HomeOpinionMore than a rumble of change in ranks

More than a rumble of change in ranks

By Patrick Laurence

THE aphorism coined by Harold Wilson, the former British premier who held office in the 1960s and 1970s, “a week is a long time in politics”, needs t

o be revised in light of recent events in Zimbabwe.

The announcement by Simba Makoni, a stalwart of the ruling Zanu PF and a former Minister of Finance, of his intention to stand in the presidential election next month, is a reminder that a day can be long enough to signal a major change is in the offing.

Until Makoni’s February 5 announcement, Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s octogenarian president, looked certain to be re-elected in the pending election; thereafter Mugabe’s chances of re-election were questionable, particularly as Makoni’s declaration appeared to portend the start of a revolt against Mugabe in his own party.

To appreciate the full significance of Makoni’s decision to stand against Mugabe, contemplate a hypothetical situation in South Africa in which: the national president is elected in a separate presidential poll instead of by members of the National Assembly, which effectively means by the majority party; Jacob Zuma, the ANC president, is nominated by the ANC as its presidential candidate in a pending presidential election that will occur in tandem with the actual scheduled parliamentary election next year; Cyril Ramaphosa, a former secretary-general of the ANC and a long-standing member of the ANC national executive committee is persuaded to stand for election as president in the national interest by representatives of the business community and civil society, including the South African Council of Churches.

The probabilities are high that the theoretical Ramaphosa foray into the political arena, like the actual Makoni initiative in Zimbabwe, would attract votes across a wide socio-political spectrum. It should be borne in mind that nearly 40% of the delegates at the ANC’s national conference last December voted against Zuma and that various opinion polls have identified Ramaphosa as the person favoured by a large proportion of the citizenry to succeed President Thabo Mbeki. Another factor should be taken into account in the hypothetical scenario: unlike the ANC members of the national assembly, the voters in the direct, popular presidential election will not find themselves under the scrutiny of Baleka Mbete, the speaker and the national chairwoman of the Zuma-led ANC.

To quote Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, who headed a government-appointed commission on electoral reform in 2002, public representatives who are “locked into caucus politics” are inclined to docile obedience to the party line. A last point on the South African analogy: while Zuma undoubtedly had the support of the majority of delegates at the ANC’s national conference at Polokwane, it does not follow that he would win a national presidential election.

There is a simple reason for that. The ANC’s national membership is 600 000, whereas the electorate for a presidential election would be between 15 million and 20 million, depending on the proportion of the 28 million to 30 million South Africans of voting age who registered to vote. To offer a hypothetical South African equivalent of Makoni’s bold gamut is not, of course, to equate the situations in the two countries.

Zimbabwe is on the brink of an abyss; South Africa, though not free of problems, is not. Zimbabwe’s desperate plight is encapsulated in its astronomical inflation rate of 25 000%, its status as the world’s fastest shrinking economy and its all but valueless currency, as well as its huge and mounting international debt.

Those who have benefited from Mugabe’s policy of indigenisation of the economy are beginning to fear that unless he is prevented from extending his presidential tenure for another five years, they will become paupers or suffer an even worse fate at the hands of Mugabe’s ubiquitous enemies. Though important in its own right, the significance of Makoni’s decision to stand against Mugabe in next month’s election is magnified by a number of factors.

One is that he is unlikely to have taken the decision without consulting the barons at Mugabe’s court and receiving pledges of support. It is a fair bet that he talked to Solomon Mujuru, the former commander of Zanu PF’s guerilla army and of Zimbabwe’s post-liberation national defence force. His military credentials aside, Mujuru — whose wife, Joice, is one of Zimbabwe’s two vice-presidents — is a fabulously rich businessmen; if Mugabe is allowed to prolong his disastrous rule at the age of 84, Mujuru is a candidate for impoverishment and even retribution.

As Martin Meredith notes in the expanded and updated edition of his acclaimed book Mugabe, Power, Plunder and the Struggle for Zimbabwe, Mujuru was instrumental in blocking Mugabe’s bid last year to defer the 2008 presidential election until 2010 in order to secure his tenure as president for another two years. It would be consistent for Mujuru to follow that up by backing Makoni’s attempt to defeat Mugabe in next month’s presidential election and thereby deny him occupancy of the presidency for another five years, or until he is 88.

At the very least, Makoni will split the Zanu PF vote and thereby negate the advantage that Mugabe gained when the feuding factions of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) failed to resolve their differences or even to forge an election pact to prevent dividing the MDC vote.

If Makoni fails to win the pending presidential election himself, he may have opened the door to Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the dominant MDC faction. Given the centrality of the presidential elections to the analysis so far, it is relevant to note that research conducted by the commission headed by Slabbert showed that a majority of South Africans of all races are in favour of the introduction of direct presidential elections. Their preference has since been endorsed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu: he wants the government to give South Africans a direct role in the election of the national president instead of having the choice made for them by the majority party in the National Assembly.

If Zimbabweans were not afforded the opportunity of directly electing the president, Makoni would not have been able to raise his standard against Mugabe and Mugabe’s election by a Zanu PF-dominated parliament would, in all probability, have been destined to become a disastrous fait accompli next month. — The Sunday Independent.

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