Why Mujuru cannot afford to ignore Tsvangirai

A few weeks ago former Vice President Joice Mujuru issued an apology to the nation. She apologised for her role in Zanu PF, which is generally held accountable for the country’s socio-economic woes arising from its 35 year-stewardship.

The late General Solomon Mujuru (c) in 2009, with Morgan Tsvangirai and his wife Joice Mujuru who was recently deposed as Vice President
The late General Solomon Mujuru (c) in 2009, with Morgan Tsvangirai and his wife Joice Mujuru who was recently deposed as Vice President

This apology was interpreted as an initial step in a long ritual of political cleansing as she prepares to re-launch her post-Zanu PF political career after she fell out of favour and was sacked last December. In recent months, there has been a steady and ruthless purge of her political allies from the ruling party.

One of her alleged allies, Amos Midzi died at his farm in Beatrice, in circumstances that have set the Harare rumour-mill on fire. The authorities point to suicide as the cause of death but people are suspicious, which is not surprising given what has been happening in the ruling party. Midzi had recently been suspended from Zanu PF, for his alleged links to Mujuru.

There has long been speculation that Mujuru and her allies would form a political party to contest their erstwhile comrades in the 2018 elections. However, nothing concrete has emerged so far. Opposition space has quite a crowd. If Mujuru does eventually enter the fray, it might just become even more interesting and quite possibly, more confusing.

All of which strengthens our view that the best hope for the opposition parties is if they form a grand coalition. Anything short of that, they have no chance against Zanu PF. The most important asset that the Mujuru group can bring to the opposition is their knowledge of the state – their understanding of The System, as we have previously called it.

In the last couple of weeks, there have been media reports that the Mujuru group is having “informal talks” with some opposition elements, in particular, the MDC Renewal Team, which broke away from the mainstream MDC-T led by Morgan Tsvangirai.

Nevertheless, there has been no indication that the Mujuru group is talking to or courting the Tsvangirai and his party, the MDC-T. I hope they do have it in the strategic plans to talk to them because if their strategy is to avoid Tsvangirai and the MDC-T, then they would be making a fundamental miscalculation.

Tsvangirai and the MDC-T may have their fair share of critics – those who think they have failed in their immediate objective of taking power from Mugabe and Zanu PF, indeed, the same people who think time has come to give way to others – but the reality (and it’s futile to run away from reality because you don’t like it) is that they are still the biggest political opposition in the country.

No serious political actor can afford to ignore them or to pretend that they do not exist. Advisers can point to all the negative attributes around the MDC and its leader and say there is excessive toxicity, but the truth of the matter is that at the moment they are the biggest political party apart from Zanu PF.

When you enter a terrain, you have to understand it. Sun Tzu, the great Chinese strategist tells us that you must know yourself, know your enemy but also, importantly, know your terrain. I should add that you cannot let emotions dictate your pace or your political choices.

As the old cliché goes, in politics, there are no permanent friends, but only permanent interests. In appreciating the terrain, one has to put the interests first. In understanding the political terrain in Zimbabwe, it would be foolhardy for anyone to ignore Tsvangirai and the MDC or to pretend that they do not matter.

The fact of the matter is that in present-day Zimbabwe there are two significant political actors – Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai and their parties respectively. There are people who despise them but it is also true that they command large followings.

And from my observations, these people who like them are also very loyal, indeed some of them loyalists of an extreme calibre. They are also the only two politicians who genuinely command national support. They have a national presence and cannot be avoided. For all his alleged weaknesses, Tsvangirai remains Mugabe’s most serious rival and Mugabe and his team know this very well.

This much we can see by the manner in which opposition politicians are treated by the state media and the ruling party. There is a reason why state media’s favourite punch-bag among opposition leaders is Tsvangirai and his party. And it is the same reason why their new and second favourite punch-bag is Joice Mujuru.

They are both seen as the most serious threats to Zanu PF. State media focuses on those who pose a significant threat to the political power of Zanu PF. A quick scan of state media coverage will give Mujuru and her team a fairly good indication of who the serious political actors in the opposition are and top of that list will be Tsvangirai and his party. She cannot afford to ignore them.

Indeed, the MDC-T are the recognised official opposition by virtue of their heavier parliamentary representation. Any serious opposition needs to occupy key spaces in the political system and parliament provides one of those important spaces.

The MDC-T is the only party apart from Zanu PF with significant accommodation within the political landscape and it would be a miscalculation if the Mujuru group ignored their presence in favour of the smaller actors who remain on the periphery.

In addition, the MDC-T is the only other party, apart from Zanu PF, with a significant structural representation on a national scale. It is not only an established brand across the country but more than any other opposition party, it has structures and representation in the tiny and lesser-known pockets of the country.

I have often said that building a political party is a huge, difficult and expensive exercise as those who have previously left the main MDC have discovered at great pain to their ambitions. Mujuru and her team will have to embark on this task sooner rather than later if they are to compete in the 2018 general elections.

This will not be an easy task, although it is not impossible. At the moment they exist in our imagination, they are not a political party. They cannot be arrogant and ignore an existing political party.

It is therefore important for Mujuru’s team to avoid getting ahead of themselves. The truth is that at the moment, they are an unknown quantity. Their so-called support is based on nothing but mere conjecture. The idea that Mujuru has nationwide support has barely been tested.

I remember when Arthur Mutambara entered the political fray after the split of 2005. Even I was caught up in the excitement of the moment and thought he would bring some much-needed impetus into the opposition based on his previous record as a vibrant and militant student leader.

Those who knew better warned us not to get too excited. As history records, they were probably right. Mutambara is a good man but he did not do as well as many of us hoped he would.

I have therefore learnt to be more cautious and not to base opinions on mere conjecture. Mujuru might bring something important to the opposition but she needs to be careful not to let people make her think she is bigger and better than the existing political actors and that she can ignore them

In particular, she cannot be making deals with political actors that are also still largely unknown quantities. Tsvangirai on the other hand has been tested several times in national elections and polls. In 2008 he even beat Mugabe in an election.

Election results demonstrate that apart from Mugabe, he is the only other politician with significant national support. There is something missing from Tsvangirai’s armoury and if anything, Mujuru and her team should be asking what it is they can add to the formula, which, they should know has beat Mugabe and Zanu PF before but has merely been unable to take power.

In any event, if Mujuru seriously wants to be the presidential candidate and to prevail, she will know that a three-horse race places her and the other opposition candidate at a serious disadvantage. If she really wants to win, she will need to persuade the big following that Tsvangirai commands to be on her side.

How does she do it if she sidelines Tsvangirai and the MDC-T in the coalition talks? She might talk to all the other smaller political actors and form their coalition, but in a three-horse contest, both she and Tsvangirai would lose out to the Zanu PF candidate because of split votes.

The 2008 election results demonstrate the inefficiencies of splitting the opposition vote as Mugabe clearly benefited from the split vote between Tsvangirai and Simba Makoni.

Furthermore, Mujuru must demonstrate better political judgment in their engagements with the opposition parties. From my experience, things that block the formation of coalitions are very minor and often personal. In this regard, news that they are talking to the MDC Renewal Team suggests that they have chosen the breakaway formation ahead of the main opposition.

But the evidence suggests that the MDC Renewal Team is still struggling to establish itself as a serious political force. Already it has split before it has held its long-promised national congress.

A few weeks ago one of the founders, Elton Mangoma announced his own party, the Renewal Democrats of Zimbabwe. They also lost their interim President, Sekai Holland, who returned to her civic duties. The planned unification talks with Professor Welshman Ncube’s MDC formation have also seemingly stalled, after much promise.

In short, the MDC Renewal Team, is going through a rough patch. It is difficult to see what value there is to Mujuru negotiating with a group that is actually still trying to establish itself. The risk in all this is that it could prove toxic in any future efforts to engage with the main opposition with proven support and structures, which is the MDC-T.

There is bad blood between the MDC-T and their erstwhile comrades and the constant trading of insults is unhelpful. If Mujuru and her allies are serious about forming a coalition, they cannot afford to sideline Tsvangirai and the MDC-T. They may not like them very much but they are the biggest opposition political party at present and any serious actor needs to engage them.

In conclusion, the fact of the matter is that both Mujuru and Tsvangirai have something that the other doesn’t have. Tsvangirai has the numbers and structures behind him. He commands a large and loyal following – far more than any other opposition leader.

He is a threat and Zanu PF knows it which is why they never stop attacking him. But even with this following, Tsvangirai knows he has struggled to wrest power from Mugabe and Zanu PF. The magnitude of Mujuru’s following is still a matter of conjecture but the thought is that she and her allies, all former Zanu PF, might just be the missing link that has derailed Tsvagirai’s bid over the years.

The reason is that Mujuru and her allies were part of The System that constantly thwarted Tsvangirai and the MDC-T over the years. They might possess some critical knowledge of how The System operates and, in particular, how it helps Zanu PF to prevail in elections. We have known in the past that Tsvangirai and the MDC-T can win elections. What has been missing is how to take power.

In this regard, the view in favour of the Mujuru group is that they might be the key to unlocking this question of power. But then again, the idea that the Mujuru group possesses this critical knowledge is also a matter of conjecture.

Which is why it would be extremely arrogant of the Mujuru group if they ignored Tsvangirai and the MDC-T. Right now, their biggest asset is the belief around them that they have something that can add to the main opposition. They have to trade on it before it depreciates. It could all be lost if the following they are supposed to have is proven to be worthless.

They might spend time talking to the small opposition parties, but what they really need to do is to take the bold step and speak to the main opposition. They cannot afford to ignore Tsvangirai and the MDC-T. Critics of Tsvangirai and the MDC-T might not like to hear this but here we are only interested in political reality.

Dr Alex Magaisa can be reached on [email protected] You can visit his blog Alex Magaisa.com

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