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

Zimbabwe's Good Friday in Court

Tsvangirai not guilty verdict is a momentous decision - but will the opposition ever gain power?
By IWPR Srdan
At a distance, the political landscape in Zimbabwe looks simple enough. So too the choices: in stark contrast to the demagogue Robert Mugabe and the authoritarian ZANU-PF ruling party, stands former trade unionist Morgan Tsvangirai and his Movement For Democratic Change, MDC.

The momentous court decision on Friday, October 15, finding Tsvangirai not guilty of plotting to assassinate Mugabe in 2001 - a charge he has always denied and ridiculed as being politically motivated - will no doubt infuriate the president, delight Tsvangiria's supporters and further galvanise local and international support for the MDC.

And yet faced with a dictatorial regime, it is too easy to romanticise the opposition, gloss over its policies and generally exaggerate its potential as a government-in-waiting. So it is in Zimbabwe where the late political scientist Professor Masipula Sithole once joked, "Put two Zimbabweans on the moon, visit them the next day and you'll find they have formed three parties."

His lament was a comment on the proliferation of factionalism in the liberation movement during the Seventies. The splits and divisions then were part of the "struggles within the struggle" and the proliferation of parties post-independence part of the "struggle after the struggle". Factionalism survives today - not just within the ZANU-PF as the jockeying for power in a post-Mugabe era begins - but also in the opposition itself.

As one would expect, the government has an expansive definition of the opposition. This starts with the MDC itself and includes the non-state media and non-governmental organisations, NGOs. Accordingly, a three statutes has been crafted in order to pulverise Mugabe's home grown "axis of evil".

In 2002, alongside the Public Order and Security Act, which was brought in to limit the activity of political parties, the incongruously named Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, AIPPA, was passed to clamp down on the non-state media. The following year saw it used to close The Daily News, the country's most popular privately published paper, which had an estimated readership of over a million.

Then there's the Non-Governmental Organisations Act, passed earlier this month. Among other things, it bans foreign funding for human rights and governance activities, requires them to register and be criminally liable for refusal.

Local human rights lawyer, Nicholas Mthonsi, told IWPR that the latest law "seeks to ensure that nothing moves or flies in Zimbabwe which is not known in the corridors of state power". The irony is that the law's preamble states that it attempts "to provide for an enabling environment for the operations, monitoring and regulation of all non-governmental organisations".

The International Bar Association for its part has called it "a draconian law clearly designed to exert full and complete control over NGOs and other human rights and development organisations in Zimbabwe".

The government, meanwhile, defends the NGO law on grounds of national security. In a speech to parliament on it, President Mugabe said, "Non-governmental organisations must be instruments for the betterment of the country and not against it. We cannot allow them to be conduits of foreign interference in national affairs."

The ministry in charge of NGOs reiterated this position in a public statement when it disclosed that, "The mischief which the government wants to rid is that of foreign donors employing local puppets or other to champion foreign values, much to the detriment of national security."

Whatever the merits of the case, the impact of the bill will be to further circumscribe the space for non-state actors including opposition forces.

As was clearly intended, the combination of these three pieces of legislation has created an asphyxiating environment for all opposition forces, including, and principally, the MDC. The October 15 court decision finding Tsvangirai not guilty of plotting to kill Mugabe may ease the pressure somewhat -although it is equally arguable that Mugabe's wrath may see it worsen. Though charged with treason and facing a possible death sentence, the fact Tsvangirai remained out on bail suggested the ultimate penalty was never a real option. Either way, the not guilty verdict will undoubtedly inspire the opposition movement.

To a great extent, whatever its form, much of the opposition to Mugabe is ultimately political in nature and this includes the NGOs if not also some sections of the non-state media. The MDC was after all born out of an amalgam of disparate civil society associations and civic-minded individuals including labour unionists church people, community activists, feminists, gay activists and environmentalists. All have been eager to use the MDC as a site for social change and social justice.

Notwithstanding the stifling and dangerous legal minefield these opposition forces have to negotiate daily, some of them are self-inflicted. In the first instance, the MDC is not such a unified and cohesive entity but is marked by considerable schisms, tensions and contradictions some of which are personal differences while others centre on more substantive policy and ideological matters.

The two major midwives of the MDC were the National Constitutional Assembly and the main labour body, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, ZCTU. The MDC leadership is largely drawn from these two groups. Other critical allies of the MDC include Crisis in Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwe National Students Union and other human rights groups. Some of these openly support the MDC while others are more circumspect.

Fissures did not take long to develop. Radical legislator Munyaradzi Gwisai was expelled from the MDC on grounds of not toeing the party line and criticising the party leadership. Gwisai is also president of the Zimbabwe chapter of the little known International Socialist Organisation.

Thus the MDC itself is riddled with divisions along personal, ideological, occupational, and educational lines. These divisions allegedly led to the MDC's loss of an urban seat in a by-election in an otherwise strong opposition stronghold of Chitungwiza, a sister town adjoining the capital city of Harare. In that by-election, the battle was between those aligned to the NCA and its intellectual godfather, MDC secretary-general Professor Welshman Ncube and those with a trade union background led by Tsvangirai and his deputy, former ZCTU president Gibson Sibanda. The intellectual and NCA wing refused to campaign for the candidate allegedly imposed by the trade union wing and the candidate lost.

Other factions within the MDC include one known as the MDC Supporters for Democracy, which some say is "an embryonic party-within-a-party". It openly challenges Tsvangirai's leadership qualities and has adamantly rejected his threat to boycott the 2005 elections.

Tsvangirai and his deputy are often ridiculed, especially in Zanu-PF, for lack of intellectual depth while critics within the MDC accuse Tsvangirai of lacking in charisma and political leadership skills.

The eldest son of a bricklayer, Tsvangirai, 52, is a generation younger than the octogenarian Mugabe. Modestly educated compared to Mugabe's six earned degrees, he was a factory worker for three years, and was then employed as mine foreman for ten years. In 1985, he started his trade union career becoming secretary general of the ZCTU in 1988. In December 1997 and early 1998 he steered a number of successful strikes and survived an assassination attempt soon after when unknown assailants burst into his office and tried to eject him from a tenth-storey window.

As Mugabe's fiercest critic, Tsvangirai has earned the latter's wrath. The treason charges that have been hanging over his head have effectively immobilised him and kept him under what amounts to "country arrest" as part of his bail conditions. Neither he nor his deputy Gibson Sibanda, a former train driver turned union official, can be said to be charismatic. Moreover, to the extent that charisma is correlated with oratory, Tsvangirai is certainly no match for Mugabe.

Another factor in opposition politics is the Diaspora. An estimated 3.5 million Zimbabweans (known as "Zimbos") left the country for "greener pastures" with favourite destinations being South Africa, Britain, USA, Botswana and Australia. The vast majority are professionals, middle class and a major MDC support base. Their political affiliation led the government to disenfranchise them in the 2002 presidential elections and the same fate awaits them in the 2005 ballot. The irony of it all is that the same government has, through the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, launched a vigorous campaign to harness the foreign currency earned by these Zimbos and a facility, Homelink, has been created as a conduit for money transfer from them to Zimbabwe.

Unlike in the "Second Chimurenga", or liberation struggle of the Seventies, when key anti-regime leaders were located in neighbouring countries and the Diaspora, this round of anti-regime struggle is essentially internal in terms of its leadership. While there are MDC overseas, none of the leaders there can be said to be pivotal. In fact, Diaspora Zimbabweans are often disparaged for being cowards who "ran away" from the struggle. Should these Zimbabweans come back after the "struggle" they are most likely to be perceived as vanamucheka dzafa (those who prey on a carcass killed by others). Overall therefore, the exile element is not a salient factor in Zimbabwe opposition politics.

In some sense, the MDC is its own enemy. There is often serious indiscipline in the party with the leadership appearing to lack the capacity or the willingness to rein in its delinquent members. The MDC election boycott threat has itself created enormous confusion in the party with both its members and leaders not knowing exactly which way the party is going. A recent headline in The Daily Mirror read "War in MDC camp" and reported that "a wave of political gymnastics and mudslinging has hit the MDC ..." Other members have actually used this episode to question the leadership capacity of the MDC leader himself. The MDC Supporters for Democracy issued a statement that declared, "We are now convinced that Mr Tsvangirai has lost the steam and capacity to rule this country or lead a people's movement like the MDC."

While the MDC sees the remaining private media and non-state NGOs as its natural allies, it is deeply suspicious of those groups that are not explicitly on its side. It begs the question should the MDC ever get into power, will it assume the same intolerance now shown to these groups by ZANU-PF?

In a recently published book, David Kaulemu, a former lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe, comments that "the MDC uses the same confrontational language as its opponent. There is no evidence that it has developed a radically different political culture from ZANU PF" and warns that "the MDC runs the danger of repeating the mistakes of ZANU PF".

However, this scenario is unlikely in the short to medium term simply because of the position taken by the Zimbabwe army.

Referring directly to Tsvangiria, the former commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, General Vitalis Zvinavashe, once famously declared the army would never allow a non-participant in the 1970s liberation war to take over the country. Recently, Zvinavashe's successor General Constantine Chiwenga reiterated this position saying, "I would not hesitate to go on record again on behalf of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, to disclose that we would not welcome any change of government that carries the label 'Made in London', and whose sole aim is to defeat the gains of the liberation struggle."

Such bald and uncompromising statements from so powerful a force probably represent the last nails in the coffin of free opposition political space in the country. In any confrontation with the army, as it currently stands, the Zimbabwe opposition is unlikely to emerge as the winner.

Vuso Wetodo is the pseudonym of a Harare-based academic, who wishes to remain anonymous.

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