By Prof Eldred Masunungure
ARTHUR Mutambara’s entry into Zimbabwe’s politics has generated a lot of excitement and indeed even anxiety amongst some political gladiators — ruling and aspiring.
I would say both the anxiety and the exc
itement are warranted. A lot of heated discussion has followed though one would conclude that there has been more heat than light.
It appears his rather sudden and certainly spectacular elevation to one of the pinnacles of opposition politics is expected to have a dramatic impact on national politics. He undoubtedly adds a new dimension and configuration not only to opposition politics but indeed to Zanu PF politics, with particular regard to the fractious succession issue within the ruling party.
Mutambara may be a man of many faces but his two most prominent faces are those of a student leader and an outstanding and gifted academic. Even his worst detractors have failed to fault his intellectual face. It is the other face that appears to give some of Zimbabwe’s political gladiators sleepless nights.
Mutambara’s background is anchored in student politics where he was affectionately known as “AGO”, the acronym of his three first names. He was one of the pioneers of radical resistance politics at the University of Zimbabwe (UZ) and indeed at the country’s tertiary institutions.
He and his colleagues in the then Student Representative Council (SRC) transformed the texture of student politics for a whole political generation. This is why his impact is likely to be very extensive for many graduates of UZ and other institutions of higher learning would readily recognise Arthur “AGO” Mutambara and look back with considerable nostalgia at a fearless, articulate and charismatic leader of the student community.
Public opinion is deeply split as to the impact that Mutambara will have on various levels of politics: his impact on the two rival MDC camps, on ruling Zanu PF politic; and on national politics generally.
For most people it came as a big shock that Mutambara’s re-entry in politics came via one of the factions of the Movement for Democratic Change.
Many celebrated his entry into politics but condemned the fact that he did so on the side of the Sibanda faction rather than the Tsvangirai faction. This perspective draws parallels with Jonathan Moyo’s entry into active Zimbabwe politics on the side of the ruling Zanu PF rather than the then fledgling MDC.
The bottom line in Mutambara’s case is that he joined opposition politics and irrespective of whichever faction he joined, it was going to have reverberations inside and outside that faction.
Before Mutambara entered the fray in the Sibanda faction, there appeared to be a triangular fight for the presidency of that faction. This involved secretary-general Professor Welshman Ncube, his deputy Gift Chimanikire and acting president Gibson Sibanda.
All were keen — with varying degrees of enthusiasm and candidness — to capture the top prize. Of the three, Ncube and Sibanda share the affinity of being Ndebele and as much as some people may want to discount the ethnic variable, the brutal reality is that ethnicity is a salient factor in Zimbabwe politics and will be so for a long time into the future.
So, in this triad, Chimanikire was the odd man out but he projected the Shona face of the faction. As the Shona are the majority group in the country, Chimanikire saw himself as the obvious and only viable candidate for the presidential throne.
But there is also the other dimension. In terms of working experience and backgrounds, Chimanikire and Sibanda share the same bed for both sharpened their political skills as trade unionists.
Professor Ncube joined politics from an intellectual background and appears more comfortable among fellow academics. To this extent, Ncube was the odd man out and probably felt like a fish out of water. He would obviously find common ground with Mutambara, a professor of robotics.
To Ncube then, Mutambara would have the gravitational pull of the Shona tag of Chimanikire plus the gravitational pull of his solid intellectual background. It was therefore unsurprising that Ncube rooted for Mutambara when it became clear to him that Chimanikire was handicapped by his modest education in the same way as Morgan Tsvangirai.
Both Ncube and Sibanda must have realised as well that in Zimbabwe politics, and given the grip of ethnic consciousness, an Ndebele leader would have only a faint chance of making it to State House.
Both therefore deferred to Mutambara who has Chimanikire’s strength of being Shona without the educational handicap. Both Ncube and Sibanda also deferred to an “outsider” untainted by the struggles-within-the-struggle of opposition politics.
Predictably, Chimanikire felt slighted and waved the mafikizolo card against Mutambara and was not prepared to “step down for an expatriate who does not know the price of bread here”.
The mafikizolo tag would not stick as Mutambara could easily counter this by pointing out that he started his struggle over 17 years ago.
Obviously Ncube and his camp had done their homework in terms of lobbying for the ex-student leader and all indications were that in a straight fight between Chimanikire and Mutambara, the former was likely to suffer a heavy defeat.
The entry of Mutambara in Zimbabwe politics in the Sibanda faction of the MDC should obviously strengthen that faction against the Tsvangirai camp. As things presently stand, the Tsvangirai wing seems to have the numbers as its anti-senate stance resonated well with the opposition forces.
The entry of Mutambara may very well tilt the pendulum in favour of the Sibanda camp provided the latter do their homework with vigour. How would such a scenario arise?
Mutambara would deliver votes from several constituencies: the intelligentsia who are sceptical of Tsvangirai’s modest education and doubt his capacity to grasp modern and complex global issues and articulate them to a global audience.
The youth element — and these constitute a large bloc of potential voters of the Zimbabwean population — would also find common affinity with Mutambara, so would students at tertiary institutions.
Ex-students of the “AGO” generation would be similarly enticed as they reminisce on the heady days of radical student politics. He would also likely deliver the Manyika vote and support base. These support bases would be combined with the Ndebele bloc for a concerted effort to take State House.
Mutambara’s entry into MDC politics on the side of the Ncube/Sibanda camp will cause ripple effects within the rival Tsvangirai camp.
Some observers even fault Mutambara for joining the “wrong” camp and even speculate that in a straight fight between the two gladiators, Tsvangirai would bite the dust. It must be acknowledged that Tsvangirai is careless and sometimes speaks with an unguarded tongue and also leaps before he looks.
In terms of image, stature, eloquence and charisma, Mutambara would outwit Tsvangirai. It is highly unlikely though that the Mutambara factor would prompt a leadership change in the Tsvangirai camp.
What this dynamism would mean on the ground is that a Mutambara-led MDC and a Tsvangirai-led one would most likely share the Harare vote. However, the split allegiances of the formerly impregnable MDC fortress could divide the opposition vote to the obvious advantage and delight of the ruling party.
Mutambara could also capture much of his Manicaland home province, especially the southern part of the province from Mutare down to Chipinge. Given that the Matabeleland region is most probably going to remain solidly behind Ncube and Sibanda, Tsvangirai would have a very hard time penetrating this southern part of the country.
His support is likely to be anchored in the lumpen-proletariat in urban areas for this class has nothing to lose but its chains.
Mutambara factor in Zanu-PF
There is little doubt that Mutambara’s entry into the country’s politics has unsettled the ruling Zanu PF party and its government. If there was any doubt about this, a cursory reading of the state media, especially the Herald of February 22, would dispel any lingering reservations.
The state-aligned daily came out unequivocally in sympathy with Chimanikire, describing him as “the long suffering deputy secretary-general” while literally condemning Mutambara for daring to snatch the presidency of the MDC.
He was dismissed as “a rank outsider” whose story “reads like the portrait of a hooligan.”
The newspaper article, entitled “Is Mutambara his own man?” attempted a character demolition of Mutambara while doing a beautification job on his presidential rival.
It is patently obvious that the article was the voice of the political establishment and its tenor betrayed the panic in the ruling party.
But in launching such a vitriolic and unprovoked attack on one of the two candidates, it by default gave Mutambara a martyr status while simultaneously delivering the kiss of death to Chimanikire. In short, the Zanu PF is taking AGO seriously. Why?
Those who see Mutambara as a formidable presidential candidate are already beginning to question the capacity and intellectual stamina of Zanu-PF’s presidential hopeful, the ruling party and state vice-president Joice Teurai Ropa Mujuru, to stand “toe-to-toe” against the intellectual giant.
They are therefore beginning to “hunt” for an AGO within the ruling party and again Simba Makoni’s name is now repeatedly popping up. It must be noted, however, that all these permutations will ultimately and decisively depend on the framework of Zimbabwe politics in the next few years.
There is mounting evidence that the ruling party and the state want to shed the jambanja image of politics which assisted Zanu PF to salvage political victory from the jaws of defeat in three successive elections, notably in the June 2000 parliamentary and the March 2002 presidential elections.
There was visibly less jambanjaism in the run-up to the March 2005 election and in the post-election period. In fact, after the March 2005 election, jambanja politics was superseded by Operation Murambatsvina.
The next momentous development was the turbulence in the opposition MDC culminating in the inevitable split that will be concretised at the forthcoming congress of the Tsvangirai camp.
The Herald article referred to above gave credence to the abandonment or at least intended rejection of jambanja politics in favour of its more civilised and conventional forms. After accusing Mutambara of introducing hooliganism into student politics, the author chided the presidential hopeful: “Now if this is the base (ie hooliganism) that Mutambara hopes to build on, then he needs to be reminded that national politics is a world apart from student politics, and Zimbabwe has since moved beyond politics of confrontation …”
The politics of confrontation referred to is the politics of jambanja. Without resorting to jambanja politics, Mutambara would present a real threat to Vice-President Mujuru in a presidential fight.
The ruling party appears jittery at the entry of Mutambara in national politics. He already has solid credentials as a mobiliser and organiser during his student politics. He injected student politics with a dynamism and radical militancy that had been characteristic of black student politics during the illegal Ian Smith regime. He has the charisma, the energy and stature and indeed the struggle history behind him.
Mujuru would continue to mobilise and deliver the women’s vote and to this extent this support base is likely to remain intact. Another anchor is the war vet one and of course the Zezuru sub-ethnic group of the Shona.
The challenge to Zanu PF, therefore, it to think about the unthinkable, that is to look for a more energetic, intellectually agile and charismatic person who has credentials above and beyond those of the liberation struggle.
The jambanja ideology and way of doing things has lost steam and is unlikely to sell with the masses, especially when they see that the jambanja-led fast track land reform programme has not yet yielded the promised rich harvests.
So, Zanu PF needs someone who can articulate and debate issues toe-to-toe with Mutambara, and someone as equally charming. The jambanja era is most likely dead and buried and there is need to do things differently.
Zanu PF needs an “AGO” within its ranks and as a presidential candidate. This is the most challenging fallout within Zanu PF of
Mutambara’s entry into national politics.
Even more devastating a scenario for the ruling party is the prospect of the two rival factions re-unifying. Unification of the two MDC factions, though distant and improbable, is not impossible.
Mutambara raised the prospect of this when he was quoted in the Herald of February 21 as saying: “As the party goes towards two separate congresses, the infusion of new leadership, untainted by current disagreements, is imperative to facilitate the reunification process. It is in this context that I define the framework of my entry into Zimbabwean politics.”
The combination of Mutambara and Tsvangirai would be an even bigger threat than the united old MDC. The two leaders have different but strong and complimentary support bases. In that combination, opposition politics would have been rejuvenated and re-energised. That would completely change the political landscape of the country.
Whatever the case and final outcome of struggles for power within the Ncube/Sibanda MDC faction, opposition and indeed national politics will never be the same again with the entry of Professor Mutambara into the ring.
* Masunungure is the chairman of the political and administrative studies department at the University of Zimbabwe.