GNU: MDC must get back to basics

The Standard

By Tapera Kapuya

September 30, 2010 in Opinion

TWO years after the signing of the global political agreement (GPA) and subsequent formation of the unity government, its successes and failures remain widely contested. Whereas much of the conversation often focuses on the economy as an objective reflector of the unity government’s scores, it is the political dynamics that are even more important.  This is largely because the primary motivations of the parties in getting into this unity government had everything to do with their strategic political goals.

The political protagonists entered into the GPA for essentially political reasons. The idea of consummating an effective government was largely a subsidiary to the political power contest. Therefore in reflecting on the GPA and its baby, the unity government, one has to keep in mind the attitudes of the political parties towards both agreement and its resultant government.

Zanu PF: reversing the tide

There are different and often diverging motivations why the three parties agreed to the GPA. For Zanu PF, the GPA was essentially a way of retaining power.  The GPA was seen as a way of containing the surge in domestic and international pressure. The March and June 2008 elections had shifted the balance of political power internally and within the region in favour of the MDC-T. For Zanu PF, a settlement with the MDCs would be a way for the party to contain the surge in democratic resistance to its rule.

Zanu PF’s credibility within Sadc had been dented and it was failing to sustain its standing within the wider African Union community. The support of these two groupings and their members had been crucial in dismissing internal pressure. Instead post- 2008 elections saw the MDC-T receiving unprecedented interest from African capitals, including South Africa.  Zanu PF’s dismissal of the MDCs as Western pawns would no longer find a keen ear.

Even more, Zanu PF’s mechanisms of controlling dissent and opposition were becoming limited.  Its use of violence had gone overboard and was achieving more negative results. It was eroding support even amongst some of its staunch supporters. Worse, given the extreme economic depression, the party’s patronage system was running out of goods to dispense to buy loyalty.

The party was on the verge of implosion. The momentum that had held it together through the power of incumbency had diminished. Its members with economic interests were cutting deals with the succeeding party.  Even the state bureaucracy, once noted for its commitment to Zanu PF was subtly withholding its support, in many instances causing state paralysis.

It is fair to say without the unity government, and in particular after the tragedy of the June election, Zanu PF would have descended into the fringes in the same way Kaunda’s Unip had lost in Zambia.

Two years after the unity government, it is fair to say the Zanu PF strategy of containment has been fairly successful, especially with regards to reclaiming marginal support within the Sadc and the AU. Internally it seems to be managing to dominate the national agenda, its policies and much of its decisions carry the day. 

The MDC-T, in particular, has generally failed to maintain its pre-GPA momentum. There is general consensus amongst any honest observer that President Robert Mugabe and his side of the unity government are in control of the government.

MDC-T and the unfinished change

For the MDC-T, this GPA was seen as a strategy for acquiring state power. It was part of a transition strategy where they were negotiating for power under the illusion, real or not, of Zanu PF’s military power. In effect, for the MDC the impression was that of finding a way out of a “silent coup”. This explains some of the compromises the party made.

Given the tragedies the party faced during and immediately after the 2008 elections, there has been an expectation that the MDC-T would use its leverage in the GPA to reinvigorate the party and the broader democracy movement to consolidate the momentum for change. But what is happening on the ground is telling: there has been no real attempt of mass movement building and the party activists remain victims of state and Zanu PF repression. Party cohesion is being tested with reports of divisions undermining confidence. Moreover the party seems uncertain whether to embrace its junior status in government or reorient itself as an alternative government.

The MDC-T has continued to suffer contempt from Zanu PF. It has failed to proffer convincing responses to Zanu PF’s refusal to fully implement the GPA. The MDC-T nominee for deputy agriculture minister (Roy Bennett) is yet to be sworn in; the party’s ICT minister was stripped off all his powers; provincial governors are yet to be announced; and the Prime Minister (Morgan Tsvangirai) finds himself without defined power and more in a ceremonial position. In all these, the popular perception continues to be engraved that the MDC-T are squatters in a Zanu PF government.

The MDC-T against wider expectations seems to have reverted into a “responding” gear: Zanu PF sets the agenda, the MDC-T responds. The party, against wide expectations, is failing to drive a national policy agenda that can take the nation away from Zanu PF’s narrative. This is despite the MDC-T having lead control of parliamentary process: the party has a “moral” majority; the prime minister is leader of government business in parliament and the Speaker is the party’s chairperson. Much could be said of local government where the party dominates yet residents are yet to see a marked departure from Zanu PF’s tendencies.

However, it has to be acknowledged that the country owes the stability that currently exists in the economy to the MDC-T. Despite claims by Justice minister Patrick Chinamasa and others about dollarisation being a Zanu government decision, this was essentially an MDC idea. If Zanu had its way, it would have printed even more Zim dollars until the ink ran out.

Besides the economy, we might also add the reforms in media and electoral systems. The MDC-T has managed to halt, if not reverse, the closure of media space and an election system run by a corrupt and embedded commission.

MDC-M: The illusions of legitimacy through competency

Despite the fact that the negotiations that finally led to the GPA had been going on since as early as 2003, the GPA would have been essentially a two- party agreement between Zanu and MDC-T. Given Zimbabwe’s polarised politics, the “kingmaker” status of MDC-M’s post 2008 election presence in parliament could in practical terms only have been used to benefit the MDC-T. However MDC-M increasingly became of strategic value to Zanu PF. The party leadership’s sharp differences and little regard for Tsvangirai in particular, became a tool for Zanu PF, which sees the party as a buffer zone for mitigating some of MDC-T’s demands.

For the MDC-M, especially after its March 2008 election legitimacy crisis, the GPA would provide an opportunity to re-legitimise itself through competence. The assumption was the party members in government would perform well enough to sustain the party’s reputational defects. But given that this government never really moved away from Zanu PF’s hold, the MDC-M strategy has failed to bear fruit for the party –– with the exception being David Coltart, the Education minister.

Like the MDC-T, the party has failed to use the relative safety of its leadership in government to mobilise support and rebuild its weak grassroots structures. As with the MDC-T, there has been no concrete national policy proposal from the party apart from random “off-head”, knee- jerk propositions.

The party’s support seems to be waning and the unity government appears to be the only thing that provides relevance to the party. However, it could also be appreciated that the party has been key to thawing polarised tensions between MDC-T and Zanu PF. It has been argued that the agreement, and unity government, in itself owes existence to the machinations of the MDC-M.

Contesting the transitional government

There are two variables of transition that dominate Zimbabwe’s politics. For the parties, especially Zanu PF and MDC-T, transition can be narrowly defined as a process leading to an aftermath where the other party is vanquished and out of power. This narrative sustains the petty intra-government contests: the scramble for credit for government gains and blame for government failures.

Yet for the majority of Zimbabweans, the conclusion of this government should bring an open and democratic order. They do not expect this to be delivered by the party that denied them freedom and inflicted on them so much suffering. To be precise, their hopes are with the MDC-T. The MDC-T presents the best chances Zimbabwe has of unseating Zanu PF and setting the country on the path to democracy.

But for the transition to take effect and be realised, the MDC-T has to go back to the basics and understand that the struggle is not yet over nor has it been won. The party has to creatively take advantage of its station in government to rebuild its structures, mobilise the masses and reconstruct a policy narrative that inspires hope in the millions of our people. It has to draw a fine line between being in government, albeit with little if any power, and remaining a popular front for the establishment of a free, open and democratic country.

Being in government provides the party’s leadership significant protection and immunity to travel across the country and into communities, in particular rural areas, previously deemed NO-GO zones by Zanu PF. Reaching out to grassroots is important in reassuring communities and in ensuring that confidence in the promise of democracy remains.

This challenge also includes reaching out to all the disaffected, including those who have formed or are finding expression in other parties. The main strategic interest of the MDC-T should be to lead and provide leadership to a broad democratic alliance. Relations with progressive mass-based civil society, in particular the ZCTU, NCA, Zinasu and the churches, should be restored and strengthened.

The party’s station in government should serve no other greater purpose than this. The guiding interest of our time is establishing a democratic order. This can become elusive if those in search of it remain divided whilst fighting a consolidating dictatorship.

Tapera Kapuya writes in his personal capacity.

Currently living in Australia, Tapera Kapuya was previously the coordinator of the South Africa office of the National Constitutional Assembly, a civic movement that campaigns for a new constitution in Zimbabwe. He is former Africa region secretary for the International Union of Students, an umbrella organization representing 125 national student unions across the globe. Among his activities as regional secretary, Mr. Kapuya helped to raise financial support to student activists otherwise denied access to education due to their political beliefs. An original working-group member of the World Youth Movement for Democracy (WYMD), Mr. Kapuya also worked to establish a regional chapter of the WYMD in Africa. As a Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, Mr. Kapuya was involved with developing new strategies and opportunities for involving youth in the struggle for democracy in Zimbabwe." He has a law degree from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban.