Feature: MDC fissures started under Tsvangirai, this time the brand may be gone for good

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MDC foundeer Morgan Tsvangirai

BY NQOBANI NDLOVU

ON September 1999, a new political party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) was launched at a mass rally in Harare, the first time in years that the then President Robert Mugabe’s Zanu PF’s dominance of the local political scene was seriously threatened.

Led by a mixture of trade unionists, church leaders, student movements and intellectuals, among other groupings, the MDC was a response to economic devastation created by Mugabe’s questionable economic policies.

The new party, led by the late Morgan Tsvangirai was at the forefront of the grouping that campaigned for a “no” vote in the 2000 constitutional referendum.

Building on the “no” vote success, the party won a significant number of seats in the parliamentary elections later that year despite Mugabe unleashing his machinery to engage in violence and alleged vote rigging.

In the early 2000s, the MDC leadership moved to strengthen and institutionalise the party, while setting out to challenge Zanu PF’s hegemony.

In 2002, Tsvangirai contested his first presidential election, receiving over 40% of the vote, despite an uneven playing field, providing Mugabe with his first serious challenger since independence in 1980.

In 2005, the party survived a split when then secretary-general Welshman Ncube and others formed another MDC as they differed with Tsvangirai over participation in Senate elections.

In 2008, Tsvangirai outpolled Mugabe in the harmonised elections to force a run-off, but the canny old political master was to unleash an unprecedented wave of violence that killed hundreds of opposition supporters that forced the MDC-T leader to pull out in protest.

The election was dismissed by the international community as not free and fair, with regional countries forcing Mugabe into a power-sharing arrangement with Tsvangirai, a period that saw the country enjoy relative stability after the hyper-inflationary economic turmoil.

When the unity government ended in 2013 and a new general election was called, Mugabe had rebuilt his party’s strength and sowed dissent among opposition politicians, who proved ill-prepared for the campaign.

Zanu PF romped to a landslide victory, leaving MDC-T supporters demoralised and Zimbabweans disillusioned with the possibilities of opposition politics.

In 2014, another split occurred when then MDC-T secretary-general Tendai Biti and deputy treasurer-general, Elton Mangoma pulled out of the party to form MDC Renewal which later split into two groups, one led by Biti, which became People’s Democratic Party and another led by Mangoma, called Renewal Democrats of Zimbabwe.

Tsvangirai and Biti had been long-standing allies in their campaign to remove Mugabe from power.

On Saturday February 12, 2022, MDC Alliance leader Douglas Mwonzora was to preside over what has been left of the opposition party since Tsvangirai’s death in February 2018 when he addressed a paltry crowd during a by-election campaign launch in Highfield.

Across town, President Emmerson Mnangagwa was addressing thousands of his party faithful in Epworth.

Mwonzora has been Nelson Chamisa’s political nemesis since 2014 when he unexpectedly won a contest for the position of secretary-general even though the former, as organising secretary, was in a position to influence party structures in his favour and had been nominated by 11 out of the 12 party provinces.

One theory was that Tsvangirai, who died of cancer on February 2018, engineered Mwonzora’s victory by influencing the voting pattern of congress delegates.

The reason given for this is that he wanted to curtail Chamisa’s political ambitions because of his perceived role in the MDC’s surprising poor showing in the 2013 national elections.

Tsvangirai later appointed Chamisa to the executive as his deputy, alongside Elia Mudzuri and Thokozani Khupe, who had been elected at the previous congress. Chamisa would move quickly to engineer his ascension to the leadership of the party following Tsvangirai’s death in 2018, sparking another round of divisions which eventually led to the “death” of the MDC.

Abednico Bhebhe, a former senior official in the opposition party, said instead the MDC as the idea at the core when it was launched in 1999 had been saved after Chamisa moved away from the brand to form the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC).

Chamisa moved with the entire MDC Alliance leadership and structures after Mwonzora started muscling in on the party name and symbols.

“The party has been saved by the forming CCC. The CCC is actually the skeleton of the MDC, the frame of the MDC that was formed in 1999. The MDC has actually outwitted Zanu PF by forming CCC,” Bhebhe said, adding that the MDC suffered infiltration since 1999.

“The infiltration was the major cause of the MDC to eventually die a natural death. The final on the coffin was introducing Mwonzora to the party. He has always been their proxy. History will show that he has always been attached to the ruling party.”

Political analyst Dumisani Nkomo said Mwonzora’s party was not representative of the original MDC in ideology or thrust.

“We need to be clear that the party which Mwonzora is leading is not the original MDC. They just have the name, but the original MDC has since evolved and rebranded itself. We should not be debating about a non-existent entity and trying to link the MDC led by Mwonzora with the original MDC which has evolved and changed its name to CCC,” Nkomo said.

Political analyst Rashweat Mukundu said the MDC-T leadership was to blame for the collapse of the party four years after Tsvangrai’s death.

“The party cannot be absolved from failure to be consistent in implementing party policy. The biggest mistake was to create Tsvangirai as a singular centre of power and despite his political astuteness and courage in facing Zanu PF, Tsvangirai failed to create leadership cohesion, hence the many splits, some of which could have been avoided,” Mukundu argued.

“It was these missteps that allowed for infiltration of the MDC and created the basis for the leadership discord that we now see. There is no doubt that the MDC, founded to fight a dictatorship, was infiltrated by fortune seekers such as the current leaders who saw it necessary to collapse the party for personal gain.

“The party became a cesspool of some unprincipled political actors and it is only befitting that the MDC be buried so that something new can emerge.”

Mwonzora is currently engaged in a bitter battle for the MDC name with his former deputy Thokozani Khupe.

Mwonzora has since gotten endorsement of the State after he recently received $150 million under the Political Parties Finances Act despite the unresolved dispute.

Analyst Effie Ncube said greed, opportunism and failure to have a well-grounded ideological foundation was MDC’s undoing.

“Political parties must go beyond slogans.  They should not be built on the Zanu PF must go mantra, but they must go beyond that and be built on substantive ideological foundations very clear to the people so that there is that ideological commitment to principle and a particular value system,” Ncube argued.

“This is a problem for the opposition in general. They need to work on their ideological perspective which can tie in people to certain values, value systems and not just because people are angry at Zanu PF.

“That is a problem that was challenging for the MDC beyond pronouncing themselves as a social democratic movement. The MDC was destroyed by lack of ideological coherence as well as greed and opportunism on the part of the leadership.”

Four years after his death, Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC is unrecognisable from its 1999 forerunner.

The March 26 by-elections and the 2023 general elections may remove it from public consciousness altogether.

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  • This article first appeared in the Weekly Digest, an AMH Digital publication