Starting Wednesday’s MDC press briefing on Friday’s planned protest, party spokesperson Daniel Molokele could pass as a deacon making routine church announcements.
By the end of the briefing, the placid lawyer had become testy, raising his voice and scarcely disguising his annoyance at a question that simply refused to go away.
“This debate is completely unnecessary, to say the least,” an exasperated Molokele said, in response to what must have felt like the umpteenth time a journalist had asked what exactly the MDC would consider to be a successful outcome of the protests.
After all, the people had asked for a “signal” and the MDC had simply provided it, he added.
Some background. Radical South African opposition politician Julius Malema created an online sensation in April 2018 when, during Winnie Mandela’s funeral, he asked her for a signal on how to deal with the pressing questions of the day, including those politicians who betrayed her but now eulogised her.
Anger over last year’s election, after which MDC leader Nelson Chamisa disputed his narrow loss to President Emmerson Mnangagwa, has combined with mounting economic woes to create a deadly concoction of discontent, which frequently finds online expression on Twitter and Facebook.
A typical post seeks out Chamisa, asking him to give a “signal” for popular protests to end the economic nightmare and reclaim the stolen vote.
Ironically, Chamisa has lately found himself in the cross hairs of some of the online impatience of supporters who feel he has not acted with the necessary urgency to confront Mnangagwa.
A feral section of the opposition base wants action, but Chamisa has been firmly focused on readying the MDC to stand up to ZANU-PF – reinvigorating the party after a brutal succession battle and reintegrating some founding MDC members who had left the fold. Post-congress, he has emerged with a party leadership that has set about rebuilding its nationwide structures.
After a series of by-election losses following the May MDC congress, Friday’s protest is the first major test for the new leadership under Chamisa’s now undisputed leadership.
And so, after months of mounting pressure over the ‘signal’, Chamisa and the MDC have finally obliged.
In a four-minute August 5 video punctuated with scripture, Chamisa promised “decisive steps.”
Wednesday’s press briefing was supposed to provide details of the MDC’s course of action. What does the MDC seek to achieve with the march, journalists kept asking. The party has its own benchmark for gauging success, but the people would also be left to judge for themselves, Molokele said, eager to deflect.
“The people of Zimbabwe have a right to decide what success means. As far as I’m concerned, the MDC cannot prescribe to the people of Zimbabwe what success is. We have no responsibility, no right whatsoever to tell the people of Zimbabwe that if you do this, you will be successful. The people of Zimbabwe have asked for a signal, we have given it to them,” Molokele said.
“Something must happen”
Pressed for details, an increasingly edgy Molokele said: “Let’s not go to the nitty gritties, let’s go to the bigger picture. The bigger picture is that we need something to happen. Enough is enough, we need something to happen.”
Molokele: “That is not the responsibility of the MDC, that is the responsibility of every citizen of this country. Let us not abrogate that responsibility to the MDC. The MDC as a political party, we are playing the role of a facilitator and we are not the only ones who can do that.”
That Zimbabweans would protest is a no brainer.
As seen in Greece, Spain and the United Kingdom between 2010 and 2012, government austerity programmes invariably trigger protests.
After years of living beyond its means, Zimbabwe has adopted an extreme variant of austerity, as the country undergoes perhaps its most radical economic shift since independence.
Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube, with Mnangagwa’s resolute backing, has seen government chipping away at subsidies that had become a way of life for many. He has also imposed a 2% tax on electronic transactions to broaden revenue collection, ended dollarisation and floated the reintroduced local currency, unleashing a fresh round of inflation that has spooked a populace still scarred by the 2008 hyperinflation.
As desperation grows, amid a national mood literally darkened by power cuts for which government showed little urgency on, protests have become inevitable.
The MDC is not mobilising loosely around these individual issues. Instead, the party has folded all these issues under its favourite buzzword – legitimacy.
“We just need to be clear to everyone. The way we understand the crisis in Zimbabwe, it’s born out of a contention around the electoral process, the outcome of the election. It is a political crisis of legitimacy,” Molokele said, before striking a defensive tone.
“What we are seeing, all these shortages, load-shedding, unemployment are mere symptoms of a bigger problem, a problem of political legitimacy. That is the opinion of the MDC. Every Zimbabwean has an opinion and it’s their right to have an opinion.”
Dialogue or power?
Evidently, the MDC does not want to over-promise and under-deliver on what Friday’s protest can achieve. The party is wary of the political cost of perceived failure, that is why the question of what amounts to success became vexatious on Wednesday.
While the party is clear about its ultimate objective – power – how protests will help it achieve that goal is less obvious.
“This is a people’s march, a march for a new Zimbabwe, a free Zimbabwe, a return to a legitimate and popularly elected government,” Molokele said, adding that the Harare march was only the beginning of rolling demonstrations.
After calling for a week of prayer and fasting, Chamisa suggested it was now time for dialogue, which both him and Mnangagwa have repeatedly committed to in one breath, but repudiated in the next, with each of them insisting on his terms.
Mnangagwa says his presidency is not negotiable, while Chamisa insists the incumbent is illegitimate.
“Now that we have dialogued with our God, we have to dialogue, man between man. To be able to do that, we have to take some very practical steps going forward,” Chamisa said in a video published on August 5.
Mnangagwa has so far met 19 smaller political parties eight times since convening a Political Actors Dialogue snubbed by Chamisa and his party.
Last month, the MDC published a strategy document whose basic demand is for Mnangagwa to make way for Chamisa.
“In order to move the nation forward, Mr Mnangagwa has to recognise that he did not win the election as purported by ZEC, but, instead, that the MDC led by Advocate Nelson Chamisa won the Presidential Election,” reads the MDC’s RELOAD document.
The MDC’s stated plan is to force Mnangagwa into talks through political and diplomatic pressure, which would lead to an all-inclusive dialogue. This would then be followed by the creation of a national transitional mechanism that would oversee a two-year process of reforms, leading to fresh elections. As an option under that interim arrangement, Chamisa said at the launch of RELOAD, “I would not hesitate to be given the opportunity to lead, while Mr Mnangagwa sees how I lead, after dialogue”.
The MDC’s reluctance to set a bold target, such as the 2003 “Final Push”, is no doubt informed by history. The party knows, perhaps better than most, the capacity of the state to unleash violence on protesters. Over the past year, the Mnangagwa government has twice deployed the army during protests, to deadly effect.
Ahead of the protests, true to form, there have been assaults and abductions, an old trick familiar to protest organisers and opposition leaders.
The MDC is, however, emboldened by the ouster, after persistent protests, of two African ‘big men’ – Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika and Sudan’s Omar al Bashir – this year alone. Closer to home, Malawi’s opposition has held sustained demonstrations since a disputed May 2019 election which saw President Peter Mtharika securing a second term.
All this is not lost on the MDC, or Zimbabweans.
“If you go anywhere in the world today, citizens are doing exactly that, they are going into the streets and they are expressing themselves. Just go to Malawi, just go to Sudan and see what they are doing,” Molokele said.
However, short of clear objectives the MDC seeks to achieve by taking to the streets on Friday, the party appears to be going on a wing and a prayer, hoping “something”, anything, happens that pushes it closer to power, adds real pressure on Mnangagwa’s government, or simply gets its disgruntled supporters off its back. For now.