Zim opposition pushes self-destruct button at wrong time

Trevor Ncube’s remark (Mail & Guardian, March 18) that Zimbabwe’s opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) does not have the muscle to dislodge the ruling Zanu-PF from power ruffled feathers in the opposition and civic society in Zimbabwe. Many believed it was not only wrong but also mistimed, as it came on the eve of a crucial election.

Even after losing the general election dismally to Zanu-PF, the opposition did not think that the problem could lie within it, but blamed Zanu-PF, for setting up an unbalanced electoral framework, and the region—particularly economic powerhouse South Africa—for not pressuring Harare to level the playing field.

The MDC’s failure to raise concrete opposition to Zanu-PF has returned to the spotlight in the past weeks, when it engaged in internal political games while Zanu-PF yet again raised the tempers of its subjects.

Ten weeks after the election, Zimbabwe is on fire: shortages of basic commodities and fuel have returned with greater force than before, and the Zanu-PF government has engaged on a potentially explosive programme ostensibly to clean up Harare.

Under the programme, cynically codenamed “Operation Restore Order”, police have flushed out street vendors and informal traders from designated flea markets in the city centre and have even taken the exercise to the residential areas, where they have destroyed millions of dollars’ worth of property belonging to the informal sector.

Many of the people that were hounded out of their stalls by the police claim they were paying rates to the local authority and were not given any notice to vacate their businesses, or to dispose of their wares, most of which were confiscated or burnt by the police in action that has not been witnessed since the rise of the informal sector.

There is anger everywhere in Harare, as very few people have escaped the clampdown in a country with an unemployment rate of more than 80% and chronic food shortages. The crippling fuel shortages have worsened the situation, and people walk long distances to work while those who manage to catch lifts only make it to work by midday.

More than 10 000 informal traders were affected by the police action that left even more homeless. But, surprisingly, apart from whimpers from MDC president Morgan Tsvangirai that the destruction of the property—including houses built on stands dished out to desperate residents at a fee by the Zanu-PF-controlled war veterans a few years ago—is “evil”, there has been no action from the opposition.

Tsvangirai also complained that the government was punishing city residents for the support they gave the MDC in the general election. Only a few rag-tag youths, bitter about the senseless destruction of their wares and their livelihood, engaged the police in street battles in three suburbs two weekends ago. However, without anyone to lead them, their resistance quickly fizzled out, although not before the government blamed the “misguided” opposition for trying to take advantage of the situation. Even then, all the MDC could do was issue statements condemning Zanu-PF’s hypocrisy, which was apparent to everyone.

The MDC’s failure to call for action against Zanu-PF’s latest abuse of its authority has rejuvenated accusations that it has failed to provide leadership at critical times, after years of complaining that Zimbabweans are docile.

Outspoken Bulawayo Archbishop Pius Ncube captured this mood after receiving the Burns Humanitarian Award in Scotland two weeks ago, saying the opposition is hoping “ordinary people ... [will] lead a revolt, without making any sacrifice themselves”.

Many people also believe that it is indecision that has cost the opposition party at crucial times. Some recall its failure to call for immediate demonstrations after Zanu-PF stole the presidential elections in March 2002. Then, only the labour movement, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), called for a street rejection of the outcome of the poll. But without any clear indication from the MDC, which in any case was the “cheated” party, the demonstrations flopped.

Few people realise that Zanu-PF’s timing of its latest abuse of Zimbabwe’s poor could not have been better. In the past three weeks, the MDC has been engaged in a bitter fight that is pitting the two major ethnic groups in its leadership against each other. Youths from one of the factions in the opposition locked out workers and senior party officials from the opposition’s Harvest House headquarters in Harare, and confiscated vehicles from senior officials.

There have been accusations that some members within the MDC are trying to drive out Matabeleland-based politicians from influential positions in the party. Some of the names that have been mentioned include close confidants of Tsvangirai, who are said to be eyeing positions currently held by politicians from Matabeleland.

Two of the most prominent names that keep coming up are those of labour activist and MDC chairperson for women affairs Lucia Matibenga, who worked with Tsvangirai in the ZCTU, and University of Zimbabwe academic Elphas Mukonoweshuro, who was accused of having advised Tsvangirai to issue a statement calling South African President Thabo Mbeki a “liar” during United States President George Bush’s visit to South Africa in 2003.

Tsvangirai’s silence on these matters has compounded fears that he may have secretly approved of the intimidation of party officials accused of siding with MDC secretary general Welshman Ncube.

Archbishop Ncube has previously said only an uprising of the magnitude of the Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution” could unseat Zanu-PF and presumably lead to a resolution of Zimbabwe’s crisis. The opposition has also previously called on Zimbabweans to resist their oppression actively. But the reaction of the opposition to its loss in yet another major election has dampened any such hopes.

Few Zimbabweans now believe the MDC is prepared to take Zanu-PF head-on, apart from calling for international and regional pressure that it hopes could lead to free and fair elections it seems sure it would win.

Five years of intimidation at the hands of a partisan state machinery; incessant government propaganda to malign the party; lack of a mass circulating media channel to air its views; and, indeed, its naive endorsement of South Africa’s dishonest proposition that “dialogue” with an intransigent Zimbabwean leadership was the way forward have thrown the party into a severe state of paralysis.

Consequently, the MDC—which was born out of protests against the country’s mismanagement by President Robert Mugabe and his cronies—has failed to organise any meaningful mass action since the “final push” in 2003, although conditions have worsened and the population is more frustrated.

However, despite its failure to force Zanu-PF to make any meaningful concessions in the past, one thing with which critics have credited the MDC is its unity. Unlike Zanu-PF’s previous political foes, there have been few cases of factionalism in the MDC, and none as serious as this one.

And, unlike previous opposition parties, the MDC has given the electorate hope partly because of its apparent ability to transcend ethnic differences, which have for long been the Achilles heel of Zimbabwean politics.

While MDC leaders deny any serious split in the party, its failure to hold a congress—it has now been postponed to January next year—tells a different story. The future of the MDC, and that of Zimbabwe’s politics, may depend on what happens between now and the congress.

Apart from the major cities, Matabeleland remains the opposition’s stronghold as the only region where it also controls the rural areas. If, indeed, it is true that there is a plot to replace leaders from that region in the party’s executive, the effect may be the collapse of the biggest challenge to Zanu-PF’s dictatorship since independence.

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