Candid Comment

To march or not to march: the issues


By Joram Nyathi

THAT government would ban the MDC’s “Freedom March” on Wednesday was predictable. What was not predictable was that the police allowed it i

n the first place, and that the MDC believed it could hold a march with such a nebulous agenda in the centre of Harare.


There are a number of possible reasons why the MDC march was banned. One is the fear of violence, which is the official line given by the police. It is barely plausible, but a reason nonetheless, given that once the people are out on the streets it is difficult even for those who mobilised the march to control them. The result could be mayhem, with the opposition blaming the usual “rogue elements” and Zanu PF “infiltrators” while the police will use it as “proof” that the MDC is “a violent party”.


The other reason is that the police still believe they are the final authority in sanctioning public gatherings. They still control how we should exercise our democratic rights even when no life or property is under threat. In other words, while the Sadc-initiated talks are concerned with expanding the democratic space, Zanu PF and the police believe there is a set date when the gates should be flung open to all.


The third reason was perhaps to thwart the MDC’s foolish “revenge” march. Since Zanu PF’s “Million Man March” in support of President Robert Mugabe’s candidacy in the March elections, there has been agitation that the MDC should be allowed to hold its own “Million Man March” now dubbed “Freedom March”.


It is a battle of wills and Zanu PF couldn’t countenance the spectacle of the MDC marshalling more marchers than it did in November.


The MDC has a right to hold such a march as the official opposition. I have only two reservations about its merit: why copy what Zanu PF is doing when there is no obvious national benefit? Secondly, since the MDC is still dithering about participation in the elections, what is the merit of displaying to the world 10 million men a majority of whom are not registered to vote? Isn’t that to psyche the world for a phoney MDC victory when the party will boycott the elections or, if it takes part, it may not mobilise the same number of voters, and claim rigging on the basis of street marches?


This brings me to the MDC’s gamut of demands as contained in its notice of the “Freedom March”. They want a new constitution; food and jobs; free and fair elections; real money and restoration of our dignity; water, electricity and medical drugs; and affordable health, transport and education.


The little information I have on the deadlock in the talks between Zanu PF and the MDC, the “sticking points” are a new constitution and a postponement of elections. I thought these would constitute the crux of the march.


But the MDC thought a mixture of everything was the way to go — they want to pick real money, jobs and quality education off the streets of Harare.


The trouble with this medley is simple: it blunts the “sticking points” in the ongoing talks. We are now confused about what these are: a new constitution or a transitional constitution or a postponement of the polls or water and electricity? Understandably, the National Constitutional Assembly has said it will not ride on this omnibus driving around Harare. It would rather stay its course for a people-driven constitution.


But the MDC can’t miss an opportunity to demonstrate that it is close to the pulse of the nation, that it is with the people and understands their immediate needs. Cash, drugs, personal dignity, health, transport and education are all valid demands but belong to a different time and platform.


My point is that when you hold a march you are demanding something specific and deliverable and this should not be confused with electioneering. The MDC is spot-on on a new constitution and a postponement of the elections because these constitute a direct impediment to its quest for power. President Mugabe can reject these but it’s not beyond his power to deliver them in one day. But the MDC is vague and muddled in its demands, blowing hot and cold in the hope that it can use the talks as an affirmative action project to power.


Issues like education, transport, drugs, health and cash at this moment belong to organisations such as the Consumer Council of Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions and other civic groups. The MDC should use these as campaign material by telling supporters and potential supporters how it wants to tackle them. How do you march against the policy deficiencies of a rival party which you should use as campaign material?


These are the issues it should be addressing at its 300 rallies, not in a once-off march when critical elections are less than two months away. We want to know how it intends to deal with these chronic and pervasive problems which the Zanu PF government has clearly failed to solve.


But the message one gets from the party’s list of grievances is that the MDC has not evolved from a protest movement into an opposition party ready to govern. For its part, by banning the MDC march, the Zanu PF government has exposed two things: that it is dealing in bad faith in the inter-party talks and that it is dead terrified of the MDC. It’s good ammunition for the opposition.

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