Morgan Tsvangirai – A Successful Failure

Rejoice Ngwenya,, Harare, Zimbabwe

Friday, March 14, 2008

REJOICEIn May 2005, Police and Para-military forces on the instruction of president Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe carried out a brutal operation called ‘Operation Murambatsvina’ (meaning literally "remove the dirt") in which homes and livelihoods of over one million Zimbabwe’s urban poorest of the poor were destroyed. This action sent shockwaves around Africa and the world resulting in an UN-sponsored investigation in which Anna Tabaijuka, the Executive Director of UN-HABITAT castigated Mugabe and came within syllables of calling him a modern-day Idi Amin. At the time, Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of Movement for Democratic Change MDC, Zimbabwe’s largest opposition party, was expected to have spearheaded a national civic uprising that would have completely wiped out Mugabe’s supremacy, but that never came.

A catalogue of subsequent events where citizens expected him to show leadership is chronicled in the annals of Zimbabwe’s post-independence liberation history. However, Tsvangirai’s revolutionary inertia is ostensibly part of a Southern African political tradition where opposition parties are not able to replace nationalist governments. Robert Mugabe and Jacob Zuma have constantly called the bluff of opposition parties swearing they will ‘never ever’ take over from nationalist governments.

However, Southern Africa opposition parties believe waving well-written manifestoes in the face of educationally disenfranchised citizens offers the best hope for unseating current demagogues. One such political novice is former journalist and civic activist, Helen Zille who currently heads the Democratic Alliance (DA), one of Africa’s most ‘successful’ opposition parties in South Africa. The DA boasts on their website that were it "removed from the equation there would be almost no opposition in parliament: Oversight of the executive would be fundamentally compromised and transparency and accountability severely undermined." To back this pompous assertion, the DA unpacks twenty four policies for an alternative government, has a spokesperson for each and every conceivable portfolio and even adds: "the DA out performs other parties inside and outside parliament, but qualitatively: Our policies are carefully researched and thought through, our statements are substantive and newsworthy and the party often breaks new stories; the Leader’s weekly newsletter is regarded as insightful and well written and our speeches – both inside and outside parliament – are well researched, and present cogent and helpful analysis."

In more ways than one, the DA and Tsvangirayi’s MDC may be considered as birds of the same feather. Their policies oscillate between liberal and people-centered rhetoric, while they boast support of a largely sluggish middle class. They both have a massive following in urban and peri-urban centres and tend to attract sympathy of what Thabo Mbeki terms ‘reactionary’ press. The DA has been accused of propounding mainly ‘white policies’ with minimal appeal to the majority black population highly afflicted by obscene poverty. Whilst the DA’s liberal philosophy has kept it in municipal control of Cape Town since 1984, the MDC has also dominated urban politics since its inception in 2000. But sadly, that is as far as both parties can go.

Thus, if Morgan Tsvangirai were to be offered South Africa’s fluid democratic space, he would probably now be part of the African Unity gravy train, but Mugabe has made it almost impossible for him to have free reign. His opposition counterparts in Botswana, Otsweletse Moupo and Alphonso Dhlakama of Mozambique have more operating space yet still languish like him in the doldrums of political drain pipes.

According to Rindai Chipfunde-Vava, CEO of Zimbabwe Election Support Network ZESN, Zimbabwe does not come anywhere near fulfilling most of the thirteen or so criteria of ‘free and fair’ electoral systems, other than regular and periodic elections. There is limited universal suffrage since most eighteen-year olds have difficulty securing identity documents necessary for voter registration. The Zimbabwe Election Commission is not an independent and impartial organisation as required by the South African Development Community (SADC) protocol on elections since mostly Mugabe military cronies control it. All public media is owned and controlled by the state, thus completely eliminating free speech and free media. Zimbabwean voters are generally inundated with false, misleading or undue influence by state machinery that churns out propaganda compared to Germany under Adolph Hitler. Rural voters are threatened by government-appointed chiefs that ballot papers will expose who they vote for, while Mugabe’s dreaded secret service have been said to photograph ballot boxes with cell phones as proof to gullible villagers that Mugabe can ‘see’ through ballot boxes.

Therefore, the argument that Morgan Tsvangirai makes a ‘better opposition candidate’ than presidential hopeful Dr Simba Makoni would need to be weighed against quantifiable success factors. My argument is that in 1980, both Robert Mugabe and the late Dr Joshua Nkomo ‘broke’ Ian Smith’s ‘political back’ despite the latter’s access to formidable state machinery. Some people even argue that Lord Soames, who as Britain’s last colonial Governor in Zimbabwe would have wanted Ian Smith or Bishop Abel Muzorewa, Zimbabwe’s first Black Prime Minister to win, but popular outrage against colonialism displaced the Rhodesian Front with an overwhelming majority. The same status quo prevails now under Robert Mugabe as it did under Ian Smith. Morgan Tsvangirai is facing exactly the same restrictive operating conditions that Mugabe encountered in 1980 – complete with demonic media, contaminated public opinion and suffocating electoral laws.

However, since 2000, Mr. Tsvangirai has attempted twice and failed to displace Mugabe. One of the most critical success factors of genuine political opposition is to assume power. Neither the charisma of Helen Zille nor the courage of Morgan Tsvangirai passes the test of supremacy if they remain professional opposition entities. This sounds harsh, but in Zimbabwe it no longer suffices to merely have as the DA says "insightful and well written … speeches." I say this because the misery of citizens under the brutal regime of Mr. Mugabe has gone beyond tolerable limits and what we need now is change. For Mr. Tsvangirai, any failure on 29 March will most certainly signal an end to his short but memorable political career.

This syndicated article by was written by Rejoice Ngwenya, Zimbabwean Freemarket Activist and Political Analyst based in Harare. Send him an email at