However, this is only a veneer as the decision-making process in the party, even at conferences, is entrenched within a small clique controlled by President Robert Mugabe and there is total disregard of views from the grassroots.
Mugabe is omnipresent to the extent that his opening speech at the 11th conference in Mutare last week set the agenda and the tone for discussions, which thereafter had to fit into the set template.
“This conference must come up with a solid programme to fight sanctions and not just for calling for sanctions to be removed,” Mugabe said. “We have been far too good for malicious people. Why should we continue to have business and organisations that are supported by Americans and the British operating without hitting them back?”
This became the chorus of the conference and speaker after speaker parroted Mugabe’s words with some even trying to imitate his language.
Again, when Mugabe said calling for imposition of sanctions on the country should be regarded as treasonous, it became one of the final resolutions.
Mugabe, who went to the conference fully aware of the fissures growing in the party around elections, silenced those who might have gathered some courage to speak against early polls, which he wants mid-next year.
He deftly touched on the issue of the next poll saying: “the Global Political Agreement cannot be allowed to continue.
“Whatever elections we are going to have, are elections to be held together. We must combine the presidential, parliamentary and local government.”
The ageing leader added that the conference should have a resolution to that effect without leaving room for debate on when elections should be held.
By this, Mugabe was addressing two audiences, the anti-election group in his party and the MDC which is pushing for a delay until democratic reforms are undertaken. MPs from all parties have been saying only presidential polls should be held, arguing that they were the only ones that were disputed.
Mugabe remains an all powerful leader of the party and his speeches, mixed with both Shona and Ndebele, drew applause leaving many wondering if there were delegates who differed.
One delegate said the problem with the “dear leader” approach, which the party adopted after the deaths of vice-president Joseph Msika and Simon Muzenda, was not good for Zanu PF.
“Mugabe is withdrawn from the people, I mean the members, the politburo and those who hold ministerial posts,” said the delegate. “None of these people ever have tea or lunch with the president as was the case with Muzenda and Msika and I wonder what input was made into his speech by others so that it reflects what the people want.”
A political commentator, Phillip Pasirayi said the “dear leader” mentality has always been evident in Zanu PF and was coupled with a culture of members not questioning Mugabe.
“The mentality in Zanu PF is that Mugabe is always right and infallible,” said Pasirayi. “The stuff making the (Zanu PF’s conference) resolutions is taken from the speech by the president.”
While there may be sceptics, speaking in hushed tones away from the venue, Mugabe held the delegates in awe. Even when he digressed and said things bordering on obscenities, there were cheers and laughter.
Zanu PF, despite the chasms which have threatened to tear the party in the past decade, appeared a cohesive party with no dissenting voices.
The only time there was dissent was when war veterans, who 13 years ago literally held Mugabe hostage demanding compensation for their participation in the liberation war, refused to have Brigadier General Richard Ruwodo deliver a solidarity message on their behalf, instead of their preferred leader Jabulani Sibanda.
Ruwodo, the director of War Veterans Board, was a compromise speaker as there are three factions purporting to represent the former combatants, one led by Sibanda and the other two by Joseph Chinotimba and Baten Beta.
The war veterans, crucial in Zanu PF elections campaigns, have been the only visible dissenters since 1997 and on Friday last week they refused to be whipped into line and caused commotion.
Zanu PF chairman Simon Khaya Moyo, who was struggling to effectively chair the conference, appealed for order, but his calls were drowned out in the torrent of jeers and whistles by the liberation fighters.
Khaya Moyo, who went as far as threatening a premature end to the conference, made hasty consultations and asked for the intervention of the commissariat led by Webster Shamu.
This was one of the brief moments when a constituent important for the Zanu PF machinery dared to challenge the leadership and the fact that Sibanda, the ex-combatants’ choice, was allowed to speak was a victory for the dissenters.
Apart from the dissenting voices from the war veterans, all the other constituent groups, the women’s league, the youths full of “zeal and energy,” as Khaya Moyo put it, who are usually the source of dissent in democratic political parties, ex-detainees and former prisoners all parroted Mugabe’s line.
Zanu PF Mashonaland West chairman Robert Sikanyika epitomised how youths were held in the party when he threatened to “unleash” them on journalists who took seats in front of delegates from his area and refused to sit anywhere else.
Even Khaya Moyo threatened to use the youths to instill discipline after some delegates refused to keep quiet. This gave the youths unlimited power and they were not chastised when one of them, while delivering a solidarity message, promised to clash with those people who may want to challenge Mugabe in the elections.
Youth League secretary for Indigenisation and Economic Empowerment Innocent Hamandishe said the youths were prepared to put their lives on the line for Mugabe in the next election.
“We are prepared to die because they say if something is not worth dying for then it is not worth living for,” said Hamandishe. “If the likes of (Herbert) Chitepo and (Josiah) Tongogara died for this country, then who are we not to sacrifice for the country.”
Whereas it is a popular sentiment that the Women’s League is used by the party, it was evident in Mutare that all members strived to be seen and heard uncritically reflecting the party position.
Everything said by any of the members of the presidium was greeted with applause and ululation leading to two conclusions: either the leaders knew exactly what their people wanted or the delegates would not dare to publicly oppose their views.
And we can be sure it wasn’t the first!