Phelekezela Mphoko may have unexpectedly emerged from the political wilderness to assume the post of vice-president, but within just two months after entering mainstream politics he has courted controversy within government, party circles and the public at large.
Mphoko — who is proving to be a controversial figure — has plunged into the deep end and is now struggling to swim. He has reportedly ruffled the feathers of President Robert Mugabe, through cabinet down to the lower echelons of the ruling Zanu PF party.
Government sources say Mugabe and other government officials are unhappy with Mphoko for making controversial pronouncements without consultation during his own version of “meet the people tours” in Bulawayo and the Matabeleland provinces.
During his tours in the past few weeks, Mphoko touched on hot topics including the marginalisation of the provinces as well the 1980s Gukurahundi massacres in which as many as 20 000 civilians were killed largely by security forces during their operations against dissidents in Matabeleland and the Midlands regions.
Desperate to carve out a solid support base and a constituency for himself, Mphoko has resorted to populist rhetoric and reckless grandstanding to achieve his agenda. Recently, he drew loud applause from the capacity crowd that thronged the party’s Davies Hall headquarters in Makokoba in Bulawayo when he told them that he would personally see to it that power and water utilities Zesa and Zinwa are kicked out of the city.
He also said control of the roads, water and the power station should be handed to the Bulawayo City Council to stimulate development in the marginalised city.
Mphoko blamed government through Zesa and Zinwa for depriving Bulawayo of electricity and water, both critical for industrial production.
“Without water and without electricity we are only joking, there is no development that can take place. Bulawayo power station must come back to Bulawayo. It should not be run by Zesa. Zesa was not even there when it was constructed,” Mphoko said.
“Zesa must only be there for national programmes, but not in my home. Bulawayo is a standalone city like Harare. And don’t give our roads to Zinara; they must be given back to the Bulawayo City Council (BCC).”
He added: “Those who pay rates must pay them to BCC which has its own departments for such things and not to Zinara which must concern itself only with national roads. There is no need to confuse things siyezwana bantu bakithi (do we understand each other my kith and kin).”
Mphoko also demanded that BCC be given control of the Agricultural and Rural Development Authority farms around the city because the agro-based parastatal was failing to manage them efficiently to ensure productivity and benefits to residents.
Sources said it is such statements that have drawn the ire of Mugabe and other government officials who now say Mphoko’s behaviour is akin to making “major policy pronouncements without consultation, before attending a single cabinet meeting or even without a brief from Mugabe himself”.
“The feeling in some Zanu PF and government circles is that he has become even more populist and dangerous than the extremists in organisations like the Mthwakazi Liberation Front (MLF),” said one source.
MLF has campaigned for the outright secession of the Matabeleland and Midlands provinces, citing marginalisation and discrimination under Zanu PF rule.
Mugabe was also reportedly angered by Mphoko’s spirited attempts to distance himself from the Gukurahundi atrocities while effectively pointing fingers at others even though he is implicated.
Mphoko told his audience that even though he had been part of the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) in the 1980s, he was in the diplomatic and not the branch that was involved in Gukurahundi.
Even before the Bulawayo tour Mphoko had already taken the unusual step of going after people who criticise him for his involvement in Gukurahundi as shown by his written response to an overseas-based lady Nomazulu Thatha trying to absolve himself and issuing veiled threats to her in the process.
“You are one of those who have decided to write thresh (trash) about me, associating me with the post-Independence Gukurahundi atrocities,” Mphoko wrote in a letter to an online publication dated January 5.
“I would kindly request and advise you to walk carefully on eggs on this matter because your article about me is not based on researched material and I am considering taking legal action to stop this rubbish. I would like to repeat to you for your own personal information that I was transferred to CIO, Branch 2, in 1987 from the Ministry of Labour, and I was sent to Maputo as liaison officer, in September the same year.”
“Branch 2 is a diplomatic division of CIO whereas Branch 1 is an internal branch that was dealing with Gukurahundi. Victor Mlambo and Gordon Butshe, all former colleagues of Dabengwa in NSO were seconded by Dabengwa to the internal branch of CIO. Manje mina ngingenangaphi (How do I come into all this)?” asked Mphoko.
But government sources say the letter and the public denials paint a picture of an individual who shies away from collective responsibility in his self-centred pursuit of gaining political mileage in Matabeleland.
“The feeling is that besides exposing the intricacies of CIO operations when he talks about the different branches within the organisation, Mphoko proves that he wants to cleanse himself as an individual,” said another government source. “Gukurahundi was a collective government operation at the time and what Mphoko is doing shows that he does not want to accept collective responsibility.”
Mphoko, who told the Bulawayo audience that they could phone him for updates on the fulfilment of his promises to facilitate the province’s development, did not respond to calls from the Zimbabwe Independent seeking his comment.
He also failed to respond to questions sent to his cellphone.