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Crossing the Floor: How do you look them in the eye?

Alex T. Magaisa

Breakups are hard, yet they are as common in politics as they are in more intimate paths of life. Some end quietly. But others take a more tempestuous course, and when that happens, it can be ugly.

Where nuptials existed, having begun with a person in holy robes pronouncing the union of husband and wife undertaking to live happily ever after, it is another person, this time clad in judicial robes, who pronounces the unhappy ending.

On those occasions where the union refuses to quit peacefully, the process is accompanied by much drama, which includes the noise and some stench, the consequences of nuptial laundry being washed in public. It is not a pretty sight.

The situation is not helped when one of the parties throws themselves into the arms of an old rival. It rubs salt on the wounded former partner, prompting more unhealthy exchanges.

This might appear harsh, but it appears to be a suitable metaphor for events of this week when two former members of the opposition placed themselves on the lap of President Emmerson Mnangagwa, an event that simultaneously announced an unhappy separation and a strange union.

Both immediately announced that they felt “at home” in ZANU PF, a party that had tormented them and their supporters for the better part of the last two decades. There was some irony about the setting of this union, but it may have escaped them. They spent two decades criticizing party-state conflation, but here they were, canoodling with ZANU PF mandarins at State House, the seat of government, not at ZANU PF’s headquarters, the home of the party. Lillian Timveos even cooed about “our Chairperson”, referring to Oppah Muchinguri, the ZANU PF Chairperson. The other was Blessing Chebundo – he sounded nervous as he praised his new bosses. It was an arrival is perfect ZANU PF style – no distinction between the party and the government.

The two belonged to two different parties, but it was telling that ZANU PF apparatchiks happily credited them to the MDC Alliance. The Daily News, which of late has ploughed the propaganda furrow for the regime took a similar line. Lillian Timveos was a senior official of the MDC Alliance. But Blessing Chebundo had already migrated from the MDC Alliance to the MDC-T led by Douglas Mwonzora. That ZANU PF apparatchiks deliberately ignored this fact, choosing to credit Chebundo to the MDC Alliance betrays their desperation to score one over their real nemesis, the MDC Alliance.

You would have thought they would be happy to have taken him from the party they refer to as the biggest opposition party. But no, when it comes to ugly news, the MDC-T does not exist. Only the MDC Alliance does. It must be embarrassing to the MDC-T that their member, who was the party’s Secretary for Local Government was being credited to their rivals, the MDC Alliance as if they do not exist.

To ZANU PF, really?

Although the defection was a surprise for many who have known or worked with the two politicians, it was the choice of destination that left people open-mouthed. Seeing Blessing Chebundo standing side by side with his former tormentor-in-chief, Emmerson Mnangagwa might in normal circumstances have been celebrated as a grand reconciliation of former rivals. In the circumstances, where the scarred veteran opposition politician was paraded like a hunter’s trophy, it was a sad picture of capitulation and capture. Chebundo looked like a defeated man who had surrendered, a total contrast to the warrior who had once symbolized resistance against ZANU PF’s repression. But what made it more pitiful was that while he stood there praising the man who had caused such misery, there were scores who were absent, either because they are dead or he abandoned them when they once stood with him.

Most veterans who bore witness to the tumultuous early days of the MDC have vivid memories of the torrid time that Chebundo and his supporters suffered at the hands of Mnangagwa. The two men were competitors in the first parliamentary elections of the new millennium when the MDC made its grand entrance onto the political stage. Chebundo was, by and large, a political novice. Mnangagwa was already a veteran, having been in parliament and government since independence in 1980. Chebundo upset the odds, walloping Mnangagwa, who had to be rescued by his then-boss, President Robert Mugabe who handed him the role of Speaker of Parliament.

Mnangagwa’s second attempt ended in another humiliating defeat again at the hands of Chebundo. Mnangagwa had to be rescued again by Mugabe who handed him the non-descript role of the minister in charge of rural affairs. Realizing that he could never beat the political upstart from the MDC, Mnangagwa took a gap and landed in a newly created rural constituency, Chirumanzi-Zibagwe, safe from Chebundo. Now there he was at State House standing side by side with his former nemesis, displaying him as one of a pair of ZANU PF’s latest acquisitions.

For his part, Chebundo appeared to force a grin, itself an acknowledgment of defeat. He said he wanted to participate in “development” and claimed to have “experience”. It was an ignominious end to what had started as a heroic fight against repressive rule. In some ways, seeing those two men there, the winner being welcomed by a man he had defeated, was a reminder of what had happened in the past 20 years – the MDC had won elections, but it had failed to take power. Chebundo had twice defeated Mnangagwa, but it was Mnangagwa who was in power and Chebundo was on his knees, begging for association. It encapsulates the tragedy of Zimbabwe’s politics.

But for all his courage of the past, Chebundo is the boxer who, to use the language of the sweet science, had lost his legs in the later rounds. In 2018, he lost in the MDC Alliance primaries, tasting the same medicine that he had prescribed to Mnangagwa two decades before. He found himself on the margins of the new MDC Alliance led by Nelson Chamisa. Unsurprisingly, when an opportunity arose with the MDC-T, which was reconstructed based on the infamous Supreme Court judgment in March 2020, he decided to take it. A few weeks ago, after the farcical Extraordinary Congress of the MDC-T, Douglas Mwonzora appointed him as the Secretary for Local Government. Little did Mwonzora know that his new man had other ideas. He had no intention of waiting long at the half-way house. He decided if he was going to be ZANU PF’s lackey, he might as well the colours, rather than pretend to be in opposition.

But maybe the signs were there already, but few took notice. A few weeks ago, a press statement on local government affairs signed by Chebundo had a glowing account of how the ZANU PF regime has managed local government affairs. It mentioned how ZANU PF had instituted reforms in local government. Those of us who critiqued it thought it was part of the so-called politics of “rational disputation” with ZANU PF, which Mwonzora’s MDC-T has been championing. With a remarkable reluctance to criticize or challenge the ZANU PF regime for its numerous transgressions and repression, this has been nothing less than a policy of appeasement. But Chebundo was already in full ZANU PF mode. Instead of the half-hearted approach at the MDC-T, he has decided to go the whole hog.

Nobody except Chebundo can explain why he decided to do what might have been unthinkable a decade ago. Despite the obvious disappointment of his incredible somersault, few of his former comrades can ever ignore the sacrifices that he made. Yet even he too can never forget the sacrifices that were made by all those, young and old, who believed in him and the MDC. Some lost their limbs and others lost their lives along the way. Their mothers, widows, and orphaned children walk in the dusty streets and markets of Kwekwe. Young men spent weeks away from their homes, guarding their leader’s home. They sacrificed because they believed he was leading their fight against ZANU PF. Now he must look them in the eye and say it was all in vain. But he cannot look the dead in the eye because they are no longer here to witness the defection. He can only face them in his conscience.

Joining a “terrorist organization”

Unlike, Chebundo, Lillian Timveos stayed home with the MDC Alliance when the others were chaperoned by the ZANU PF regime as the controlled opposition. She was one of the good ones, or so it seemed. She sang along with others, in Parliament and outside, leading the charge for the leader, Nelson Chamisa, and the MDC Alliance. When Mnangagwa appeared in Parliament, she walked out, a sign of defiance and disapproval of the manner of his elevation to power in 2018. She condemned the regime for killing innocent citizens.

For her acts of valour in defending the MDC Alliance and the cause it represents, she was gored by Thokozani Khupe’s sword when she was expelled from Parliament in 2020. Khupe was using newly acquired powers, handed to her with the assistance of ZANU PF. The expulsion was a devastating blow not just against her but the idea of democracy. She bemoaned the subversion of the will of the people and the abuse of power by Khupe, Mwonzora, and company, with the aid of ZANU PF-controlled institutions. She was adamant that their erstwhile colleagues were being used by ZANU PF and even joined the chorus that “ZANU PF must go”.

She refused to be cowed into submission. She went around her province, organizing communities in the local area. The indomitable spirit which she showed suggested a person of impeccable and unimpeachable principles. If anyone had suggested that Lillian Timveos would succumb and join ZANU PF at some point, that person would have been classified as a sure candidate for Ngomaguru or Ingutsheni. If someone had said that Timveos would be paraded at State House as the newest recruit of ZANU PF, they would have been dismissed and asked to never return. How could it be possible that mother hen would abandon her home and fly with the eagles? The same eagles that hover above the family compound waiting for an opportunity to pounce on the chicks just when mother hen is momentarily distracted?

She chanted “ZANU PF Must Go”, but less than a year later, she is the one who has gone to ZANU PF. It is a political somersault that does not have easy answers. “I now feel that the opposition is just opposing for the sake of opposing,” said Timveos in an interview with the ZBC, which serves as the ZANU PF propaganda machine before adding, “It’s time to develop the nation”. She seems to think that “unity” is everyone becoming ZANU PF; like a true believer in one-party state politics.

In her terse response to the MDC Alliance Secretary-General, she refuted the claim that she had migrated for material gain and made some serious allegations against him. Still, even if she felt marginalized and mistreated in the MDC Alliance, it is hard to sustain an argument that she was driven into the blood-soaked arms of ZANU PF. That decision is her conscious choice for which must take personal responsibility. In saying she had “had enough of opposing for the sake of opposing”, she betrayed the fact that she was in the opposition for the wrong reasons.

Over the moon

Unsurprisingly, ZANU PF is over the moon at the switch by Timveos and Chebundo. The two were paraded at State House for the cameras, in the fashion of a hunter showing off his kill. The floor crossing presents a great opportunity for propaganda that the opposition is falling apart while ZANU PF is gaining strength. It says not only is ZANU PF in control, but senior opposition figures are jumping ship to join it. For the opposition, the problem is not that Chebundo and Timveos have crossed over to join ZANU PF, but the uncertainty of not knowing if more Chebundos and Timveoses are lurking in their camp.

If the defections are a result of fatigue and frustration, ZANU PF must believe that it has struck a rich seam in the opposition. After two decades of fighting ZANU PF, the struggle has begun to look like a dead-end to some of the older members of the opposition. They feel like they have lost 20 of their prime years and yet they have nothing to show for it. Besides, with the help of the military, ZANU PF seems to have total control of the state, and for its part, the opposition is not showing the appetite to go beyond the tried and failed means of challenging the regime.

For some of the older members who are weak on principle and strong on opportunism, an offer of accommodation in the regime is no longer just a possibility: it is the only viable option for them. Timveos was quite open in her post-divorce interview: her decision was in the interests of and with the support of her family. The constituents that she served do not feature in the decision-making process. It was a reminder that for politicians, in the end, personal interests trump any purported claims of public service. They are tired and they have become easy prey for the regime. In this regard, the regime’s strategy is that of a pride of lions going after a herd of wildebeest. It isolates the weakest and most vulnerable ones and pursues them until they succumb.

Therefore, the MDC Alliance should brace for more defections in the run-up to 2023. Even those who have long left the MDC Alliance will, like Chebundo, still be credited to it. But ZANU PF will not announce all the defections at once. It knows defections are more effective on a drip-feed basis, two or three at a time, each accompanied by ceremonial rituals at State House. The regime will reward defectors handsomely. Although this might alienate longstanding members of the party, it will serve as an incentive to those still in the opposition that joining the gravy train is rewarding. The weaker ones will think it is better to join the ruling party than to remain in the opposition.

Political suffocation

For ZANU PF, its belief that the process of politically asphyxiating the MDC Alliance will now be enhanced. Timveos’ capitulation is just what ZANU PF wanted when it began the expulsions from Parliament and deprivation of political funding under the Political Parties (Finance) Act. ZANU PF has managed to beat her into submission and her capture represents a significant victory.

The expulsions exposed the affected members who lost status, income, and a source of power. Some of the remaining MPs soon walked across to the MDC-T to protect their personal political economy. The MDC Alliance has not been able to cover the personal losses of the affected members and this is likely to have caused disillusionment. It could have covered them if the ZANU PF regime had not unlawfully diverted its funds due under the Political Parties (Finance) Act. This money was surreptitiously given to the MDC-T. The problem of limited resources is an existential threat to the MDC Alliance and unless more is done to harness resources, the levels of frustration will only rise and ZANU PF is already smelling blood.

ZANU PF hopes the defections will cause more disillusionment and despondency in the opposition. If more senior figures defect to ZANU PF, morale will be affected. That’s why the fear, panic, and anger among some opposition members is sweet news to ZANU PF. The best way to respond to those who are joining ZANU PF is to let them go and wish them well in their union with a violent party. There is no need to be nasty because all it ever does is produce nasty counter-reactions. They are gone and no amount of insults or accusations will bring them back. Ultimately, it’s the voters who will deliver the verdict because one day the defectors must face their erstwhile supporters – the men and women who believed in them; the ones they have abandoned and betrayed by crossing over to a party that has violated them for decades.

Betrayal

Of course, the ones that suffer the most are ordinary people. They suffer because they put so much trust and faith in their leaders. But this is not reciprocated. I was watching videos that Timveos used to send of her work with communities in her local area. She was doing very well, raising morale and keeping communities together at a time when the MDC Alliance was being attacked last year. What are those men and women thinking upon hearing news of her defection? She does not care about their feelings. If she did, she would have consulted them. No, she only consulted her family. It’s not surprising that ordinary people lose trust in politicians. They might have taken a resignation, but leaving for ZANU PF? This must have hit them very hard.

Time for reflection

When a defection happens, the easiest and most common retort is expressed in one of two ways: that they have been bought by the enemy or they were plants. It is not unusual for ruling parties in authoritarian regimes to infiltrate opposition parties and buy key figures. Authoritarian regimes that are awash with cash can very easily tempt opposition members of weak moral constitutions. The argument that one is already well off and does not need the money is weak because even the wealthiest person never has enough money. The promise of making more money is always alluring.

However, the point I made last week is relevant: the discovery of ignorance. Instead of claiming knowledge of why there has been a defection, it might help to start by admitting ignorance and then start an inquiry to find out why. The point I made earlier needs repeating: the problem is not that Timveos has gone to ZANU PF, but the uncertainty of not knowing whether there are more Timveoses still within the party. Maybe she is an outlier, but if she is not, then the problem is more serious. This alone is a sobering thought that demands reflection. If there are indeed organizational weaknesses that are contributing to frustrations among members as alleged, they must be dealt with. It does not help to get into denial mode and bury heads in the sand.


One immediate thought would be to "discover ignorance" and commission an independent internal and private inquiry into what has happened and existing allegations. Are there any factors that are triggering disquiet? What are the recommendations regarding reforms? Such an inquiry might yield useful feedback to the leadership concerning deeper structural issues that will form part of the internal reforms required to make the party more efficient and ready for the next elections. What has happened this week might amount to nothing more than a storm in a tea-cup, but a wise organization takes measures when signs appear to prevent a hemorrhage.


The MDC Alliance is an important organization in the Zimbabwean political space. One-party rule is dangerous. One party rule by ZANU PF would be catastrophic. Preventing one-party rule requires a strong opposition party. It's necessary to have an opposition that checks and balances the power of the ruling party.

WaMagaisa

wamagaisa@yahoo.co.uk

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