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December 29, 2019

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Big Saturday Read: Stories of Home

May 5, 2018

 

 

The sun rose as we made the descent into Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. It had been a long flight – nearly 14 hours – from Washington DC. But my thoughts were far away – a rich mixture of memories and hopes of getting home to be with family at that difficult moment. Countless times throughout the journey, I had imagined the scenes at the village where multitudes had gathered to bid farewell to my father. I had made a similar journey 8 years before, for mother. That was the hardest blow and I thought I had gained experience to absorb the force of yet another blow. But in these matters, experience does not count. Every loss is a new experience.

 

As I watched the beautiful sunrise in Addis Ababa, my hope was that I would see the sunset from my village, thousands of miles away in Chikomba. That hope was not in vain. The sun had set for the head of the clan and as I sat with my kinsmen later that day, watching the sunset from the village, the scene had perfect resonance with our circumstances. That bitter-sweet moment remains etched in the memory. We had just buried father and here, the sun was going to its mother, as we say in the village.

 

Home is always a beautiful experience, even in tragic circumstances. This was a hard moment but as the clan gathered in our family compound and remembered the good moments with our father, my thoughts took me to the immortal lines in Chinua Achebe’s all-time classic, Things Fall Apart. “A man who calls his kinsmen to a feast does not do so to save them from starving. They all have food in their own homes. When we gather together in the moonlit village ground it is not because of the moon. Every man can see it in his own compound. We come together because it is good for kinsmen to do so.”

 

There we were, men and women of the clan, together at the family compound, our bonds of kinship could not have felt stronger. One of us had departed but the sum had diminished significantly. Still, we were stronger together. The fatigue of the long journey shifted, the spirits lifted by the love and compassion shared by kinsmen. It was as if each one had taken their share from my shoulders. But it was, after all, why I had made the long trip – a burden shared weighs less on one’s mind. And so we lit the fire and spent the night talking as clansmen do on such occasions – drinking and eating to pass the night. They were all there, the usual characters who make the village and others who had travelled long distances to be with us. Stories were drawn from life’s rich tapestry; from politics to sport and I at the centre, being asked about life on the other side of the world. Fellow villagers wanted to know what I thought of the political situation but when I am at the village I am more interested in listening to their thoughts.  

 

After the coup …

 

It was my first time in Zimbabwe and more specifically, at the village after the dramatic departure of former president, Robert Mugabe. In the villages, they told me the news had been slow to reach them as the dramatic events unfolded in Harare last November. My uncle had got wind of what was happening but he too wasn’t sure. People had gone to the fields on the morning of 15 November unaware that history was being made in Harare. When he told people who were gathering for a ZANU PF meeting nearby that Mugabe was losing power, they had refused to believe him. He was not sure so he did not insist. But eventually, as the week progressed and the news spread far and wide and people became more aware of the historic events. They had lived under Mugabe for so long that it was hard for them to believe that it was real. It was fascinating listening to the individual stories as we sat around the fire. One elderly man remained skeptical – he thinks Mugabe might still come back. “Haaende zvachose uya!” (He is not the type that goes away forever) he quipped. But others quickly admonished him, saying he was waking up the wrong spirits. They do not want to hear such talk ever again.   

 

The majority agreed that Mugabe’s departure was long overdue. He had stayed in power for far too long. The staunch loyalists do not forget that he gave them land but some fear that now that he is gone, they might lose it. A rumour had spread that the new government was going to take back some of the land. No-one doubted that Mugabe had been removed by a coup. “Akarohwa kupu (he was removed through a coup)” someone said. They have no doubt that it was the army that had removed him. “Akabviswa nemasoja(It’s the soldiers that removed him),” they said, to which they nodded in agreement. One thing though, is that they are not sure about those who came after him. Mnangagwa is still an unknown quantity. Someone commented that they were the same people.  There have been no material changes in their lives to warrant any real confidence and hope. The challenges they faced before the coup are still there, if not worse.

 

There is however a newfound, if uncertain and fragile freedom to speak out on political issues which had been severely curtailed during the Mugabe regime. Both in the rural and urban areas, people have a spring in their step as they discuss political affairs. The departure of Mugabe seems to have removed a huge weight off their shoulders. But they are still unsure how long this new freedom will last. This unsureness translates into a mild form of self-censorship. You can tell by the quick sideways glances before one answers what seems like a sensitive question or volunteers an opinion. It is the type of glance that one makes to verify that no one is watching or listening into the conversation. People are traumatised by years of dictatorship. In the villages especially, there is always a fear that someone is listening. It will take time for people to completely get rid of the old cobwebs of repression.

 

It is not just Mugabe who has departed the scene. His main adversary over the past two decades, Morgan Tsvangirai, died in February this year after a brave battle with cancer of the colon. The villagers remember him with great fondness. “Aiva mukono uya” (he was a great man) they say in his memory. They remember that he and I worked together, for them a source of pride in the village because I am still their little boy who grew up among them. The departure of Tsvangirai hit them hard, too and we spent some time remembering him.

 

His replacement as leader of the opposition, Nelson Chamisa is a hugely popular figure who has confounded critics who had written off the MDC after Tsvangirai’s untimely departure. “Mukomana mudiki uyu arikuuya nazvo” (the young man is doing well), they say - a huge endorsement in territory that has long been dominated by ZANU PF. He has a chance, someone said. “Vanhu havachada” (people are disillusioned) he added, referring to their disappointment in years of ZANU PF’s failed promises.

 

But there is also trouble and uncertainty within the opposition, with Tsvangirai’s long-time deputy, Thokozani Khupe, laying a claim to leadership of the party. This worries the villagers. They have no idea what is going on and the confusion is unhelpful. By the time news reaches them, it will have been distilled and distorted. The matter spilled into the courts, after the Chamisa-led party sought to bar the Khupe group from using the party’s name and logo. The judge refused to hear the matter on the grounds that it was not urgent. This was bad enough but the judge went on to wade into matter, offering an opinion that the issue was a leadership dispute which had to be resolved via arbitration. Thus while the judge had refused to hear the matter, his comments still managed to stir controversy and twist the knife into the Chamisa-led MDC, suggesting as the comments did that the Khupe group was entitled to the use of the name and logo of the party until the leadership question was resolved.

 

It is difficult to understand the strategic value of the legal case, especially its timing, given that politically, Chamisa had already established a firm hold on the party. The case has instead been a distraction. It has only served to raise dust on the political question where major political advances had already been accomplished. All of a sudden people began to ask a question that had long become redundant: who is the real leader of the MDC-T?  The legal case was a kiss of life to the Khupe group which appeared to have been obliterated politically after the huge political campaign that had been launched across the country. It gave the impression that the party had lost the case and that it was on the back-foot, a circumstance which was not helped by the part’s reaction to the judgment. Indeed, in the villages people are confused.

 

The danger now is that the longer that case progresses through the courts - and the system will ensure it drags on for a while - the leadership question will remain a live matter right up to the day of the election. There is a high likelihood that unless the two groups find accommodation (which is not an impossibility) or seek alternatives, each will submit a different candidate with the same name and logo to the Nomination Court. With two rival contestants using the same name and logo, ZANU PF will be smiling all the way to the polling booths, knowing some opposition voters will be confused and that the opposition will once again suffer the self-made calamity of a divided vote.

 

It is absolutely ridiculous that after waiting for 5 years and with ZANU PF at its weakest, the opposition leaders are conspiring once again to hand ZANU PF an easy and undeserved victory simply because they cannot locate common sense and common interests. The need to find accommodation could not be more urgent. The responsibility lies on both ends. They owe it to their loyal supporters to do the right thing. Nevertheless, if all else fails, the process of natural selection will have to take care of business - in the end only the fittest will survive, but at what and at whose cost? This self-made disaster can easily be averted. Indeed, the villagers hope is that the problems will be overcome. “Hazvinetsi. Ngavangobatana.” (It’s not difficult for them to unite) they say, rather hopefully.

 

Friction after the coup

 

While the MDC has had its problems as it tries to negotiate a post-Tsvangirai path, ZANU PF has had its own fair share of challenges in the post-Mugabe era. For all his faults, Mugabe stayed in power for so long because he managed to play different factions against each other and managed to contain them. He was able to make them serve him regardless of their personal ambitions and rifts. It is something that his successor seems to be struggling with. When Mugabe was removed through a military-led coup last November, it was a celebrated by supporters as a victory for a faction called Lacoste which was led by Mnangagwa. The rival faction, G40 had been vanquished and its key figures fled into exile for safety. But the assumption that the Lacoste faction was a united entity was too optimistic.

 

As is often the case, the moment of victory is also the moment of greatest vulnerability because hitherto latent fault lines between allies begin to show and widen as winners fight to grab the spoils of war. Success has many fathers and indeed, the coup had many who claimed responsibility for its success. The current challenges are a direct reflection of these claims and contestations among the victors. The previous factional battle that led to the removal of Joice Mujuru and the Gamatox faction had produced new factions in the aftermath of victory - Lacoste and G40. The latest victory has produced its own factions, too. Word on Harare’s fertile rumour-mill is that there are two streams of government – one that runs through the office of the president and another that goes through the office of the Vice President, the latter bearing a military hue. There are two Vice Presidents, Retired General Chiwenga and Kembo Mohadi, but the latter is hardly visible. Some go so far as to say that for the General, it is more of a co-presidency than a vice presidency. After all, but for his intervention last November the current president would have been history.  

 

The General has certainly strengthened his position in the new administration. It can’t have been easy leaving the barracks, the source of power which ensured the downfall of Mugabe. Although he exchanged military fatigues for the tie and jacket of civilian office, the General’s military roots remain intact. This he made sure of by retaining oversight of the defence forces through the Ministry of Defence. Mnangagwa could have given the Ministry to another former top General, Perrance Shiri, who headed the Air Force until the coup. Shiri was shipped to the Ministry of Agriculture. Chiwenga has not been shy to flex his muscle, sometimes taking drastic decisions which are usually in the exclusive province of the presidency. A few weeks ago, he summarily dismissed all nurses after they engaged in industrial action. For most people, this was a disconcerting, heavy-handed and military approach to civilian government. This week, Mnangagwa condemned the deployment of police during ZANU PF’s primary elections, saying he was against conflation of party and state. But if Mnangagwa did not authorize the deployment of police, who did? More importantly, it has raised questions as to who really is in charge?  Much earlier, Mnangagwa was forced to intervene to reverse a broad decision allegedly made by his deputy in his absence to fire a large number of senior police and intelligence officers. These incidences, people say, are indicative of a latent tug of war and disharmony within government.

 

Messy primaries …

 

This week has been dominated by ZANU PF primaries. They were chaotic and demonstrated uncharacteristically poor organizational capacity, contrary to the common narrative which puts ZANU PF as a well-oiled and efficient political machine.  Voting had to be carried out over two days as ballot papers were not delivered to most polling stations on the first day. I witnessed a scene in the Chivhu resettlement area where after spending the whole day waiting at a polling station, voters were dismissed and told to return the next day because there were no ballot papers. There were allegations of rigging which caused violence in some areas.

 

A notable feature of the primary elections is that a number of party heavyweights were defeated. These heavyweights are key Mnangagwa allies. They include party Chairperson Oppah Muchinguri and his Special Adviser, Chris Mutsvangwa. There are allegations that the primaries were rigged. But if there was rigging against Mnangagwa’s allies, it could mean there is a powerful faction determined to isolate Mnangagwa. If they lost genuinely, it is worse for Mnangagwa as it demonstrates that people are not impressed with his leadership. Chris Mutsvangwa is a well-known Mnangagwa loyalist who backed him to the hilt in his fight to the presidency last year. Voters would have known of the implications of rejecting Mutsvangwa who is a Special Adviser to Mnangagwa. Still, there is a view that the party failed to rid itself of the G40 faction and that these primaries represent the resurrection of that faction which seemed dead and buried after the coup last November.

 

One thing that is certain though is that the primaries have caused disaffection and wreaked havoc upon morale within ZANU PF. Supporters thronged the party headquarters in Harare protesting the outcome of the primaries and threatening to play Bhora Musango (kick the ball into the long grass) if matters are not resolved. This disaffection represents an existential threat to ZANU PF. Things were bad enough before the primaries and they have just got worse. When I met Professor Michael Bratton a few weeks ago, he made an important point that ZANU PF tends to react viciously when it faces an existential threat. Since the coup, Mnangagwa and ZANU PF have been relaxed, calm and confident. Mnangagwa has been open and welcoming, extending an invitation to international observers. One view was that they were so confident that they already have the election in the bag. Another view was that they could change if they faced a serious challenge – the existential threat. The rise of Chamisa has been phenomenal and even those who had written off the MDC’s chances are starting to review their assessments. But it is the shambolic primaries which have exposed ZANU PF’s weaknesses and enhanced divisions that are likely to spur ZANU PF into action.  

 

In addition, Mnangagwa could turn the defeat of his allies into an opportunity for himself. There is no shortage of opportunities in the system of patronage that Mugabe built and Mnangagwa inherited. In any event, the constitution allows him to appoint up to 5 Ministers from outside Parliament. He can promise to carry allies like Mutsvangwa and Muchinguri who lost in the primaries in exchange for their continued loyalty and support in his presidential bid. In that case, such people will know that their political fortunes stand or fall with Mnangagwa’s fate. They will have every incentive to give everything to ensure that he wins. For Mnangagwa,it is the presidential election that matters and he is better off with close allies putting their undivided attention to his cause. They won’t have parliamentary seats to distract their attention and they will fight with and for him to the bitter end. And because their political fortunes are tied to Mnangagwa, they will forever be beholden to him.  

 

The pot and the kettle

 

While the opposition has found some joy in ZANU PF’s calamitous primaries, they should be careful not to get ahead of themselves. After all, they still have their own primary elections to come. There is no guarantee that they will be any better than ZANU PF’s. Indeed, judging by previous experience, it could turn out to be a case of the pot calling the kettle black.  The opposition did not cover itself in glory in its 2013 primaries and a repeat of the same could be as disastrous as ZANU PF’s primary elections. Far better would be if the opposition take lessons not just from ZANU PF’s primaries but also from their own primaries in 2013. The challenge is not only to do better than ZANU PF but also to do better than it has done in the past. It is an important opportunity to demonstrate to the electorate that they are better than ZANU PF. If they mess it up, the bad narrative that currently stalks ZANU PF will quickly switch to the opposition and the state media and propaganda machine will have a field day.

 

The fact of the matter is that while they are part of the democratic process, by their very nature as a competitive process, primary elections cause factions within a political party both at constituency and national levels. This problem is magnified because of an impending national election. The losing candidates often become a disgruntled lot, especially if the electoral process is not free and fair. They and their supporters can constitute a reservoir of disgruntlement which can be a source of destabilization for a party in the run-up to an election. It is for this reason that the processes of selecting candidates for a party need to be carefully managed. Where possible consensus must be sought in order to avoid the internecine friction that usually comes with competitive electoral processes. Where primaries are inevitable, they must be free, fair and credible in order to prevent conflicts and divisions. ZANU PF has already failed this test and it remains to be seen whether the main opposition will fare any better.

 

Can ZEC manage it?

 

The big issue in the run-up to the elections is the ability of the electoral authorities to run a free, fair and credible election. It’s the first time that the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission is producing a new voters roll on its own and so far its performance is far from inspiring much confidence. This is most dramatically shown be the fact that ZEC has had to seek help from the Registrar General’s Office. Zimbabweans have painful memories of the era when the voters roll was managed by the Registrar General, Tobaiwa Mudede, a long-serving civil servant who seems to have no retirement date. When authority over the voters roll was taken from Mudede, many rejoiced and hoped ZEC would be a breath of fresh air. That ZEC has had to go back to Mudede (although they won’t openly admit it) shows that there are serious problems with the voters roll.

 

The hope is that the resulting voters roll will be credible. For this to happen, it must be available for inspection and audit in sufficient time and at all centres. People must be given adequate opportunities to check that their details are correctly recorded. But ZEC seems to be reluctant to make the provisional voters roll available. This is because they know that it’s a mess and has too many errors. Political parties and stakeholders must have an opportunity to thoroughly audit the voters roll to ensure that it is an accurate reflection of the electorate. The whole election game revolves around the voters’ roll. It is the register that determines who is eligible to vote. If it is inaccurate, it lacks credibility, and it will mean the disenfranchisement of voters which in turn will affect the credibility of the elections. What happened in 2013, where the opposition participated in the elections without sight or inspection of the electronic voters’ roll should never happen in 2018. ZANU PF’s primaries have already demonstrated how the manipulation of the party’s voters’ roll affects and undermines the credibility of elections. For the opposition and the international community an inspected, audited and accurate voters’ roll must be the most important minimum condition without which there can be no credible election.  

 

Big business

 

I had some conversations with business executives. Some said they were waiting for the party manifestos, but I got the distinct impression that most have thrown their lot with Mnangagwa. First, there is a view that Mnangagwa understands business. He is, after all a reputedly wealthy businessman in his own right. His rhetoric is business-friendly. One of his first achievements was the fundamental overhaul of the indigenization laws which were seen as anti-business. His international efforts at reengagement and repairing broken relations with the West have also raised his stock in business circles. Indeed, his mantra of Zimbabwe is open for business has endeared him to the business community who believe he understands business. All this seems to have confirmed the view that Mnangagwa is pragmatic and can be trusted to protect the interests of business.  

 

Second, business favours stability and democracy is not a high priority. There is a worry, which extends to the rest of society, that the military and political elites who seized power last November will not readily give it up so soon after they took office. They are likely to stay for the long haul and will do anything to maintain power even regardless of the election result. In a choice between what they know and what they don’t know, indeed a choice between continuity and change, business and some people are likely to favour the former. This is because what they already know and where they see the location of power is regarded as stable and safe. Continuity is stable and safe, whereas change is regarded as unstable and unsafe. This is a big challenge that Chamisa and the MDC must overcome – the perception that they are unknown and therefore unsafe compared to the incumbent, who is known and has power and is therefore regarded as stable.

 

Third, according to the executives, the MDC’s policies are not yet known and therefore business is clueless as to what to expect. In a bid to introduce the new leader to the people and to establish a foothold in the internal leadership contest, the MDC has held many political rallies around the country. While this has been politically strategic, from an economic point of view, it has been problematic because the leadership has not been able to articulate well-thought out and cogent policies. The messaging has appealed to the masses but it has not had the desired effect upon business which expects more robust articulation of policy positions. It is therefore fundamental that the MDC completes its manifesto and begin to engage all constituencies including big business. There is need to have focus group meetings and other face to face engagements with business so that it understands the leadership and its policies. The sooner this is done the better.

 

The third sector

 

Speaking of business, the informal sector is growing by the hour. Harare’s financial quarter is around Eastgate Shopping Mall. From there, along Robert Mugabe Road as you proceed to the Fourth Street and Roadport, hundreds of currency dealers fight for space with vendors selling everything from bananas, tomatoes and other groceries. It’s no longer underground. It’s all out in the open and it’s a hive of activity. There might be no cash in the banks but the informal financial district is awash with all manner of currencies – crisp US dollar, Rands and bond notes. Naturally, there are big men and women behind this trading floor. Across town, the formal industries may be comatose or dead but Siya-so, the hub of the informal trade is also a hive of activity. I always make a point of visiting Siya-so and one is left in awe of the ingenuity and creativity of the ordinary tradesman.  The question that always plays on my mind is whether politicians have any clear policies and plans for this sector. All parties promise jobs but they do not seem to notice that these people are already engaged in productive economic activities. They need support. They need politicians who are responsive to their economic and social circumstances. But parties seem to go for the usual textbook solutions, making grand promises that have no connection to the real activities on the ground.

 

Overall, it seems to me that the nation is in a state of flux. There is a lot that is going on in the towns and rural areas. The coup broke the flood barriers and there is a newfound freedom which people are not quite sure how to handle. The other day as we drove along Chancellor Avenue, the street that has State House I observed that there was a traffic hold-up. I laughed as I pointed out to the driver that this was a new phenomenon. A traffic jam on this part of the road would never have been allowed during the era of Mugabe. On the side of the road men in blue work-suits were busy digging a trench – probably one of the communication companies laying cables.

 

The most common sight in Harare are the billboards emblazoned with the image of Mnangagwa, the new president. You can tell that the campaign season is in full swing and he is not leaving anything to chance. He is in your face, everywhere. You lift your head up and you are met with a huge billboard with his image staring at you, making this and that promise. They are everywhere. His main challenger Chamisa is not yet on the billboards. Instead, he has been busy meeting and talking to people across the country. The big rallies have excited the crowds. Sensing an opportunity, those rejected from ZANU PF during the factional battles that raged during the 5 years are making their way to the MDC Alliance rallies. The politicians are welcoming them but there is also caution among the people. It’s hard to trust former ZANU PF politicians. Some who have been embraced before have ditched the party soon afterwards. People remember this and they are skeptical. Other have legitimate questions: if we can embrace former ZANU PF members, why can’t we make more efforts to bring back former colleagues like Thoko Khupe and others who have recently taken a new path. People have not lost hope, but it is the politicians who must grow up and find each other. It is not impossible.

 

Relegation

 

One thing that has kept Zimbabweans going is their rich sense of humour. They always seem to find a joke out of their troubles. Dynamos Football Club is one of the great institutions in Zimbabwean social and cultural life. To its faithful and even rivals, it is more than just a football club. Long before Zimbabwe had a population to match, the Dynamos faithful extravagantly claimed they numbered 7 million supporters. Dynamos’ rivalry with Bulawayo giants, Highlanders is legendary. Their matches are Zimbabwe’s own version of Spain’s El Classico in terms of passion and high stakes.

 

But this year, Dynamos’ start to the season has been uncharacteristically lean. It has been abysmal. They find themselves in the nether regions of the country’s premier league, unfamiliar territory for a club of its stock. Its misfortunes have provided fodder for humour-makers. Dynamos was founded in 1963, the same year that another big and ubiquitous institution, ZANU PF, was born. Both institutions have dominated their respective fields for so many years and both are accused of receiving unfair favours from authorities. Dynamos’ misfortunes, people are saying in jest, mirror the misfortunes predicted to befall ZANU PF. 2018 is not a good year for the 1963 institutions, imbibers say as they poke fun at Dynamos and ZANU PF. It is a great source of laughter, one with a sting for those of us who follow Dynamos.

 

But the joke is not without a sobering qualification.

 

As one imbiber said, it would be foolhardy to write off Dynamos, even if it is currently struggling. If the club’s lean times do persist and it comes to a point where it faces relegation, the football authorities would probably change the rules, he said. And therein lies the problem: would the political authorities allow the other 1963 institution to fail? Would they not be forced to change the rules in order to save ZANU PF? It is not without precedent. They have done it before. In 2008, ZANU PF was facing relegation when Morgan Tsvangirai beat Robert Mugabe. But the authorities intervened, unfairly to save Mugabe and ZANU PF. ZEC held on to the result for 6 weeks and when they were announced, they gave Tsvangirai a victory that was not enough to give him the presidency. It allowed Mugabe a second bite of the cherry. Many suspect this was the biggest electoral heist as Tsvangirai was robbed of a certain victory. The authorities had simply intervened in order to save Mugabe and ZANU PF.

 

The possibility that this might happen again remains ominous. Will they allow ZANU PF to be defeated? The villagers asked a question that could not be answered. This is where the international community has an important role. But villagers fear that some in the international community have already been compromised. "Vakakabira ava" (they took the bait), they say. Those who are interested in Zimbabwe’s fragile democracy - and it is very fragile at the moment - must be more cautious and vigilant. The rules are already skewed in favour of the incumbent and anything more would simply kill the election. 

 

It’s going to be a closely fought election. The game has changed. It will be the first time that both Mugabe and Tsvangirai will not be on the ballot paper. The two main adversaries will be Mnangagwa and Chamisa. The others will, at best, play the spoilers. As I flew away this week, I got the sense that by a rough estimation, out of every 5 potential voters that I met and spoke with, 3 are not yet decided. Indeed, some might not even know who to vote for until they have the ballot paper in their hands. This is how uncertain things are at the moment. Clearly, the politicians have their work cut out. They cannot take the voters for granted. Not anymore …

 

WaMagaisa


wamagaisa@me.com

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