HomePoliticsParty splits: A recurring theme in Zim politics

Party splits: A recurring theme in Zim politics

Leonard Makombe

ZIMBABWEAN political parties –– whatever their history –– are synonymous with factionalism as their leaders are continually fighting for control at the expense of purported party objectives.

What is happening in the smaller MDC faction formerly led by Arthur Mutambara is nothing new as the country’s political history clearly shows that internal power struggles and wrangles have often led to splits going as far back as the 1960s.


For the older generation which saw the formation, splits, re-unions and more splits of liberation movements, the recent acrimonious spat between Mutambara and Welshman Ncube over control of the party has all the ingredients of déjà vu. They have seen leaders fighting for control of political parties starting with the split of the then Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Zapu) in 1963.

The Ncube/Mutambara row falls within the realm of the country’s culture of political parties in both pre and post independent Zimbabwe where fault lines develop along personalities, ideologies, ethnicity and geographic areas of origin –– usually leading to splits.

Examples include the Zapu split of 1963, the formation of the Front for Liberation of Zimbabwe and the October 2005 MDC break up.

There have been other lesser splits and fractures, but their effect on national politics is negligible.

The 1963 Zapu split was over “ideology” and the best way forward in the struggle to attain Independence.  The two dominant personalities then were party president Joshua Nkomo and Ndabaningi Sithole who led the splinter group.

Sithole faced a rebellion while in prison and was deposed from Zanu in 1974, but he held on to the party name until his death in 2000.

The name of the party was the only thing he was left with as President Robert Mugabe took control of the structures, including the military wing which was instrumental in executing the liberation war.

Even after the rebellion in prison, Sithole continued to claim leadership of Zanu and announcing in the press that he had expelled the troublemakers from the party.

More than three decades later and with a new generation of politicians which includes Mutambara –– born in 1966 –– and Ncube (50) history is repeating itself yet again.

Last week, in a move that bordered on the comical, Mutambara sensing his imminent expulsion from the party announced that Ncube, who had taken over the party presidency a month earlier, was fired.

A day later, the MDC announced the firing of Mutambara who had refused to resign as Deputy Prime Minister despite moves to reassign him to a ministerial post.

Ncube himself is no stranger to splits as he led a rebellion, just over five years ago, and moved away from the Morgan Tsvangirai-led MDC which analysts agreed sapped the party of its energy.

While the Mutambara/Ncube row remains entrapped in the legality or illegality of the congress which ousted the former, the usual accusations of personality clashes and regionalism have emerged.

A South African based analyst Sabelo Gatsheni-Ndlovu said splits that rocked political parties since 1963 cannot be explained in terms of one factor or singular political theory.

“Splits are products of build-up and coalescence of various factors ranging from ethnic, constitutional, ideological, tribal, personality clashes and external infiltration,” said Gatsheni-Ndlovu. “What has not been said about the split of 1963 is that it was partly to do with which ethnic group between Ndebele-oriented and Shona-oriented ones considered itself the authentic subjects of the nation with primal rights to rule over Zimbabwe at the end of colonial rule.”

He said Sithole miscalculated by leading the split because he did not belong to those who were claiming primal ethnic rights to inherit Zimbabwe from white colonisers and it was inevitable that he would be deposed.

While another political analyst, Grasian Mkodzongi said that there was nothing unusual about political parties splitting.

“Like any other social groupings, political parties are prone to splits as a result of leadership and succession issues,” said Mkodzongi, who is reading for a doctorate with the University of Edinburgh.

He said there were parties such as the African National Congress of South Africa which were better than others in dealing with leadership issues.

“In other contexts the absence of a clear policy on succession can cause friction in the party, this is the case for many Zimbabwean political parties (the Mutambara MDC, MDC-T and Zanu PF) all do not have clear policies on succession or their leaders have tried to manipulate party constitutions to remain in charge and this has caused major problems for the parties,” added Mkodzongi.

Apart from the elites fighting for the control of the party, Gatsheni–Ndlovu said part of the problem leading to splits and factionalism was embedded in society.

“A tribally, ethnically and regionally bifurcated society will inevitably produce tribal, ethnic and regional leader claiming national mantle,” said Gatsheni–Ndlovu who is also a lecturer at the University of South Africa. “The sickness is deep-rooted in our society itself and political gladiators simply manipulate it.”

He said the Ncube/Mutambara row was framed, claimed and re-packaged ethnically, tribally and regionally.

“It is a pity that even those at the top of the state and government structures are not free from ethnicity, tribalism and regionalism,” said Gatsheni-Ndlovu.

Another analyst Francisca Manyere who is based in New Zealand said fractures in political parties were a reflection of the political culture of the country, especially emphasis on male dominance.

“Why is it that it is always male politicians who head factions and lead breakaways?” she asked. “What is happening in the smaller faction of the MDC is only a microcosm of Zimbabwean politics and we are stuck with it until we redefine our political culture and it may take another generation.”

The mortal combat between Ncube and Mutambara could end with the political life of either of the two protagonists but like with the split of 1963, if no lessons are drawn, Zimbabwe would be held hostage to the undercurrents which have swept political parties into factions.

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