Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

MDC Suffers Mugabe Syndrome

Supporters say party founders have run out of ideas, but they will not admit it - despite it being clear they aren’t advancing the people’s cause any more.
By Takesure Torwa
Zimbabweans at the moment are in a hole, casting around desperately for anything that promises change. The failure of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change to bring about political change since its formation eight years ago has caused despair and desperation.

The most dramatic manifestation of the MDC's bankruptcy came when the party split dramatically in October 2005 into two factions. One is headed by long-time leader Morgan Tsvangirai and the other by computer engineering whiz-kid Arthur Mutambara, who returned home to take up the baton after fifteen years away working with NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space administration, in the United States and the Oxford Robotics Research Group in the United Kingdom.

The official line was that the party was split over whether to contest elections to a new upper house introduced by State President Robert Mugabe. The Senate is largely powerless, but it enabled the head of state to provide more jobs for his supporters in the ruling ZANU PF party. The MDC-Mutambara contested the Senate election in November 2005: the MDC-Tsvangirai refused to take part.

However, it has slowly emerged that the fundamental cause of the split was about whether to resort to violence as a strategy in an attempt to beat ZANU PF at its own game. ZANU PF militants have killed hundreds of MDC supporters over the past eight years.

The reverberations of the split spread well beyond Zimbabwe. With more than four million Zimbabweans having fled into exile, MDC party branches in South Africa, Australia and the United Kingdom aligned themselves to one or other of the factions according to perceptions of which of the two was genuinely based on the founding principles of the party.

It is clear that both MDC schisms have been weakened by oppressive Mugabe legislation such as the Public Order and Security Act that forbids them from holding rallies without police clearance. But nobody was prepared to tell either Tsvangirai or Mutambara that they were both in a quagmire, and that in order to cut their losses they needed to stop digging.

The MDC, whether fighting under the Tsvangirai label or the banner of Mutambara, suffered serious losses in rural council elections last year. It triggered panic among supporters who realised that all was not well in the divided party, despite complacent assurances from both leaders.

The MDC's travails and decline have led to a desperate search for an alternative focus of opposition to Mugabe and ZANU PF.

The latest straw that drowning Zimbabweans are clutching is an association called the Save Zimbabwe Campaign, an eclectic collection of at least 24 political parties and civic organisations.

Tsvangirai said in a recent interview that the Save Zimbabwe Campaign is the “name of the game in town”. He said “unity of purpose, not individuals” is important among the country's spread-eagled and fragmented pro-democracy forces. He was responding to accusations that the MDC had played into ZANU PF’s hands by splitting over the Senate election when what was needed was unity.

Both MDC factions are members of the amorphous Save Zimbabwe Campaign that includes the Crisis Coalition in Zimbabwe, the Democratic Party, the Media Institute of Southern Africa, the National Constitutional Assembly, the small ZANU-Ndonga party, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, the Zimbabwe Election Support Network and residents’ associations and student bodies.

Although the opposition leaders will not openly admit it, their support for the Save Zimbabwe Campaign is a tacit admission that the 2005 MDC split repelled voters. The Save Zimbabwe Campaign is seen as a way of trying to build a critical mass of opposition forces in order to resist the extension of President Robert Mugabe’s term of office to 2010. The presidential election is legally scheduled for next year: before then, the Save Zimbabwe Campaign will push for a new constitution.

The campaign seems a logical way of uniting opposition forces, but a University of Zimbabwe political scientist was dismissive of its significance. Speaking to IWPR, he described the group as "a mélange lacking any political focus beyond saying 'no to the extension of the presidential term' and opposition to elections 'under the current constitution'”.

He asserted that the Save Zimbabwe Campaign would “not change the political landscape of Zimbabwe,” adding, “I hear they hold lunch time meetings in the city centre and distribute leaflets calling for a new constitution. Is it true that they also hold all night women’s prayers calling for change? Zanu PF will not lose sleep over such an organisation.”

He said the group has “nuisance value only” in the current struggle, explaining that the police had not even bothered to arrest them for holding unauthorised meetings. “Look at the way the police treat the WOZA (Women of Zimbabwe Arise) women or the NCA (National Constitutional Assembly) if you want to gauge an organisation’s political impact,” he said.

“The police will not allow WOZA or the NCA to hold a public meeting even when it is explained that it is a peaceful one. It is strange that the two MDC factions think they can raise their profile and increase their impact by joining Save Zimbabwe Campaign, which ironically is a product of frustration with the failure of the MDC itself. ZANU PF is having a good laugh because opposition forces are spreading themselves too thin on the ground to present a credible threat to its citadel of power. Where is their centre of gravity?”

Another analyst told IWPR that the MDC’s decision to join the Save Zimbabwe Campaign was a serious error: it dramatically illuminated a leadership that lacked confidence in itself. “From the little that I have heard of Save Zimbabwe Campaign it is an incomprehensible conglomerate with no leader," he said. "The general council of the group is chaired by another group called Christian Alliance. Who is the leader and why are they afraid to come out in the open?

"I can tell you frankly that the MDC is making a strategic and tactical error in joining this group, unless they hope to take over the leadership.”

He said that would present problems because people are now confused about whether whether they are supporting MDC-Tsvangirai or MDC-Mutambara or the Save Zimbabwe Campaign, “Imagine the confusion that Mugabe can create in this body if he called for the presidential election early next year. How would these people campaign - as MDC or as the Save Zimbabwe Campaign and led by whom?”

The University of Zimbabwe political scientist asserted that the Save Zimbabwe Campaign had no future in Zimbabwean politics and that by joining it the MDC had exposed itself as a group of opportunists lacking maturity and principles, “ready to sleep with any one who promises them votes”.

He continued, “These guys have not learnt anything from the troubled origins of their party. They were a product of protest politics against Mugabe’s ruinous economic policies, but protest can’t be an ideology. They can have unity of purpose in fighting for change, true. But what happens once Mugabe leaves power?

“What will be the unifying factor after that because Mugabe will not last forever; and ZANU PF is beginning to accept that inevitable reality, as demonstrated by the succession struggles in the party. After seven years in opposition politics, I expected the MDC to have matured and to be more focused.”

A supporter of one of the MDC factions told IWPR that the MDC was beginning to suffer from what he described as a “Mugabe syndrome”, “Those who founded the party have run out of ideas, but they will not admit it. They now believe they own the party, despite the fact that it is clear they are not advancing the people’s cause any more.

“The economic situation is getting worse [with inflation having reached 1600 per cent and increasing by the day] and ZANU PF has no solution. Now the MDC are clutching at straws and will follow any group that makes them appear to be doing something.

“While it is obviously clear that the current ZANU PF leadership has to go, it is time also for change in the MDC leadership so that we have some fresh ideas.”

Takesure Torwa is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor in Zimbabwe.

More IWPR's Global Voices

FakeWatch Africa
Website to provide multimedia training and resources for fact-checking and investigations.
FakeWatch Africa
Africa's Fake News Epidemic and Covid-19: What Impact on Democracy?