Top 5 most influential politicians since 1980

ON Sunday, I asked fellow Zimbabweans on a social networking site to name figures they consider to be the most influential politicians in Zimbabwe since 1980. I must qualify this at the outset that this is by no means a scientific exercise nor is it regarded as representing the opinion of Zimbabweans generally. It’s the first of a number of similar rudimentary exercises, as the year winds down, to get Zimbabweans talking about the big picture of our politics. For example, a future question is around the most significant events that have happened since 1980 — what people regard as landmark moments.

Alex T Magaisa Lawyer

I received a fairly large number of responses, some public, some private through inbox messages, the latter perhaps for privacy, but also probably an indication that for some, expressing political views publicly is regarded as a hazard.

I deliberately chose not to reveal my own list beforehand, to avoid it becoming the subject of debate and analysis. The responses were all very interesting and revealing. There are a few names that appeared on most lists. Unsurprisingly, President Robert Mugabe and MDC-T leader Morgan Tsvangirai appear on the majority of lists. Joshua Nkomo as well was a common name on most lists. However, there were some surprises for me and certainly some lists were quite different, but I could understand why people thought their choices were influential.

Some thought five choices was too restrictive and I agree. But I should add that initially I had intended to restrict it to only three choices, so I thought five was generous! The restriction was deliberate: hard choices must be made and a small list would force people to make those hard choices. It would disappoint them to leave out some names, but in life hard choices have to be made.

I was anxious to prevent people focusing on their “favourite” politicians, because that was certainly not what I was looking for. Most people understood this, but still, some fell to the temptation of their prejudices and discounted some figures simply because they did not like their kind of politics. But influence is not a one-way street — it might could good or bad, but still, it would be influence. Some historical figures have been repulsive, but their influence in world politics cannot be ignored.

The only restriction that I regretted in the end was that I limited the choice to the pool of Zimbabwean politicians. But I realise, with hindsight that it might have been better to have broadened the list to persons, whether local or foreign, who have had a huge influence in Zimbabwean politics. This is because, clearly, there are persons who have had a critical influence in Zimbabwean politics, even though they are not politicians or Zimbabweans. This will be corrected in a future exercise.

Now, though to my own list politicians whom I regard as having had the most influence since 1980:

One: Robert Mugabe, the long-serving President
It is impossible to start any list without the name of the man who has been at the helm of government for all of the 35 years since independence. He has been head of state for 28 of those years, having taken over as Executive President in 1987, from Canaan Banana, who was really, a ceremonial president. Mugabe is so ubiquitous in the story of the country that any mention of Zimbabwe is often followed by his name. His gigantic character and his close control of the state and all facets of Zimbabwean life makes him, without doubt, the most influential politician in Zimbabwe since 1980.

His leadership attracts both devout support from followers and deep revulsion from opponents. Some call him a tyrant, others call him the greatest African leader of all time. He divides opinion fundamentally, but such too, is the measure of his influence. His policy of reconciliation was crucial to the stability of a fragile state in the early years of independence. But it is his land reform policy that has, no doubt, been the most revolutionary, and one that will define his legacy long after he is gone. That and his controversial brand of politics which have sustained his long leadership. The most influential? No doubt in my mind.

Two: Morgan Tsvangirai, the man in opposition
Apart from Mugabe, no other name in the last 15 years is associated with Zimbabwe as Tsvangirai’s. Like Mugabe, he attracts deep loyalty and support from his followers but also strong dislike from his opponents and critics. But, like Mugabe, that is also indicative of the level of his influential role in Zimbabwean politics.

For the last 15 years he has been the strongest challenger against Mugabe’s stranglehold on power in Zimbabwe. He may have failed, so far, to take power from his arch-rival, but he is the only man to have beaten Mugabe in an election, when he won the first round of the 2008 presidential elections. And any person who beats Mugabe must surely have some considerable influence in the politics of Zimbabwe. His star might presently be under a bit of a cloud, but few would deny that in his position as leader of the MDC he has been an influential politician.

Although blighted by divisions, his party has remained the biggest opposition political party since 2000. From the shop-floor to the trades union movement and leader of the biggest opposition party to prime minister of the country, his journey has been remarkable and there can be little doubt that he is one of the most influential politicians in post-1980 Zimbabwe.

Three: Professor Jonathan Moyo, the political scientist
Few politicians have had a ubiquitous and influential presence on the Zimbabwean political landscape as Moyo, a political science professor, who many credit with rejuvenating and redirecting a then ailing Zanu PF, at a time in 2000, when it was in dire need of new strategies to fend off the new opposition MDC.

After working with the Chidyausiku Commission in its efforts to write a new constitution for Zimbabwe which was rejected by voters in 2000, Moyo became a Minister of Information and Publicity after the parliamentary elections. As Information minister, Moyo hogged the limelight, introducing many fundamental changes to the state media including the ZBC, the national broadcaster — re-organising it and re-directing its programming. Some of the changes, such as the promotion of local content on radio were of a revolutionary character and have had a lasting effect on the media and entertainment scene. Manning the propaganda machinery, Moyo stood firm in defence of Mugabe and Zanu PF, a manner that no Information Minister had ever done before.

His media reforms were fundamental, with Moyo’s flagship legislation, the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa), a much-criticised law for its restrictive provisions being a prime symbol of his era.

Zanu PF legal guru Eddison Zvobgo criticised the original Bill as “the most calculated and determined assault on our liberties”. Few who lived in that period will forget the music jingles that were promoted on radio and television under his watch.
Some people still hold a theory that Moyo, the political science professor, and former long-time critic of Mugabe and the government, went into Zanu PF in order to destroy it from within. Others, though, credit him with having saved Zanu PF from a sure demise.
But what is evident is that he has been an important player in Zanu PF’s internal politics, too. In 2004, he was fired from government, accused of taking a leading role in what has become known as the Tsholotsho Declaration, a plot under which Emmerson Mnangagwa would have been elevated to the vice-presidency. It collapsed spectacularly, and after his firing, Moyo returned to critical mode.
He was so critical of Mugabe and Zanu PF that in the 2008 elections the opposition MDC-T did not field a candidate in his constituency, believing him to be an ally. Yet just after the March 2008 elections, Moyo is said to have taken a leading role in plotting Mugabe’s comeback in the presidential run-off elections. Later, in 2013, Moyo returned to government, completing a remarkable political comeback. Moyo is not everyone’s cup of tea, but there can be no doubt that he has been in the top tier of the most influential politicians in the last 15 years.

Four: Joshua Nkomo, Father Zimbabwe
A younger generation, and I realise there is now a new generation, people in their late teens who have only ever heard of this man during independence and Heroes’ Day celebrations, but his estate holds the title of Father Zimbabwe.

I have included him in my top five mainly because, first, he is Joshua Nkomo, and Joshua Nkomo can’t be anywhere else and, second, because he showed leadership at a time when it was sorely needed. But I have reservations because I believe his influence was much diminished by the circumstances of his time, which confined him to the role of best man at the Prince’s grand wedding. Yet ironically, it is precisely his acceptance of that subordinate role and the impact his role showed that makes his influence so important in our nation. In many ways, although he died 17 years ago, his legacy remains profound and influential.

Having been one of the leading lights of the struggle for Independence, ironically, Nkomo’s star dimmed in 1980, just when the brightest light shone upon the nation whose emancipation he had fought for valiantly. After losing the election to his erstwhile rival, Mugabe, he briefly joined government, when his rival extended a hand of reconciliation.

Then there was a bitter fallout and Nkomo fled, ironically from the country he had helped free, to Great Britain, the former colonial power. Meanwhile, thousands of his followers in Matabeleland and the Midlands bore the brunt of a government clampdown, under Operation Gukurahundi.

Nkomo later returned and negotiated with Mugabe, leading to the 1987 Unity Accord, under which his party PF Zapu was swallowed by Mugabe’s Zanu PF. That helped end the atrocities in which thousands of civilians were killed. But it also changed the face of politics, effectively taking out Zanu PF’s biggest rival and paving the way for one-party rule.

Nkomo joins the list because he showed leadership at a time when the country could have plunged into serious trouble. He was a calming influence, the wise old head in Government. There is still a lot of bitterness over what happened in Matabeleland in the 1980s, but Nkomo did what Nelson Mandela would do a few years later in South Africa, which was to accept a deal, however compromised and imperfect, that would allow the country to bridge the gap between a divided past and a future with some promise. In death, he remains one of the most respected political leaders in Zimbabwe.

Five (Tie): Margaret Dongo and Chenjerai Hunzvi
I struggled to separate these two. Both made an important impact in their own different ways and deserve a place in the top five. Let me explain why.

Margaret Dongo, the trailblazer
Younger Zimbabweans might not know this woman and the impact that she made on Zimbabwe’s political terrain but she left a permanent footprint in the history of the country. Dongo, then a young war veteran, and a former intelligence officer, won a seat in Parliament in 1990.

But after showing a critical side to government, she was ruled to have lost the Zanu PF primary elections for the 1995 elections. She disagreed and ran as an independent candidate. She lost again and challenged the result in court. That was an historic challenge citing vote rigging. In a landmark decision, the court ruled in her favour and she went on to win the by-election. This was a remarkable victory which meant many things. She had fought the electoral system and for the first time, exposed vote rigging in a court of law, paving the way for future challenges. She had fought against unfairness and cheating.

And as a woman, her victory meant a lot from a gender perspective — here was a young woman who had fought against patriarchy and succeeded against the odds. Her success showed that if you fight for what you stand for, and if you have the determination, you can overcome the highest hurdles.

Dongo’s political fortunes have now waned, but the diminutive lady will forever stand tall as the first person to successfully challenge Zanu PF’s election-rigging machinery and win. Above all, she gave confidence to many, including women, that they could have a role in politics and that Zanu PF could be challenged. When the Tsvangirai and the MDC arrived four years later in 1999, Dongo had paved the way, having been almost the lone symbol of courage in her day.

Chenjerai Hunzvi, the militant doctor
This man was at the forefront of the movement that changed Zimbabwean politics in a fundamental way. As militant leader of the veterans of the liberation struggle, Hunzvi led the land occupations under what became known as the Fast Track Land Reform Programme (FTLRP) post-2000. The mass eviction of white commercial farmers that followed was the start of a land revolution which saw thousands of black Zimbabweans settling on the former commercial farms. The method was violent and controversial, but to Hunzvi, who was happy to use his war name “Hitler”, and his followers, there was no other way. They believed they had to do what they did.

Although he is now late, it is impossible to have a narrative of this seismic change in Zimbabwe’s socio-economic landscape which does not include Hunzvi. The veterans that he led also became the backbone of Zanu PF’s electoral campaigns, along with the youth wing, providing the militancy that has been crucial to Zanu PF’s hold on power.

From the mid-1990s, Hunzvi had carefully plotted the re-emergence of the war veterans as a force to reckon with in Zimbabwean politics, first ensuring that they received the attention of Mugabe and his government in 1997 when they got huge unbudgeted payouts that economists say contributed to the sharp fall of the Zimbabwe dollar on November 14 1997. After that the war veterans became a passionate, militant and active part of Zanu PF’s election machinery, in a way not seen in previous elections. It’s fair to say he left an imprint that is still visible in Zimbabwean politics.
So these are my top five political figures that I believe have had an important influence in Zimbabwean politics in the years since 1980. Each in their own way, has had a critical influence on the political landscape.
Having done the exercise, I too understand why many people thought five was too restrictive. One person I would have had in my list is Edgar Tekere, the former secretary-general of Zanu PF who later formed and led the Zimbabwe Unity Movement, not the first opposition, but perhaps the first important challenge after the demise of Zapu. Tekere filled the vacuum in opposition that had been left after PF Zapu was swallowed by Zanu PF.
His campaign against the one party rule was admirable but while some people credit him with saving the country from one party state, the truth is by the time Zanu PF consolidated its grip in the late 1980s, one party rule was on its way out in Africa and the rest of the world. There is a case to be made that with or without the challenge, Zanu PF would still have been forced to abandon the dalliance with one party rule, a system that was being rejected elsewhere after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet bloc.
Still, however, Tekere demonstrated that Mugabe could be challenged. His party ultimately disintegrated, but he had made an important contribution. Most of his warnings, including that Mugabe would not give up power have come true for the most part. Like Dongo after him, he is a trailblazer for opposition politics. What gives Dongo the edge, in my opinion, is the significance of her challenge and success, for the opposition and from a gender perspective.
Finally, one person who made most lists, who is missing from mine is Eddison Zvobgo. I had not imagined that so many people would have him as having been such an influential figure in our politics but on reflection, I can see why people think that of him. From what I have gathered, the main reason most people have included him is that he crafted the major constitutional amendments, in particular Constitutional Amendment No 7 of 1987, which gave the country the Executive Presidency and with it, altered the political landscape and governance in Zimbabwe. He is credited with this change as he was the constitutional affairs minister at the time and some argue that he was really doing it with an eye for the presidency himself, rather than for Mugabe. This might be true but it is also rather speculative. In my view, these amendments were masterminded by Mugabe himself and while it’s not unreasonable to credit the constitutional affairs minister, I believe Mugabe’s hand in this is often underplayed and underestimated by critics. No doubt he was a charismatic and intelligent figure, but I am not persuaded that his influence was of such weight as to displace the men and one woman in my top five. I would certainly have Tekere ahead of him.
I also noticed that the First Lady, Grace Mugabe has made a number of lists and to be sure, the temptation is to include her. But I believe this owes more to the fact that her role is very current. No doubt she is showing some influence and the Mujuru affair last year is a good example. However, I believe this requires some perspective and the jury is still out. She may yet wield the most fundamental influence in Zimbabwean politics, which would probably catapult her to the top levels of the most influential. However, I also understand why some people believe she is already in that list.
What about Mnangagwa? He is certainly a critical player, probably with much greater influence than most of the above. But he has operated mostly in the background and his actual influence has not been as visible. This probably leads to an under-estimation of his role and influence, in favour of the more vocal and visible ones. Still, the extent of his power and influence will be seen in the coming months as he negotiates his way to power.
As I said at the start, coming up with a top five most influential politicians since 1980 is a difficult exercise. Opinions will always differ depending on how much weight one gives to the role and influence of each individual. Some people mentioned names such as former central bank governor Gideon Gono, while others mentioned the generals in the security sector. But these do not fall in the category of politicians. These are, strictly speaking, non-political figures, albeit having a role in politics.
Magaisa is a lawyer and lecturer at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom.they got huge unbudgeted payouts that economists say contributed to the sharp fall of the Zimbabwe dollar on November 14 1997. After that the war veterans became a passionate, militant and active part of Zanu PF’s election machinery, in a way not seen in previous elections. It’s fair to say he left an imprint that is still visible in Zimbabwean politics.

So these are my top five political figures that I believe have had an important influence in Zimbabwean politics in the years since 1980. Each in their own way, has had a critical influence on the political landscape.

Having done the exercise, I too understand why many people thought five was too restrictive. One person I would have had in my list is Edgar Tekere, the former secretary-general of Zanu PF who later formed and led the Zimbabwe Unity Movement, not the first opposition, but perhaps the first important challenge after the demise of Zapu. Tekere filled the vacuum in opposition that had been left after PF Zapu was swallowed by Zanu PF.

His campaign against the one party rule was admirable but while some people credit him with saving the country from one party state, the truth is by the time Zanu PF consolidated its grip in the late 1980s, one party rule was on its way out in Africa and the rest of the world. There is a case to be made that with or without the challenge, Zanu PF would still have been forced to abandon the dalliance with one party rule, a system that was being rejected elsewhere after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet bloc.

Still, however, Tekere demonstrated that Mugabe could be challenged. His party ultimately disintegrated, but he had made an important contribution. Most of his warnings, including that Mugabe would not give up power have come true for the most part. Like Dongo after him, he is a trailblazer for opposition politics. What gives Dongo the edge, in my opinion, is the significance of her challenge and success, for the opposition and from a gender perspective.

Finally, one person who made most lists, who is missing from mine is Eddison Zvobgo. I had not imagined that so many people would have him as having been such an influential figure in our politics but on reflection, I can see why people think that of him. From what I have gathered, the main reason most people have included him is that he crafted the major constitutional amendments, in particular Constitutional Amendment No 7 of 1987, which gave the country the Executive Presidency and with it, altered the political landscape and governance in Zimbabwe. He is credited with this change as he was the constitutional affairs minister at the time and some argue that he was really doing it with an eye for the presidency himself, rather than for Mugabe. This might be true but it is also rather speculative. In my view, these amendments were masterminded by Mugabe himself and while it’s not unreasonable to credit the constitutional affairs minister, I believe Mugabe’s hand in this is often underplayed and underestimated by critics. No doubt he was a charismatic and intelligent figure, but I am not persuaded that his influence was of such weight as to displace the men and one woman in my top five. I would certainly have Tekere ahead of him.

I also noticed that the First Lady, Grace Mugabe has made a number of lists and to be sure, the temptation is to include her. But I believe this owes more to the fact that her role is very current. No doubt she is showing some influence and the Mujuru affair last year is a good example. However, I believe this requires some perspective and the jury is still out. She may yet wield the most fundamental influence in Zimbabwean politics, which would probably catapult her to the top levels of the most influential. However, I also understand why some people believe she is already in that list.

What about Mnangagwa? He is certainly a critical player, probably with much greater influence than most of the above. But he has operated mostly in the background and his actual influence has not been as visible. This probably leads to an under-estimation of his role and influence, in favour of the more vocal and visible ones. Still, the extent of his power and influence will be seen in the coming months as he negotiates his way to power.

As I said at the start, coming up with a top five most influential politicians since 1980 is a difficult exercise. Opinions will always differ depending on how much weight one gives to the role and influence of each individual. Some people mentioned names such as former central bank governor Gideon Gono, while others mentioned the generals in the security sector. But these do not fall in the category of politicians. These are, strictly speaking, non-political figures, albeit having a role in politics.

Magaisa is a lawyer and lecturer at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom.

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