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Big Saturday Read: Many rivers to cross

“Many rivers to cross But I can't seem to find my way over Wandering I am lost

As I travel along the white cliffs of Dover


Yes, I've got many rivers to cross

And I merely survive because of my will...” (Jimmy Cliff)

To someone new to Zimbabwean politics, they might walk away with the impression that the biggest opposition to Robert Mugabe is a faction in ZANU PF. They might think his greatest nemesis is Emmerson Mnangagwa, his deputy but a lieutenant for so many years. Indeed, the dominant narrative in recent months records a battle between the protégé and his mentor.

Much of this owes to a media narrative which is dominated by the internal wars within ZANU PF revolving around the succession issue. It has overtaken the traditional narrative, which pits Mugabe and his fiercest rival, Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the MDC-T, the official opposition. Even the usually acerbic state media, for so long accustomed to attacking the Tsvangirai and the MDC-t at every turn, has been left with little work to do on that front. When it does throw invectives, as they do from time to time, it is merely on account of conditioning. As they say, old habits die hard. But the threat to Mugabe’s throne seems to be internal, rather than external. True, ZANU PF is in bad shape, but, if truth be the truthful witness, the opposition is hardly in a position to gloat, either. It has been a long and dry season.

The situation is particularly disconcerting for the multitudes of opposition supporters and those perched precariously on the fence – the indifferent majority - whose sympathies tend to weigh on the side of the opposition. As has been said before in these pages, they are fed up with ZANU PF, but they find little to celebrate from the other side. It is a reality that is hard to take, but one that must be acknowledged and confronted. When true friends see you running around naked, they do not tell you that you are the best dressed chap on the playground. It is in this spirit that the current state of the opposition must be assessed. They have their many shortcomings, yes, but the surveys do not tell a pleasant story. So what then has caused the opposition to be at this low ebb at a time when its main opponent appears to be imploding, when the opposition must be taking maximum advantage?

An unkind hand

Lady Fortuna has not been kind. The past year has been incredibly difficult for Morgan Tsvangirai, Mugabe’s chief rival for the better part of the last 20 years. His strength and resilience against an intractable, stubborn and shamelessly repressive regime have endeared him to opposition supporters and countless sympathisers abroad. It is fair to say his record is probably without equal. No person has given the wily old man of Zimbabwean politics more sleepless nights. In all this time, he enjoyed good health, never showing signs of tiring or giving up despite the odds staked against him. I know because he afforded me the fortune of having his ear. Jailed, beaten up, repeatedly cheated in elections and subjected to multiple acts of harassment, Tsvangirai nevertheless kept his head up and fought on. There was not a single day that he paused on account of fatigue or illness.

But in 2016, the man who has survived Mugabe’s arsenal encountered a more cruel and unforgiving coward. He was diagnosed with colon cancer, news that he courageously shared with the nation. Since then, things have never been the same again. For the hard and tenacious warrior that he is, the idea of taking time away from historic task of the democratic struggle must hurt him far more than any blows he has encountered against the regime. But he has no choice but to submit to the gruelling treatment regime.

The trouble of course is that the illness has robbed the party of the crucial steering hand it needs at a crucial time. In his absence, the party has wandered without the sureness and confidence that he provides. This unfortunate circumstance has generated uncertainty, speculation and concern among the party’s cadres and other beyond. Difficult questions have arisen over leadership, with names being thrown into the mix, with the toxic succession issue that has haunted ZANU PF also rearing its head in the opposition circles. All of this must be disconcerting for the man and the party that he has valiantly led since inception.

Internal fights

Already, questions are being asked whether Tsvangirai can carry the burden of next year’s elections, given the burden of illness. There are those who argue that he can, while others have begun to express some doubt. Eddie Cross, a veteran opposition MP who has been by Tsvangirai’s side for many years drew attention and controversy this week when he openly spoke about Tsvangirai’s predicament, opining that his family was worried that he might not be able to sustain the gruelling election campaign for next year’s election. The foundation of Cross’ intervention is unclear. But he has been pilloried by his fellow comrades. It has done little to douse the fire that the comments sparked. What is more likely is that what Cross said publicly is being whispered behind closed doors. Politicians are by nature sly and devious. Some of those who are screaming publicly against Cross are the same who mumble in the dark, echoing his sentiments.

All this is because, just like in ZANU PF, the subject of succession is taboo in the opposition. Those who raise it are quickly labelled sell-outs. Yet there is nothing imprudent about planning for the future or having contingency measures in an organisation. It gives a clear signal to the public that the organisation is prepared for the future. Zimbabwean politics has generally discouraged any talk of succession, it being regarded unkindly as a plot against the leader. Indeed, if you want to besmirch another politician, the easiest way is to label him as someone who is challenging the leader. Everyone is scared of the label, hence they remain quiet, not because they do not harbour such thoughts, but because they fear the consequences. With 3 Vice Presidents, an arrangement Tsvangirai would have designed as a strategy of containment, the main opposition has its own factions that are in attrition, accentuated by the unfortunate circumstance of Tsvangirai’s current debility. In ZANU PF, the factions are looking at Mugabe’s old age as an opportunity. In the MDC-T, the factions are looking at Tsvangirai’s fragility as an opportunity. In both cases, it’s a recipe for toxic succession battles.

The splits

The opposition has spent more time fighting each other since 2013 than it has been fighting ZANU PF. Likewise, ZANU PF factions have spent more time fighting each other than fighting the opposition. The crucial difference is that ZANU PF is in power and therefore enjoys the advantages of incumbency. The opposition on the other hand has nothing to hold on to and therefore seems to have lost visibility in a zone now dominated by ZANU PF’s factional fights.

The 2014 split in the MDC-T was debilitating for the party and its members. It divided the party and drained people’s confidence in the party and opposition politics generally. It also came at a time when the party was at its lowest ebb, after ZANU PF controversially took the 2013 elections. Fatigue and frustration sapped the party’s spirit and instead of focussing on rebuilding and regaining momentum, the party slipped into self-destruct mode. As if that was not enough, not long afterwards, the MDC Renewal faction that had left also split into two sub-factions, PDP and RDZ. And just a few weeks ago, following the launch of the MDC Alliance, effectively a reunion of the MDC formations, a faction of PDP also encountered a familiar curse, with one faction purporting to have fired the leader, Tendai Biti. For onlookers, it was an all too familiar pattern which is demoralising.

Elsewhere, when former Vice President Joice Mujuru was fired from ZANU PF, she and her colleagues formed a new party, Zimbabwe People First, which raised some interest for a while. But it did not take long before the curse of the split struck there too. Now she leads the NPP, a faction that emerged from Zimbabwe People First whose own growth appears to have stunted in the wake of her departure. Apart from presenting itself at the launch of the MDC Alliance, the party has been invisible in recent months.

But it is the recent squabbling and power struggles in the MDC-T, which affect the people’s confidence in the opposition. It doesn’t help that the squabbles stem from attempts to forge a broad coalition with other opposition parties. The launch of the MDC Alliance was not welcomed by some senior members of the party, led by one of the party’s Vice Presidents, Dr Thokozani Khupe. This has led to unseemly scenes between the Tsvangirai and his long-time deputy. It reached a crisis when Khupe and her allies were assaulted a day after the launch of the coalition. They blamed Tsvangirai for the violence. Attempts to broker peace between Tsvangirai and Khupe failed as they could not agree on a venue to meet. Unfortunately, Tsvangirai was taken ill before that crisis was resolved. Its resolution remains pending.

These splits have damaged the opposition’s standing in the eyes of the public. They see a never-ending circus of politicians who allow egos to get ahead of common purpose. They are fed up with Mugabe and ZANU PF. But they are also running out of patience with the opposition, which they blame for failing to take advantage of ZANU PF’s current woes. To be sure, ZANU PF has been lucky to have an opposition in disarray at a time when it’s going through a very difficult transition. The transition from the long-serving Mugabe to a new leadership was always going to be painful for the party. But it could not have happened at a better time for them, when the opposition is also struggling with its own transition challenges.

A dry season ...

When one has power or is close to getting power, there is an abundance of friends and associates. The phone is always ringing. The diary is always full. Strangers come from all over bearing gifts of all varities, not because they are generous, but because they expect a return when one is in power. In politics, gifts are almost always investments in the future – rents paid in expectation of more in due course. But when one is out of power or far from it, friends whittle down to a trickle. There are very few calls seeking appointments and stream of gifts gradually dries up, until there is nothing. There was a time when the MDC-T had many friends, both within and outside the country. Those were the early days, when there was an abundance of hope in the party, hope that Tsvangirai would replace Mugabe and the MDC-T would be the ruling party. And more than once, it nearly happened. It should definitely have happened in 2008 when Tsvangirai beat Mugabe before he was cruelly thwarted by masters of the dark arts.

But 2008 was also the turning point. The MDC-T joined ZANU PF in a shaky coalition arrangement and Tsvangirai became Prime Minister. For 4 years, it was no longer the opposition but part of the ruling establishment. Tsvangirai and the MDC-T meant well when they signed the Global Political Agreement. The new arrangement arrested a deteriorating economic and political situation. But unfortunately, Tsvangirai and his party did not get full credit for their efforts. Instead, they were soiled by association with the ZANU PF establishment. Their conduct in government, as they became accustomed to the corridors of power did not help. Some became detached from the people, behaving like their ZANU PF counterparts. Those on the outside despaired and some lost confidence.

The disaster that befell the opposition in 2013 had far-reaching consequences. Old friends lost hope and began to look at factions in ZANU PF as potential sources of hope. The stream of financial support has been reduced to a trickle and in some cases, it has dried up completely. This has seen the party failing to pay its workers, cadres who continue to work only out of loyalty and commitment to the cause. The party has been sued and the sheriff has attached its property in execution of court judgments. These scenes have been disconcerting. Money is critical in running a political organisation, let alone an election campaign. This is one of the major challenges facing the opposition – raising the funds to run the campaign. Their rival has the advantage of incumbency – ZANU PF simply rides on the resources of the state and can compel private businesses to “donate” to its cause. Just a week ago, Mugabe agreed to buy new fleet of vehicles for his party’s youth and women’s departments. Rising funds for next year’s election is a top priority and it’s a common responsibility that must be carried by everyone desirous of change from ZANU NPF’s hegemony.

Election parties

In the year leading up to an election, there’s usually a sudden burst of activity in opposition circles. Previously dormant characters suddenly emerge from the woodworks, offering themselves as prospective candidates. New figures crop up for dark corners, announcing new political parties. After the elections, most disappear back into the darkness. But you can be sure that they, or new, similar characters will be on the scene again when the next election comes. These are election parties. They live only for elections. Sometimes, it is because the characters are delusional. Other times, it is because such characters are sponsored – just in case the opposition decides to boycott elections, Mugabe and ZANU PF are always guaranteed of “competition” courtesy of such characters. All they do is add to the political circus, generating confusion and more entertainment than serious consideration.

As the main opposition, the MDC-T has maintained a permanent presence since 2000 when it nearly overcame ZANU PF. After 4 national elections and parliaments, one would expect the party to have mastered its role as the official opposition. However, while the party has maintained a voice in parliament, its Shadow Cabinet has remained disappointingly invisible. The idea of a Shadow Cabinet is to have someone who shadows the incumbent ministers, tracking their work and challenging it, while at the same time presenting alternatives. It is the opportunity for the opposition to demonstrate to the public where the ruling party is going wrong and to showcase their own alternative policies on critical issues as they arise. It must present itself as a government in waiting. Politically, it also keeps the opposition in the public eye and ensures that it remains relevant. However, in Zimbabwe, the last time you hear of the Shadow Cabinet is on the day that it is announced. A member of the public would be hard-pressed to name at least 3 members of the Shadow Cabinet and their portfolios. That is not because the people don’t care, but because the Shadow Cabinet has been ineffective and invisible. It has failed in its task as an alternative government.

The Big Idea

Successful political parties around the world that have stood the test of time are identified by their Big Idea, not just by the personality of their leader. It is this Big Idea that gets the people off their seats to go out and queue to register to vote and to actually vote on polling day. The Big Idea is the myth that a party sells to the people. It is something that large numbers of people believe in. All large networks of co-operation, in which people get together and work for a common cause revolve around a Big Idea. Nationhood is the Big Idea upon which nations are built. Big companies are built upon the foundation of a Big Idea. Religions, too are built upon a Big Idea. Christians worship and work together in very large numbers because they believe in the Big Idea of God and Jesus Christ. Likewise, political parties must have their own Big Idea around which everything else revolves.

Back in 2000, the Big Idea of the MDC was “Change”. It did not matter that it was an amorphous notion. The Big Idea of Change was attractive enough and people went out to vote in large numbers. However, after 18 years of the same, “Change” as the Big Idea no longer carries the same pull. There is a whole new generation of voters, people who were toddlers in 2000 who are now eligible to vote. The idea of Change that appealed to voters who knew a different Zimbabwe in 2000 does not have the same effect on today’s generation. There is need to think deeply about the Big Idea. It has to be something new, something innovative and exciting that it will turn heads and get people off their seats to go out and register to vote. At the moment, the party is relying on an old Big Idea and mostly on its leader, which is unsustainable in the long run. The party must not depend on the personality of its leader but on the strength of its Big Idea. This Big Idea is still to be re-invented. But time is running out.

Fog over the coalition

The launch of the MDC Alliance in July was generally well received and for a moment, it boosted confidence among the opposition supporters and raised some hope among by-standers – the indifferent majority. However, the excitement was soon overtaken by the outrage at the violence that rocked the MDC-T in Bulawayo and the subsequent fall-out between leaders in the PDP. That problems arose in both parties over attempts to forge a coalition was indeed ironic. The hand of ill-fortune has also affected the coalition talks, with Tsvangirai, the man who has been proposed to lead it was taken ill, ironically while he was attending negotiations for the coalition. His illness and unavailability in recent weeks appears to have stalled the coalition talks. A coalition would go a long way to boost the confidence of supporters but more importantly, it would persuade by-standers to believe in the seriousness of opposition parties. It is this indifferent majority that needs to be courted.

Trouble at local governance

The opposition has never had exclusive control of national government, but it has been in charge of many urban councils since 2000. After all, urban areas are their forte. The trouble is ZANU PF has always retained a measure of control through the deceptive and complex legislation. There is a Minister in charge of Local Government and a Governor who masquerades as a Minister of State in each province. All these are ZANU PF and local structures like Provincial and District Administrators tend to be ZANU PF surrogates. The Local Government Ministry in particular has always interfered with local councils, under the guise of ministerial supervision as mandated by legislation. Last year, Harare City Council's attempt to appoint a Town Clerk were thwarted via this influence.

Yet, despite this pervasive ZANU PF influence, the opposition cannot escape the burden that it is in charge of local authorities. They are regarded as MDC councils and that is how the public perceives them. Consequently, any failures at local governance, real or perceived, are carried by the party. The councilors have behaved no better than their ZANU PF counterparts in the past - some looting and engaging in the most egregious corruption. The corruption and failure to perform in service delivery are huge problems which have soiled the MDC-T's image. People look at it and ask: if this is what they can do at local government, what will they do at national level? The party should have been harder on deviant and non-performing councilors. That would demonstrate to the public that it is different from ZANU PF. Now, people who have grievances over corrupt and non-performing councilors heap it all on the party.

Elections boycott

Consistency in politics, especially on key matters of principle, is of paramount importance. Frustrated by the rigged election in 2013, the MDC-T took a decision to boycott elections unless electoral reforms were implemented. However, opposition parties were not united on this point, which left the door open for other smaller parties to contest. Needless to say, ZANU PF won all by-elections, except the Norton by-election won by Temba Mliswa, who ran as an independent. The effect of the boycott was magnified when the MDC-T expelled some its MPs who were part of the MDC Renewal faction but boycotted the subsequent by-elections triggered by its actions. The result was that these seats, located predominantly in MDC-T’s urban strongholds, were taken by ZANU PF. Many people did not see the logic of what had happened and blamed the party for “donating” the seats to ZANU PF.

Furthermore, although the party boycotted contested by-elections, it nevertheless filled up vacancies in the Senate or non-constituency MPs in the National Assembly where seats are filled via proportional representation. This suggested that the party was happy to accept one part of the electoral system, while refusing another, the effect of which was to neutralise the impact of its boycott. In addition, its stance on boycotting by-elections was somewhat diluted by the active role that it played in Temba Mliswa’s victory in the Norton by-election. It left observers wondering why it was ready to support an independent in an election in which it was boycotting. These conflicting messages did not help.

However, more importantly, the effect of the by-elections boycott was that the major opposition party was less visible politically compared to its rival. ZANU PF made a lot of noise whenever by-elections were held, ensuring that its presence was felt both in the relevant constituency and nationally. Its top officials participated in the campaigns, driving its messages home. It celebrated its victories with screaming headlines, as if they had been in a tight contest. It did not matter that its rivals were getting less votes than the number of spoilt votes. All that mattered was the message that ZANU PF was winning and this reverberated across the country. The impact of these reverberations cannot be underestimated. In politics, perceptions matter as much, as and often more, than reality.

The strategy of elections boycott was always going to be severely tested come the next General Election, due in 2018. What would the MDC-T do in 2018 if its reforms demands were not met? Would it pursue its boycott strategy? It’s 4 years since the last election and except a few changes, the system has refused to reform. ZEC is still weak. Electoral laws are still unfair. Public media is still heavily biased in favour of ZANU PF. The opposition has tried to force reforms but the system is stubborn. Yet in the face of this intransigence and after 4 years of boycotting, it seems clear that the party and all others who boycotted will be contesting in the 2018 elections. These approaches are difficult to reconcile. They leave the public questioning the judgment of the opposition.


The period since 2013 has been a long, dry season for the opposition. Friends have walked away. Former comrades have fought endless battles. Even attempts to reunite friends have caused splits between friends. Judgements made such as the election boycott while preparing to participate in an unreformed 2018 election have raised questions. But it is the hand of ill-fortune that has caused the greatest problem because with it other challenges have arisen. Tsvangirai has been terribly unlucky to be weighed down by cancer at a time when he should be readying himself for what will probably be his final election. He has an ardent team that will urge him to carry on regardless. Others though are starting to ask if this is too much to ask of a man who has valiantly led the campaign against Mugabe all these years. No other person has given the Mugabe more sleepless nights. Ultimately, given the political dynamics, the decision will be in Tsvangirai’s hands.

It can’t be an easy time for the veteran opposition warrior. This BSR bears the title of Jimmy Cliff’s iconic song, Many Rivers to Cross. Interviewed in 2012, Cliff explained its origins. “When I came to the UK, I was still in my teens,” Cliff told The Daily Telegraph. “I came full of vigour: I’m going to make it, I’m going to be up there with the Beatles and the Stones. And it wasn’t really going like that, I was touring clubs, not breaking through. I was struggling, with work, life, my identity, I couldn’t find my place; frustration fuelled the song.”

Cliff found that there were so many rivers to cross. Eventually, he did cross some of them and made his breakthrough. For Tsvangirai, the tenacious warrior of the Zimbabwean struggle, he must wonder what else he must do to cross the rivers ahead of him. Lady Fortuna has not been kind to him in the past year. But he cannot leave to her. He, too, has the power to decide his own destiny.


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