Whither Zimbabwe opposition? Urgent reforms or Zimbabwe slides into deep authoritarianism


Recently I published a think paper which sort to interrogate why a refocus of the opposition is critical for Zimbabwe’s broader democratization agenda which is currently without political wheels to carry it forward.

By Pride Mkono

The call I made has been further amplified by other accomplished academics, with Alex Magaisa’s BSR being the most notable in the long list. Opposition party activists and leaders in structures at various levels have also made a serious call for the party to reform and reset its political structures and systems. This article seeks to critically look at the chaos surrounding the opposition, interrogate the culture of intolerance and toxic individualism, explore the complex question of access to material gains and then give an outline of reforms which should be urgently instituted before the party totally collapses. I must state at this stage that like majority of well-meaning Zimbabweans, I have not yet condemned the opposition as resembled by the MDC Alliance structure and roots from the Working People’s Convention of 1999. I however hold reservations with how the party has conducted itself especially post the November 2017 coup and subsequent electoral loss of July 2018.

Chaos and defections

Since last year when a faction of the opposition was revived under the name of MDCT by the Supreme Court ruling, the opposition rank and leadership has been rocked by chaos and defections. While in the official narrative of the opposition this has not been acknowledged as a crisis, to the discerning mind it is clear that the ongoing chaos and defections only further weaken the party. This is at least for two reasons, influential members in the executive who leave often have their pockets of power, small as they might be but they have an effect on party number. Secondly, to quote Dr. Magaisa’s analogy, the non- ‘Vietnam/Soweto’ party supporters and sympathizers will be pushed away by chaos and defections which presents the party as weak and this result in apathy. It is therefore apparent that the opposition is in crisis and they may have underestimated the determination of Mnangagwa’s regime to decimate the opposition in totality. It is wise to assume the worst blow from your enemy than to fight with your guard down only to be taken apart in the most ruthless of fashion. From losing the parliamentary seats, to losing government money, then party headquarters and now defections, it cannot be business as usual; the party needs to put in place a solid plan to address this bleeding lest it totally collapses. If it goes into 2023 with the current levels of chaos and lacking a shared strategy, the party will be heavily defeated.

Culture of intolerance and toxic individualism

Over the past 2 decades, a culture of political intolerance and toxic individualism has taken root in the opposition. Zimbabwe’s political landscape has historically been defined by factions battling for the soul of the country with the ZAPU split leading to the formation of ZANU in 1963 standing out as perhaps the highest expression of divisions. Since then parties have been rocked by inter and intra-party violence often driven by rival factions within the parties. The coming of the MDC as the opposition was viewed as promising a breath of fresh air and push for serious cultural change however the opposition was soon sucked into this vortex and has itself become highly intolerant. This partly explains why there are stories of violence being meted out on factional rivals from time to time and verbal abuse of dissenting voices in the party’s high echelons of decision making. These accusations and counter accusations have shown how intolerant the internal politics in the opposition has become.

Tied to the culture of intolerance is toxic individualism where party leaders and some influential interests in the donor and civic society community have put their selfish interests ahead of the broader democratization agenda. There are many reasons for this including the need by individuals to hold specific leadership positions as preparation to frog leap into state positions when the opposition wins. The other factor is the issue of being in continuous election mode where everything is viewed in terms of strategic position ahead of the next election. Such toxic behavior has been allowed to thrive resulting in the party losing some constituencies due to double candidates while failing to totally field in others. This has contributed to ZANU gaining super majority in parliament in the last two consecutive elections; this is self-inflicted and needs urgent attention.

Material question and its impact

Many have rightly concluded that the move to defect and abandon the party by some is because of material interests, obviously this is true. Classic definition of politics says it is about who gets what, when and how and classic Marxism talks about the economic base being the base of social organisation with politics being part of the superstructure. These are very important paradigms to appreciate as politics is about access to resources. Those of us in the struggle for change are in it because of our firm belief that a more democratic, free and open society is the best guarantor of equitable access to resources for all. Therefore we see the struggle as the most efficient route to accessing national resources due to everyone in this country.

It is for this reason why the workers formed a party in 1999 to pursue democratization because labour organizing alone was not enough to change the political structure and guarantee access to public goods for all. So when the opposition is at sea on strategy, the rational human being can see that nothing material is to be realized anytime soon by opposition struggles, they change the frontiers of engagement. For elites in opposition leadership, some may defect to their counterparts in the ruling party and some may remain in opposition hoping to gain resources from that front. For educated middle class activists most form or join civic society where they get good salaries, the working class in public and private sectors concentrate more on fighting for a living wage and others may skip into the diaspora as economic refugees. The unemployed youths and women labour for pittances in the informal sector and peasants focus on their subsistence models of survival. Under these conditions political mobilization and struggles is left to a few and this sustains dictatorships for long and partly explains why after 2008 there has hardly been a concerted effort to remove the ZANU PF oppressive regime except a shift of chairs via a military coup.

It is therefore crucial for the opposition to come up with a clear political road map and strategy that is shared by all the struggling social classes. When society can imagine real change they take up all the risks necessary comforted by the fact that their future and that of their children will be materially different but so far such a vision is not being well sold by the divided and weak opposition. Even revolutionaries like Amilcar Cabral have underscored that the masses are not fighting for some ideas in someone’s head but for a better life for themselves and their children and generations to come. Social classes have therefore redeployed their energies away from political struggles towards material access which is after all the reason for struggle. The opposition must wake up to this and rethink strategy, slogans alone do not bring change; struggle does. It is also naïve for the opposition to assume that impoverishment and failures of the ruling establishment are enough motivations for masses to expend energy on ‘change’ politics – it is not. People have finite energies; they will deploy them where they get the greatest material benefit, it is the basic rule of the economic being.

Urgent reforms needed

It is therefore apparent that urgent reforms are needed and I will list them for simplicity:

  • Develop a clear shared broad based strategy with clear milestones towards a new Zimbabwe. This they must do, even if they fail everything else.
  • Resolve the name and constitutional structures of the party.
  • Establish a committee of competent domestic and international advisors from different social classes to advise organs of the party from time to time.
  • Infuse party structures, especially in appointed positions, with representatives from different social classes and regions to reflect full complement of society.
  • Set up an effective internal security mechanism including signing of non-disclosure agreements with members in top leadership, as well as hiring cyber security experts to sweep for bugs and regularly flush out spyware from office computers and gadgets of top leadership
  • Set up durable and accountable resource management systems within the party and fundraise to sustain clear party programmes geared towards advancing democratization.
  • Put up a strict code of conduct and ethics barring specific conduct arising from intolerance and acts of individual aggrandizement. Such a code must be enforced by an ad hoc committee consisting of party stakeholders not in the system.
  • Provide deliberate inclusion of women and minorities in key decision making arms.
  • Discourage creation of a personality cult around party president and focus on strengthening of party brand
  • Devise a new media plan that takes into account the capture of former outlets of party propaganda in the mainstream media
  • Invest in intelligence gathering by creating a department specifically dedicated for that purpose
  • Design a system for the quick identification and deployment of political talent within the party (and from the broader democratic movement). Such a system should replace gatekeeping behavior.

Conclusion: The opposition is faced with a serious crisis, it is not in the best interest of anyone for the opposition to perish, the prospects of a one party state are too gruesome to imagine. Yet without a serious push for reforms of the opposition, this nightmare can easily become a reality. It is now time for civic society, organised labour, academics, progressive media and churches to push for the opposition to reform or we enter the dark tunnel of a one party state.

This was first published here at Zim Morning Post