Friday, 20 April 2012

Notes on 32 years of Zimbabwe's Independence

Navigating Zimbabwe's Democratic Transition at 32 years of independence.

By Tapera Kapuya

Zimbabwe has just celebrated its 32 years of self-rule, all dominated by one political party and the same ‘big man’. It is a country at a crossroad: varying notions of history, conflicting perceptions on contemporary realities, and projections for its future are violently contested. But what can be agreed is that the country is in dire need for renewal and that renewal can no longer come from the old-guard nor the party of independence.

Whatever its past successes, and there are some, Zanu PF is unfit to rule and any further stay of this party and its leader, President Robert Mugabe, is a threat to the country’s national interest. Equally, whatever its short comings, and there are many, the MDC-T presents the only transitionary movement that can usher a second liberation for democratic and political freedoms. It is as such that it is prudent that we support its cause, for whatever, real or perceived, strategic reasons. 

The next 15 months are critical for Zimbabwe. They will determine whether a decade’s struggle for democracy and change can be consolidated toward the establishment of a new, freer, and fairer society. Failure to achieve this will sadly lead to growing acceptance of the Zanu PF regime, whether by choice or as a consequence of widespread political cynicism and defeatism by a majority of Zimbabweans. Worse, a paralyzed and divided democracy movement will form the primary legacy of the decade’s struggle against the Harare dictatorship.

The current situation suggests considerable cause for concern for anyone interested in Zimbabwe’s democratic transition. The unity government constitutionally comes to an end mid-2013 and elections or another political negotiation, or both, will determine the country’s immediate future. President Robert Mugabe’s threat to speed up the election timetable aside, this is a fact that we must all contemplate and which must necessarily condition the scope of our interventions.

It can be very tempting to brush Zanu PF aside and to be complacent, confident in predictions of a ready MDC-T victory. But from what we have learnt from the past elections, in particular the 2008 election, victories are only as good as the extent to which they can be consolidated and translated into claims to govern. The opposite happened: after MDC-T electoral wins, Zanu PF clutched onto the trophy and MDC-T’s protestations remained only that. The contestation resulted in the co-option of both MDCs into government, albeit with little, if any, powers to co-govern. The efficacy of this arrangement is as questionable.

Many have interpreted Zanu PF’s readiness to enter an arrangement with the MDC strictly as a signal of the former’s weakness. Yet with the passing of time, all evidence points to the opposite. For Zanu PF, the unity government gave it room to breathe, weaken the opposition, and buy time. Cracks within its ranks that had become so wide by 2008 have been narrowed: skeptics who had begun to sit on the fence and cut deals to save their skin from the pending implosion are now coming back to the fold. For Zanu PF, the unity government serves as a strategic space within which to strengthen its weakened hold on power.

To bolster this strategy, Zanu PF has retreated to its liberation war tactics, in particular, reactivating the party’s political-military alliance. And with a political machine on the wane, power seems to have shifted toward its military wing, giving the military an extended reach and growing influence in political and civilian affairs. It is this complex that has shaped many of the political events since 2000. It is this political-military alliance that guides Zanu PF’s march into its future.   

Unfortunately, the longer democratization takes, the more entrenched this alliance with the military becomes, constituting an ever larger force in our political life. This bodes ill for all of us, including those in Zanu PF for whom the military’s encroachment into political and civil space might have short-term benefits. As Jonathan Moyo once infamously opined: ‘you don’t invite the army and expect a picnic’. 

It has become increasingly evident that the next presidential elections are, for Zanu PF, primarily about using the national plebiscite to determine its internal party succession crisis. The current constitution holds a provision for a sitting president to be succeeded without cause for a national election in the event he dies, resigns or becomes incapable of performing his functions. In such an event, by design or nature, one of the Vice Presidents becomes caretaker president for 90days within which parliament sits as an electoral college to elect a new president to complete what would have remained of the term of office. This, many of us fear, might become handy for Zanu PF in the event of another disputed election. 

Mugabe is the only leader from Zanu PF’s ranks who can lead another violent election campaign and emerge with few fatal scars. The MDC and the international community will be disgusted and protest. But in the circles that really matter--SADC and the AU--Mugabe will receive little in the way of reprimand. Worse, as can be predicted, if he is to announce that he is stepping down to be succeeded by someone younger from within his fold, the international community, SADC and the AU will be likely to give the new ‘Mugabe’ a chance. Any protestations after this will not be met with the same receptive ears as the democracy movement currently enjoys.

Thoughts on the MDC-T

The gloom hinted at above should not prompt a sense of defeat among the many democracy- and freedom-loving Zimbabweans. Rather, it is a call for us to be introspective and to reflect upon the road we travel. The MDC-T, itself the central rallying force for political change in the country, must reconfigure its strategies and reaffirm its own goals. The past three years of the MDC-T’s mating with Zanu PF have undermined much of its capacity and legitimacy. 

With its senior leadership in government, the party’s structures have not been adequately strengthened. With few exceptions, the party appears to have a leadership without active followers. In several regions and districts, the party continues to rely on a ‘protest’ following - those who align with the MDC-T strictly on account of their antipathy to Zanu PF than out of genuine affinity for the MDC-T’s platform and values. Such a support base is unhealthy for any movement, for it limits its democratic contribution to the vote and is often less interested, if not wholly unaware, of its strategic role following elections.

The party’s record in the government has not been compelling to date. While there are surely exceptions, few MDC cabinet members can convincingly justify why they are in office. The reasons are two pronged. First, Mugabe has never really shared any power at all. Over the years, he managed to craft a system allowing him to govern directly through permanent secretaries. These heads of departments have proven a key force in Zanu PF’s political machinery. Second, the municipalities are in disarray and the party’s presence in them, without a proper mechanism for effective policy implementation, has meant councilors and mayors are swimming in the sewer that have fallen into disrepair under Zanu PF’s rule. Zanu PF’s culpability has slowly been narrowed, if not replaced, in the minds of some by a cynicism that posits the MDCs as equally corrupt. This growing lack of trust in MDC may lead, particularly in urban Zimbabwe where support for the MDC is strongest, to growing passivity and voter apathy in the next plebiscite.

A key strategic rationale for the MDC-T in government should have been, and must still be, to use the protection of the state and the relative immunity of their offices to embark on a campaign for total democracy. With no real work penned for them in government, this would be an ideal and strategic way to occupy their time and a strong justification for their presence in the sham we call a unity government.

Mastering the Role of a Government in-Waiting

Beyond these initial steps, the party must also condition itself to the hard reality that change is coming, in one direction or another. As such, its organizing and mobilization platform can no longer be restricted to a mere anti-Mugabe/anti-Zanu platform. The party’s current and projected future presence in the government demands that it establish itself as a legitimate and competent government in waiting. The party needs a reservoir of skilled and competent professionals to swarm its ranks, bolster its policy units, and ready itself to govern.

Yet it must also be said that the MDC has, over the years, failed repeatedly to capitalize on the many skilled Zimbabweans who should have been recruited into its operational ranks. Moreover, the party should have, and must still, pursue a program of providing skills and capacity building training to shore up its strategic operational components, especially those geared towards its role in government, and to strengthen those components charged with driving a strong and determined campaign for state power. As things stand, the party’s present capacity is a mere shadow of its potential.

The emphasis is dual: build capacity to govern whilst also galvanizing the organizing, mobilization and campaign platforms of the party. There is an urgent need to support party structures, recruit members and inspire Zimbabweans to register, vote and, after voting, to defend their vote. Policy instruments of the party should address the multitude of social, economic and political challenges facing the country. Policy is the practical construction of promise, which when positioned as such in the popular imagination of the public would motivate every voter to act against any threats to a hopeful future. It should inspire even the hardened skeptics in Zanu PF, and the many sitting on the fence, that there is an equal chance for them in a new political order.

The blunt reality is that the MDC should prepare for, and ready itself for, elections. This is whether or not there are any fundamental reforms. It should never be expected for Zanu PF and Mugabe to institute reforms that they know will lead in their dethroning. If anything, the very reforms which the MDC and democracy movement calls for will only be possible after a change in government and not the other way round.

The months ahead are critical for the democracy movement. Hard choices will need to be made, in an ever more treacherous struggle. But, as we have learned from history, fundamental political change can only result where those who lead it return to their popular base and galvanize the masses. There is no substitute for organizing and building a solid movement on the ground. The quicker we set out on this road, the greater the chances that our country can avoid succumbing to violent rule by a full-scale military dictatorship.

Tapera Kapuya writes in his personal capacity:

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