HomeOpinion & AnalysisEthnic card bodes ill for democracy

Ethnic card bodes ill for democracy

By Paul Themba Nyathi


THOSE who are not familiar with Zimbabwe’s violent politics, on reading some of the vitriolic and hysterical articles in the p

ress about Arthur Mutambara would be forgiven for concluding that the man must have committed a political crime punishable only by death.

What crime has Mutambara committed to provoke so much anger and animosity? His crime was to do what free men and women the world over do daily. He chose to stand for office in an opposition group of his preference.

In a country where 26 years of Zanu PF thuggery and political intolerance exacts a heavy price for political activism, we are witnessing, sadly, a manifestation of this same culture within opposition ranks.

As if denying Mutambara the right to choose the side he prefers to work with in his fight against Zanu PF’s tyranny is not enough, we are also witnessing the resurgence of an ethnic-based nationalism that bodes ill for our country.

Some of the problems in the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) are located both in Zanu PF’s succession debacle and in its battle to destroy the MDC.

Over the last five years, the state media has presented an increasingly racist and ethnic interpretation of history and the present. Sadly, within the structures and functioning of MDC itself, this had an impact. Certain individuals within the MDC became determined to split the party rather than see a challenge to a tribal clique of people involved in the Zanu PF succession race who were determined to control the MDC.

The supporters of Emmerson Mnangagwa, who are upset by what they consider unfair treatment in the succession stakes, are agitating for an ethnic awakening unprecedented in the political history of the country.

Similarly, within certain elements of the MDC, tribal discourse has taken hold: it seems Mutambara’s sin of daring to choose his own democratic space is compounded by the fact that he is seen as siding with an ethnic minority.

For six years we worked patiently within the MDC to try and manage the destructive divisions of ethnicity. The Bulawayo congress this year resulted in a national executive that is ethnically and regionally balanced, with strong and recognised leadership from all parts of the nation, in order to build a sense of national oneness that has never been achieved under the rule of Zanu PF. 

In contrast, the other congress in Harare produced an executive that reflects the ethnic anger that drove the MDC to split. 

One is amazed by the line-up of Mutambara’s attackers. Is it possible to imagine that civic leaders, whose core mission should be to promote pluralistic discourse in society at large, would be at the forefront of attacking Mutambara for making a choice that is his birthright and entitlement? We hear reckless pronouncements from civic leaders who should know better suggesting that Morgan Tsvangirai is the only possible legitimate leader for the MDC.

In Africa, the tendency to treat specific individuals in the political arena as cult heroes or demigods who can do no wrong is the scourge of the continent, and Zimbabwe has been no exception. It is this tendency that has littered Africa with thousands of mass graves, and the progress in some of our neighbouring countries towards limited terms of political office and greater accountability is to be applauded.

At the heart of the MDC constitution and principles has been the concept of accountability and of decentralised power within the leadership to try and avoid this sort of destructive cultism. However, large elements in the media — and civil society — are now portraying Tsvangirai as an “untouchable” in the Zanu PF succession race, who is to be protected at all costs.

This unfortunately has also had the effect of mobilising Tsvangirai’s thugs against those perceived to be trespassing in his terrain. Morgan Femai, chairman of Harare province in the Tsvangirai faction, recently made a public statement about “uprooting” and “stamping out” Mutambara’s group before dealing with President Robert Mugabe.

Such comments are reminiscent of phrases we are more used to hearing from Mugabe — such as Gukurahundi: up to 20 000 civilians were “washed away” like chaff in the 1980s. After the 1985 election, Mugabe instructed his supporters to “weed their garden”: scores of Zapu supporters in Harare and elsewhere were murdered.

Where are the voices of human rights defenders warning against the use of such inflammatory and evocative rhetoric by the Tsvangirai faction? Very few voices have raised themselves publicly to condemn the intra-party violence instigated by Tsvangirai’s thugs who include senior party officials. Rather, it seems Mutambara and his supporters are the obstacle and must be maligned, distorted, insulted and demeaned.

Among the vocal Mutambara critics are those who in the past six years did not dare open their mouths or put pen to paper in opposition to Zanu PF and Mugabe. Suddenly these elements are crawling out of their cowardly holes to attack Mutambara and his leadership. They have suddenly found this cost-free courage to malign people who have an impeccable record in the fight against tyranny.

In our 1970s collective struggle against white minority rule in this country, we were all obsessed, understandably so, with the urge to get rid of colonial rule. We spent far less energy defining the post-colonial state that would meet our collective aspirations.

Unfortunately, Mugabe and Zanu PF crafted the state for us, while too many of us stood by and let him establish himself as absolute dictator. Twenty-six years later, a ruined country stands as an indictment to our collective dereliction of duty. But we believe that we have learnt something and will not repeat our mistakes.

Those of us who stood in support of the MDC’s constitution on October 12 2005 did so as a result of the strong conviction that no country builds a sustainable democracy on a foundation of impunity characterised by deliberate violations of the constitution and promotion of violent behaviour in political activity.

We were chided for our principled stand. We were told that we were wrong because Tsvangirai had the people behind him. What has happened to moral leadership? This lynch mob mentality suggests that rules, regulations and party structures should give way to the crowd out there. We reject that notion.

The Mutambara group has been criticised for taking part in the Budiriro by-election. Did we not know that Tsvangirai would trounce him? Why is he interfering with Tsvangirai’s opposition business? Mutambara should stick to robotics. The mob says Tsvangirai can do no wrong.

Even though the Tsvangirai congress resolved not to participate in elections, resolutions are made to be violated as long as the people agree. Even though the MDC national council voted in June 2005 to suspend Emmanuel Chisvuure from holding office for two years because of his perceived violent and destructive role within the party, the people presumably wanted him as their Budiriro candidate — and he now sits in parliament.

Who cares about accountability and process? What matters is what the people want. The people as referred to by Tsvangirai appear to be a very fickle lot. According to him at his March congress, the people wanted a winter of discontent. Now, by June they do not want mass action, but a negotiated settlement.  

Those of us who supported the Budiriro by-election did so aware of the obstacles ahead. Yes, we knew we were likely to be badly defeated in Budiriro, but that did not prevent us from participation. We do not believe that one participates only in those elections one is sure of winning. The outcome, disappointing as it was, has offered us some valuable lessons and insight into what lies ahead for this country.

In our view, the future of this country can be realistically built on the moral rectitude and resolve of 504 decent voters who refused to succumb to the exhortations not to vote for that “Ndebele party”. They resisted intimidation, rejected misinformation, overcame the discomfort of not being part of the crowd out there. Such people should not be betrayed by hiding them behind some cowardly bush for fear of being defeated.

We are in the midst of a protracted struggle to ensure a future Zimbabwe built on the principles and values of a democracy free from intimidation and violence; this fact seems to be lost on the short-termists who are unable to see beyond current numbers at rallies. This plays into the hands of the Tsvangirai faction, who are not being pressured by their supporters to provide a programme of substance, and who have in their national executive people who have been named as responsible for violence within the party.

Tsvangirai is now spearheading the aspirations of a particularly angry and frustrated group of people. They have openly stated that they will do everything in their power to make sure that Mutambara and his supporters are not an obstacle.

They have calculated that Zanu PF has sufficiently wounded itself as a result of the succession race and can therefore be overcome — even though the Budiriro results show Tsvangirai can only poll less than half of the votes, even in this stronghold, than he has polled before. The voter turnout of around 25% for this by-election was hardly more than the turnout for the senatorial elections last year, which were widely condemned for low turnout.

South African papers last week quoted Tsvangirai as accusing President Thabo Mbeki of preferring stability in Zimbabwe to change. However, change in our view does not preclude stability.

We believe in change that has content. That change is about deepening the democracy in Zimbabwe. This must inevitably lead to an improved quality of life. Positive processes occur sustainably where they are bound by a good constitution, and governed by a broad, consultative leadership.

One destructive Mugabe is enough for Zimbabwe: the future requires a leadership that is above ethnicity, that will be guided by a broad range of colleagues, that will respect the rights of all Zimbabweans to retain their dignity, and that will uphold accountability for the actions of the past, the present and the future. 

* Paul Themba Nyathi is MDC director of elections (Mutambara faction) writing in his personal capacity.

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