioned earlier, I received several responses which agreed with the views expressed in my article. I will not discuss these here. For purposes of promoting robust debate, I will address the counter-arguments expressed by my colleagues in response to my article. I have identified the following as the main “counter-arguments:” (a) Justice Mavedzenge is doing political bidding for someone (b) Justice Mavedzenge’s assessment of Chamisa as a dictator is without evidence and is conceptually contradictory. (c) When scrutinizing Nelson Chamisa and the CCC, “we” must avoid using language which reinforces ZANU PF’s criticism of CCC and Chamisa (d) Justice Mavedzenge should have privately communicated his views to Chamisa. (c) Academics must form their own party and leave Chamisa alone (d) Academic theory is useless in Zimbabwe. I now turn to addressing these counter-arguments in the usual no holds bar style, and I hope I will do justice to them all.

Political bidding

Some who are close to Nelson Chamisa accused me of doing political bidding for “someone”. It is their considered view that I wrote the article in order to prop up certain individuals within CCC who feel sidelined by Nelson Chamisa. The identity of these individuals whom, allegedly, I am bidding for was never revealed to me. However, I am aware that a witch hunt ensued immediately after I published the article. Some innocent people, including outside of CCC, received phone calls and were accused of being the brains behind my article. My sincere apologies to those who were and continue to be victimized on the basis of my article.

I was not surprised by this kind of response as I had anticipated it. This is why I noted in my previous article that “In both ZANU PF and CCC, there is always a legion of politicians who are eagerly waiting to worship the ground that Emmerson Mnangagwa and Nelson Chamisa walk on.” I had already anticipated that this particular group would feel obligated to undermine my views by casting me as a person who is acting on behalf of some disgruntled politicians within or outside of CCC. I had intended not to respond to them. However, I was greatly saddened to receive a message from Nelson Chamisa in which he said to me “You are being abusive. Whoever you are bidding for, God bless you”. This is not the type of response one would expect from a leader who maintains that he is a democratic alternative. Where ZANU PF demonstrates aversion to criticism and scrutiny, I expect anyone who poses as a democratic alternative to do the opposite of ZANU PF.

I found this response from Nelson Chamisa and his clique to be hypocritical and anti-democratic, and in a way confirms my earlier criticism of their dictatorial style of leadership. It also confirms my earlier concern that Chamisa’s leadership style mirrors a ZANU PF culture. The only difference may be that ZANU PF has access to state apparatus to enforce its dictatorial culture across the country, while Nelson Chamisa and his inner circle have very little to work with as they are currently out of government. Here is why I say so.

Whenever I have criticized the ZANU PF government for corruption and human rights violations, I have been accused of being a puppet of some Western governments. In some cases, I have been accused by ZANU PF functionaries of doing political bidding for Nelson Chamisa and the CCC. Many academics and citizens have received similar responses from ZANU PF, as a way of dismissing and avoiding engaging with their views, which ZANU PF finds to be inconvenient truth. Sadly, Chamisa and his inner group appear to emulate this as a way of engaging those with divergent views.

Perhaps, this is the tragic result of having lived and operated for several years under an autocratic political system, and they have copied the same. Just like Emmerson Mnangagwa and Robert Mugabe of ZANU PF, Nelson Chamisa of CCC does not believe that an academic or a citizen like me has a brain to form a view without someone operating behind me. For the avoidance of doubt, the views in that article are mine based on my observations and research. Whenever I have written criticizing ZANU PF, I did not do so because Nelson Chamisa or someone else had sent me. Similarly, when I write and I am critical of Nelson Chamisa and his inner clique, it is not because ZANU PF or anyone in CCC has sent me. I simply write what I like.  My role as a scholar is to ignite and promote debate on issues of public interest.

Can one be a dictator and a weak leader at the same time?

Some, including Dr Pedzisai Ruhanya, who responded to my article counter-argued that it is conceptually oxymoronic to characterize any person as both a dictator and weak. It is their considered view that, a dictator can only be a strong leader. They cited Hitler, Shaka, Mussolini, Mugabe, Napoleon, Ian Douglas Smith and Yoweri Kaguta Museveni as examples. In his Facebook post, my brother Dr Pedzisai Ruhanya asked “How does one reach the dictatorial level of virtually controlling, capturing and dictating the entire state, its institutions or the political economy of the state (agents, structures and institutions) or organisation in the Weberian bureaucratic ideal-type if they are weak.”  Dr Pedzisai Ruhanya is a well-read political researcher with considerable recollection of literature.

Dr Ruhanya cited the various works of Machiavell, Antonia Gramsci and Max Weber, to support his contention that a leader cannot be a dictator and weak at the same time. In response to my brother Dr Ruhanya and those who associate with his view, I submit that they need to revisit their understanding of leadership and dictatorships. In particular, it is important to re-read the context within which Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavell wrote his  16th century treatise “The Prince” and portrays the idea of a strongman. And it is also critical to challenge, where necessary, some of these age old theories. When you do so, you will realise that the so called “strongmen” are very weak men. Dictators have a public image of being strongmen yet behind that veneer of macho is a very weak “man” driven by irrational fear and crying for help.  But let us consider first what we mean by a weak leader.

In his essay “The Three Types of Legitimate Rule”, Max Weber observes that there are three types of authority. First is what he calls “Legal authority” which is based on a system of rules that are enforced through administrative structures and through tribunals, in accordance with known principles. In this system, Max Weber says the leader is appointed or elected through known legal procedures, and no one (including the leader) is above the rules of the organisation.

The second type of authority is what Max Webber classified as “traditional authority” and it is derived from traditions and customs. The third type is the “charismatic authority” which is based on the personal charisma and charm of an individual’s personality. In his book titled “Max Weber: An Intellectual Portrait”, Reinhard Bendix says a charismatic leader is one who demonstrates that he or she possesses the right to lead by virtue of magical powers, prophecies, and heroism. Lieutenants of a charismatic leader are chosen from amongst those who show personal devotion to the ruler.

Therefore, according to Max Weber leadership can be based on legal authority, traditional authority or charismatic authority. In today’s world, leadership can also be derived from a mixture of these. For example, although in Zimbabwe traditional chiefs derive their authority from customs and traditions, their status and powers are recognised by law and they are bound by legal rules which are meant to be enforceable in tribunals such as courts of law. Therefore, the framework of traditional leadership in Zimbabwe is a combination of both the Weberian conception of traditional authority and legal authority. It is also possible that one’s leadership can be based on traditional authority or legal authority, and they also demonstrate charisma. For example, Nelson Mandela (both as the President of the African National Congress and President of South Africa) was a charismatic leader. His followers respected him because of his heroism as an anti-apartheid struggle stalwart but his authority was based on legal rules as set out in the laws of South Africa and internal rules of the ANC.

Nelson Chamisa claims to be a democratic alternative to ZANU PF. Therefore, we can only analyse his leadership style from Max Weber’s “legal authority class” point of view and determine whether in that sense he is a strong or weak leader.  If Chamisa was campaigning to be a traditional leader, we would evaluate his leadership potential using Max Weber’s conception of traditional authority.

With this in mind, I persist with my view that Chamisa’s leadership (at this point) is autocratic and weak. As I demonstrated in my previous article, he runs a party with no set internal rules, on the pretext that he wants to avoid infiltration from ZANU PF. This is just a smokescreen for Chamisa’s centralization of power and capture of the party, to remove all the people whom he feels are potential challenges to his ambitions. I suspect that similar to Morgan Tsvangirai, he wants to be President of CCC for the next 20 years in the event that he does not succeed to capture state power. The world over, political parties have constitutions that are publicly accessible, including in autocratic countries. Indeed, the infiltration of CCC is one of the top priorities for ZANU PF and they may have already succeeded to do so my ensuring that Chamisa’s inner clique itself is infested with their assets. ZANU PF does not need CCC to adopt a constitution first in order for them to infiltrate the party. If they needed CCC to have a constitution first in order to infiltrate it, they would have by now used their parliamentary majority to enact a law compelling all parties to register, and having a written constitution would have been one of the requirements.  Chamisa makes major party decisions (including change of names, funding issues and key appointments) without consulting anyone outside of his inner circle.  I discussed these issues in my last article, in my attempt to explain why I think in Nelson Chamisa we may have a dictator in the making. But I have been challenged to explain why I think he is weak. Here are a few signs which suggest that the CCC leader is weak.

Chamisa is failing to hold the CCC together. Out of frustration, several vibrant comrades have demobilized from the party, and some (whose commitment to mass mobilization) have even left the party to focus on their personal lives. The party has been unable to mount a robust voter registration exercise. Yes, it is true that the government may be deliberately frustrating youth voter registration by delaying to issue young people with Identity Documents (IDs). But it is also true that already there are over two million potential voters with National Identify Documents who are either not registered or who simply do not vote. CCC has been unable to tap into and mobilise this pool of potential voters to register because those who have been committed to that process have been frustrated by Chamisa’s self-centered leadership style, and the toxic environment it has created within the party.

Under Nelson Chamisa’s leadership, the CCC has failed to mount a robust response to the unjust incarceration of its members and leaders, including Job Sikhala and Makomborero Haruzivishe. Despite massive goodwill from Zimbabweans and non-Zimbabweans, the party is financially broke and does not have an organizationally driven fund-raising strategy. Anyone can just start “a go fund me” on behalf of CCC, and this has only but created chaos and Twars which have led some to recuse themselves from fund raising. The party has so far failed to mount a robust regional engagement process, including on critical issues such as migration. Rather this has been left to individuals like journalist Hopewell Chino’no and a few others. The party and Nelson Chamisa have taken uninformed and self-defeating positions on strategic regional issues. For example, during the recent Kenyan elections, instead of maintaining strategic silence until the elections are concluded the party tacitly declared its support for Raila Odinga. By so doing, the party has missed out on the chance of having President Dr William Samoei Arap Ruto as a regional ally. Issues that are supposed to be kept secret are discussed in public while issues that are supposed to be in the public domain are kept as secrets. For example, why would a serious party that is operating under repressive conditions showcase (on twitter) its rural penetration strategy and efforts? Why would a serious party advertise on twitter its anti-election rigging work, such as the development of an App to map polling stations and expose vote rigging? Why would a serious party that is afraid of infiltration keep its Constitution as a secret document but reveal its election strategies and discuss them on social media?

The above listed are just a few (amongst many) of the strategic and tragic blunders being made by Nelson Chamisa and his inner clique. Unfortunately, these blunders project the CCC as an unserious and disorganized party. But these blunders are a result of lack of competent leadership that is further weakened by the dictatorial approach which is applied by Nelson Chamisa to manage the party. So yes Dr Ruhanya,  I persist with my view that Nelson Chamisa is both a dictator and a weak leader in the sense that he has centralized power within CCC around himself (dictatorship) while at the same time he lacks the capacity to craft a clear vision for the party beyond quoting self-serving scriptures and running the risk of profaning the Holy name of God.

Dictators are usually (though not always) weak persons. The fact that they end up enjoying absolute control of the entire state machinery is not a sign of or a result of the strength of their leadership. Some dictators are often helped by circumstances to get into power. They get into leadership by chance. They emerge at a time when the nation is experiencing a leadership vacuum. Because of their charisma and great oratory skills, they may succeed to capture the imagination of the nation and actually become popular. With the immense help of and handholding by gullible and self-serving scholars and technocrats, such leaders may end up succeeding to capture state power. However, once they capture state power, they often use it to compensate for their weaknesses.

For example, where they are intellectually weak and can’t use the power of persuasion, they compensate that with use of force. To some extent, Adolf Hitler and Frederick Chiluba (of Zambia) fit within this category. They were great orators and demagogues who were capable of convincing their nations that they could fix the economic crisis. They were helped by intellectuals of their times to capture state power. Of course, I have to concede that it takes some great courage and skills of manipulation for a dictator to remain in power. The examples cited by Dr Ruhanya (of Hitler, Shaka, Mussolini, Mugabe, Napoleon, Ian Douglas Smith and Yoweri Kaguta Museveni) are men who were able to maintain their selfish hold onto power for a very long time. Since Nelson Chamisa is not yet in power, we wait to see if he has similar skills.

However, I still maintain my point that more often dictators (who are in government) are weak leaders who cannot maintain their (legal) authority (in the Weberian sense) through ideas and they resort to force. For dictators who are outside of government, it is different. These ones deploy their oratory skills to compensate for their incompetence and intellectual weaknesses by making poetic statements and speeches which carry very little substance. They weaponize religion to hide their limited capacity to craft a solid vision and failure to provide practical leadership on practical issues. They malign those who challenge them intellectually and use the little power they have to elbow out such people from the organisation. They surround themselves with individuals who (for selfish and self-serving reasons) cannot tell them that the emperor is naked. However, if they manage to capture state power, they will become like Robert Mugabe and Frederick Chiluba. Conceptually, dictators are weak and insecure people who are driven by irrational fear of what might befall them. What is interesting is that this behavior does not align with what we know about dictators as strongmen. Their fear is so irrational that when they are criticised, they immediately feel threatened.

To criticize Nelson Chamisa publicly is to arm ZANU PF

Amongst the responses I received is the counter-argument that when scrutinizing Nelson Chamisa and the CCC, we must avoid using language which reinforces ZANU PF’s criticism of CCC and Chamisa. It has also been counter-argued that I should have privately communicated my views to Chamisa. These responses would have made sense if I were an advisor to Nelson Chamisa. I am not and I do not aspire to be. I am a scholar who is passionate about contributing towards the building of democratic societies. As a scholar, I do this by igniting and participating in debates on issues of public concern. It is up to any leader, including Nelson Chamisa to take or reject my views. As scholars, we must refuse to surrender to the tyranny of silence for any reason. If Chamisa fails to capture state power in 2023, it is not because we are criticizing him. Rather it is because he is scoring own goals and ignoring constructive ideas, in an environment where ZANU PF is already employing all the repressive tricks in its book to retain power. Hakainde Hichilema in Zambia has demonstrated to us that it is possible to capture state power through elections in a politically repressive system, but one must not score own goals. Of course, Zimbabwe is not Zambia, but the reality is that despite the repressive conditions, Chamisa has chosen to participate in the electoral ritual of 2023. He therefore cannot continue to cry foul about the unfairness of the electoral environment. Rather, society is looking up to him as its leader, to spearhead a process of crafting and implementing robust strategies to win those elections. Society expects him not to score own goals in a match where the referee is already biased against them. This delusional idea that one can succeed alone (in a repressive environment) without a strong party or movement is fatal to the country’s democratic aspirations. The CCC has reported that there have been several assassination attempts on Chamisa’s life. If anything (God forbid) was to befall Nelson Chamisa, what would happen to the CCC’s cause for democratic change? You cannot build a sustainable struggle for democratic change around a single individual.

Is theory useless in contexts such as Zimbabwe?

Another counter-argument raised is that academic theory is useless in a context such as Zimbabwe. I would have been less concerned if this counter-argument had not been expressed by people whom I consider to be civic leaders and some of whom are undertaking doctoral studies. It’s either these civic leaders are intellectually lazy or they simply lack the courage to tell the emperor that he is naked. The primary role of a civic leader and any serious doctoral candidate is to provide thought leadership in order to influence behavioral change in society. For civic leaders, this is achieved through designing civic education and engagement programs. Such programs cannot ignore theory. In fact, I would argue that robust and clear civic education programs on any issue must be based on theory. For example, when you encourage people to register and vote, you are simply applying the political theory of civic duty, to persuade communities to participate in public affairs and shape their government. The formation of the MDC (itself the mother of CCC) was a result of serious ideation by the intellectuals of that time, in convergence with several democratic forces. The Constitution that we have today was a product of a long-drawn process of ideation which culminated in the formation of the National Constitutional Assembly.

Ideas and theory shape the world. They are relevant in developing solutions to get out of deep crisis of any nature. Recently, the world was engulfed in a COVID-19 pandemic and has only been able to emerge from the crisis when vaccines and other health care strategies were designed. These were designed from theory! Today we are advocating for separation of powers as a way of strengthening democracy. Have we forgotten that this idea was developed by philosopher Montesquieu, as part of his theory? What about Karl Max whose ideology continues to anchor and inform the framing of labour rights in contemporary Constitutions and international human rights law?

Each revolution and each class has its own public intellectuals who, amongst other services help to shape and define the national question.  Perhaps, as a country we are still trapped in this crisis because we have no respect for academic theory. We do not pose to reflect before we embrace certain “strongmen” as our political saviors.  This is despite our reputation as one of the “most educated countries”. In other countries, governments and political parties rely on think tanks for solutions to their challenges. These think tanks are made of intellectuals, some of whom are Zimbabwean academics. I have also had the privilege to be a member of some of the think tanks and witnessed first-hand how theory can successfully inform practice and guide a nation out of a crisis. It seems to me that in Zimbabwe, we are trapped in a revolution that has no intellectuals and as a result, we are desperate and are without thought leadership.

To ignore theory is to ignore ideas. Out of necessity, our leaders must engage with it as part of the process of developing solutions. However, in order to be useful as academics we must go beyond regurgitating what has been written several centuries ago by authors like Gramsci, Montesquieu and others. We must challenge these views and fashion new ideas which suit our contextual realities. In order to do this, we must look closer to home and consider the contemporary works of our own intellectual giants, including Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni, Joseph-Achille Mbembe, Brian Raftopoulos, Philani Zamchiya, Everjoice Win and Thoko Matshe, to mention but a few.

Finally, as academics we must communicate our ideas in ways which the masses can understand. There is a place for every style of writing. For my blogs, I avoid providing literature analysis because I want the masses to participate in my conversations. If you want to engage with me at the level of scholarship, I suggest you read my academic articles- all of which are accessible online.

This article has been written by Justice Alfred Mavedzenge, in his personal capacity. He is a constitutional law academic committed to the building of democracy in Zimbabwe and Africa. This article was first published here.

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