MDC hullabaloo has roots in Zimbabwe's past

Writing in South African newspaper The Star this month, Basildon Peta pointed out—quite unnecessarily—that Zimbabwe opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) vice-president Gibson Sibanda belongs to the “minority Ndebele tribe” while disputed party president Morgan Tsvangirai comes from “the main Shona tribal group”.

Therein lies the riddle of Zimbabwean politics. While Zimbabwe—quite unlike many other countries in the region—has relatively few different ethnic groups, ethnicity has long dictated its politics, both in the ruling party and in the opposition, at the expense of rational policies and clear national concerns, such as sorting out the economic mess Zanu-PF has created and establishing a truly democratic system, which should be the national focus today.

Zanu-PF, the party that has held Zimbabwe captive since independence from Britain in 1980, was born after the 1963 rebellion against the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Zapu), the main party that was led by the late Joshua Nkomo, who was President Robert Mugabe’s second vice-president at the time of his death.

While the split between Nkomo and Ndabaningi Sithole, who led the rebellion, was over strategies to tackle the Ian Smith regime—Nkomo preferred giving dialogue more chance, while Sithole and others wanted to engage in armed confrontation immediately—the hostility that grew between the two camps was eventually fuelled more by ethnic divisions and less by the differences over approach.
Besides his many weaknesses, Nkomo lost the plot largely because of his ethnic background, as he too, to borrow from Peta, belonged to the minority Ndebele tribe.

When independence loomed, it mattered very little to many Zimbabwean voters what programme each of the two main parties—Zanu-PF and PF-Zapu—championed. During the campaign for the 1980 general elections—and, indeed, subsequent elections up to this day—trivial slogans such as “Pasi naNkomo! [Down with Nkomo!]” and “Phansi loMgabe! [Down with Mugabe!]” were more visible than visions for the new nation were. Tribe took precedence, and hence many were only happy to rid themselves of their colonial rulers and to get either Nkomo or Mugabe into power, depending on their ethnic orientation.

Because of this lack of maturity among Zimbabwean voters, Mugabe managed to retain the support he had gained at independence while he continued to butcher Ndebele civilians in Matabeleland and the Midlands for five years after independence—under the pretext that Nkomo wanted to start an insurrection—while little real progress was taking place in the country besides selective distribution of the wealth left by the Rhodesian government.

For many among the majority Shona voters, Mugabe was protecting them from the disloyal Ndebeles, and it mattered little how he did it. And I believe the same would have happened if roles were switched and the Ndebele were in the majority and controlled state power.


Herein lies the predicament of the MDC. Many Zimbabweans, be they supporters of the “pro-Senate group” or the “anti-Senate group”, as the divisions in the MDC are called now, are quite aware that MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai erred when he misrepresented his party’s national council vote on October 12. They know that it was Tsvangirai who ordered the attacks on senior colleagues in his party in July, which precipitated the current impasse, probably because he believed there was a plot to remove him.

They know too that Tsvangirai’s principle of boycotting the Senate, whether right or wrong, should have been a settled matter the moment it was taken to a vote in the national council. But very few care. Even journalists—in a country where investigative journalism has become a catchword—have not explored these disturbing facts.

Civic society has not reacted any differently. Many civic organisations and activists, including rights organisations and campaigners, never raised a voice during the intraparty violence in the MDC, as this would have compromised their relationships with either Tsvangirai or his perceived enemies. Hitherto respected human rights organisations and activists therefore opted to put their integrity on the block and portray themselves as merely opposed to Zanu-PF, whose violent streaks they never hesitate to condemn, rather than put their fingers in a boiling pot.

If Zimbabwe were a normal country and the MDC a normal party, Tsvangirai would have come back to his colleagues and apologised for undermining the authority of his own party, if only for the sake of protecting the record of democracy and tolerance that the MDC has cherished until the recent circus. If Tsvangirai did not apologise, all the members of his national council—the majority of whom approved the Senate elections in the first place—would have demanded that he be subjected to the party’s disciplinary procedures, as happened with former MDC MP Munyaradzi Gwisai, who was hugely popular when the party expelled him for indiscipline.

In fact, it is a known fact that many of the senior MDC members on either side of the Senate debate, including MDC chairperson Isaac Matonga, who is Tsvangirai’s right-hand man, wanted to contest for Upper House seats before the dispute.

Even MDC MPs who participated in the March 2004 general election, which Tsvangirai was reportedly opposed to initially, have taken positions on the stalemate with scant regard to what is right or wrong. The abusive language that characterises much of the debate between the MDC antagonists over this issue is an example of the dearth of principles and the lack of a clear vision about the future, not just in the opposition party but also in Zimbabwe as a nation.


Like Mugabe after independence and even now, Tsvangirai knows that his political survival has little to do with whether he does right or abides by the authority of his party. He knew when he defied his party that, ultimately, his tribe would play a big role in his political future, as the long-held suspicions between Zimbabwe’s two major ethnic groups would come to the fore in the event of any dispute.

Similarly, Sibanda and his camp also calculated that while they would lose a lot of support from most of the provinces in Zimbabwe, regardless of whether they were right or wrong, they would retain Matabeleland and part of the Midlands mainly on tribal sympathies and use this as a lever to convince the rest of the party hierarchy to back them.

This attitude has been evident in the national response to a disputed report in a Central Intelligence Organisation-controlled newspaper, which accused Sibanda of calling for an independent Ndebele state, a topic that always drives Zimbabweans into their tribal forts. Tsvangirai and his colleagues jumped on to the bandwagon and accused the pro-Senate faction of being secessionists and tribalists who were working with Zanu-PF. Even Mugabe weighed in at his party’s conference in December last year, warning those wanting to split Zimbabwe that they would be dealt with—the only time that he and Tsvangirai had sung from the same book in a long time.

The problem with a political system that is deeply divided on ethnic lines is that conspiracies are easy to conjure up, and politicians and ordinary people alike refuse to engage their minds in serious debate, opting to spend endless hours discussing phantoms.

Conspiracy culture

The culture of using conspiracies as a scapegoat when tackling problems dates back to colonial administrations in this country. Rhodesian government ministers believed accusing nationalists of being communists, instead of addressing their problems, was enough to dismiss them, while soon after independence Mugabe’s ministers and apologists routinely accused Nkomo of trying to start an insurrection with the help of the apartheid South African government, and looked aside as he killed more than 20 000 civilians on the basis of that, instead of owning up to the glaring fact that Zanu-PF’s blind desire for a one-party state had plunged the nation into a bloodbath.

Few Zimbabwean opinion leaders have tried to consider the merits of the row that has all but destroyed the MDC. Some, including progressive intellectuals, have even openly said there is nothing wrong with Tsvangirai dictating in the party, and have disregarded the danger that failing to rein him in now may turn him into another Mugabe in the unlikely event that he becomes Zimbabwe’s next president. On the other hand, supporters of the pro-Senate faction have also not taken time to ask themselves if there is anything to gain in risking the existence of the party to a project that is clearly designed for Zanu-PF’s succession programme.

It is this lack of rational judgement that has long been the enemy of Zimbabwean politics. Anyone who points out a wrong is given a name, and hanged on the basis of his tribe. And this lack of maturity is never more evident than in the fact that 26 years after independence, every Zimbabwean knows that no one can be president unless he is from the dominant Shona group. This is the strength that Tsvangirai thinks he has, and the weakness that Mugabe has exploited since 1980.

If Zimbabweans don’t change their attitudes and start using their heads and not their hearts to make political decisions, we should be deeply concerned about the future, and should forget about making our leaders realise that no democracy can be established without accountability. Perhaps we should take heart in the few moderates in each of the MDC camps who have adopted their positions on the basis of their principles, without regard to ethnic orientation.

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