THE major weakness of Zimbabwe’s main political parties continues to be their failure to dictate the political pace, course and direction of the country.
They also suffer from a debilitating inability to put their differences aside to face a common enemy and choose to waste time and energy trading petty insults whilst the nation burns.
Tragically, elections in Zimbabwe and Africa in general are not about ideas, policies and election of sound leaders, but are rather a mere contest of power between belligerents with little or nothing valuable to offer to the electorate.
The MDC formation led by Morgan Tsvangirai stands the most realistic chance of defeating Zanu PF and its leader President Robert Mugabe in elections.
The party and its president, however, have tragic flaws reminiscent of Shakespearean tragedies principal of which is the fact that the party has been accused of being ideologically bankrupt, an argument which has not been convincingly rebutted.
The party does not appear to have a clear and consistent ideological agenda and as such has tended to merely react to Zanu PF.
It has been accused of failing to clearly articulate its policies on land reform and indigenisation, weaknesses which Zanu PF has revelled in.
Thankfully for them, Zimbabwean politics at the moment is not about ideas, ideologies and policies, but rather personalities and issues of the stomach. Besides moments of brilliance from the likes of Finance minister Tendai Biti and a few others there is little indication that the party is a social democratic party with definable and tangible ideological or philosophical distinctives.
Some people have even gone to the extent of arguing that if Zanu PF and Mugabe did not exist, the MDC-T would struggle to justify its existence and relevance. The party is primarily a protest movement which thrives on the unpopularity of Mugabe and Zanu PF rather than on well thought out policies based on solid ideological or philosophical foundations.
Protest party status
The MDC-T seems to be struggling to transform itself from a protest movement to a pro-active polity capable of governing the country. This is the same problem we have had with Zanu PF, a party which has failed to transform itself from a liberation war movement to a proper ruling party.
Consequently, even though Zanu PF left the bush 30 years ago, the bush has not left them as they still believe they are in a war as evidenced by their political discourse, diction, language and mannerism. The MDC-T should metamorphose from just being a protest movement to a proper political party with an agenda for governing the country and not revel in mistakes made by Zanu PF as this is not sustainable in the long term.
MDC-T has been at the forefront of the democratisation agenda and its members have demonstrated a lot of courage and resilience in the face of state-sanctioned violence. However, courage and resilience are not enough in politics and any vibrant political party needs to be strategically competent.
The party’s failure to mobilise its members in the constitutional outreach process is an example of how the MDC-T was outwitted and outmuscled by Zanu PF. Whilst their leadership may pontificate that it was not their role to mobilise people, but political reality dictates that every political party worth its salt has a role in mobilising people around its beliefs, policy direction and policies.
They were found wanting in this regard in the constitutional outreach process which Zanu PF strategists used to gauge their strength. This strategy deficit was also evident in the manner in which the party failed to engage in effective regional lobbying at Sadc level, only succeeding at the level of the European Union and the Americas.
Strategically this has led to the perception by some key African leaders that the MDC-T is a Western project which has no clear understanding of the dynamics of African politics and diplomacy. This has been accentuated by disabled international structures with a weak foreign policy engagement framework epitomised by collapsed or collapsing international party structures.
Importantly, however, the MDC-T does not appear to have a coherent and effective strategy at a regional and international level to lobby on Zimbabwean issues.
The party’s foreign advocacy /mobilisation strategy should not be premised on the accidental brilliance of individuals in the diaspora, but should be the product of a well defined and refined foreign policy matrix interwoven into stratagem imperatives defined by think tanks on external affairs. Such a policy would enshrine a framework for engaging and mobilising the diaspora as an entry point for international advocacy and diplomacy.
Structural defects and inertia
The constitutional outreach process proved that the MDC-T has ineffective grassroots structures and is dependent entirely on the unpopularity of Zanu PF and the popularity of the “Morgan Tsvangirai brand”.
Factionalism and accusations of “kitchen cabinet” decision-making have not helped the cause of the party which has the potential of comprehensively winning the elections even with the prevalence of violence. Importantly, elections held in five to 10 years time will no longer be about Mugabe or Tsvangirai, but who can best govern the country. If the MDC- T values its relevance to the future, it should start positioning itself for the post-Mugabe era.
Lack of quality leadership
The quality of a lot of MDC-T councilors and MPs leaves a lot to be desired and could result in the party losing several seats, especially in Matabeleland.
There is an urgent need for the MDC-T to consider recruiting talented personnel from various sectors of society if it is to be a respectable and effective political movement capable not only of defeating Zanu PF, but more importantly running the country and not running it down.
The party should be careful lest it be destroyed by the “we died for this country syndrome” which alienates a lot of gifted individuals who could add value to the democracy and transformation agenda.
Strengths of the MDC-T are:
- Their mass appeal to ordinary Zimbabweans who identify with its grassroots origins.
- The party‘s position as the only movement at the moment capable of defeating Zanu PF in an election as evidenced by the massive gains it made even in traditional Zanu PF strongholds in the 2008 harmonised elections. People may thus be moved to back a party with the necessary electoral aptitude to change the political direction of the nation vis a vis an election contest.
- The charisma of Tsvangirai at grassroots level. Whilst Ncube, Dumiso Dabengwa and Arthur Mutambara may possess admirable leadership skills they lack charisma, especially that charisma which appeals to toiling masses and not just middle class or upper middle class appeal. This (the working class, informal sector and rural folk) is the strata of the populace which determines the outcome of elections.
The outstanding brilliance of individuals such as Nelson Chamisa, Biti and the commitment of its youth cadre ship.
- Its willingness and openness to advice from stakeholders outside the corridors of power.
- Its understanding of grassroots issues and ability to resonate with alienated voices. This singular factor makes the party the most popular political party in Zimbabwe as the electorate is currently interested in those who scratch where it itches.
The electorate is not interested in what it considers to be abstract upper middle class pre-occupation with ideologies, but rather with political parties that promise bread on their tables. Whether or not both the tables and indeed the bread exists may be another issue altogether.
Again the merits or demerits of the propensities or preferences of the electorate are not the subject of this article, but the plain facts on the ground indicate the electorate’s affinity with “popular protest movements” for the next few years anyway. The MDC-T’s propensity for theatrics can also be viewed as strength in the rough terrains of African politics.
- Dumisani O Nkomo is the chief executive officer of Habakkuk Trust and the principal spokesperson for the Matabeleland Civil Society Consortium. He writes here in his personal capacity.