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We must defend our votes: Gwisai

This is Part 2 of the interview between SW Radio Africa journalist Lance Guma and Munyaradzi Gwisai, the radical leader of the International Socialist Organization. The former MDC MP is one of 6 activists facing treason charges, over a meeting where video footage of protests in Egypt and Tunisia was screened. 

Gwisai with his co-accused of treason
Gwisai with his co-accused of treason

Gwisai answers questions sent in by listeners including his treason case, factionalism in civil society, past problems in the ISO and the perennial question of whether he will rejoin the MDC. Does he believe elections can bring about change in Zimbabwe? 

Interview broadcast 27 April 2011 

Lance Guma: Hallo Zimbabwe and welcome to part two of our interview with Munyaradzi Gwisai, the leader of the International Socialist Organization in Zimbabwe. The former MDC MP is one of six activists facing treason charges for addressing a meeting at which video footage of protests in Egypt and Tunisia was screened. 

Listeners to the station sent in their questions via Facebook, Twitter, Skype, email and text messages and this is part two as I said; last week we looked at several issues including the meeting that was disrupted by police at which this video footage of protests in Egypt and Tunisia was screened. 

We asked Mr Gwisai to narrate to us what he went through in terms of the torture in police custody and we did pose several questions to do with that particular case. This week we focus on other issues and this is how the interview went. 

Do you think an election is going to deliver change in Zimbabwe because some are basically making the argument that you have a de facto military dictatorship in place and it is up to them whether they want to let go of power or not? 

Munyaradzi Gwisai: Ah well it’s similarly like there was a de facto military regime in Egypt and you have the same thing in Libya. I was just reading recently that Raul Castro in Cuba, they’re having their Congress now, even someone like Raul Castro is now saying that we must have a two term limited presidency, including for him, which also applies to us. 

If Raul Castro, well him and his brother have been in power for 50 years but he’s saying now there must be a two term limit that applies to him. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t apply equally to states and the governments like we have here and across many countries in Africa.

I think an election is important. It’s important in the sense that it expresses what the will of the people is but I think the experience that we had in March 2008 in this country and what we saw earlier on in Kenya in 2007 and subsequently what we saw in Ivory Coast is that regimes that are entrenched and autocratic will not respect an election for the mere fact that you have voted.

In fact senior members of the security of this regime have made it very clear that a ball-point costs five cents and they will not therefore lose power over a five cent article. They’ve said it openly and clearly but that does not mean that you remove or you throw out elections. What it means is that you mobilise for elections but you must also mobilise to defend the will of the people as expressed in the elections.

Gwisai-in-prison garb alongside other activists
Gwisai in prison garb alongside other activists

To be naïve and to think that just because you have voted there will be change, would be very naïve and tragic. What it means is that people must be ready to come out and defend their vote. You see, society is run by workers, society is run by our farmers in the rural areas, it’s run by our people who are trading in the streets and if any regime that has lost legitimacy of people refuses to accept the will of the people then they have the capacity to paralyse and not make society move until their will has been respected.

I was reading a story recently about ratepayers in Bindura or some place who are saying we are not going to pay rates until our mayor has been restored. That is the spirit. So it will be tragic if the opposition leaders go about leading people to think that what you just have, you are going to have elections that will come through and bring change. Yes – elections, but you must also be able to exercise your democratic right to defend the outcome of that election.

That will be the key question for Zimbabwe but also I must hasten to say that even that, for the workers of this country, the farmers of this country, the youth of this country and this society, elections on their own that bring about a new change of leaders without changing the economic basis of our society, without changing the fact that the wealth of our society, our factories, our banks, our farms are owned and controlled by small elite, will not bring real change.

Elections must be part and parcel of a process that will ensure you have a revolution, a revolution that ensures that the wealth of society, the businesses of society are owned and controlled by the majority not a few individual elites or capitalists. So we believe that real change will come through a socialist revolution in which you have both political democracy as well as economic democracy and that is what we fight for.

Guma: Now some have put forward the argument that movements like the MDC have been weakened by losing radical elements like yourself. In fact we have a question from Shingai Makombe, he writes to us from Harare and he wants to know from you – any chance of you rejoining the MDC?

Gwisai: Well we have heard that question before but I think our activity, you know I’m the leader of the International Socialist Organisation, we were expelled from the MDC in 2003 but we have remained part and parcel of the democratic forces in this country and I think that is what is important.

What is important is not necessarily to rebuild another one party system in our society but to accept that the process of change will require the united action of different forces, different political parties, civic groups, trade unions and so forth. We share a great deal with the MDC-T in terms of our fighting against ZANU-PF autocracy and dictatorship but we also have major differences.

I’ve already outlined our vision of society; our vision is not just changing from ZANU-PF to MDC, our vision is not just changing from Mugabe to Tsvangirai. Our vision for society goes deeper than that. It is a vision that says if we are going to ensure that every child will be able to go to a decent school in this country, taught by a teacher who earns a decent salary to be able to live and teach properly, that every sick person can go to hospital, that every family can have a decent house, that every farmer can have land and can have support, inputs.

To do that means that the billions of dollars of the platinum that we have in Ngezi, the billions of dollars that we have in Chiadzwa, the millions of dollars that are owned by Standard Bank, by Barclays Bank and so forth and so on, those must be put under the ownership and control of the people who work, who produce the majority of this country.

Now sadly, most of the leadership in the MDC-T would not share that vision. They’re part of; they share the vision of those who believe that you can still bring change in society whilst you leave the wealth in the hands of the few.

Now 30 years of rule of ZANU-PF, supervising and in charge of an economy that is under the control of foreigners and elites has not brought real change in this country. We have seen that happen in Zambia, in Malawi and so forth where change has happened politically without economic revolution and transformation.

Without that change there will not be real change, so we in the ISO hold dearly to that position and therefore are not part of the MDC-T because MDC-T does not hold that belief but we believe that we can work closely, we can work together with the MDC and other forces that are fighting for democracy in this country to achieve this initial step.

So we remain an autonomous organisation, working with various movements to fight for greater democracy in our society and against and the removal of dictatorship in our country.

Guma: We also have a question related to the organisation that you lead, somebody’s just sent in an email asking about the problems that were seen in ISO some three years ago I believe, people were just seeing emails being traded about what was happening there so perhaps we could get you to clarify what happened and what’s the status quo right now?

Gwisai: Yah some of our comrades split from the ISO, I think about two years ago. Yah they argued that there were leadership wrangles and so forth but that was only the surface of it. The real issue I think was the question of the direction of the ISO.

Whether the ISO must fundamentally compromise itself and become an ordinary civic society that depends on western donor funding and manipulation and control or whether the ISO must remain a true working class based organisation.

So comrades who probably felt that that was the way to go and also because we had lost many of our cadres due to death, due to the economic situation in the country, the hyper-inflationary situation, so many of our solid cadres had left so it allowed those comrades who wanted to transform the ISO into an NGO to be able to.

Well we believe that was the basis but we have gone over this and as this treason trial shows, the ISO is rebuilding itself, it’s a major player in a constitutional alliance called the Democratic United Front for a people driven constitution and we are indeed preparing very solidly for a proper people driven constitution and if that does not arise, to actually continue the fight for a democratic working class based constitution.

So we are moving. But we would also want to say that some of the colleagues who left us and formed their own organisations came out supporting us in this trial and we want to thank them because that’s what true democrats and revolutionaries do. So we got support and solidarity from the group led by Mutero and also the group led by Tigwe; some of them came to visit us in jail.

And they have their own vision of how socialism should be built in this country and in the world generally. We are ready to work with the comrades, there’s no reason why there should just be one socialist organisation in Zimbabwe; we are not autocrats. So we are rebuilding, the ISO is back and as you see, is in the trenches and will remain in the trenches fighting against capitalism, against dictatorship and for socialism.

Guma: Final question for you Mr Gwisai – Zimbabwe has seen the emergence of a lot of factions: ZINASU – two factions; MDC – four factions; ZANU-PF has three factions; the Anglican Church has two factions; we have I think even the teachers unions have several unions representing them; we understand the war vets have some three factions – this whole thing of factions, factions, factions – what’s the problem?

Gwisai: Yah I think there are various reasons; at one level you have the problem that there’s been too much money into our society, so too much donor money and everyone now fights to get their little piece of the cake and have their own little organisation. 

So the interests of many elites in the Zimbabwean crisis has been that of self-aggrandisement and self-promotion so they’re not ready to accept things, but I think it also reflects the reality that many of these organisations have not reflected the democratic, have not fully taken through the democratic practice that fully empowers their members, but that cliques remain, cliques of elites remain at the top running things and then they fight amongst themselves. 

So the real challenge for the mass based organisations is that if you are going to successfully fight dictatorships you need to build mass organisations that are internally democratic and not just internally democratic, I think that the lesson for the working people is that they must ensure that they seize control and ownership of their organisations. 

Allowing elites, you know moneyed, property elites as well as educated elites to take over things will ultimately not deliver democratic change. So I think that’s one aspect of it but the other aspect of it is obviously you’ve also had splits and factions engineered by the dictatorship, by the regime. 

They are obviously active 24 hours seven days a week doing that kind of thing but as long as an organisation is truly rooted in the masses, pursues a democratic agenda and the working classed based agenda, those activities of the regime, as we’ve seen in Tunisia, Egypt and so forth, will not bring down the people. 

But be that as it may, our own position is that the democratic forces should be prepared to work in a united front to be able to see the bigger picture. I think you saw it in the election of the Speaker of Parliament when the two opposition parties in parliament were able to see the bigger picture and confront the regime. 

Too many often we’ve been worried about – oh this is Gwisai, or this is so-and-so, oh Madhuku is causing this problem, eh Majongwe and so forth. You know, the focus on personalities and so forth – that has to come to an end if we’re to move forward but the fundamental challenge I think is a challenge on the working class, our trade unions, the workers and other ordinary people to be able to have confidence and assert their leadership of this struggle, but leadership which is based on class consciousness, leadership that is based on a working class ideology not just leadership that’s based on seeking to get positions. 

Guma: If I may just add, if I may pick you on particularly a group like ZINASU – is it possible for it to be self-sustaining without any donor funding and also the fact that a crucial group or a critical group like that in terms of the democratic struggle is paralysed by factionalism. Has that not delayed change in Zimbabwe? 

Gwisai: Yah but I think it’s a clear example where lack of a strong ideological basis can lead you into trouble, so the sad thing about the student movement in the last few years I think has been the serious decline in its ideological consciousness autonomy and I think the substitution by position and power politics which has seriously bred opportunism.

So I, once I think the student movement became an appendage of the opposition parties and some of the major civic groups because of dependence on funding and also because of opportunistic ambitions for positions so once you become the president, general secretary of ZINASU, you then get a position in the MDC. 

We’ve seen the examples of how previous ZINASU leaders starting with Learnmore (Jongwe), Job Sikhala and today Nelson Chamisa and others have risen up into senior MDC positions, so that has tended to encourage a level of opportunism but I think if you go back to the ZINASU that was led by Hopewell Gumbo and others, people like Briggs Bomba and so forth, then you had Takura Zhangazha and others, you had a more ideologically independent, pro-poor and pro-working class student movement. 

So I think the challenge now is for conscious students to begin to rebuild that kind of student movement. They will face serious challenges from those who are playing opportunistic politics and who want to make the student movement an appendage of the political parties but I think in the long term though you need to build a student movement that’s not just built on coalition of SRC’s but you also need to build a student movement that is built on individual political commitment to the student movement – what we saw happening in South Africa during the anti-apartheid years. 

So as long as ZINASU is a coalition of leaders which is what it is now, its real linkage with its student base remains very weak and as long as there’s an insufficient linkage with its mass base, you create a lot of room for opportunism and factionalism. 

But our message is that we hope that the factionalism we saw in the last few years is going to come to an end and students, as part of the youth, focus towards the constitutional process, the referendum; if the elites, and the politicians and the rich bring their own constitution then we must be ready to go all out to reject that draft constitution and demand a people driven constitution and go for a vote no. 

And similarly in the impending elections, if the dictatorship tries to steal the election again, our youth must be at the forefront of mobilising to defend the people’s will. So they have a serious challenge and my word to them is that the demands of the day require that they seriously forge a united front and forget about the small factions that they’ve had and be part and parcel of the serious struggles that we face today.

As a former student leader, that is our hope. 

Guma: That’s Munyaradzi Gwisai, the leader of the International Socialist Organization in Zimbabwe joining us on this edition of Question Time. Mr. Gwisai thank you very much for joining us. 

Gwisai: Thanks comrade Lance and its Aluta Continua – the struggle continues. 

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SW Radio Africa is Zimbabwe’s Independent Voice and broadcasts on Short Wave 4880 KHz in the 60m band.

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