Nelson Chamisa, 45, is a political crowd pleaser. Back in the 1990s, he captivated students at Zimbabwe’s higher education institutions; today, he’s vying for the presidency of the country. That’s no small task; he’s looking to unseat incumbent Emmerson Mnangagwa, leader of the well entrenched, autocratic ZANU-PF.
Chalton Hwende first met the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) leader in 1996, when Chamisa arrived at the Harare Polytechnic as a young marketing student. “At that time I was the SRC president at the Harare Poly and he was a first year student,” the senior opposition figure said. “He seemed lost, like someone who had just arrived in town and needed a lot of help.”
Within no time, however, Chamisa had immersed himself in student politics, joining the Zimbabwe National Students Union. At the time, student activists often found themselves in conflict with the government, with many — Chamisa among them — suspended or expelled.
By 1999, he’d succeeded Hwende as president of the SRC. But his influence extended beyond the polytechnic. “I remember in 1999 when Chamisa came to the University of Zimbabwe, some student leaders were a bit hesitant to let him speak because he was not from the varsity,” human rights defender Nixon Nyikadzino said.
Still, Nyikadzino and student leaders Job Sikhala (a prominent opposition politician today) and Daniel Molokele (now a human rights lawyer) gave him the floor. “When he spoke, he was so eloquent, charming and convincing,” Nyikadzino says. “The crowds loved him and his popularity at the college grew from there.”
Chamisa, also a practising lawyer, would go on to complete a bachelor’s degree in political science and public administration, an LLB and a master’s in international relations and diplomacy at the University of Zimbabwe. He also holds a governance and development studies degree from Stanford University in the US.
Chamisa’s rise in politics coincided with growing disenchantment with Robert Mugabe’s rule.
In the late 1990s Mugabe had taken two decisions that set the country on a ruinous economic path. First, in November 1997, he yielded to pressure from veterans of Zimbabwe’s war of independence and approved hefty, one-off pension distributions of $50 000, plus additional monthly pensions of $2 000.
It was a decision the markets punished. On “Black Friday” — November 14 — the Zimbabwe dollar plunged 72% against the US dollar. It was a dramatic devaluation and harbinger of the country’s eventual slide.
Nearly a year later, on August 2 1998, Mugabe deployed Zimbabwean troops to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to defend the regime of Laurent Kabila against a rebel incursion backed by Uganda and Rwanda. The financial burden of that intervention, as well as the effect on foreign investment and agriculture (farmers were conscripted to the military) took a toll.
Coming on top of the pensions decision, the ill-advised DRC deployment laid the ground for an economic collapse that by the 2000s saw the monthly inflation rate top out at 79.6billion percent.
Not helping matters was Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions leader Morgan Tsvangirai’s call, since 1997, for labour stayaways.
The country was at a political crossroads. Almost overnight, it became clear that a void existed in opposition politics. And so, in 1999, Tsvangirai established the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
The MDC attracted student leaders such as Chamisa, Sikhala, Tafadzwa Musekiwa and Learnmore Jongwe. For Chamisa in particular, joining the fledgling party was the launch pad into highstakes national politics.
In 2003, at the age of 25, he became the youngest MP in parliament — and one of the youngest in the country’s history.[Musekiwa was 24 when he became MP]. By June 2006, he’d been elected MDC spokesperson. And in 2009 — after a controversial election that saw Mugabe conceding to establish a unity government — Chamisa was appointed information communication minister. It was a position he held until 2013.
In parliament, he chaired numerous portfolio committees, including defence, home affairs and public accounts. And he was a member of the local government, public works & urban development department, as well as the African, Caribbean & Pacific Parliament.
So was this rise circumstantial? The result of Mugabe’s ruinous policies?
“He is a political chess player and gambler,” Nyikadzino responds. “He gambles, and he wins most of the time. That balancing act is a very delicate one, but he wins.
“He has always proven people wrong. He knew where to position himself. In fact, he has a natural political [ability] to position himself strategically.”
It wasn’t just at the national level that Chamisa was making waves. Within the MDC, he was solidifying his position too. In April 2011 he was elected secretary general — a post previously held by MDC heavyweight Elias Mudzuri.[Chamisa was elected organising secretary not secretary-general. Tendai Biti was the secretary-general] It was Tsvangirai, however, who really ensured his political survival.
When the MDC split in 2014 over disagreements about succession and political direction, Chamisa lost his position as secretary-general to Douglas Mwonzora. [Chamisa was organising secretary but contested the secretary-general’s post and lost to Mwonzora]. It was the first time in years that he was without a leadership position in the party. But he bounced back in 2016 when Tsvangirai chose him as one of three vice-presidents of his party.
When the party split again following the death of Tsvangirai in 2018, Chamisa emerged leader. It’s a point of controversy that continues to follow him. Chamisa announced his leadership of the party at Tsvangirai’s funeral in what some critics refer to as a “coup”.
When Mwonzora challenged Chamisa’s leadership on the grounds that it was unconstitutional, Chamisa left to found the CCC.
It is under that party’s banner that he hopes to pull the rug from under ZANU-PF, which has held power since independence, on August 23.
It’s not as far-fetched as one may imagine. Despite being a young party, the CCC last year won most of the seats it contested in byelections. And in a country where half the population is under 30, Chamisa is able to connect with young voters on social media networks such as Facebook, Twitter and TikTok; the generation of “born frees” want a young and energetic person to lead.
He’s captured their imagination with his use of social media — a Facebook post, for example, on the eve of recent byelections: “We are ready! We will deliver Transformation, Dignity, and Opportunity & Prosperity. I feel it. I know it and I sense it. A New Great Zimbabwe is loading … Fellow Citizens, #RegisterToVoteZW.”
Chamisa has also been able to mobilise support based on the fact that he’s a pastor — the citizenry trusts religious and traditional leaders more than elected ones, according to a survey by Afrobarometer — and he regularly posts Bible verses and prayer on social networks.
One post, for example, reads: “Zimbabwe shall be saved! Thank you for the great response in prayer and fasting. God is faithful!”
For some, Chamisa is a hero, poised to free Zimbabwe from the shackles of ZANU-PF.
“He stands for justice and is someone who has been fighting for people since 1996-1997 when he became a student leader. He believes in God fearing leadership. He despises corruption,” Hwende said.
“He does not believe in amassing wealth ahead of the people he is supposed to serve. He is someone who believes in placing decisions in the hands of the people and everything must be all about the people we represent.”
For political analyst Rashweat Mukundu, Chamisa’s strength lies in his consistency — and the fact that he’s resisted the trappings of a cosy life in government.
“A key characteristic about Chamisa that I noticed from the days he was a student leader is his commitment to democratic change and his loyalty to the cause, and the loyalty to those that he believes are with him along the way,” Mukundu said.
Still, will this all be enough to turn the tide?
University of Zimbabwe professor Eldred Masunungure isn’t so sure.
“Chamisa is far more electable because of his charisma, and that counts enormously,” he said. The downside, however, is that his personality tends to overshadow other abilities required for successful leadership — organisational qualities, for example.
“The CCC doesn’t have an organisational structure and constitution,” Masungurure says. He also hasn’t seen its manifesto, he adds — but in fairness, he hasn’t seen one from ZANU-PF either.
Masungurure doesn’t discount the possibility of “machination to manipulate the vote, such as rigging on the part of ZANU-PF”.
If the elections are free and fair, however, Chamisa and the CCC are in with a shot, Daily Maverick reports. That’s according to a recent poll of 2 000 voters by Elite Africa Research. It found that 47.6% of voters would support Chamisa’s presidential bid, against 38.7% for Mnangagwa; 47.7% would vote for the CCC, vs 39.6% for ZANU-PF.
That won’t, however, be good enough to avert a runoff poll. The last time that situation arose was in 2008, when Tsvangirai won 47% of the vote against Mugabe’s 43.2%. (Tsvangirai subsequently pulled out of the runoff, citing violence and the killing of his supporters; Mugabe controversially won with 85%.)
For some, including Nyikadzino, Chamisa is a contemporary Tsvangirai. Like the late opposition leader he has become the face of a people repeatedly frustrated by the failures of the ruling party, whose mismanagement of the country has run down the economy, and condemned Zimbabweans to poverty.- Financial Mail