Big Saturday Read: Dialogue - negotiating on stolen capital
Alex T. Magaisa
The renewal of the discourse of dialogue
The start of the year has brought a renewed wave of talk concerning political dialogue. Where is this coming from and who is pushing it? To what end? Why, the great Chinua Achebe would have asked, is the toad jumping in broad daylight? What could be after its life? It is hardly a coincidence that the tempo rose after the MDC-T's Extraordinary Congress.
The Daily News newspaper has been relentless in its push for a discourse of political dialogue and casting the MDC-T led by Douglas Mwonzora as a critical player. The Daily News, which in its heyday carved a stellar reputation as a robust critic of the ZANU PF regime, has undergone a metamorphosis in recent months, becoming a pliant voice of the political establishment.
While the idea of dialogue is not new to the MDC Alliance, the party must tread with caution lest it falls into a snare. What is happening, including the discourse championed by that section of the media is choreographed. A few weeks ago, the BSR explained that the Mnangagwa regime is pursuing a double strategy of coercion and co-optation. The coercive strategy is against the MDC Alliance led by Nelson Chamisa, while co-optation is directed at the MDC-T led by Douglas Mwonzora.
The harassment, arrests, and jailing of MDC Alliance politicians exemplify this hostile approach from the Mnangagwa regime while making the MDC-T comfortable and plying it with platitudes. After the unjust detention and incarceration of deputy chairperson Job Sikhala and spokesperson Fadzayi Mahere, it's the turn of MP, Joanna Mamombe and her colleague Cecilia Chimbiri at Chiukurubi Prison. The MDC-T on the other hand is speaking the language of appeasement to ZANU PF, never challenging its repressive brand of politics. It is playing the coy bride, unfazed by ZANU PF’s brutal strategies. An unholy union is brewing between the two, and it has been on the cards for a while with the MDC-T playing the submissive partner.
It is therefore not surprising that the Daily News’ dialogue discourse has the Mwonzora-led MDC-T as a key player. It implausibly describes the MDC-T as the country’s “main opposition party”, a narrative that has no empirical basis given that the last time the MDC-T contested an election was in 2013. It did not contest the 2018 general elections. Its claim to political capital hangs on a technicality. The political party that was registered at the nomination court for elections in 2018 was the MDC Alliance. It was the MDC Alliance that won the seats in Parliament and was represented by Nelson Chamisa at the presidential election. When the people voted in those elections, they were voting for the MDC Alliance. Therefore, for a national newspaper to persistently peddle the myth that the MDC-T is the "main opposition party" is a political fraud and farcical.
The false narrative of "Big Threeism"
The narrative is not helped by the emerging discourse of “Big Threeism” in Zimbabwean politics, again in the Daily News in which Mwonzora and the MDC-T are included in the basket of the country’s big parties alongside Mnangagwa and ZANU PF and Chamisa the MDC Alliance. The quote is attributed to Professor Stephen Chan, a long-term observer of the Zimbabwean political scene. But with respect, the idea that there is a "Big 3" in Zimbabwean politics in which Mwonzora and the MDC-T are part of that triumvirate is without foundation. Both Mnangagwa and Chamisa claimed at least 2 million votes each in the last election. They have a legitimate claim to the title "big" players. They have proven it on the big stage. Mwonzora, on the other hand, has never run a national election. He is untested. He has not led a party to any electoral contest. He lost his last electoral contest in 2013. He got into Parliament in 2018 as a Senator of the MDC Alliance. Senators are nominated based on proportional representation.
His colleague who ran in the 2018 presidential election, Dr. Thokozani Khupe got just 45,000 votes nationwide, a pathetic performance that put her in her place. There is nothing to suggest that he will better that modest score. How one who has shown no evidence of political capital where it matters most qualifies to be regarded as one of the "Big 3" is a big fiction that must be dropped until he and his party pass the test on the electoral field. Otherwise, any such claim is merely conjectural. Bryan Mteki has a better claim: at least he had the guts to run for office in 2018 and picked a handful of votes.
In short, the MDC-T under Mwonzora has no legitimate claim to being a big political party. A picture of a lion in a book is just that - a picture. It's not a lion. The MDC-T has not contested a single election since it was judicially reconstructed in 2020. At present, it is running on stolen political capital after the ZANU PF political machinery helped it usurp the MDC Alliance’s political assets. Parliament, which is headed by senior ZANU PF officials, allowed the MDC-T to expel MPs who were elected under the MDC Alliance ticket. The Minister of Local Government and Public Works, a senior member of ZANU PF, also facilitated the expulsion of councilors who were elected under the MDC Alliance. The ministries of Finance and Justice, both run by ZANU PF ministers unprocedurally diverted public funds that were due to the MDC Alliance handing them over to the MDC-T. The State also assisted the MDC-T to grab the party headquarters from the MDC Alliance.
MDC-T's fear of elections
The MDC-T’s survival is therefore in the hands of ZANU PF and crucially, ZANU PF knows this. It never consulted the electorate when it was expelling their MPs or when it was replacing them with a bunch of unelectables and rejects. It has shown no appetite for elections because it knows the façade under which it is presently hiding will be blown apart in any serious contest. And once the facade is gone, they will be fatally exposed. The COVID19 pandemic has worked to the advantage of the MDC-T because it caused the suspension of by-elections. This has given the unelectable party a much-needed stay of execution, which extends the shelf-life of its relevance by a few more months. But this will not last forever. Its fate will surely be sealed when it presents itself to the electorate.
It is this fear of elections that explains the MDC-T’s overzealous posture towards dialogue. It has nothing to do with the interests of Zimbabweans, whose mandate it does not have. It hopes to use the façade that is currently available from its unjustified claim to the MDC Alliance’s parliamentary assets as the basis for a ticket at the dialogue table. It knows that this stolen political capital will vanish the moment elections are held and once that happens the party will disappear into political irrelevance. This is therefore a crucial window, when there is no political contestation, to stake a claim for a place on the political table. If the party was worth its mettle, it would be seeking political capital independently, under its new leadership before making claims as a serious political voice. The leaders lack confidence because they know the fate that awaits them. Unfortunately, there are some who have fallen for the facade and think the MDC-T is a serious contender in any dialogue. The party must prove its worth and not take a free-ride on the MDC Alliance's political capital.
But this is all part of the charade to create a path towards co-optation of the opposition and create a false picture that the ruling party is working together with the opposition. ZANU PF has always preferred a pliable opposition that it can control. It has found this in the MDC-T. For its part, knowing that it does not have independent political capital, it is desperate to please ZANU PF and to be co-opted. It cannot even condemn ZANU PF for its egregious human rights violations. An opposition that fails to hold the ruling party to account and instead goes all out to appease is no more than an enabler of repression.
What about POLAD?
There is a certain irony to the renewed push for dialogue. For the past three years, Mnangagwa has pushed his so-called Political Actors Dialogue (POLAD). It was touted before the Motlanthe Commission as Mnangagwa’s amenability to working with opponents. The reality however was that Mnangagwa attempted to dilute Chamisa and the MDC Alliance’s claims over illegitimacy arising from the flawed 2018 elections. If ever there was going to be dialogue, it was primarily to resolve a political dispute between the two major parties.
Mnangagwa countered Chamisa’s claims with POLAD. The desperate losers, including Khupe, enthusiastically joined POLAD. If Chamisa had joined it, his voice would have been drowned in that cacophony. His rejection deflated POLAD. It was doomed from the beginning. Those pushing the renewed call for dialogue are just falling short of acknowledging that POLAD has failed. Mnangagwa himself cannot accept the renewed call for dialogue without acknowledging that his POLAD charade has collapsed. Mwonzora took over from Khupe, who was a champion of POLAD. Why then the renewed clamour for dialogue when their party is also part of POLAD?
The fact is that the MDC Alliance's refusal to be part of POLAD exposed it as a charade. They are now trying another option: this time creating a false narrative of 3 major political parties and by doing so, smuggling the MDC-T into the negotiating room as the third party. This is duplicitous. The aim is yet again to dilute the MDC Alliance through the agency of the MDC-T, ZANU PF's version of controlled opposition. The authors of this scheme may have the 2008 Global Political Agreement negotiations in mind. Then there were three parties represented in Parliament after the March 2008 elections: ZANU PF, the MDC-T led by Morgan Tsvangirai, and the MDC led by Prof. Arthur Mutambara. But this would be a false equivalence. At least the Mutambara-led MDC had genuine political capital in 2008. The party had contested the elections and won a handful of seats. It had a discernible presence in Matebeleland, secured through genuine political contestation. They were a legitimate third party on the political scene. The current MDC-T has none of those qualities. As already pointed out, it has no genuine political capital of its own making. Until such time that it proves its political capital, any claim that it is a big political player is disingenuous.
While there is no need for any predictions, candidates of upstart political parties that have never betrayed the people have been known to score votes lower than spoilt votes in elections. The MDC-T has a very great potential to break those records such as is the level of revulsion caused by its leaders’ disagreeable conduct over the past year when it subverted the people’s will by expelling elected representatives and replacing them with political rejects.
What is the point of dialogue anyway?
The idea of dialogue is not bad. It is also not new. The principal opposition, the MDC Alliance has been calling for it since the end of the controversial elections because it resulted in a dispute. It is not clear what dispute the MDC-T has with ZANU PF that warrants dialogue. There is no record of any dispute between the two entities. It is ZANU PF and the MDC Alliance that have been at loggerheads unless the MDC-T also wants to appropriate the MDC Alliance’s dispute.
If the basis of dialogue is not the existence of any dispute, it must be clear. That the economy is in the doldrums is plain. But does ZANU PF accept that there is a crisis? Last year, it dismissed the ANC’s efforts arguing that there was no crisis in the country. There is unlikely to be any traction as long as ZANU PF is adamant that everything is in working order.
Besides, there must be an endgame. What is the purpose of the dialogue? What is it supposed to lead up to? Those in the church who are allegedly pushing for dialogue must have clarity of purpose. But they must also respect the electorate, which has been severely disrespected over the past year. They must be wary of political opportunists who have spent more energy fighting and undermining the genuine opposition than confronting repressive rule. If they fall for the political gimmicks, their reputations will also suffer in the court of public opinion.
If the current push for dialogue is to create a Government of National Unity (GNU), it would just be another elite vehicle that has nothing to do with serving the public interest. In this case, it would be worse because it would be designed to accommodate political upstarts who have no political capital of their own. It is trite that authority to govern comes from the people. The MDC-T has no claim to authority from the people. They are just hanging onto a technicality that will be rendered empty the moment elections are held. It would be rewarding charlatanry to create a GNU with a party of no proven political capital.
Political and electoral reforms
The only thing that matters at present is the issue of political and electoral reforms. If there is to be any dialogue, it would not be to form a GNU but to carry out comprehensive reforms that would mitigate the risk of yet another flawed election that would produce an illegitimate outcome in 2023. Zimbabwe needs an authority that is free of illegitimacy, not another patchwork of political parties that will lead to yet more flawed elections. Comprehensive reforms might involve an overhaul of the entire electoral system, creating one that promotes more diversity and representation in parliament and greater room for co-operation between parties.
Any dialogue ought to be genuine, honest, and credible. It cannot be championed or accomplished by politicians wearing stolen robes. There is only one arena where genuine political actors can prove themselves. It is the court of public opinion. The business of masquerading as major political actors while living on stolen political capital can only survive thanks to the pandemic. But once this is over and the people can express their choices, the fog will clear and those without political capital will be exposed.
The reason why the toad is jumping in broad daylight is clear. Elections threaten the MDC-T’s weak claims to political relevance. The sooner some elite pact is patched up before any elections are held the better. Anything to avoid decisions by the electorate is preferable.
Chamisa and the MDC Alliance cannot allow themselves to look desperate or to be hoodwinked into deliberately contrived dialogue. They have endured a painful year at the hands of a group that is enabled by the regime and is in turn obliged to enable it. If Chamisa were to ever step into a room where there are Mnangagwa and Mwonzora, he should know that he will be the one who will be on his own. To treat someone who has robbed and stripped you naked in broad daylight as an ally would be foolhardy.