Hope fades for voters in Zimbabwe

As Zimbabwe heads to elections in 2023, there is little to suggest that any party has the wherewithal to dislodge Zanu-PF from power. This is despite an economy that has been in the gutters for decades, widely blamed on 42 years of the ruling party’s mismanagement, first under long-term leader Robert Mugabe and, since 2017, under his successor, President Emmerson Mnangagwa.

The hope that was lit in 1999 when Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) came on the scene and quickly gathered a large urban following, grabbing control of the major cities in the 2000 parliamentary elections — although it still lost to Zanu-PF overall — has all but been extinguished. In the wake of successive electoral defeats, infighting has rocked the party, some of it apparently engineered by the ruling party, resulting in splintered, largely ineffective groups.

Some Zimbabweans still hold out hope that the Coalition of Citizens for Change (CCC), an MDC breakaway led by Tsvangirai’s successor, Nelson Chamisa, might achieve the miraculous feat that has eluded all parties for more than four decades and oust Zanu-PF. But for many, like street vendor Timothy Mkhwebu, there is little to suggest a change in the status quo any time soon.

“I heard the loud-hailers calling on people to go and register to vote. I will when I have the time,” said Mkhwebu, who used to work for a textile firm but now sells shoes at a corner spot in the central business district of Zimbabwe’s second largest city, Bulawayo.

A few streets away, in what used to be the country’s cleanest city but is now crowded with informal traders and unemployed youths trying all sorts of hustles for a few dollars, Nico Hlabangana scratches out a living by selling fruit. 

His preoccupation is clearing his stock, and nothing else. After all, fruit is perishable. Hlabangana hesitates when asked if he has registered to vote or if he has been tracking the developments around the MDC’s internal fights, which gave birth to the CCC.

“I have not had the time to register to vote. I wanted to, in the last elections, but I wasn’t here in the city. I was in my rural home,” he says.

Many would argue that Hlabangana’s lack of optimism is justified. Zimbabwe’s opposition politics have a long history of false starts and false hopes: just when there appears to be a party that could end the ruling Zanu-PF party’s decades-old stranglehold on power, a spanner is hurled in the works. The ruling party has been ruthless since independence from Britain in 1980 in throttling any resistance.

The list of opposition parties that have failed to unseat it is long. After a brief pushback in the early 1980s that was brutally repelled, Joshua Nkomo’s PF-Zapu capitulated and was swallowed into the ruling party under a 1987 unity accord that many are regretting, while Mugabe’s erstwhile comrade-in-arms Edgar Tekere’s daringly ambitious project, the Zimbabwe Unity Movement, fell by the wayside, as did former chief justice Enock Dumbutshena’s Forum Party. There have been many others in between. 

All these political formations began earnestly, mounting spirited campaigns to reconfigure the country’s political landscape, but a motley of impediments, chief among them vote rigging, voter intimidation, pre- and post-election violence and Zanu-PF’s alleged infiltration of the opposition, have all conspired to keep the party’s four-decade-long grip on power intact. 

Zimbabweans felt renewed hope for change when opposition parties coalesced to form the MDC in 1999. That, followed by a referendum in 2000 in which citizens rejected constitutional reforms that would have entrenched Mugabe’s power, seemed to signal that Zanu-PF could be on its way out.

But that taste of defeat and the realisation that a united opposition posed a real and present danger spurred the ruling party to dig into its bag of tricks. It is an old story in Zimbabwe that Zanu-PF plants spooks in opposition political parties to sow seeds of chaos, and it is a narrative that was rehashed even before Tsvangirai fell for Zanu-PF’s bait to enter into a unity government in 2009 as prime minister. What soon followed was the rapid crumbling of a party once seen as Zimbabwe’s greatest hope.

If the ruling party was not infiltrating the ranks of the opposition, it was creating fly-by-night opposition political outfits that sprang from the woodwork on the eve of elections to muddy the waters. 

In successive national elections since 2000, the story of the MDC has been one of internal power grabs, with Tsvangirai at some point being accused by his frustrated lieutenants of fashioning himself as a Kamuzu Banda — Malawi’s former dictator — or even Mugabe himself who wielded an iron fist over Zanu-PF. Much as Mugabe was Zanu-PF and Zanu-PF was Mugabe, they argued, thus Tsvangirai and MDC became one and the same.

This has plagued the MDC even post-Tsvangirai. Chamisa is being accused of branding himself as the party and the party as himself, even under the new Coalition of Citizens for Change formation. It did not help that Zanu-PF functionaries pounced on the CCC abbreviation, suggesting that Chamisa had named the party after himself. Chamisa Chete Chete (Chamisa only, in the local Shona language) goes the chant as supporters mobilise for the 2023 elections, mimicking the three Cs alliteration. 

Yet many — both roadside analysts and avowed experts — are still trying to wrap their heads around what really catalysed the MDC’s implosion in the aftermath of Tsvangirai’s death in 2018.

“There is hope that the shift to CCC will help extract themselves from the quicksand dynamics of MDC differences,” said Piers Pigou, a Southern Africa analyst at the International Crisis Group. “There is a tendency to lay all the blame on the ruling party, but some of the opposition’s problems are self-made.”

There is little to assure voters and staunch Tsvangirai supporters inherited by the various MDC formations that next year’s elections will bring any change. In a country where voter apathy has now become the hallmark of every election cycle, it will take a lot to convince Zimbabweans, despite their very real anger against the ruling party, to come out in their numbers and cast their protest vote. 

Chamisa’s new CCC faces what many see as an uphill task of building an identity in the next few months and whipping up the enthusiasm that greeted the MDC’s advent in 1999.

“There has been low voter registration turnout. People are consumed by the realities of survival,” said Pigou, referring to a recent drive by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission. “It is up to the opposition to get people out to vote. It may be because the opposition has no resources to do that.”

For many Zimbabweans, life has become all about survival over the past two decades of rapid economic decay. Every day, Justin Zvoma pushes an ice cream cart up steep slopes, zig-zagging to dodge potholes in what was previously considered a middle-class suburb. The work is physically taxing, and given an option, he would take up another job. 

“I have been doing this for the past two years. I wasn’t working then, having come from my rural home to look for a job in the city,” he said. 

His thoughts about the coming elections? 

“I am only concerned about keeping this job,” Zvoma said. “Let the people who messed up the country fix it. I don’t think voting changes anything really. Whoever will come after Zanu-PF will also most likely push their own interests.” 

Such apathy has only been worsened by the jockeying for leadership of what was once the country’s main political opposition party, and the confusion about which is the real MDC — if that still matters. 

“These people are not serious,” said Mavis Phuthi, a secondary school teacher stationed in impoverished drought-prone rural Matabeleland, one of Zimbabwe’s provinces. “We are in big trouble. 

“For me it is clear that the people fighting in the MDC have no idea about the suffering going on around the country.

“People used to say Mugabe had no idea about what was happening across the country regarding the level of suffering. I think the same can be said about the people fighting in the MDC,” she added.

Zimbabwe’s opposition certainly looks unlikely to join the few parties on the continent that have managed to oust nationalist liberation parties.

“Given the mistrust among the main opposition leaders, it is too late to make amends,” said Stanley Mabuka, country analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit.

With the bitter mudslinging and fragmentation in the MDC, and with Mnangagwa declaring that he has already won the election months before the first ballot is cast, it is perhaps no surprise that many Zimbabweans, also drawing on history, have declared the futility of voting. 

Those who are able to, are voting with their feet by quitting the country altogether to seek greener pastures abroad.

In the meantime, cynics quip: Zimbabwe, where hope goes to die.

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Marko Phiri
Marko Phiri
Marko Phiri is a freelance journalist

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