Big Saturday Read: When small men cast large shadows
Alex T. Magaisa
Dropping the ball
When Dr. Thokozani Khupe was handed charge of the MDC-T by the Supreme Court in March 2020, she might have been forgiven for believing, in the euphoria of the moment, that it was just a stepping-stone to the permanent prize.
The court held that she was to be the Acting President of the party, giving her the authority to convene an Extraordinary Congress which would be seized with the task of choosing a substantive President. This must have seemed like a mere formality. A deputy to Tsvangirai since the first split of the MDC in 2005, Khupe had always regarded herself as the natural successor to Morgan Tsvangirai, such was her estimation of her political stock.
It is a mark of her limited political astuteness, despite years in politics, that her antennae did not pick up the apparent threats to her lofty ambitions. If she were a lioness, she made the mistake of allowing stray males into her pride, without any appreciation of the dangers that she was posing to her young male cubs. It is those stray males that did what they are wired to do: they have devoured all her male cubs.
It is difficult to imagine how Khupe, who can rightly claim the use of the title of a veteran opposition politician, failed to see what was apparent even to amateur observers of Zimbabwean politics: her new allies saw an opportunity to advance their flailing political careers, having found themselves stuck in murky waters in the MDC Alliance. They were not returning because they had any regard for her as a leader. She was just going to be a seat warmer while they prepared their path to take the crown.
Her fate was sealed on 27 December 2020, just two days after celebrating Christmas, when the party held the mandatory Extraordinary Congress after a couple of false starts. By the time she arrived at the Rainbow Towers, the plush venue normally reserved for government functions, Khupe had already lost the war. When the results were announced Khupe was a distant second to Douglas Mwonzora who had 883 votes. Khupe managed a paltry 118 votes, by all accounts, a dismal performance for an incumbent.
The other two candidates barely registered a mark on the political scale. It was not even a tremor. Elias Mudzuri walked home with 14 votes while Komichi took hold of the proverbial tail with just 9 votes. If Komichi had been asked to field a football team, he would have been one player short even if he had included himself as a player-coach. Clearly, the ambition and ego of the two men had led them to overestimate their political worth.
Komichi had earned more than a thousand votes at the MDC Alliance Congress back in May 2019 when he lost the race for the vice presidency. Now after the switch, he got just 9 votes. Here was a man who, in a fit of petulance, had migrated from the rainforest to settle for a place in the desert. For her part, Khupe cried foul, storming out of the election venue before the conclusion of the process, alleging that Mwonzora had rigged the election. In a move that demonstrated how out of touch with reality she was, Khupe even declared that the Congress had been cancelled and that she had fired her rival, Mwonzora. It was an ignominious end to a fairy-tale return to the leadership of the party that had begun earlier that year.
Khupe’s strategic miscalculation
Khupe was soon to rue the moment that she welcomed her allies in the wake of the Supreme Court judgment. There was a reason why Mwonzora and Komichi had stood outside the Supreme Court, literally celebrating a judgment which was supposed to be a blow to their party at the time, the MDC Alliance. It was their victory. Elias Mashavira, whose legal application led to the controversial Supreme Court judgment was the proverbial tortoise on a lamp post. Back then the BSR referenced the wisdom of the saying that when you see a tortoise on a fence post, you know it did not get there by itself so, someone must have placed it there. Mashavira had not climbed to the top of the fence post on his own. The architects of his legal action were the celebrants at the Supreme Court.
Mashavira was not the first tortoise on the fence post. Mwonzora had posted one before, but that tortoise had not lasted long atop the fence post. That was when one Patson Murimoga back in 2016 made an ill-fated attempt to challenge Morgan Tsvangirai’s appointment of Nelson Chamisa and Elias Mudzuri as co-Vice Presidents of the party. The Mashavira challenge had a better reception, culminating in the Supreme Court decision which torpedoed the MDC Alliance and has been the source of turbulence, distress, and discomfort for the country’s main opposition party over the past year.
The important thing in all this, which surprisingly eluded Khupe, was that she had no serious hand in that legal drama. She forgot, in her said victory, that the judgment was no more than a Trojan Horse, which contained men consumed by a hunger for power and who would ultimately terminate her ambition to lead the party. Safely ensconced in the party, and directing operations, they went after she and Mwonzora emerged with the biggest prize. Khupe’s success at the Supreme Court turned out to be what she had missed: a Pyrrhic victory. She might have seen herself as the bride preparing for the crowning moment at the wedding, but to her new allies, she was merely the handmaiden accompanying the bride.
Had she been gifted with political astuteness, she could have used the leverage she had over her newfound allies at the very start of their renewed relationship. Mwonzora, Komichi, and Mudzuri had abandoned her in 2018 when they went with the MDC Alliance led by Nelson Chamisa. They had an opportunity to leave and join her when she left to form her entity which she called the MDC-T. They did not join her because they knew her electoral prospects were poor, and their political fortunes were better served at the Chamisa led MDC Alliance. They took the easiest way into parliament – as senators earning their seats through proportional representation.
As senior officials at the MDC Alliance, they fought and defeated Khupe, even mocking her in the process. Khupe did not appreciate the weight of these acts of political opportunism. Now they returned to her in her hour of “victory”, declaring that they were complying with the Supreme Court judgment, masquerading as allies. The reality, though, which was plain to all but Khupe was that these were disgruntled men who were bitter in the wake of the MDC Alliance Congress in May 2019. The common denominator between the three men was that they had all lost at the MDC Alliance Congress and were facing a bleak political future.
A godsent opportunity
This set of circumstances meant that when the Supreme Court judgment came, it was a godsent opportunity for the men to escape the humiliation they were experiencing at the MDC Alliance. The refuge had suddenly been presented at the judicially reconstructed entity under the charge of Khupe. For Khupe, it was an opportunity to revive a political career that had been stuck in the doldrums following a dismal performance at the 2018 general elections. She had presented herself at Mnangagwa’s court when the ZANU PF leader created POLAD, which he described as a platform for dialogue with the opposition. But POLAD was merely Mnangagwa’s façade to give the impression that he was engaged in some constructive dialogue with his adversaries. In truth, it was designed to dilute his main rival Chamisa by putting him in the same basket with minor opposition players.
Therefore, Khupe was already at home as Mnangagwa’s ally. The judgment was a bonus that allowed her to get one of over her rival Chamisa. But in truth, it was Mwonzora and allies who were the major beneficiaries of the judgment. Reduced in rank at the MDC Alliance, here was an opportunity to rise and claim a leadership role. The three losers from the MDC Alliance looked at Khupe and fancied their chances. They had worked with her before and they believed she was beatable.
For her part, Khupe was naïve to this circumstance. She did not appreciate how valuable the newly reconstructed platform was to the three men. They needed it more than she did. Perhaps in her fantastical view of the world, she thought it would be an easy ride and that as the more senior politician, she would prevail. She did not see the need to extract some concessions from the defectors to ring-fence her position. That was a gross mistake on her part. She failed to make use of the leverage that she had at the start.
As already stated, Khupe had leverage over these three men after they had left to be with the MDC Alliance. They had breached the party constitution. Indeed, the same men would use this very ground to sack MPs and councillors from Parliament and councils, claiming that they had joined another party. They were accusing them of doing exactly what they had done.
Mwonzora’s long game
This duplicity eluded Khupe, probably because she was consumed by her myopic vision of getting back into Parliament once spaces had been opened by the expulsions. She did not see the long game that Mwonzora was playing. The removal of MPs and re-entry of Khupe and her allies into Parliament would make him look bad, but it was a necessary sweetener to lure them into believing that they were on the same team. Meanwhile, his eye was on a bigger prize – the presidency of the party, while Khupe’s eye was dimmed by the promise of a parliamentary seat. They were all chasing the kudu, but in that cacophony of the hunt, Mwonzora released a hare and Khupe ran after it and forgot about the elephant until it was too late.
If she were more astute, she could have made the return of the men conditional upon certain undertakings including a deal regarding the election at the Extraordinary Congress. If all those who had joined the MDC Alliance were ineligible, then the three men were also ineligible unless she exercised forbearance. They were all desperate for a political home. Khupe exercised forbearance but extracted no concessions from the men who had betrayed her.
But worse political misjudgment on her part was to follow. Instead of using her leverage, she allowed them to set the agenda and to control the party. She was not in charge. This explains why at the Congress she appeared more like the outsider, not the incumbent. She did not even have control of the voters’ roll. She had ceded control over that crucial document, which determines the voting pool to her main rival, Mwonzora. The naivety is astounding. It meant the race was lost well before the first guests arrived at Rainbow Towers. She was played by a more cunning operator. Her claims of rigging will take her nowhere. She had it within her grasp, but she dropped the ball and Mwonzora ran away with it.
But although Mwonzora succeeded in that battle, he must now carry the burden of victory and it is by no means a walk in the park.
The burden of "success"
Morgan Tsvangirai once said he did not want to go to State House by stepping on dead bodies. He meant literally that he was averse to doing anything that would get people killed for him to win the presidency. Mwonzora may not have gotten anyone killed in his rise to the top of his party, but there was no doubt a lot of political carnage on the tracks. Scores of MDC Alliance MPs and councillors who were expelled from Parliament and councils suffered “political deaths” of sorts. These expulsions sent tremors among the MDC Alliance MPs and councillors, many of whom lived in fear of the axe. No matter, as far as Mwonzora and allies were concerned. Their political demise was necessary on their path to the top.
However, while the removal of elected representatives served Mwonzora and his allies well in their bid to affect the MDC Alliance, it came at a heavy price: the reduction of respect and credibility of these politicians in the eyes of the voting public. Most MDC Alliance voters will never forgive them for subverting the democratic will through the unilateral expulsions by a small group of political elites. That these political elites did so with swagger and arrogance only rubbed salt into the wounds. In claiming that they had the legal rights to expel the MPs and councillors, Mwonzora and company demonstrated a total disregard for the interests and rights of the electorate that voted them into office. Many are still at a loss as to how a tiny group of people could claim to have the power to overturn the will of millions. It will take extraordinary generosity on the part of the people to forget, let alone forgive what they see as a flagrant abuse of power.
Apart from subverting the will of the electorate and showing no regard for voters’ interests, Mwonzora and company betrayed the trust of the people. Trust is a precious element in a relationship between leaders and the people. Once lost, it is almost impossible to regain. But something worse happened because of the expulsions: it did great harm to people’s trust in the political process. Zimbabweans were already distrustful of the political process because of years of alleged rigging by ZANU PF, but the removal of their elected representatives by a group of people they once trusted was too much to bear. It hurt a lot of people. But in the excitement of the moment, Mwonzora and company were oblivious to the damage this axe-wielding was doing to their standing.
Perhaps the worst part of the betrayal was how Mwonzora and company allowed losers who had been rejected by voters to return to parliament by the backdoor. This happened when, in connivance with the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), the MDC-T nominated Khupe and a coterie of her allies as replacements for expelled MDC Alliance MPs. This hurt a lot of voters, even neutral bystanders, who could not believe the sight of Khupe sitting in parliament being proclaimed “leader of the opposition” when just two years earlier she had suffered an embarrassing defeat. How could a loser return to parliament as leader of the opposition? This political skulduggery will always be associated with Mwonzora and Khupe, but the latter is now out of the picture and it is Mwonzora who carries the burden as leader of the party.
More distrust in the Mwonzora-led outfit arises from the warm embrace that they have received from ZANU PF. Since the Supreme Court judgment, the MDC-T has been the recipient of dubious favours from the regime and its institutions. It began with the acceptance by the Speaker of the National Assembly and the President of the Senate of letters from Mwonzora expelling MDC Alliance MPs from parliament. The courts weighed in but did not stop the expulsions, although the matters are still pending. People who knew they voted for MDC Alliance MPs are unlikely to forget or forgive Mwonzora for expelling them with the generous assistance of ZANU PF officials like Jacob Mudenda and Mabel Chinomona.
The regime also surreptitiously allocated funds to the MDC-T under the political financing laws, although the money was due to the MDC Alliance. The dubious allocation was done in defiance of court orders. The illegal diversion of funds from the MDC Alliance is part of ZANU PF’s strategy of political asphyxiation whereby it suffocates the MDC Alliance by depriving it of funding. Giving the funds to the rival MDC-T is meant to strengthen it while weakening the MDC Alliance. These illegally and unethically earned funds are what the Mwonzora-led MDC-T used to fund its Extraordinary Congress and operations. Voters are unlikely to forget this free riding.
Furthermore, when the MDC-T wrestled the party headquarters from the MDC Alliance, it was alleged that this was done with the backing of the state security apparatus. Throughout this phase, the Khupe and now Mwonzora-led outfit has received generous coverage from the state media which is notoriously biased in favour of ZANU PF. By contrast, state media continues its rabid and vitriolic attacks on the Chamisa-led MDC Alliance.
The irony is that by lavishing the Mwonzora-led outfit with support and favourable treatment, the ZANU PF regime is undermining it in the eyes of the public and propping up the Chamisa-led MDC Alliance as the authentic opposition. This is because ZANU PF's support of an opposition entity is a proverbial kiss of death. Opposition supporters traditionally mistrust ZANU PF and by extension any political party that gets favourable treatment from it. They ask why a party that is usually vicious towards the opposition would suddenly develop an affinity for one of them. Mwonzora is now at the helm but this success came at a high cost as this part has demonstrated. Trust, credibility, and sincerity are factors that are mired in serious doubt. The carnage was a show of power, but it was counterproductive to reputational health. The perception of association with and aid from the ZANU PF regime makes it worse.
Politics of appeasement
Mwonzora is aware that all these factors count against him. This explains why he has begun his tenure by trying to claw back lost political ground. He has started this process by throwing lifeboats to vanquished rivals in his party and also talking of unity among opposition parties. He offered Komichi a role as National Chairman and the wounded Khupe a role as co-Vice President alongside Mudzuri. Komichi and Mudzuri have no choice but to take the lifeboats. The two men have virtually no capacity to swim in the political waters. They were drowning politically, and the lifeboats gave them a chance to live another day.
Giving the two men lifeboats is not merely an act of charity. It’s a weapon that effectively neutralizes them as political threats. They will forever be grateful to Mwonzora for the kiss of life. They lost so thoroughly that any act of petulance would leave them as politically orphaned, without a political home. But do they bring any value to Mwonzora? Unlikely, because their better days as politicians are behind them. With just 23 votes between them at the Congress, the political value of the two men is negligible. They are not going to inject significant political capital into Mwonzora's ambitions. In politics numbers matter and if you can’t bring numbers to the table, you are no more than political baggage that weighs heavily on the machine. They will hope that the organization provides a retirement stipend after a grueling career in opposition. With quite a few elderly politicians slowly congregating there, the organization might soon resemble a retirement home for some veterans, with disguised stipends coming courtesy of the political funding that is being surreptitiously diverted from the MDC Alliance.
However, it is the appointment of Khupe and Mudzuri as co-Vice Presidents that is a greater liability for Mwonzora because of the picture of double-standards it reflects. Readers will recall that both Mwonzora and Khupe were against Morgan Tsvangirai’s attempt to appoint Chamisa and Mudzuri as co-Vice Presidents in 2016. It was this reason that the two tortoises we have already encountered were placed on top of fence posts. They were effectively challenging the legality of the appointment of co-Vice Presidents. Mwonzora and Khupe celebrated when the Supreme Court held that the appointments were illegal. This is the judgment which they claimed to be implementing at the Congress.
Now, however, in his first week as leader of the party, Mwonzora went on to make a double appointment of Vice Presidents, the very same thing he had opposed in his rise to power. It is not surprising that when people look at this, they see double standards. How does one go on to do the very same thing that he claimed was illegal? If it was illegal under Tsvangirai, how is it legal under Mwonzora? Granted, the double appointments are a strategic attempt by Mwonzora to deal with the fallout from the controversial Congress by pacifying the losers. They are also designed to deal with the issue of regional and ethnic representation, an ever-present if understated, issue in Zimbabwean politics.
However, it comes at a price given that Mwonzora had opposed it before he ascended to the leadership. Someone who does that comes across as a power-hungry individual who opposes things not based on constitutional principles as claimed, but only because of self-interest. Ordinary people looking at this see duplicity and might conclude that the author of events cannot be trusted.
A bitter pill to swallow
But all this will be too hard for Khupe. She had become used to her role as the regime’s most favoured opposition leader. She was the boss in POLAD long before the leader of the opposition role in parliament was handed to her on a silver platter. When Mnangagwa wanted to send opposition emissaries to Washington D.C. it was Khupe who was leading the pack of enablers. Now she must give up her lofty role to Mwonzora. Now she must return to being the perennial number two. It cannot be easy for her. Maybe Mwonzora will defer and ask her to continue her role at POLAD. But that might displease Mnangagwa if the leader of the party he wants to regard as the official opposition deploys his deputy. Besides, having been an agent of a principal before, Mwonzora will be wary of deploying a rival who might end up prioritizing her interests at his expense.
Prospects of unity?
Mwonzora has also been talking of unity in the opposition. Some observers have questioned the sincerity of this in the wake of what has happened in the past 9 months, especially the carnage at parliament and in councils. There was a lot of burning of bridges. The removal of MPs and councillors was vindictive and callous. It caused a huge amount of distress among the affected MPs and councillors and their supporters. That they abused their newfound power with glee and arrogance added insult to injury. The wounds are still too fresh for any talk of unity and in fact, making propositions of unity after the callous way he acted comes across as patronizing, insensitive, and insincere. How does approach people that he has abused and propose unity and expect to be taken seriously? There is still a lot of bitterness arising from what happened which was avoidable.
The irony is that if Mwonzora had exercised forbearance towards the elected representatives, appreciating that there were bridges they would need to cross after taking power, he would probably have won several hearts within the parliamentary party. Instead of nurturing love and respect, he instilled fear in the elected representatives and their supporters. It was a misguided and myopic approach to bridge-burning. It will take a lot to restore them.
Proving political capital
Instead of talking unity so soon after taking power, Mwonzora should be working to prove his political capital in real terms. If he can pull it off and demonstrate that he is a political force rivaling both Chamisa and Mnangagwa, then he will be taken more seriously. As it is, Mwonzora and his party are only the “main opposition party” in the eyes of ZANU PF and its biased media. Beyond that, they are yet to prove their worth as a political force.
The initial test will come when by-elections are held. They have been postponed due to the pandemic. They do not seem to be keen on electoral contests. They seemed very pleased when the by-elections were suspended, citing the pandemic, even though they went ahead with their Congress. The suspension plays to their advantage as it delays the day of reckoning. But it will come eventually and when it does, disgruntled voters will be waiting to present their judgment. The court of public opinion is likely to be very different from the courts of law.
Mwonzora is smart enough to know that their best shot is the “third party” in Zimbabwean politics with hopes of getting a seat at the negotiating table should there ever be talks between the major parties. Otherwise, they have resigned themselves to elite co-optation by the regime. They are likely to jump at any offer that is made by Mnangagwa to spite the MDC Alliance while presenting a façade of collaboration. However, when people see Mwonzora participating in POLAD and such other ZANU PF-friendly forums, it will do no good to his already damaged standing. The public perception is that they are part of a marionette show run by ZANU PF and this will only increase as they continue with the rhetoric of appeasement.
Mnangagwa was effusive in his reception of Mwonzora as the new leader of the MDC-T, but he remains aware that his real rivals are Chamisa and the MDC Alliance. Even as he congratulated Mwonzora, he could not resist taking pot-shots are Chamisa and the MDC Alliance. The eye of state media and security institutions remains trained on Chamisa and the MDC Alliance. Mwonzora and the MDC-T are treated as allies and for their part, they are happy to oblige, hence the talk of “rational disputation” which is designed to contrast them from the intense opposition of the MDC Alliance.
Politics of appeasement
It is important to understand the logic behind Mwonzora’s notion of “rational disputation”. Mwonzora’s experience with ZANU PF is on the negotiating table and his strength is in negotiating. One of his emblematic achievements within the MDC was leading the team in the constitutional negotiations. It is fair to say he is a savvy negotiator. However, a negotiator is only as strong as the party that he represents. If one has a weak party behind him, he is unlikely to achieve much. By contrast, if he has a strong party backing him, he can make better use of his negotiating skills.
Mwonzora did well in the constitutional negotiations because the party that he represented had strong political capital which ZANU PF could not ignore. It will be a different ball game this time around, with his party in a weaker position. The only presidential candidate in that party got a paltry 45,000 votes at the last election. Mwonzora did not even contest for a seat and only managed to get into Parliament by proportional representation. He is in no position to flex any muscle politically, which is something that Tsvangirai could do during the constitutional negotiations.
The other way to look at the so-called “rational disputation” approach is that Mwonzora and his party are essentially banking on politics of appeasement concerning ZANU PF, hoping that by being nice to the ruling party, it will somehow be persuaded to carry out reforms. But history reveals that appeasement does not work with authoritarian regimes. It only gives them wings to consolidate their power in the absence of opposition, scrutiny, and critique. The tolerance that Mnangagwa and ZANU PF are showing to Mwonzora and his party is not because they rate them politically, but because they do not see them as serious threats to their hold on power. By contrast, the harsh approach that Mnangagwa and ZANU PF continue to demonstrate against Chamisa and the MDC Alliance is because they recognize them to be legitimate threats to their stranglehold on power.
Mnangagwa will offer Mwonzora and the MDC-T gifts and trinkets to keep them onside while they continue to cause disruption and confusion in the opposition. This largesse might attract some desperate officials of the MDC Alliance. It should not surprise many if there will be a few more “defections” in the next few weeks and months. The struggle against ZANU PF has been long and hard. Some of the old-timers look at the time they have spent in the trenches and think it has been costly at a personal level. They look at the future, life expectancy and think they are running out of time. If ZANU PF offers the bait through the MDC-T, they will take the bait. They figure out that they should cut their losses and run.
These “defections” might disappoint some people, but it should be good riddance of dead wood for the MDC Alliance. There is no need to carry bodies that are tired because they only slow the rest down. Every organization must evolve or die under the weight of deadwood. This means some must leave while the new join. The battleground will be the youth vote. Babies born in 1999, when the MDC was formed will be 24 years old in 2023. First-time voters in 2023 will be kids born in 2005, the year the MDC contested its second parliamentary election. Instead of focusing on the older generation that is retiring and looking for comfort in their sunset years, the challenge is to appeal to this young generation.
Mwonzora may have outmaneuvered Khupe to take over the leadership of their party having returned as a political refugee from the MDC Alliance, but the political carnage that came with it will haunt his tenure. Trust and credibility are hard to build, but they are very easy to drop. And once they are gone, they are almost impossible to regain. He will need a miracle to persuade supporters of the mainstream MDC Alliance that he means well and can be trusted again.
The inimitable Lord Varys has an interesting view of power in Game of Thrones. “Power is a curious thing, my lord … Power resides where men believe it resides. It’s a trick, a shadow on the wall. And a very small man can cast a very large shadow”. After the Supreme Court handed her the reigns, Khupe cast a very large shadow. But it vanished on that tumultuous night of 27 December at the Rainbow Towers.
It remains to be seen how Mwonzora fares now that he occupies her role. He has a big mountain to climb as he seeks to persuade disaffected opposition supporters that he is a sincere and honest man who can be trusted and that the axeman they saw on a rampage last year was an aberration.