By Tafi Mhaka
After MDC Alliance Vice-President Tendai Biti prematurely announced that Nelson Chamisa had won the presidential election ahead of the Zanu-PF candidate President Emmerson Mnangagwa on 31 July 2018, you had to feel for the opposition party, and you certainly had to feel for the man.
Biti had been entrenched in the struggle for liberal and constitutional rights for so long, you might have suspected that amid incredible support for Chamisa and widespread despondency with Zanu-PF rule, something just had to give after 18 mostly difficult years for the MDC; but sadly, nothing did.
Biti had pre-empted an official announcement by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission in a gutsy attempt to safeguard the “people’s will”, but he hadn’t acted out of character.
Indeed, the fiery politician of old, the youthful former student leader that stood shoulder to shoulder with young and hopeful leaders such as Munyaradzi Gwisai, Learnmore Jongwe and Job Sikhala to stand up to Zanu-PF’s political treason in 2000, had been momentarily resurrected.
Biti’s early, disputed and finally disproven proclamation of a Chamisa victory demonstrated not only strong political defiance, but also clear and extensive frustration with a political system that is undoubtedly rotten to the core and unfit for purpose.
A Harare magistrate convicted Biti of contravening the Electoral Act, and imposed on him a $200 fine and a six-month suspended jail term.
However, Biti can hardly be blamed for demonstrating a genuine passion for a just and democratic cause. Yet it must be said that, in the aftermath of that big announcement in Harare, why did he decide to seek political asylum in Zambia? Why did he run? Even with the threat of imprisonment hanging over his head, Biti should have stood tall and refused to cede the moral ground to Zanu-PF.
Job Sikhala, Fadzayi Mahere, Jacob Ngarivhume and Hopewell Chin’ono have been similarly outspoken in a restrictive environment that is designed to criminalise dissent and to police the freedom of thought, speech, assembly and association.
A system designed to embed incredible fear in people’s minds. It is within this context that Zanu-PF must not be allowed to get away with introducing yet another retrogressive piece of legislation: the Patriotic Bill.
A party that prides itself in promoting a divisive and clearly obsolete one-party state-type doctrine at the Herbert Chitepo School of Ideology can’t be expected to determine our national soul. Zanu-PF must not be allowed to define our patriotism, or to claim sole right to representing its all-inclusive spirit, especially when political dimwits and sycophants such as Togarepi Pupurai are fronting the enactment of the so-called Patriotic Bill.
For nearly 41 years, Zimbabwe has been characterised by extended phases of economic failure and repression at the hands of government actors and self-styled youth and war veterans’ militia. Zanu-PF has certainly been amazingly disloyal to Zimbabwe and Zimbabweans over the years, but it has thrived on criminalising strong and progressive citizenry.
The list of Zimbabweans that have been deemed to be “unpatriotic” is simply inexhaustible. It includes luminaries such as Joshua Nkomo, Dumiso Dabengwa, Lieutenant General Lookout Masuku, Morgan Tsvangirai and Simba Makoni, businessmen in the mould of Strive Masiyiwa, upstanding journalists such as Mark Chavunduka and Ray Choto, activists like Jestina Mukoko and Itai Dzamara, minority tribes residing in Matabeleland, white commercial farmers, farm workers and ordinary voters.
Thus the impending promulgation of the Patriotic Bill is not by any stretch of the imagination a mystifying political novelty. Zanu-PF’s consistent disloyalty to our to our post-independent prosperity and wellbeing is firmly and indisputably embedded within its DNA and modus operandi. “We”, the progressive Zimbabweans, can either choose to soldier on and willingly abet Zanu-PF’s treasonous conduct, or seek to liberate ourselves from its perennial tyranny.
It’s time for Zimbabweans to understand that helping to sustain a thin veneer of democracy unendingly is pointless and tantamount to endorsing self-harm. For example, after Zanu-PF had refused to enact straightforward electoral reforms, the MDC Alliance participated in a shoddy electoral process in July 2018. Amid calls to boycott the poll, many people suggested that a small change would be better than no change.
They said participating in a clearly rigged election would be considerably better than staging an electoral boycott, an action that would have denied Mnangagwa the widespread local and global legitimacy he sorely needed. Many were (and remain) staunch advocates of slow and incremental political change in Zimbabwe.
But the mere promise of achieving incremental change has come at a steep cost, and the MDC Alliance leadership understands this. The entrenchment of state capture, the absurd Twitter-based arrests and abductions of activists, the creation of POLAD and the numerous recalls of MDC Alliance MPs, mayors and councillors, no doubt orchestrated by top Zanu-PF actors, demonstrate that Mnangagwa wants to restrict democracy and annihilate any significant opposition before the 2023 elections. This is no surprise. The MDC Alliance should expect Mnangagwa to continually up the ante before 2023 and possibly attempt to introduce more disturbing legislation and restrictions on basic freedoms.
That said, are we really doing enough to stop Mnangagwa’s outdated political rampage or to prevent the enactment of the Patriotic Bill? What is the MDC Alliance doing to deny Mnangagwa the political normality that he needs to destroy dissent openly and surreptitiously and still act as a democratic leader in SADC forums? What are the likes of Biti doing to disrupt the prevalence of an abnormal “peace” and to stop the persistent political haemorrhaging?
The MDC’s arguably most dynamic time in opposition came between 2000 and 2008. Then, it withstood a barrage of propaganda, abductions, beatings and murders to effectively win the 2008 presidential election. The naivety displayed by an undoubtedly brash and fearless MDC in the 2000s worked wonders. But the party’s current and prolonged pivot to a theoretic struggle in deeply troubled times has made it a soft target for Mnangagwa’s political scheming.
What’s more, it is seemingly paralysed by indecision and has no political endgame in sight. Its presence in parliament and the senate has only served to affirm Mnangagwa’s flimsy democratic credentials. Why has the MDC remained a striking presence in legislative chambers when Zanu-PF is tearing it apart and constantly plotting its demise? It’s no secret that the Patriotic Bill could be used to effectively bar Nelson Chamisa from contesting in the 2023 presidential election and to deny the MDC Alliance international support.
Civil inaction only emboldens Zanu-PF and exposes the MDC Alliance to endless political plots. On April 6, a magistrate sentenced Makomborero Haruzivishe to 14 months in prison for inciting public violence. His conviction, like the dubious Patriotic Bill, appears fairly normal to outsiders.
But a closer analysis of that verdict reveals a different story. His conviction on “weak, circumstantial evidence” is simply a vengeful judgement, a punishing political statement that stands in contrast to the state’s prolonged inaction towards Zanu-PF and government actors that have actually murdered blameless civilians in the past.
Who can forget that the imposition of Western economic sanctions against Zimbabwe followed a phase of extensive violence and murder orchestrated by Zanu-PF? Who can forget the hordes of MDC activists and supporters killed by “loyal” Zanu-PF militia in the 2000s?
Who can forget the demonstrators killed on the orders of Mnangagwa, the “patriotic” Zanu-PF president, in 2018 and 2019? And who can forget that nobody has been charged and convicted for all of these shameful murders?
The jingoistic card Zanu-PF is pulling out is just a smokescreen, as the sole reason for Zimbabwe’s diminished global standing and economic decline is unquestionably Zanu-PF.
Hence, Biti et al need a plan “B” urgently. They can’t stand by and let Mnangagwa destroy the progressive left. They can’t sit back and expect Zanu-PF to suddenly become progressively sensible or magnanimous, or expect it to implement political or security reforms willingly. They can’t expect transformation to materialise out of the blue before the 2023 elections.
Together with civil groups, they must start believing that change is possible, and organise a nonviolent campaign for democratic change on the streets of Zimbabwe. They must act.
The MDC Alliance must fight for every morsel of change that would help it to define a new Zimbabwe; everything that would allow it to win the 2023 election and to deservedly become the ruling party, and that is the political endgame. We are not unpatriotic, we are Zimbabweans; and a truly democratic Zimbabwe is worth fighting for. Mnangagwa et al must remember that.
Tafi Mhaka is a Johannesburg-based writer and commentator. His debut novel, Mutserendende: The African in Us, is scheduled for release in 2021. Follow him on @tafimhaka / tafi.mhaka