Three giants dominate the Zimbabwean political landscape: the ruling party Zanu-PF, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and its splinter group renamed the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC). However, meaningful change and real political independence will take place only if a new political entity emerges specifically to politicise the segment of eligible voters who will not vote. In Zimbabwean parlance they are pejoratively dismissed as “neutrals”.
It should create a new home for the fraction of ruling party supporters who vote for it because of fear and intimidation and for opposition supporters who desperately vote for change for the sake of change.
In order to understand why I hold this position, it is important to provide a brief background explaining some of the reasons why Zimbabwe has failed to extricate itself from a myriad post-independence sociopolitical problems.
The main one is colonialism, which has deprived Zimbabwe and other southern African countries of epistemic freedom – the ability to think unapologetically as black people. The theories and concepts that scaffold our daily lives are imported. Zimbabwean political leaders have experimented with Marxism, Leninism, Maoism, enforced neoliberalism and everything else that is not Zimbabwean.
Today, the country’s ministry of finance is led by Oxford University-educated neoclassical economists, who preside over the highest rate of inflation in the world, but gloat about a “balanced budget” and “budget surpluses”. At the same time, more than 96% of the population is unemployed and public hospitals cannot even afford the most basic medication, such as painkillers.
It is no secret that South African employers prefer to employ Zimbabweans but even that has not woken up Zimbabweans to the fact that their education was designed purely to make them serve the interests of capital and not think. Zimbabweans pride themselves on being highly educated but the fact that close to a quarter of the population is displaced and over three-quarters of its citizens live in extreme poverty does not make them question what their education is worth or if it is capable of solving societal problems.
The consequences of the “monkey see, monkey do” colonial education system, happily adopted by post-independence Zimbabwe, is that public intellectuals and those Zimbabweans who consider themselves educated are incapable of critical thinking and nuanced debate. They lack the ability to elevate themselves by constructively engaging with ideas that differ from theirs.
Anyone who disagreed with former president Robert Mugabe either was shunned or exterminated. The MDC has split several times because its leaders couldn’t accommodate diversity of thought. Even today, Zanu-PF and opposition party members who criticise their leaders are considered enemies and legitimate targets for verbal and physical abuse.
The intolerance of the colonial era is still very much part and parcel of Zimbabwe. The Zanu-PF bourgeoisie has perfected it and it has cascaded to all spheres of society. The Zimbabwean media has not been spared from intolerance. Articles that are critical of the government will never be broadcast or published in newspapers. Even articles critical of the new favourite opposition party, the CCC, face challenges getting published by independent news media. The mentality is that everyone must fall into a particular lane.
Perhaps the neutrals have chosen not to fall into any lane but now all 4-million of them — 45% of eligible voters — find themselves homeless in their own homes. According to the Election Resource Centre, approximately 9-million people are eligible to vote in 2023, but 3-million of these are not registered to vote. Furthermore, out of the 6-million who are registered to vote in 2023, it is safe to estimate that 15%, or approximately 1-million, of these will not turn out to vote (the 2018 voter turnout was 85%). The fact that the so-called neutrals constitute 45% implies that they are most likely indifferent to whether Zimbabwe is under Zanu-PF rule or that of its main contender the CCC, but surely that doesn’t make them indifferent to the Zimbabwean crisis?
The main reason why Zanu-PF wins votes is their predilection for coercive tactics, which they adopted during the liberation war and continue with up to this day. Its relationship with supporters appears to be some weird form of Stockholm syndrome, in which they continue to support the party at the expense of their individual freedom. Notable examples where people’s freedom was desecrated include the Matabeleland genocide, Operation Murambatsvina, the 2008 election violence and the 2018 post-election violence, in which soldiers opened fire on unarmed protesters.
In addition to violence, the party incorporates populist ideologies and, through that, it manages to successfully deceive some voters into believing that Zimbabwe owes its freedom to Zanu-PF and the liberation war that it waged against the settler regime. The narrative that the gun was the sole means to gain political independence is patently false — several political parties and individuals pursued peaceful means to gain independence — but they were, and continue to be, dismissed by Zanu-PF as “sell-outs”.
One credible reason why Zanu-PF is particularly popular in rural areas is the land reform programme, which the MDC fiercely opposed, and it is therefore perceived as disinterested in the affairs of the rural population. Perhaps the iconic image of its late president Morgan Tsvangirai receiving a cheque from a white Zimbabwean commercial farmer as a possible incentive to oppose the 2000 constitutional referendum remains fresh in the minds of rural voters.
Through the moral and financial support of white commercial farmers, the proposed constitutional amendment that gave the government the power to seize white-owned farms without compensation was defeated, but Mugabe took advantage of Zanu-PF’s parliamentary majority to proceed with land redistribution nonetheless.
Strictly speaking, the land reform initiative did not emerge from an ideological commitment; it was implemented by Mugabe to punish white farmers for supporting the newly formed MDC. It was triggered by Svosve villagers and others who felt they were being squeezed out of fertile grazing land by neighbouring white-owned commercial farms.
Despite the serendipity and opportunism surrounding the land reform, it gradually gained solid support from the Zanu-PF government and is probably one of the policies that still resonates with a significant proportion of voters. Zanu-PF comfortably takes all the credit for land redistribution, while the opposition is remembered for opposing it and inviting economic sanctions against Zimbabwe. But the current state of affairs in which Zimbabwe finds itself reveals it is highly improbable that Zanu-PF has the aspirations of the people at heart.
Since its formation in the late 1990s, the MDC has split several times; its most recent breakup took place this year. The collapse took place just after the death of the MDC’s founding leader Tsvangirai. Immediately after his demise, Nelson Chamisa and his acolytes mounted a coup, and through that, he ascended to the leadership of the MDC. The coup was contested through a court case, which ruled that the manner in which he took over the leadership of the MDC was unconstitutional.
After losing the court case, Chamisa formed the CCC party, which is currently shaking up the Zimbabwe political landscape. It is attracting young voters who are desperate for change at any cost. Many of its other devotees demonstrate a level of blind faith which some have characterised as the Pentecostal effect.
The CCC does not have the political structures, ideological grounding, a plan or a strategy to resolve the Zimbabwean sociopolitical crisis. When criticised by concerned Zimbabweans, Chamisa boasts that, in fact, he has a plan in the bag and refers to his silence as “the doctrine of strategic ambiguity”. On other occasions, he takes ownership of the criticism and rationalises that his ideology will emerge after consultation with the people.
Some have pointed out that the CCC is a faction of the MDC because it continues to use the MDC’s administrative structures. Chamisa refutes this, saying his is a citizens’ movement without administrative positions; it is run by a great “family of change champions”. If indeed that is the case, it raises questions about how he acquired the leadership position of “change champion in chief”. Aside from that, how does one officially become a member of this great family, which is not a political party? Does wearing a yellow T-shirt suffice?
Chamisa’s failure at the most basic political organisation has opened him up to criticism, particularly from Jonathan Moyo, a former Zanu-PF cabinet minister. Admittedly, the opposition is justified in mistrusting Moyo, but his critique seems constructive and generous. For that, CCC enthusiasts have heaped vitriolic abuse upon him, ranging from personal attacks to threats of physical violence.
They went as far as making fun of his daughter, who was murdered in South Africa, and sarcastically demanded that he comes back to Zimbabwe from where he escaped after suspected Zimbabwe army soldiers attempted to assassinate him. As a means to silence Moyo, CCC trolls and other activists advised their members to put dots on every tweet Moyo posts.
This is just one example of intolerance but applies to anyone who dares criticise the CCC. Its leadership seems to relish these attacks and makes no attempt to restrain them.
Intellectually, Chamisa is pedestrian and uninspiring, as revealed by a quick read of his 2018 general election political manifesto when he was the leader of the MDC, his Oxford Union address and, more recently, the speeches he has made at political rallies as the leader of the CCC. Chamisa clearly has the “gift of the gab”, as the British would say — he is charming and has excellent oratory skills — but there’s not much in terms of substance.
All he has done thus far is promise that he will be a better leader than Emmerson Mnangagwa, the president of Zimbabwe. Incidentally, both men rose to the leadership of their respective parties via a coup. Perhaps this explains why Chamisa upholds some of his disastrous policies, the most worrying of which is his promise to increase military funding and not interfere with the operations of the security sector.
A bold politician in search of real change for the good of the nation would have focused on assuring voters that the immediate priority of a new government would be to demilitarise Zimbabwe. That would entail cutting its funding to a bare minimum — it doesn’t make sense to give the military a budget allocation equivalent to that of higher education when it contributes absolutely nothing to the country. If Chamisa read the history of Zanu-PF, he would understand the military’s negative role in the political affairs of post-independence Zimbabwe and realise that it has no role in the future of Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwean historian Professor Ndlovu-Gatsheni wrote an academic paper in which he proffers a road map for a future Zimbabwe. One of the recommendations he made is to urge future political leaders to urgently get rid of the “them and us divide”. By that, he was obviously talking about the need to reduce extreme inequality in all spheres of life. For example, the health infrastructure in Zimbabwe is completely broken down but political elites fly private jets to get treatment in foreign countries and the judiciary severely punishes offending political opponents while they quickly free arrested Zanu-PF elites. Zimbabweans aptly refer to this as “catch and release”.
As a possible means to respond to Ndlovu-Gatsheni’s intellectual counsel, Chamisa and senior members of his party no longer make use of their political rally VIP seating areas. Instead, they sit among their supporters, who seem to be enthralled by such antics, forgetting that after the rally, the leadership of the opposition party will drive to their mansions in air-conditioned vehicles. The gesture of sitting in the crowd demonstrates a worryingly shallow intellectual gravitas for one who hopes to one day lead a country out of its deep crisis.
In the absence of a core idea or an ideological grounding, the CCC is riding purely on its leader’s charismatic authority, but this is not just an opposition problem. It also applies to Mnangagwa’s Zanu-PF, which compensates for lack of ideological grounding with empty rhetoric and populism, as they happily wait for international financial institutions and their government to complete the neoliberal experiment in Zimbabwe.
Today, Zimbabwe’s independent newspapers, online news media, public intellectuals and award-winning journalists are encouraging people to register to vote. Without stating it openly, the code for calls for Zimbabweans to register is that they have no option other than vote for CCC. They routinely castigate the Zimbabwean youth and rural folk who they feel would benefit from voter education. These enthusiasts believe that the CCC will miraculously resolve Zimbabwe’s problems, despite its failure to provide voters with the confidence that it will.
Neutrals are cognisant of the fact that both the opposition and the ruling party have failed to provide them with information upon which they can make a voting decision. Neutrals are aware that talk is cheap and that the electoral promises made by Chamisa and Mnangagwa are empty.
Neutrals are aware that, if Chamisa had insisted on electoral reforms as a precondition for participating in the 2018 general elections, the opposition would be in power today and more than likely the diaspora would be voting in the next election. Neutrals are also aware that the 2018 election observers made electoral reform recommendations but the CCC and other opposition parties have failed to compel the ruling party to implement these reforms.
Other than endless calls for prayer and fasting in the mountains to cast out demons of various sorts, neutrals know that the CCC leadership is not doing anything about the political activists who have been illegally detained. As we speak, Job Sikhala, an MDC MP and senior member of the CCC is languishing in prison and is being denied his constitutional right to bail. His lawyers have tried a series of legal options to no avail.
Mthwakazi Republic party political activists were imprisoned for 36 months merely for exercising their constitutional right to protest but the CCC is not saying a word. Teachers and other civil servants are being paid slave wages while the CCC calmly sits and watches instead of fulfilling its role as an alternative government.
The neutrals are aware that Zimbabwean political parties do not have the imagination to confront the social ills that blight the country, because they are not completely divorced from some of the disgraceful activities. The prosperity gospel sect is abusing its authority through various means, such as monetising Zimbabwean people’s poverty and desperation. In the process, self-appointed pastors are enriching themselves, buying mansions and private jets, right in the midst of poverty.
Some apostolic churches are practising paedophilia; cases of 14-year-old rape victims dying while giving birth are not uncommon. Political elites and private sector executives are awarding themselves criminal remuneration packages. Neutrals see all these forms of social decay and know there is currently no political leadership to look up to.
These are just a few examples that suggest neutrals have no need for voter education. In the absence of electoral reforms and in the face of a captured Zimbabwe judiciary, neutrals know that the next general election results are probably a foregone conclusion. A Zanu-PF victory will not be significantly different from an opposition win. It is unlikely that the 2023 elections will change much in the lives of ordinary Zimbabweans.
The gaps in political leadership suggest that a political party capable of capturing the imagination of neutrals, and the nation as a whole, has yet to emerge. It might not happen before 2023 but its emergence is a precondition for a new Zimbabwe.
Mike Chipere is a Zimbabwean postdoctoral scholar affiliated with the Human Economy Programme at the University of Pretoria. This was first published here by the Mail & Guardian.