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Zimbabwe’s crisis of an effective opposition and Messiah politics

The late MDC-T leader Morgan Tsvangirai
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Late on Saturday night, I was sitting in a hotel room in Guangzhou, China, streaming the announcement of the results of the presidential race in Zimbabwe. Zimbabweans went to the polls on the 23rd of August in a harmonised election that many believed would mark a turning point in the country’s politics. Towards elections, there was an expectation that the 2008 moment would be repeated – that the opposition Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) presidential candidate, Nelson Chamisa, would defeat the incumbent president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, of the Zimbabwe African National Unity – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF).

By Malaika Lesego Samora Mahlatsi

Back in 2008, the president of the Movement for Democractic Change (MDC-T), Morgan Tsvangirai, achieved an incredible feat when be obtained more votes than the late Robert Mugabe. The results, which would be announced after more than a month, sent shockwaves across the Southern African Democratic Community (SADC) region. Tsvangirai obtained 47.87% of the vote against Mugabe’s 43.24%, with Simba Makoni of Mavambo/Kusile/Dawn getting 8.31%. Owing to none of the parties managing to attain a majority, an elections re-run was scheduled.

It was marred by state-sponsored violence unlike anything Zimbabwe had seen before. Tsvangirai, whose supporters were being subjected to unimaginable violence by the security apparatus of the State, ultimately withdrew from the re-run, resulting in Mugabe winning the second round uncontested. The disputed presidential run-off and its results was not endorsed by any of the Election Observer Missions, affirming the view of the MDC-T that it had been nothing more than a violent sham.

One of the most significant outcomes of the 2008 elections was that ZANU-PF lost its parliamentary majority for the first time since 1980. The MDC-T under Tsvangirai and MDC under Arthur Mutambara obtained the majority of seats, with the MDC-T having 100 seats and MDC having 10, against ZANU-PF’s 99. One other seat was won by an independent candidate.

This outcome resulted in negotiations for power sharing that would culminate into the Government of National Unity (GNU), with ZANU-PF’s Mugabe becoming the President, MDC-T’s Tsvangirai becoming the Prime Minister, and MDC-T’s Thokozani Kupe and MDC’s Mutambara the Deputy Prime Ministers.

The process leading up to the GNU was characterised by contentious negotiations to create a framework for a power-sharing executive government between all the parties. From the first round of the negotiations right until the final deal was accepted in September 2008, there had been disagreements on how the executive and
government would be constituted.

Negotiations on how Cabinet would be constituted took up much of the discussions and ultimately, the MDC and MDC-T would have 16 ministers while the ZANU-PF would have 15. The GNU lasted for 5 years, a time where there was relative stability in Zimbabwe, with the economy marginally stabilising due to its dollarisation.

However, in a Zimbabwe still under economic sanctions, isolated from the global market, dollarisation impacted on the country’s competitiveness. The cost of producing goods in such an economy was exponentially high compared to regional counterparts.

Additionally, there was disequilibrium on its import-export balance sheet as Zimbabwe was importing more goods than it was able to export, impacting on the circulation of the US Dollar. However, this is a discussion for another day.

Last Saturday, Justice Priscilla Makanyara Chigumba, the chairperson of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), announced that the ZANU-PF’s Mnangagwa won 52.6% of the vote against CCC’s Chamisa’s 44%.

The news was met with uproar, particularly as the SADC Election Observer Mission and the European Union Election Observer Mission had both released observer reports in which the credibility of the elections was questioned. The pandemonium was especially pronounced within the diaspora community, a significant proportion of which support a change of government in Zimbabwe.

And while the uproar is understandable, it will do nothing to change the situation in Zimbabwe. But more than this, it does nothing to provide the honest reflection that Zimbabweans need to engage about the perilous state of their main opposition party, CCC, and their own marriage to messiah politics.

Zimbabweans are afflicted with messiah politics – the belief that their liberation is going to be brought by someone somewhere. It was the case with Tsvangirai, who was elevated to the status of a deity. The same thing repeated itself with pastor Evan Mawarire, a man whose video about the significance of the Zimbabwean flag was enough to catapult him to the level of a national hero who was going to part the Dead Sea and liberate Zimbabwe.

Itai Dzamara was also subjected to the same fate – elevated to a messiah who would liberate Zimbabwe. He was
left to be a target by the security apparatus because millions of Zimbabweans – who should have been with him at Africa Unity Square – stood on the sidelines and let him protest alone. Even Mnangagwa, the most hated man today, was celebrated as a hero following the coup that removed Mugabe, with many believing and openly stating that Zimbabwe would be better under his rule.

They had elevated an individual to a liberator – completely ignoring the fact that he had always been an instrumental part of the murderous State as far back as the 1980s. Mnangagwa, who was the Minister of Internal Security and the chairperson of the Joint High Command, had oversight over both the Central Intelligence Organisation and the Fifth Brigade during the horrific Gukurahundi genocide where tens of thousands of Ndebele people were slaughtered.

He continued to be instrumental under Mugabe’s murderous regime. And yet, this was the man whom Zimbabweans clapped for during the coup. This pattern of messiah politics continues with Chamisa – a man who is now seen as the great liberator of Zimbabwe and who, as a result, cannot be criticised even when he perpetuates dangerous cult politics that, ironically, contributed to the state of disaster that Zimbabwe finds itself in.

Beyond messiah politics, Zimbabweans also need to reflect truthfully on why the State has maintained its hold on power. Part of it is its monopoly of violence, but an even greater factor is the failure by the opposition to organise and build a strong movement at grassroots level. It is also the many lost opportunities along the way – specifically, the lost opportunity to resolve the question of the diaspora vote. Following the GNU, the MDC-T and now CCC speak eloquently about the unconstitutionality of the lack of a diaspora vote, but there was an opportunity during the GNU, where the MDC factions had a majority in Parliament, to prioritise this struggle.

And yet, MDC never tabled a motion or brought a bill before the Parliament (or Cabinet, where they were fully represented) regarding diaspora voting. Even during the drafting stages of the 2013 Constitution, the deadlock was largely on issues around executive powers, not on the diaspora vote. It was on executive powers and Cabinet composition that negotiations deadlocked twice – not on the issue of the vote.

The number of Zimbabweans living in the diaspora is estimated at 5-7 million people. This is equal to the number of people who voted in the recent harmonised election. The fact that the MDC-T, at the height of its legitimacy, didn’t fight hard enough for the diaspora vote. But only now when MDC-T is put out of government, recognised the importance of the issue is reflective of an opposition with misplaced priorities. Sadly, this singular miscalculation on the part of the MDC-T is going to haunt Zimbabwe for a very long time to come.

It helped to consolidate ZANU-PF power and it will be decades before the opposition gets another opportunity to effect changes to the Constitution.

The people of Zimbabwe need to be able to hold opposition accountable if they’re to ever build an effective movement that will unseat the ZANU-PF. They need to build a movement as a collective – one which is not formed in the image of an individual.

They must internalise the words of Argentina-born Cuban revolutionary, Ernesto “Che” Guevara who so profoundly posited: “Liberators do not exist – the people liberate themselves”.


Malaika is a geographer and researcher at the Institute for Pan African Thought and Conversation. She is a Ph.Dcandidate at the University of Bayreuth, Germany.