By Dumisani Nkomo
THE recent ascendance of Professor Welshman Ncube to the presidency of the smaller MDC formation has been dismissed by some critics as a non-event and inconsequential.
I would like to argue that in politics, “a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like a day”, and as such to dismiss the MDC- N (formerly MDC-M) — especially in the light of leadership renewal in that party — would be foolish and dangerous.
Whilst at a national level it is clear that Ncube’s MDC is unlikely to win a single seat outside Matabeleland or Midlands, the party is likely to have an impact on the electoral landscape for better or for worse.
In the event of an election just 10 seats will be enough for the party to have a say once again in the political texture and indeed destiny of the next government. Importantly considerations must be made to the politics of Matabeleland which have evolved a lot since the last elections in 2008. Undoubtedly the Matabeleland vote, small as it is, will be crucial in deciding who will make their road to State House or have a majority in parliament.
Quite clearly the MDC-N has no intention of winning the elections if they are held in the next 18 months as they stand no chance of winning a national plebiscite in the near future. To think otherwise would be the worst case of self-delusion as to all practical intents the party is unable and incapable of conquering the Mashonaland provinces, Manicaland, Masvingo and most of Midlands.
They have realistically weighed their chances and positioned themselves to be the “kingmakers” of Zimbabwean politics, assuming that neither MDC-T nor the former ruling party Zanu PF fail to garner a majority.
They have strategically decided to concentrate on where they stand the best chances of winning anything and that happens to be in Matabeleland.
There are however numerous impediments, constraints and pitfalls that the party will have to deal with if it is to have an impact on the Zimbabwean political landscape.
An election held in the next 12 months could be genocidal for the MDC-N as they could be buried in an electoral landslide.
If the election is held 12 – 36 months later the MDC-N will definitely have time to regroup, re-strategise and have a huge impact on the electoral landscape especially in Matabeleland. They would be praying (and fasting) that during this time MDC-T commits gigantic blunders and scores one or two own goals whilst Zanu PF continues to lose popularity.
Failure to effectively re-strategise within this time frame will result in the party being literally obliterated from the political landscape just like what happened to the Forum party of Zimbabwe along with its galaxy of “stars and political talents”.
The following internal weaknesses will militate against the MDC-N in its quest:
Disconnect with masses/grassroots
Whilst the MDC-N is blessed with abundant political talent, academic acumen and experience, this all counts for nothing in politics. After all Zanu PF reduced the country’s economy to a rubble in spite of the fact that they boasted of “one of the most brilliant cabinets in Africa in 1980”.The MDC-N’s fatal flaw would be that it has disconnected with grassroots issues and dynamics.
The fact that the party’s congress had 1 000 or 5 000 people (depending on whose statistics you use) counts for nothing as presence of party members at a congress does not necessarily reflect or translate into growth or increase in the party’s magnitude. The MDC-N has been pre-occupied with elitist politics which does not resonate with the grassroots.
They have failed to understand that whilst the middle class and upper class play a major role in the destiny of elections in Europe and America, in Africa it is the working class, the peasantry and the informal sector that determine electoral and indeed political outcomes. Lately they have seized on such grassroots issues in Matabeleland but it may be a case of too little, too late.
Zanu PF alignment perception
The MDC-N formation has at times made strategic blunders by appearing to align itself with Zanu PF in the context of a polarised political environment.
On a number of occasions its former president Arthur Mutambara seemed to be Mugabe’s “praise singer”, and at times the party appeared ambiguous about their position about Zanu PF. This was worsened by the fact that on a number of occasions MDC-N officials used the state media to lambast their MDC-T rivals, further adding credence to those who believed the party was a “Zanu PF project”. To give an example Simba Makoni, who was backed by the MDC-M in the 2008 elections, committed a fatal error by failing to articulate his position about Zanu PF and as such was viewed by many as Zanu PF project.
Failure to read politics
Whilst blessed with abundant talent the MDC-N seems to fail to read political events.
At times they speak when they are supposed to refrain from speaking and refrain from speaking when they are supposed to speak. I would like to argue that if the MDC-N wanted to attack the MDC-T they should have done so at the time when the split occurred. Instead they kept quiet and were labelled as appendages of Zanu PF without putting up much of a fight.
They ultimately lost the propaganda war and tried to win it years afterwards by starting on a fresh tirade of attacks against the MDC-T.
Unfortunately in Zimbabwe’s highly polarised political environment such attacks have not translated to more support for the MDC-N, but have been perceived by some as an attempt to split the vote and give Zanu PF an advantage.
Whilst this may not be true the MDC-N does not seem to understand the difference between what they believe and what people perceive to be the truth.
Their “holier than thou” approach to politics does not work in the rough terrains of African politics where there is little or no room at all for moderates. Moderates are often hit by traffic coming from both sides of the road which explains why their party has lost so many of its members to MDC-T, Zapu and yes even Zanu PF (remember Fidelis Mhashu).
Arrogance or perceptions of arrogance in politics can be very suicidal and, unfortunately for the MDC-N, whilst priding itself as a party of intellectuals it projects itself as being arrogant. Some of the party’s leaders have poured scorn on Morgan Tsvangirai accusing him of being an “intellectual dwarf”, conveniently forgetting that Zanu PF and their string of degrees both academic and in “violence” ran the country down in spite of their so called intellectual stamina.
Conversely Jacob Zuma, the South African president who has little formal education, not only outfoxed Thabo Mbeki in the battle for the leadership of the ANC but has also proved to be a competent leader
over one of the biggest economies in Africa. The tragedy of some academics and intellectuals is that their strength is their weakness. Because of the confidence they have in themselves they end up sacrificing relationships, networks and the imperative of consultation.
The tragedy of intellectuals is that they believe that they do not need anybody else and can do it on their own but the reality of politics is that, in the words of James Dobson, “people do not care about what you know but they want to know whether you care”.
Weak civil society linkages
The MDC-N has weak linkages with labour, the student body, informal traders associations and church related groups. It however has the increasing support of a lot of Matabeleland-based cultural and social groups.
Tribalisation of politics
The tribalisation of Zimbabwean politics means that the party is viewed by people from outside Matabeleland as a regional outfit. However, ironically and paradoxically many people in the region of Matabeleland view the persecution of Ncube’s political ascent as an assault on the Ndebele people which could give currency and popularity to him.
Politics in Zimbabwe has been dichotomised into those who support Zanu PF and those against it. Popularly MDC-T is seen as an embodiment of resistance to Zanu PF. This will militate against the MDC-N, at least at a national level.
The electoral system
The “first past the post” system gives bigger parties such as Zanu PF and MDC-T an advantage at the expense of the MDC-N and Zapu. The MDC-M could actually have won at least four to five seats more if proportional representation had been used in the last election.
The Zapu threat
The emergence of Zapu could swing some votes and support away from MDC-N in Matabeleland. The two parties could find themselves “fishing from the same fish pond”.
The Ncube factor
Whilst many people view the ascendance of Ncube as an elitist transfer of power, nothing could be further from the truth as many people in Matabeleland region view this as a positive move. People in the region are now tired of being used as political ornaments to provide “ethnic décor to” national parties.
People are asking themselves “is it wrong to have a Ndebele leader?” The critical emerging issue in Matabeleland is no longer just removing Mugabe from power but what is in it for Matabeleland, and these are the dynamics of the political season. The flurry of criticism against Ncube from the state and independent media has made him something of a hero to many people in Matabeleland. People love tragic figures or martyrs and the crucifixion of Ncube has given him fresh credibility and impetus.
Whilst he is aloof, uncharismatic and appears to be cold and distant, a lot of people are beginning to believe in him because of all the hullaballoo about somebody from Matabeleland leading a national party.
Talent and experience
The MDC-N has in its ranks talented politicians, experienced activists and academics. They need to translate this into political advantage through grassroots based strategies.
The MDC- N has been fairly consistent in its positions about a wide variety of issues including the issue of the re-introduction of the senate (which led to the split of the party), the negotiated Kariba constitution and the need for full implementation of the Global Political Agreement before elections.
As to whether they will have an effect, they definitely cause a shift in the country’s political terrain albeit to minor extent. If they fail to adapt to the political terrain and do not strategise on grassroots mobilisation they will be relegated to the dustbin of history.
Dumisani Nkomo is the chief executive officer of Habakkuk Trust and spokesperson of the Matabeleland Civil Society Consortium. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org