“I was called to do this … my mission is to finish the work that was not fulfilled by [Robert] Mugabe, Joshua Nkomo, and Morgan Tsvangirai. When I am done, I will say I have fixed the country,” the 45-year-old politician told supporters gathered in Gweru in central Zimbabwe at a July 16 rally, before breaking into song and dance.
An ordained pastor, trained lawyer, and leader of the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC), Zimbabwe’s main opposition, Chamisa has leaned into all three positions over the last 20 years in a quest to alter the political landscape of the Southern African country.
On August 23, the 45-year-old will contest the polls for the second time in five years against incumbent President Emmerson Mnangagwa, a man almost twice his age.
In 2018, Chamisa garnered 2.2 million votes and believed he won the poll but that it was rigged by Mnangagwa, who was declared victor with 2.46 million votes. The rematch this August is being framed by pundits and Chamisa himself as a “David and Goliath” tie, since the governing ZANU-PF has won every election since Zimbabwe’s independence from the United Kingdom in 1980.
His social media accounts have been full of prayers and Bible verses as Chamisa transplants charisma from the pulpit to his party’s rallies, to appeal to vast sections of the populace, especially youths, who are disillusioned with the status quo.
He has campaigned to “usher in jobs, opportunities and freedom for everyone”, a message that has resonated in a country in which half of the population lives in extreme poverty and a continuing economic crisis enters a new chapter.
In his manifesto, Chamisa said that he would ensure macroeconomic stability with single-digit inflation and stable exchange rates, build a $100bn economy, and create 2.5 million jobs in five years.
“His policy blueprint also shows that he indeed has a sling to destroy the myriad of challenges bedeviling Zimbabwe,” Bekezela Gumbo, a researcher at the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute told Al Jazeera.
A June survey conducted among 2,000 registered voters by Elite Africa Research put Chamisa in the lead with 47.6 percent of the vote and 38.7 percent for Mnangagwa.
If Chamisa wins, he would be one of the youngest presidents on a continent where the median age is 18.5 but the average age of a president is 62. Mugabe, Mnangagwa’s predecessor, was 93 years old at the time of his overthrow in a 2017 military coup.
In 2003, at the age of 25, he was elected into parliament, the youngest person to do so in Zimbabwe’s history. By age 31, he had already become a cabinet minister.
In a country of well-educated people – Zimbabwe has a literacy rate of 90 percent – Chamisa has four degrees including a law degree from the University of Zimbabwe and a governance and development studies degree from Stanford University.
He arrived in the capital in 1996 from Masvingo in the southeast to study for his marketing diploma at the Harare Polytechnic College. Harare was a hotbed of student activists and Chamisa became active in politics.
In school, he connected with people who set him on his political path including Charlton Hwende, a student leader at the time and now a senior CCC figure.
Their friendship blossomed and Chamisa eventually succeeded Hwende as SRC president in 1999. In this position, Chamisa began honing his ability to work the crowds.
“I remember in 1999 when Chamisa came to the University of Zimbabwe and some student leaders were a bit hesitant to let him speak because he was not from the varsity … but when he spoke, he was so eloquent, charming and convincing,” Nixon “Chairman Mao” Nyikadzino, a former student leader and Chamisa’s contemporary, told Al Jazeera. “The crowds loved him and his popularity at the college grew from there.”
That year, Chamisa and other student leaders joined the Movement for Democratic Change led by Morgan Tsvangirai. A decade later, when a disputed election led to Tsvangirai becoming prime minister to President Mugabe in a power-sharing arrangement, the former appointed Chamisa as a cabinet minister.
A controversial path to the top
In June 2006, he became the MDC spokesperson and soon became an influential voice in the country’s politics, accumulating a large following.
But he has also had to wade through a number of controversies.
In April 2015, the Supreme Court ruled controversially that companies are allowed to terminate workers’ contracts by serving a three-month notice, leading to the loss of thousands of jobs in Zimbabwe. The judgement, given against two BP Shell employees, was a legal career high for Chamisa, who represented local firm Zuva Petroleum which took over the British energy giant’s assets
That has led to his critics and some worker groups to claim that Chamisa’s role in the court case was at variance with his socialist credentials.
“That young advocate who fought for the big bosses against the workers was none other than Nelson Chamisa,” Trust Gakanje, leader of a group called Zimbabwe Workers for Justice (ZWJ) said not long after Chamisa’s emergence as MDC-T leader three years later.
He had been named leader of the party after the death of Tsvangirai, who had died from colon cancer in February 2018. Some insiders saw it as a “coup” because Chamisa was the least senior deputy in the party.
“Chamisa was a possible successor to Tsvangirai … but Tsvangirai did not anoint anyone a successor, and anyone who says so is just politicking,” Norest Marara, a businessman and opposition official who was close to Tsvangirai told Al Jazeera.
“As one of the three vice presidents of the MDC-T, the possibility of succeeding was there … [but Chamisa] took power unprocedurally and that is why he lost in court. Ordinarily, an extraordinary congress to elect a new leader should have been called in line with the party’s constitution.”
Eventually, Chamisa left the MDC-T in April 2020 as internal tussles continued, and founded the CCC within 20 months.
The young party caught on quickly with working-class Zimbabweans disenchanted with the state of the economy. In the 2022 parliamentary by-elections, it won 19 of the 28 seats available, reducing the count of his former party and signalling an intent to challenge for the remaining of parliament’s 210 elective seats.
‘Against all wickedness’
In 2007, Chamisa was brutally attacked by unknown assailants suspected to be state security agents at Harare’s international airport and sustained a broken skull.
On this campaign trail this time, things have seemed more calm, but the opposition has accused security agents of attacking party members at rallies. The country’s police have barred him from holding rallies in at least four cities. His supporters said it was a selective application of a law requiring permits for such gatherings as governing party events have not been affected.
Still, Chamisa has not been deterred from his mission, if his recent tweets are anything to go by.
“I come against all wickedness in the mighty name of [the] Lord,” he tweeted on July 1. “David said to the Philistine, ‘You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies, whom you have defied’.”