By David Coltart
ZIMBABWE has been afflicted with the terrible disease of endemic violence for over 150 years. Violence was used by Lobengula to suppress the Shona.
It was used to colonise and after that to maintain minority rule, to overthrow white supremacy and, after Independence in 1980, to crush any possibility of legitimate political opposition.
The consequences of violence have been compounded by the flourishing culture of impunity. Those who commit horrendous crimes are not brought to book but prosper through their actions. It is now deeply embedded in our national psyche that political violence is acceptable and thus a norm. This inhibits economic development and creates terrible social problems.
What attracted me to the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) from the beginning was its commitment to break this vicious cycle of violence and impunity by strictly adhering to non-violent means in pursuit of its political objectives. This was in sharp and welcome contrast to the governing Zanu PF’s promotion and glorification of violence, impunity and lawlessness.
So the attempt by some MDC youths to murder our director for security, Peter Guhu, in September 2004 at the Harvest House headquarters was deeply shocking. Even worse were subsequent revelations that senior MDC officials were either involved or sympathetic to the youths.
Any predisposition to violence can be controlled only by the manner in which it is handled by leaders. If not decisively dealt with, a culture of impunity develops and violence perpetuates itself even within bodies such as the MDC.
This is precisely what happened. Those responsible for violence were not disciplined and the same youths were used to seriously assault MDC staff members in May 2005. While these youths were expelled and one senior staff member dismissed in June 2005, the architects of the violence were not disciplined.
At the next meeting of the national executive on July 15 2005 I tabled a statement emphasising that this violence constituted “the most serious assault on the credibility of the MDC since it was established in September 1999.
“Our commitment to non-violence is so fundamental that extraordinary measures need to be taken in dealing with this scourge. If we do not send out a clear and unequivocal message to Zimbabweans in general and in particular to our own members and staff that violence will not be tolerated then we will simply reduce the standing of the MDC to that of . . . Zanu PF.”
But the party lurched forward to what became known as the senate issue with these serious issues unresolved. It soon emerged that some complicit in violence were organising teams to intimidate provincial committees to vote against participation in the senate.
So, for example, Manicaland, a province inclined against participation, instructed its delegation to vote for participation in a direct reaction against intimidation. Eventually the vote to participate or not in the senatorial election had little to do with the elections as such, and more to do with the philosophy of the MDC.
I then suggested to Morgan Tsvangirai and other MDC leaders that an independent commission of inquiry into all allegations of intra-party violence be established and I was eventually informed that Tsvangirai wanted me to chair such a commission.
It was particularly poignant that on the very evening after I discussed the issue with Tsvangirai a supporter of his faction, Bekithemba Nyathi, was seriously injured by youths from the so-called pro-senate faction.
This again demonstrated how imperative was action and on December 8 2005 I compiled and presented terms of reference of such a commission in which I recommended that “in cases where (it is found) that a member has been involved in violent acts directly or indirectly . . . the national council shall immediately refer the case to the disciplinary committee (DC) and request the chairperson of the DC to suspend the member . . .
“The commission shall endeavour to complete its work before the party’s congress and any person found . . . to be involved in violence shall be barred from contesting for office at the congress.”
My proposals became a dead letter. In a meeting last January Tsvangirai made it clear that he was not interested in pursuing the proposal. The reconciliation I had worked for between the two factions became impossible. The subsequent “amicable divorce” alternative which I thereafter pursued also now seems impossible.
The two factions’ congresses have now come and gone with neither congress addressing the issue of violence. Furthermore, the youths and a senior staff member responsible for violence at Harvest House have been re-employed by the Tsvangirai faction; senior members of the national executive and MPs implicated in the Harvest House violence have all been elected to the national executive and some are on the new management committee of the Tsvangirai faction.
Senior members of staff implicated in the Harvest House violence have retained their positions and there has been no rebuttal of the statement by the Tsvangirai faction chairman of Harare province Morgan Femai that “before we remove Zanu PF we will stamp them (the Mutambara faction) out”. Indeed, the Tsvangirai faction’s winning candidate in the Budiriro by-election is one of the very people accused of involvement in the Harvest House violence who was suspended for two years by the MDC at its June 25 2005 national council meeting.
Some may consider my concern about violence as trivial. I beg to differ. If Zimbabwe is ever to become a modern, successful, democratic state, violence must be punished. If we do not ourselves prevent those with violent inclinations from gaining high office within the opposition they may naturally one day assume influential positions in government where they will have terrifying access to the levers of national power.
We have become so accustomed to violence being used as a political weapon that we have lost sight of the fact that the democratic world has moved on, eschewing such methods. We do not recognise that we are now adopting the very same instruments as does the anti-democratic regime we oppose.
Non-violent methods are the most effective in tackling this regime. Non-violence and civil disobedience are not incompatible and disciples of non-violence are not consequently opposed to mass action.
On the contrary, peaceful mass action is the very reality that the Zanu PF regime most fears. However, leaders with a predilection for violence are ipso facto unable to organise peaceful mass action successfully.
Only if leaders have instilled discipline in their subordinates can they be confident that demonstrations they lead will not degenerate into mayhem. I suspect that one of the reasons leaders have not yet led protest marches onto the urban streets is because they have knowledge of, and therefore little confidence in, the discipline and dedication of their followers.
Leadership is ultimately about taking responsibility for the welfare of others. Good leaders are obliged to ensure that people who repose faith in them are not unnecessarily endangered.
While leaders obviously must respect the thinking and desires of their constituents, when it is known that any beliefs are based on falsehoods, misconceptions and propaganda, leaders have a responsibility to sound the alarm. They cannot just act like lemmings and hurtle with their followers over the cliffs simply because an apparent majority of others are doing so.
If leaders learn that an organisation their supporters have placed faith in has serious flaws they must expose this and they must also act to correct those flaws. It is within this context that I know I would do a disservice to people who had faith in, and therefore elected, me as their representative to parliament were I to be part of an organisation that has not acted to root out violence within its own ranks.
* David Coltart was MDC legal secretary and is MP for Bulawayo South.