Cracks in the monolith

The threat of disintegration is now a real possibility for Zimbabwe’s ruling Zanu-PF party, writes Trevor Ncube.

Zimbabwe’s ruling Zanu-PF party, in power since independence in 1980, is no longer the monolithic and invincible entity that it was a decade ago. The fortress walls are cracking as dissent becomes more pronounced. But two decades of uninterrupted power have blinded its leaders to the hard realities faced by the majority of Zimbabweans who are now clamouring for change.

The party sees the country as a prize of war and President Robert Mugabe is on record as saying that the country owes his followers a living. It is hardly surprising then that the political elite’s view of public office as a vehicle for wealth accumulation has led to the systematic pillaging of state resources and the steady impoverishment of ordinary Zimbabweans.

Examples are not difficult to find. A civil service housing scheme was hijacked by the Zanu-PF elite including the First Lady Grace Mugabe to build mansions for themselves. A compensation fund for victims of Zimbabwe’s liberation war was looted by party chiefs who showed no signs of injury whatsoever. Among those taking the largest slice was Mugabe’s brother-in-law, the appropriately-named Reward Marufu. Most egregiously, a rural irrigation scheme meant to benefit villagers was hijacked by senior party officials for their suburban homes and farms.

Zanu-PF came into power with the objective of imposing a one-party socialist state. This in part derived from the support Zimbabwe received from the eastern bloc during the war of Independence. The one-party state project meant that the ruling party took precedence over government and that its politburo rather than the cabinet became the supreme policy-making organ. It also meant that Zanu-PF occupied all the available political space branding newcomers as interlopers in the post-liberation project. This had dire consequences for democratic evolution.
The constitution was amended to concentrate absolute power in the hands of the state president who was also the president and first secretary of the ruling party. Indeed, the line dividing party and government became blurred. State institutions such as the army, police, and intelligence service all saw their role as that of promoting and defending the party’s agenda. So did the public corporations that mushroomed after 1980 to provide sheltered employment for Mugabe’s followers. A culture of fear gripped the country in the early 1980s as the party sought to consolidate its hold on power. The security services were used to dealing with critics. Here lay the roots of Zanu-PF’s inability to distinguish national unity from party unity.

Its liberation war allies such as students, trade unions and churches were not spared in this crude attempt to impose a one-party state. To complete its control over the hearts and minds of Zimbabweans, the government purchased a majority stake in the country’s biggest newspaper publishing company from South Africa’s Argus group, with the help of a grant from the Nigerian government. This led to the establishment of the Mass Media Trust which, together with its broadcasting monopoly, gave the new government effective control of public discourse.

The ruling party’s totalitarian agenda plunged the country into a civil war as it sought to crush former liberation war ally Zapu which had overwhelming support in Matabele-land and the Midlands provinces. Over 20,000 mainly Ndebele people perished at the hands of the army as it carried out Mugabe’s instructions to beat the Joshua Nkomo-led Zapu into submission.
For the sake of peace Nkomo signed the Unity Accord in December 1987 which saw an amalgamation of Zanu-PF and Zapu. As a reward he became the second vice-president of the united party and the government and a number of his followers were given cabinet appointments while others were elevated in the public service. Thus the country lost the only political opposition worth talking about.

In the absence of any economic benefits to the grassroots in Matabeleland many Zapu supporters dismissed this agreement as a sell-out that subjugated the Ndebele people to the Shona-dominated Zanu-PF. They questioned how national unity could be achieved without the government accepting responsibility for the ethnic cleansing of the mid-1980s. Mugabe denied responsibility and refused to apologise claiming that the massacres had occurred during a state of war.

The experiment with socialism which lasted until 1989 laid the foundation for the economic problems that have now come to haunt Zimbabwe. In accordance with Soviet-style command-economy precepts prices of commodities and services were strictly controlled while the state dictated the pace of wage settlements. The foreign exchange regime was also centrally controlled. Foreign companies wishing to invest in Zimbabwe faced a litany of obstacles and could not remit profits or dividends.

The cumulative impact of all this was that the economy experienced negative growth, unemployment rose and poverty became deep-rooted. Foreign investment was reduced to a mere trickle. Having run out of solutions to these self-inflicted economic problems and faced with the possibility of a social upheaval the ruling party grudgingly abandoned socialism and turned to the Bretton Woods twins cap in hand. But the country’s problems were only compounded by half-hearted reforms haphazardly implemented.

Today the chickens of economic mismanagement, human rights abuses and an absence of accountability have all come home to roost. As per capita GDP has declined with unemployment, inflation and interest rates all above 50 per cent the public has not been blind to the extravagance of its rulers. Zanu-PF misgovernance and unbridled corruption have united civil society and helped it find a collective voice. The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) has decided to take on the ruling party. It has emerged as the biggest threat to Zanu-PF through successful national collective stay-aways that have on more than two occasions brought the economy to a standstill.

Initially it focused on the alleviation of the tax burden on the workers and the reduction of prices of commodities. But it has now expanded its brief to issues of governance arguing that economic recovery is impossible without political reform. In a political environment where the majority of people are now desperate for change the recent announcement that the ZCTU would facilitate the formation of a broad-based party— the Movement for Democratic Change — has injected new life. If a worker-based party were to become a reality it would represent a serious challenge to Zanu-PF, particularly in the urban areas.
The story is different in the rural areas where the politics of patronage has assured the ruling party a firm grip on gullible peasant farmers who constitute more than 70 per cent of the population. The party’s control of the electronic media together with its use of the tax dollar to distribute free seeds, fertiliser, and draught power makes penetrating the rural areas a tall order for other parties.

The Zimbabwe Union of Democrats, an opposition party formed earlier this year which showed some initial potential, has been plunged into confusion following infiltration by state intelligence agents who have effectively divided it — a well-practised tactic. However, the ruling party is also likely to face another challenge from the well-organised Zimbabwe Integrated Project led by Heneri Dzinotyiweyi, a university mathematics professor, which announced recently that it would be transforming itself into a political party. While some Opposition political parties appear to be faltering, civil society has occupied the political space once dominated by Zanu-PF. Public dissatisfaction with the current Constitution which the government has amended 15 times to remove civil liberties, has seen trade unions, academics, churches and human rights organisations coming together to form the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA).

In response to this initiative the government has hurriedly put together a Constitutional Commission whose duty is to come up with a new founding law. The commission, which is packed with Zanu-PF MPs and party officials, has been dismissed by the NCA as a ploy to hoodwink the public. Its findings are open to presidential manipulation raising suspicions that Mugabe may junk its conclusions as he did the findings of other commissions in the past. In any case the commission is widely seen as an attempt by the party to extend its tenure on power.

The party’s insensitivity to the predicament of the majority and the endemic corruption which President Mugabe recently publicly admitted exists within his cabinet has seen dissatisfaction within Zanu-PF grow. There is clearly a yearning for a change of leadership within the party. Some heavyweights realise that Mugabe is now a liability ahead of next year’s parliamentary elections.

Zanu-PF member of parliament Dzikamai Mavhaire last year invited Mugabe’s ire by calling on him to step down. He was stripped of his party post as a disciplinary measure and denounced as a witch. Not intimidated by the president’s threats, another Zanu-PF MP Machael Mataure told parliament earlier this year that the party was led by “tired horses” and needed new blood to see it through. “You can’t teach old dogs new tricks,” he told parliament. The party has shied away from disciplining him fearful of the backlash.

The threat of disintegration is now a real possibility for a party that has long boasted of its mass appeal. There is factional fighting at every level as members position themselves for the day when Mugabe goes. But his presence will hold the party together in the short-term. While some are critical of his leadership few will risk leaving the party just yet. The party’s countrywide infrastructure, most of it built at the expense of the taxpayer, and its control of the levers of power make it an attractive tool for ambitious politicians. Thus, while senior members of his cabinet such as justice minister Emmerson Mnangagwa and Harvard-trained minister without portfolio Eddison Zvobgo, have staked their claims to the succession none has been brave enough to challenge the president openly.

While Mugabe is able to hold Zanu-PF together Nkomo’s departure has removed an important pillar of the regime. His death at the beginning of July after a long fight against prostate cancer will speed up the disintegration of the party in Matabeleland and the Midlands provinces. There is widespread disaffection in this region over the party’s failure to attend to the perennial water problem. There are also accusations of deliberate ethnic discrimination in public service recruitment and enrolment to tertiary institutions. Welshman Mabhena, provincial governor for Matabeleland north, and Joshua Malinga, a vocal former Bulawayo mayor, are among those in the forefront voicing these concerns.

More evidence of the peculiar problems of Matabeleland was the formation in 1997 of a pressure group, Imbovana Yamahlabezulu, whose objective is to articulate the region’s grievances. And further discontent with the unity accord has manifested itself in the desire to resuscitate Zapu through the formation of a youthful movement calling itself Zapu 2000. The old Zapu establishment is screaming foul and making all manner of threats which so far have not intimidated anybody. Nkomo’s death is likely to see more radical voices emerge opening up new fissures where Mugabe can least afford them.

While the ruling party faces problems from within its ranks and token challenges from opposition parties it is not yet time to write its epitaph. So long as the party can control the pace of political reform, exploit state resources and regulate the media it is certain to win next year’s elections.

But an economy in free-fall and a restive urban population spell long-term trouble for Mugabe’s grip on power. More than anything else it is clear to all sectors of society that he has no idea how to find his way out of the pit he has been digging for the country over the past 19 years. The call for new direction is becoming shrill despite Mugabe’s claims that he cannot hear a thing.