‘Expelled’ Tsvangirai not prepared to stand down

MORGAN Tsvangirai, the leader of Zimbabwe’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the opposition movement that sprung from trade unions, civil society groups and grassroots activists, has been “expelled” from the movement for his ineffectual, “bling’” and undemocratic leadership.

This followed a number of failed attempts over the years by party leaders to persuade Tsvangirai, who has for long been accused of clinging on to the leadership of the MDC which he helped founded in 1999, to resign. This latest attempt is a direct result of the party’s defeat in last year’s national elections.

Tsvangirai is refusing to step down, opening the way for another MDC split, making it the party’s third split, weakening the opposition at the moment that Zimbabwe’s long standing strongman Robert Mugabe and his ruling Zanu-PF party is finally appearing to meltdown. Tsvangirai’s stubborn refusal to make way for new blood, fresh ideas and vision, means that the MDC is likely to spiral into freefall ahead of the 2018 general elections.

The MDC leadership group that “expelled” Tsvangirai is led by Tendai Biti, the general secretary of the MDC, and former close ally of the MDC leader.

In 2005, the MDC’s then general secretary Welshman Ncube, led a breakaway after Tsvangirai overruled a democratic vote of his own party, to participate in senatorial elections.

Tsvangirai has in his personal behaviour, leadership of his own party and government and in his policy choices, been no more exemplary, neither has he offered hope or clear direction, than Mugabe or the ruling Zanu-PF – causing disillusionment in the MDC among supporters within and outside the country.

Tsvangirai is the latest in a long list of promising African opposition leaders who valiantly opposed backsliding African independence movement governments and leaders, but once they themselves tasted power, they disappointingly behaved little differently than the errant parties and leaders they had so courageously criticised while in opposition.

This phenomenon, if the opposition party and leader is outside power, ironically prolongs the lives of the autocratic regimes they oppose, and if they are in power they lose popular support and ultimately lose power, more often than not allowing the previous autocratic regimes they opposed back in power.

Just recently, in May 2014, Malawi's former president Joyce Banda, pictured left, reluctantly accepted defeat in a national election after her rival Peter Mutharika, a former foreign minister, won with 36.4% of the vote against Banda's 20.2%. Banda took power two years before on an anti-corruption campaign, when her predecessor died while president. Banda’s credibility was dented over a corruption scandal in which public servants allegedly siphoned off US$32-million (about R342-million) in public funds. Banda won praise when she started office for selling off the presidential jet her predecessor bought. However, it was later established that she had sold the jet to a company which allowed her to use it free of charge after the sale.

The late Zambian former opposition leader, Frederick Chiluba, a former trade unionist who formed the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) on a democracy, anti-corruption and change ticket, successfully won the 1991 elections against Kenneth Kaunda, the independence leader who had ruled the country with an iron fist since independence.

In power, Chiluba became increasingly populist and attempted to change the constitution to stay on for a third term – when he had strenuously opposed Kaunda’s long reign. Chiluba crushed dissent and opposition within his own party, in the same way Kaunda did in his United National Independence Party.

The problem with many African opposition parties, such as the MDC, is they often organise their parties solely around the “leader” – just like first-generation independence movements such as Zanu-PF.

These opposition leaders often reckon they “own” these parties.

Ordinary members and supporters – who risked their lives in supporting these movements in opposition – also rarely participate in policy formulation.

Furthermore, the MDC, like many other African opposition parties, has organised itself almost solely on the basis of opposing the sitting president or government, rather than providing an alternative vision of government with clear policies to match.

The MDC has been mostly silent on the key policy issues that demand urgent action.

Tsvangirai did not offer credible alternatives to Mugabe’s opportunistic land reform strategies, indigenisation policies and homophobia.

Elsewhere on the continent, similar opposition parties to the MDC go for populism – as did the late Chiluba in Zambia – or they unthinkingly veer towards the most extreme forms of World Bank or IMF or donor- driven neoliberalism, as Joyce Banda did in Malawi.

Because opposition parties such as the MDC do not have distinctive policy programmes, African politics often become the victim of both leadership cults and tribal politics.

There is often nothing to differentiate opposition parties from the ruling party, except personalities.

It does not appear obvious for such opposition parties to build working branches in every village and town across the country to become as entrenched in the daily lives of the people, rather than only during elections.

Leaders are often elected on the basis of being close to the “leader”, or because of ethnic or regional or factional affiliations, rather than through merit-based, competitive and democratic elections, just like the independence movement governments they opposed.

The Mauritian Militant Movement, one of the African opposition parties formed in opposition to the independence movement, the governing Labour Party, is one of the rare African opposition parties that has bucked the trend.

They were more internally democratic, built a leadership core beyond the leader, and involved members and supporters in cobbling together credible alternative economic policies – factors among the reasons that Mauritius has been such an African success story, both politically and economically.

William Gumede chairs the Democracy Works Foundation in Johannesburg, and is author of Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times


Would you like to comment on this article or view other readers' comments? Register (it’s quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.