However, any election anywhere is critical. In Zimbabwe’s context, despite the frail political infrastructure, the forthcoming 2018 election is actually a watershed moment. Its importance is not only premised on how the outcome may impact a number of things and ultimately the country’s trajectory, but on the fact that this election is likely going to mark the end of an era and maybe error.
Two fierce rivals
Zimbabwe’s political landscape is chiefly dominated by two fierce rivals, President Robert Mugabe and MDC-T leader Morgan Tsvangirai. Ever since the replacement of white minority rule with black majority rule, these two political strongmen have shaped the political course and narrative of Zimbabwe more than any other individuals.
Zimbabweans have perennially and precariously meandered in the corridors of failure, anxiety and despondency chiefly premised on what most view as Mugabe’s entitlement and Tsvangirai’s victimhood. The departure of these political nemeses from Zimbabwe’s political scene will usher in new and interesting dynamics. They have undoubtedly inscribed an indelible mark on Zimbabwean politics.
Both are loved and hated in equal measure by many and they have contributed immensely for us to be where we are today. They divide opinion when it comes to who they are and what they represent.
Who is Robert Mugabe?
Robert Mugabe was born on February 21, 1924 at Kutama in Zvimba district, where he took his formative education classes. Mugabe later worked as a school teacher in the then Rhodesia and Ghana before joining politics. After embracing and absorbing Marxism, Mugabe became one of the first black Zimbabwean nationalists who spoke against white minority rule. This led to his arrest and subsequent stay in prison between 1963 and 1974.
After spending approximately 10 years in prison, Mugabe moved to Mozambique where he established a base from which he directed Zanu’s efforts in the war against Ian Smith’s regime. At the end of a protracted bush war and the subsequent Lancaster House Agreement, Mugabe led Zanu to victory in the 1980 general elections thereby becoming the first Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, while Canaan Banana became President.
In 1987, after the merging of Zanu and PF Zapu to form Zanu PF, Mugabe became President (a position he holds to date) while Zapu’s Joshua Nkomo became his deputy. From 1980 to date, Mugabe has presided over the affairs of Zimbabwe.
And 37 years of Mugabe’s leadership have seen Zimbabwe oscillating between hope and despondency. In 37 years, Mugabe made and destroyed his legacy. Undeniably now in the dusk of his political and earthly life, Mugabe represents two things. On one hand, he represents the liberation struggle and victory over white minority rule. On the other, he represents leadership failure for being unable to steer the country towards meaningful development, for presiding over gross human rights violations and for not knowing when to quit.
A cut-throat politician, Mugabe has maintained his grip on power using any possible means. He allows nothing and no-one to stand in the way of his pathological need for power and adulation. In order to retain power, Mugabe has presided over monumental human rights violations such as Gukurahundi, the chaotic land redistribution programme, Murambatsvina/Clean up Campaign, multiple electoral frauds and even the demise of his opponents under suspicious circumstances.
Who is Morgan Tsvangirai?
Morgan Tsvangirai was born in 1952 in Buhera district as the eldest of nine children. After completing high school, Tsvangirai worked in the textile and mining industries.
In 1980, Tsvangirai joined Zanu and he rose through the ranks within the party before becoming actively involved in the affairs of Zimbabwe’s trade union movement. In 1989, he became the secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), the umbrella trade union organisation in the country. Tsvangirai was instrumental in leading ZCTU from the Zanu PF hegemony. This led to the unavoidable breakdown of his relationship with Zanu PF.
Tsvangirai’s critical role in the leadership of the labour movement catapulted him to be one of the founding members of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in 1999. Under his courageous leadership, the MDC became an instant challenge to Zanu PF, proving to be a worthy alternative.
Tsvangirai and the MDC have won elections against Mugabe and Zanu PF, but they were denied the opportunity and right to assume power by the incumbent. For instance, the 2008 election is a stark attestation of how Tsvangirai and the MDC won elections, but Mugabe and Zanu PF stood in the way of a power transfer leading to the formation of a Government of National Unity (GNU) in 2009. The GNU was made up of Zanu PF and the opposition. Tsvangirai was the Prime Minister and Mugabe remained President for the entire duration of the GNU.
Ever since its formation, the MDC has participated in elections with Tsvangirai as its presidential candidate. Although he has been and still is the most popular opposition leader Zimbabwe has ever had, he has not been spared the vicissitudes of leadership. His leadership prowess or lack thereof has been tested several times.
In 2005, the MDC suffered its first major split when the then secretary-general Welshman Ncube left the party together with others, to form their own party. History repeated itself after a shock defeat of the opposition in the 2013 election. Party secretary-general, Tendai Biti left the party in 2014 together with the likes of Elton Mangoma to form another opposition party. These two splits inscribed nefarious marks on the MDC and also on its leadership.
In spite of all that, Tsvangirai remained standing and he is still standing albeit on shaky ground. Ever since the disbanding of the GNU in 2013, Tsvangirai’s political and personal troubles seem to have escalated. The worst of his troubles is probably a draining battle against cancer. This has seen him travelling out of Zimbabwe for medical attention several times.
Ultimately, Tsvangirai remains the face of the ostensibly fractured opposition as evidenced by his assumption of the MDC Alliance leadership. The MDC Alliance comprises of Tsvangirai’s MDC-T, Ncube’s MDC, Biti’s PDP and other smaller political parties. There are other opposition alliances, the Coalition of Democrats (CODE) alliance led by Mangoma and the People’s Rainbow Alliance led by former Vice-President Joice Mujuru.
What do Mugabe and Tsvangirai have in common?
1. They both uphold politics of personalities
The Mugabe-Tsvangirai era is infested by what I deem to be a political or leadership error. Both of them exhibit this error.
Mugabe and Tsvangirai are unquestionable masters of politics of personalities. They have both erroneously built themselves into not only becoming the faces of their political formations, but the lifeline of those. Zimbabwean politics is not premised on systems, but personalities.
As it stands, there cannot be Zanu PF without Mugabe and there cannot be MDC without Tsvangirai. That is an error and one of the reasons why we are stuck in this political rut. This reality is what has precipitated these two opponents’ prolonged stay in active politics.
Even though it may be wise for both to be resting from active politics by now, they continue to hazardously hold on to power. The majority of their followers also urge them to go on. For failing to create systems and structures outside themselves, both leaders are trapped in a cage of stagnation. They have become victims of cultures they created for the sake of power retention.
2. They are both ideas and a way of doing things
In Zanu PF it is Mugabe the person and Mugabe the system. In MDC-T, it’s Tsvangirai the person and Tsvangirai the system. These two political godfathers must not be viewed and analysed as mere persons. They are more than that within the organisations they lead.
Both have become an idea and a way of doing things within their political formations. They are revered and recognised by their followers as the centres of power. Those who dare to go against these two individuals within their organisations automatically find themselves in the feather plucking den. Disagreeing with them attracts punishment and it has seen many being banished into political wilderness in some cases.
The bum-shaking and totem-chanting we witness at Mugabe and Tsvangirai rallies is not just an act of love or bootlicking. It is also about confirming and rubber stamping their status as ideas. Some of their followers actually believe that these two individuals possess supernatural powers.
3. They are both unwell
Mugabe and Tsvangirai are both grappling with health challenges. At 93, Mugabe is obviously frail and fighting ailments which come along with old age. Although he appears strong for his age, Mugabe often travels to the Far East for medical attention.
His health status has attracted attention on numerous occasions after falling asleep during a meeting/conference or after tripping when walking. Despite this, Mugabe and his acolytes remain adamant that he is fit and well able to administer his duties as the President. He is Zanu PF presidential candidate for the 2018 election.
On the other hand, Tsvangirai is not well and in 2016 he revealed that he was undergoing cancer treatment. His health situation has seen him travelling to South Africa several times for treatment. Just like Mugabe, Tsvangirai’s health woes have attracted widespread speculation and some feel he must rest after many years of courageously fighting Zanu PF.
4. They both divide and rule
Mugabe and Tsvangirai both accentuate the divide and rule approach in their leadership. Cliques and factions are inevitable in any organisation. They are a result of growth and convergence or divergence of interests.
Publicly, Mugabe and Tsvangirai castigate factions in their parties, but they actually ride on them. They both rely on factional fights within their parties to retain and maintain power. All factions inevitably attempt to outmanoeuvre each other in gaining their leaders’ support and endearment. This leaves the leaders in a lofty position of calling the shots and ultimately retaining the allegiance of the existing factions.
Will this be the end of an era and error?
As we approach the 2018 election, the most important question I find myself striving to satiate with an answer is whether the 2018 elections will mark the end of the Mugabe-Tsvangirai era and of course the error attached to this era. If nothing drastic happens between now and the 2018 elections, all indicators point towards the fact that it is pretty much going to be a two-horse race. The horses will be Mugabe and Tsvangirai.
A plethora of factors are against the prospect of both extending their active participation in politics beyond the 2018 election. Factors such as fitness, age, mandate and new demands make it almost impossible for me to imagine an extension of both leaders political participation beyond the 2018 election.
In 2018, we are likely going to witness the last fight of these two fierce opponents. It is certainly going to be the end of an era and it is my ardent hope that the new era will be ushered in divorced from the error of the current era.
In my next article I will unpack the possible scenarios after the end of this era and possibly error.
Patson Dzamara is a political analyst, leadership coach and author based in Zimbabwe.
Post published in: Featured