Monday, 4 December 2017

AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH: WRITING ON THE WALL FOR THE OPPOSITION

Former Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirayi and Former President Robert Mugabe 

Robert Mugabe’s resignation as President of Zimbabwe on 21 November 2017 signaled the end of more than just his own era in politics. It cast a grave shadow and ominous portent for the viability of opposition politics in general, and that of the MDC-T and its leader in particular. Robbed of the main subject of its critique and model for antithesis, the MDC-T finds itself trapped by the decades’ long portrayal of their leader as the only viable alternative to Robert Mugabe. 

From its formation, the MDC has been the putative anti-Mugabe political outfit; setting itself apart as the institution with the capacity to translate the national anti-Mugabe sentiment into significant electoral outcomes. Two slogans anchored its anti-establishment rhetoric; the official ‘chinja maitiro/guqula izenzo’ or ‘change your ways/behaviour’ as well as the unofficial but catchier ‘Mugabe must go.’ The official slogan highlights the holistic nature of reforms needed to save the country from decades of misrule; whilst the latter personified such misrule in the person of Mugabe. In essence, the former calls for anti-Mugabeism whilst the latter is simply anti-Mugabe. The embodiment of pain and frustration in the person of the national president was a powerful rhetorical device as it enabled people to channel their anger to a tangible, non-abstract phenomenon and rally against it. This made the Mugabe must go mantra an important recruitment tool and rallying call.

Activist donning the Mugabe must go slogan

The Mugabe must go mantra is also evidence that Robert Mugabe’s incumbency was not just unifying for his own ZANU PF party. It also served as a national convergence point for members of the opposition. To the extent that members of ZANU PF were willing to rally behind Robert Mugabe, even endorsing his candidature for the 2018 election, members of the opposition were also willing to rally around Morgan Tsvangirayi and overlook legitimate questions about his leadership style. For a long time, it seemed the duality of unity around and against Mugabe would mean his demise would lead to an implosion in ZANU PF, thereby making the opposition the next bona fide government. This was anchored in the belief that ZANU PF could not rally around any other leader as they had done under Mugabe; too many interests had emerged which could not be held together without him. Rather ironically, it was when one of those interests was challenged from within (the military) that ZANU PF swiftly executed a party and national reset and coalesced around a new leader. Thus, by way of internal party strife, the outcome which the opposition hoped for, a chaotic post-Mugabe ZANU PF, was averted; whilst that which they had clamored for, Mugabe must go, was achieved and with hardly any need for their inclusion.    


A joint sitting of parliament celebrates upon the announcement that Robert Mugabe had resigned as President. 

This leaves the MDC-T to their anti-Mugabeism strategy of ‘‘chinja maitiro guqula izenzo.’ The MDC-T had a chance to effect a change of behavior when it was in the inclusive government and participated in the constitution making process. The constitution was the one tool which could have protected their interests beyond their life in the inclusive government. In spite of the introduction of an expanded declaration of rights and new constitutional commissions, they chose to retain an all-powerful presidency, the central feature which had long been denounced by civics under the banner of the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA).  The introduction of a two term limit, whilst laudable, is only concerned with the politics of entry and exit and not significant reduction of presidential powers. This suggests that the MDC-T was more concerned with Mugabe’s exit (Mugabe must go) than a change of his governance style (chinja maitiro/guqula izenzo); an outcome which internal ZANU PF machinations have, in any event, delivered.   
   

New President, Emmerson D.Mnangagwa on the occasion of his inauguration

The opposition now faces a new national and ZANU PF president. He is not the same personification of years of bitterness and frustration and the MDC-T has publicly stated that his ideas for economic recovery mirror their own blueprint. Whilst it is undeniable that President Mnangagwa was for a long time Robert Mugabe’s right hand man in government, his current place in the public imagination leans more towards the man who got rid of, rather than the man who aided, Robert Mugabe.  The national sentiment is not that of bitter disappointment but cautious and hopeful optimism. The outcry over President Mnangagwa’s cabinet selection points to the high expectations people have from his administration, his historical ties to Mugabe notwithstanding.  To the extent that the opposition has to make the case that the new President is only a new face to the same old system, they are faced with the same dilemma as the Patriotic Front during the days of Zimbabwe-Rhodesia. Unlike the Zimbabwe-Rhodesia era, the Mnangagwa administration has political and legal legitimacy and has been embraced by the community of nations, putting paid to such an argument.



Both Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirayi rose organically through institutional structures, and both grew in stature to the point that they almost personalized their respective political parties. Portrayed as the symbols of the past and the future, they almost became the ying and the yang to the liberal and conservative blocks of Zimbabwean politics. The demise of Robert Mugabe ends with it the efficacy of this strategy of personal antithesis. Much like the NCA which blurred into obscurity once the new constitution they had long campaigned for was delivered, the MDC-T may be stepping into oblivion now that their inimitable Mugabe must go mantra cannot be used to energize an essentially moribund electoral campaign.  



David T Hofisi is a human rights lawyer from Zimbabwe and a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He writes in his personal capacity

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