As the House Burns, Whither the Zimbabwean Opposition? – By Nicole Beardsworth
The Zimbabwean economy is going through structural regression, with rapid deindustrialisation, burgeoning external debt, an over 85% formal unemployment rate and nominal growth due to declining investment and a biting liquidity crunch. Between 2011 and 2015 over 4,610 companies closed their doors leaving over 55 000 workers redundant, putting further pressure on a cash-strapped population. This year’s harvest has failed due to insufficient rain while a regional maize shortage and empty government coffers will leave thousands without sufficient food. Within the ruling ZANU-PF, a battle rages between the emergent successor to President Robert Mugabe and his rival – disgraced former Vice President Joice Mujuru – who holds the latent support of a significant number of the ruling party’s major players. While the country faces a growing crisis and the ruling party turns in on itself, the battle-weary opposition has lost momentum and is facing its own internal crises, leaving fatigued citizens to trudge on with few credible prospects for change.
Once the darling of the Western world and seen to embody a David and Goliath struggle against an increasingly authoritarian state, Zimbabwe’s opposition Movement for Democratic Change – Tsvangirai (MDC-T) has faced a crisis of declining popular support and legitimacy. The 2008 elections were a watershed moment for the party, the zenith of their support in the once-prosperous country. The MDC had gained massive popular support since its inception in 1999 as a broad movement to bring democracy and development to Zimbabwe. It was an alliance that fused trade unions, professional associations, student movements and NGOs and presented a broadside against the long-serving Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) held government. Prior to the emergence of the MDC, opposition in Zimbabwe had been largely fragmented and ineffective, offering little challenge to the regime’s hegemony. Between 1999 and 2008 the MDC largely went from strength to strength, challenging ZANU-PF’s dominance and winning local government seats in urban centres and a growing parliamentary presence, much to the chagrin of the ruling party.
But 2008 was to be a significant turning point for both the opposition and the country. Following the hotly-contested 2008 elections, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission stalled the release of the presidential results for five weeks, ultimately announcing that there had been no clear winner. This necessitated a run-off election, but the regime used the intervening weeks to unleash a campaign of violence and intimidation on voters and party members. Over 200 people were reported to have been killed or disappeared between the March general election and the run-off on 27 June. SADC and the South African government intervened, negotiating a five year transitional government – known as the Government of National Unity (GNU) – which would ultimately undermine the MDC’s position and strip them of much of the credibility that they had held prior to 2008. In a surprising moment of candour at the ZANU-PF congress in December 2014, President Robert Mugabe accidentally let slip that the opposition had in fact won the contentious 2008 polls by an astounding 73%.
While credited with the recovery of the economy under the MDC’s Finance Minister Tendai Biti, the MDC came out of the inclusive government far more tarnished than it went in. While violence largely subsided and goods returned to stores following the end of the 500 billion percent inflationary period, the MDC was rocked by corruption in local councils, personal scandals involving the party leader – Morgan Tsvangirai – and a widespread sense that it had been outmanoeuvred and outplayed by ZANU-PF. As one prominent opposition politician advanced to me in March 2013, the unity government had done more to undermine the opposition than to consolidate its position:
“The one result of the GPA is to confuse who is opposition and who is not. The orthodox definition of “˜if you are not in government, you are in opposition’ doesn’t apply to the unity government. The creation of the inclusive government, to all intents and purposes, eliminated the opposition.”
Ahead of the 2013 elections, the party appeared quietly divided with some of the leadership confident that the party’s support base had changed little since 2008, while others were increasingly concerned about declining popular support evidenced by a number of opinion polls released by organisations such as Freedom House and the Afrobarometer.
As results were announced in early August 2013 following the general election on 31 July, it became increasingly clear that the party had miscalculated. The party saw its 100 parliamentary seats decline to just 70 of a total 270, leaving ZANU-PF with over two-thirds control of parliament. There were widespread allegations of rigging and electoral interference – allegations that were certainly justified – but it is also clear that the opposition party failed to read the popular mood. Quiet disagreements over “˜leadership renewal’ within the halls of Harvest House became more vocal, culminating in a fracas outside party headquarters that led to dissidents being unceremoniously removed from the MDC-T in April 2014. The group of those who left included international donor-darling and technocrat Tendai Biti, respected party Guardian Council Chairperson Sekai Holland and outspoken Deputy Treasurer-General Elton Mangoma. These individuals and a significant group then convened what they temporarily named the MDC “˜Renewal Team’ with Holland as acting president.
For over a year, little was heard of the once-mighty MDC-T besides continuing protestations about the stolen election. In late October 2014, the party held its convention and circled the wagons around the party presidency. Following two insurrections – in 2005 and 2014 – from the person occupying the post of Secretary General, the party felt that the presidency should be strengthened and the SG position made to be subordinate. The issue of succession that had prompted the 2014 split was never debated and Morgan Tsvangirai remained undisputed at the party’s helm. The party had planned rolling demonstrations for late 2014 – to be reminiscent of those in the late 1990s which led to the formation of the broad opposition movement – but this large-scale mobilisation is yet to materialise. The ability of the party to undertake significant protest efforts has been greatly undermined by the informalisation of labour in Zimbabwe and the demobilisation of both labour unions and broad civil society movements.
For their part, the Renewal Team began a regrouping exercise. They recently announced their intention to unite with the splinter faction of the MDC led by Welshman Ncube – formed after the 2005 split – under the banner of the United Movement for Democratic Change (UMDC). The Ncube MDC has played an important though divisive role in Zimbabwean politics since 2005, undermining the voting base of the MDC-T in the opposition-friendly Matabeleland Provinces and presenting the potential for opposition collaboration during the GNU that sadly never materialised. However, this nascent alliance is yet to be formalised – this is scheduled for August 2015 – and discussions over its composition are reportedly bogged down by leadership struggles as people from both parties try to protect their positions and maximise their gains from the embryonic alliance.
On the international front, donors became increasingly pragmatic towards Zimbabwe towards the end of the GNU, realising that they would have little choice but to work with whichever party achieved power in 2013. There was a noticeable shift to understanding that an end to the crisis in Zimbabwe was more likely to emerge from incremental changes within the existing ruling elite rather than through the rupture produced by an opposition election victory. They began to soften on ZANU-PF, lifting sanctions on all but the inner core of the regime. After a 15-year undulating “˜crisis’ in the Southern African country, most of the Western world appears to suffer from Zimbabwe-fatigue which has forced the country further off the international agenda. This has only been compounded by multiple crises closer to Europe such as the conflict in Syria, the 2014 Ebola outbreak and the rise of the extremist and increasingly-globalised Islamic State (IS). By comparison, Zimbabwe is a state that appears to hobble on in spite of itself, presenting few threats to global stability and holding little geostrategic importance.
The opposition in Zimbabwe appears to be in a state of disarray, wracked by struggles over ego and positions. On 18 March, 21 MDC-T MPs who had joined the Renewal Team were expelled from parliament at the request of the MDC, further undermining the ability of the opposition to hold the ruling party to account in parliament. This short-sighted move will prompt by-elections in 14 constituencies which are likely to be won by the ruling party, further undermining the voice of the opposition within the legislature. For their part, the MDC-T had resolved at their policy conference in October 2014 that they would not contest any further elections until the playing field had been levelled, leaving constituents in their former strongholds with no alternative to the ZANU- PF party machine. The loss of these seats is likely to make it even more difficult for the party to regain ground in 2018 while citizens are abandoned and left to vote in elections without choices.
While the opposition dithers, the people of Zimbabwe struggle under increasingly dire conditions. In recent weeks, there is a palpable tension in the air following a food riot in Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison and protests by students at the University of Zimbabwe which were violently suppressed by police and the university temporarily closed. Outspoken activist Itai Dzamara was abducted – allegedly by state security officers – on 9 March and has not been seen since, prompting fears about a return to the dark days of disappearances and extra-judicial killings of Zimbabwean dissidents. Little hope for change remains in Harare but Zimbabweans continue to do what they have always done, they find new ways to survive under increasingly adverse circumstances.
Nicole Beardsworth is a South African political analyst and doctoral candidate at the University of Warwick.