ON 25 January 2024, Zimbabwean opposition Citizens’ Coalition for Change (CCC) president Nelson Chamisa quit.
Looking through the dancing ropes, it is more like a boxing match. Remember when Mike Tyson bit Evander Holyfield’s ear in June 1997? Chamisa argued the ruling Zanu-PF’s agents had hijacked CCC, luring him into “sewer-pond politics.” Some ear-biting stuff.
In October 2023, Sengezo Tshabangu and his self-appointed group seized control of the CCC, recalling its MPs and councillors from their positions, and precipitating by-elections. The courts and the Speaker of Parliament Jacob Mudenda red-carpeted Tshabangu’s actions. No longer controlling the party, Chamisa bailed out.
Round one: The general election
In August 2023, Zimbabweans voted in disputed elections, denying the ruling Zanu-PF a two-thirds majority in Parliament. President Emmerson Mnangagwa “won” a second term, but the CCC said it was a sham election. Reporting on the poll, in the now famous Mumba Report by the Southern African Development Community Observer Mission (SEOM) ruled: “… aspects of the… election fell short of the requirements of the constitution of Zimbabwe, the Electoral Act and the Sadc Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections.” The European Union, African Union, and Commonwealth observers virtually said the election “fell short” of expectations. On election day, voters in CCC strongholds, especially Harare, only received ballot papers late at night, after hours of waiting. Mnangagwa extended his rule but emerged from the election with thinned legitimacy and without a law-passing twothirds majority.
Round two: Fouls ignored
The CCC had seemingly cornered its opponent, Zanu-PF. But Sadc shelved its report – as would an unfair boxing board of appeal. Popularity-sapped ruling parties, scared of losing control to the opposition, preside over many southern African countries. In August 2022, for instance, Al Jazeera reported Angola’s ruling MPLA scraped through with 51.17% in a disputed election. Compare to Zanu-PF’s 56.18% and Mnangagwa’s 52.6% the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec) announced in August 2023. According to a May 2023 article in The Conversation by Henning Melber and Roger Southall, in 2019 both South Africa’s ANC and Namibia’s Swapo lost two-thirds majorities (may President Hage Geingob rest in peace). Melber and Southall echo David Soler Crespo’s “The Slow Death of Liberation Movements in Southern Africa”, asserting that the southern African liberation parties are losing support. These parties have been engaging in corruption, degenerating ideologically, and collapsing public service delivery, and some oppressing dissent. The 2008 global financial crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the ongoing Ukraine war might have worsened their gradual decline.
Two possibilities have resulted. First, the ruling parties may be converging toward containing the opposition. Second, ruling parties facing their own crises find it hard to act on problems in another Sadc state. This possibility diminished the likelihood Sadc could intervene in Zimbabwe, save in exceptional circumstances. South Africa specifically would hesitate to intervene effectively, if at all in Zimbabwe, given how it experienced early interventions in Africa. A detailed enumeration of these experiences is not within the scope of this submission.
While Zimbabweans expected the opposition to protest, they remembered the state suppressed post-election protests on 1 August 2018. With the CCC unprotesting, Zanu-PF has been jeering: “Saka muchaita sei?” (“What will you do now?”). By now everyone knows too many fouls have been ignored.
Round one “winner” unfairly dishes vengeance
But the ruling party hurt from being denied a two-thirds majority. When Tshabangu proclaimed himself the “Interim secretary-general of CCC” – a position CCC spokespersons denied – the Speaker of Parliament readily accepted his letters, recalling MPs and councillors, rolling back the general election results. Chamisa and CCC MPs failed to stop the recalls with the speaker and in the courts. The ruling party capitalised on the crisis to regain a two-thirds majority, while destabilising the CCC and diverting attention from the disputed elections. Through sheer violence in Mabvuku-Tafara constituency or court rulings in Bulawayo metropolitan area and the 3 February by-elections, Zanu-PF gained more seats.
The home crowd: the perspectives
This onslaught has divided opposition ranks. Some have blamed the CCC’s lack of traditional structures for advantaging Tshabangu. Since the formation of the CCC in January 2022, its leader Chamisa adopted a new organisational structure. He avoided congresses characteristic of previous opposition formations, the MDC, MDC-T, and the MDC-Alliance, citing infiltration. Those who believe the traditional structure could have hedged against the troubles claim he made a mistake. However, previous opposition formations have split twice, in 2005 and 2014, under the late former leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, notwithstanding such structures. Some people, including this writer, sense a deeper problem of movement-building, or the ongoing process of Chamisa defining his own leadership circle.
Some opposition supporters argue the ruling party would have still destabilised the CCC. Understanding that the ruling party desires a one-party state – if not de jure, then de facto – vindicates this perspective. When Zanu merged with PF-Zapu on 22 December 1987, the two parties signed the Unity Accord. Article 6 envisaged that, “…Zanu-PF shall seek to establish a One-Party State in Zimbabwe.” Apparently, Zanu-PF has not renounced this foundational organisational policy and creed. In the 1990s, one-partism became unfashionable with the Cold War ending, yet Zanu-PF suppressed opposition, including ZUM, and later all MDC guises; this has continued with CCC in 2023/4. Zanu-PF may hope to replicate authoritarian-led development, for example in China and Rwanda.
But this writer agrees with Nobel laureate Amartya Sen’s perspective in his 1999 book, “Development as Freedom”, opposing this model. Sen contends that freedom gives development its meaning, putting what people value, including social, economic and political choices at the centre. These free choices include people’s “creative discontent” and “constructive dissatisfaction,” Sen explains. This writer has argued in a 2018 article that the heuristic of “food plus votes” rather than “food minus votes” (read: democratic development rather than authoritarian development) more accurately reflects Zimbabwe’s Independence aspirations. These aspirations resonate in the discourses of “rusununguko” (vernacular freedom) and “gutsaruzhinji” (vernacular egalitarianism). This analysis means upholding or forsaking democratic elections – loudly rehearsed in the liberation struggle –era demand of “one-man-one vote” – indicates whether Zimbabwe is fulfilling or constraining liberation. While CCC supporters may differ on how the party imploded, many blame Zanu-PF’s undemocratic manoeuvring. Who forgets that even war has rules; boxing does not tolerate ear-biting!
Some Zimbabweans on the social media platform X argue that Chamisa should have asked CCC MPs and councillors to resign immediately after the disputed 2023 elections. They argue Sadc had trashed the election and would have more firmly intervened. No one knows if Sadc would have taken further action. Throwing away seats, in councils and Parliament, after denying the ruling party two-thirds majority, only to trigger by-elections, might have been counterintuitive.
It is unclear MPs would have been better convinced to forfeit their seats then than now. Everything looks easier in rear-viewing or away from the pressures of deciding. The missed jab is easier from the terraces.
From the shadows, or the ringside, Tshabangu blindsided Chamisa into the post-election ring, first for his anti-Chamisa handlers in the CCC, then for Zanu-PF, changing the political calculus. Without begging Tshabangu, and self-entrapping, Chamisa had lost control of the party. His letter aptly described the situation, refusing being invited to swim in “sewer-pond politics.”
Having cornered Chamisa, Zanu-PF wanted a political punching bag out of him. Matching a cornered but skilled boxer, just as the opponent contemplates a knockout, Chamisa has slipped out of the pinion to regain political dynamism and refresh the encounter. This time it seems he will fight from the blue corner! Only that there has been much ear-biting, this last round! It is the next round!