ESSAY | Factions may not always be a bad thing: A contemporary history of internal party disagreement in Zimbabwe

By Tatenda Mashanda

In April 2015, when Robert Mugabe expelled his former deputy Joice Mujuru, her alleged crimes, among others, were sowing division in the party, challenging his leadership, and orchestrating factionalism.

Simon Khaya Moyo, ZANU PF spokesman at the time, proceeded to highlight that all her actions were against the party’s interests. It was reported that Mujuru lacked “the quality of strong moral principles, honesty, and decency”. Mujuru was accused of leading a loose faction, Gamatox (a pesticide used to exterminate weevils).

The Gamatox rhetoric was prominently used by Didymus Mutasa in what Oliver Nyambi calls Mutasa’s self-claim to patriotic duty for the interests of the party and shielding it against infiltrators. Gamatox was a solution to the weevils, a tag reserved for a rival faction.

Two years later, another vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, would be expelled from ZANU PF for disloyalty, disrespect, deceitfulness and unreliability, and a “lack of probity in the execution of his duties”. Again, Khaya Moyo announced the charges, including the claim that the VP led a political faction, Lacoste, in reference to his nickname, “Ngwena (the Crocodile)”. It was deemed that the faction violated party rules and procedures.

When Mujuru was expelled, the National Disciplinary Committee was chaired by yet another vice president, Phelekezela Mphoko. In a hilarious, yet fitting, twist of events, he too would also later be let go from the governing party together with high-profile members of the G40 faction.

Since its formation as the opposition in 1999, the Movement for Democratic Change has had its fair share of factions, if not more than the governing party. Some of these factions have gone on to establish themselves as independent political outfits.

In 2005, two factions, one led by the late Morgan Tsvangirai and the other led by Welshman Ncube, could not agree on the participation of the MDC in the senatorial elections. Tsvangirai did not want to participate while Ncube thought it was in the best interests of the party to do so. They could not find common ground, and eventually split.

Along the way, the opposition would experience more fracturing because personalities could not coexist after disagreements over ideas, strategy, and policy. There have been numerous manifestations of the MDC, namely the MDC-T, MDC Green, MDC 99, MDC Renewal Alliance, and the MDC Alliance, among others. For those observing the chaos from the outside, it might be appropriate to conclude that only the COVID-19 virus has succeeded in producing more variants than the MDC.

However, these political realities are indicative of the fate of factions. Despite the general political commentary in Zimbabwe depicting a one-dimensional picture of factions and factionalism in politics as toxic, the general discourse on their role and nature remains largely incomplete if not underdeveloped.

What are factions anyway and why should ‘we’ care?

Factions have been defined as a clique of voters and politicians who come together to support particular ideas and are represented by a single candidate. Factions can be organised around policy ideas, friendships, or hatred. As members of the factions’ interests change, the boundaries and membership do not remain unaffected.

Factions have different purposes which range from patronage (of all kinds) to policy commitments. Discussion of factions in Zimbabwe presents some unique complexities because of the personalist political approach. Driven by the fear of victimisation, some people are members of multiple factions at once, depending on their interests.

The overemphasis on the degenerative nature of factions blinds us from realising the benefits of other forms of factions such as the probable productivity of factions, or at least the ability to be open about their existence.

Due to the history of chaotic politics, party fracture, violence, and backhandedness, it is easy to dismiss the important role of factions. It almost seems as if some of the pitfalls of factionalism, real or imagined, have limited our ability to accommodate other perspectives on factions. It has led to the bashing of the idea of factions from across the political divide.

The anti-faction rhetoric often comes from personal disagreements, political immaturity, and general ignorance about the role of factions. There is no denying that some of the criticisms in the past have been on policy disagreements. Unfortunately, even when this happened in the supposed spirit of productivity, the result has often been destructive.

Against Constitutional Compromise

It is the history of productive factions in the early 1960s that shaped what would be the direction of nationalist struggle and strategies. One has to go beyond the embellished sellout narratives to appreciate how factions productively shaped history.

In 1961, the leader of the National Democratic Party, Joshua Nkomo, was engaged in talks with Edgar Whitehead and the British for a constitutional compromise. The negotiations would provide some voting rights for blacks and not challenge white control of electoral politics. NDP was represented by Nkomo and Rev Ndabaningi Sithole, with Hebert Chitepo and George Silundika as part of the advisors.


Nkomo was elated by the prospect of 15 seats being reserved for Africans in the parliament. A vibrant trade unionist, Reuben Jamela, vehemently opposed the talks and campaigned against the approval of the proposal, resultantly putting him on a collision path with NDP leadership.

Leopold Takawira, Edson Sithole, and Paul Mushonga also argued against the plans. The NDP vice president Michael Mawema was fired for gross insubordination and publicly disagreeing with Nkomo. This faction generated popular support that forced the NDP leadership to abandon the plans and demand universal suffrage.

A policy change was birthed from a productive faction that was organised and disagreed on ideas and direction of the struggle. The factional pressure ensured a sacred commitment to universal suffrage throughout the history of struggle. Factions can guard against dangerous groupthink and improve the quality of policymaking through robust deliberations

Absence of strong intra-party democratic openness

Owing to the relationship between the government and the governing political party, it is not foolhardy to argue that factionalism has a bearing on policy decisions and the direction of the country. Intra-party disputes can easily spiral into national chaos. Factions can manipulate state machinery to navigate a political quagmire.

There have been different takes on why the military coup in Zimbabwe happened. Without taking sides, it is almost impossible to ignore the fact that the disagreements (be it over ideas or personal animosity) between the Lacoste and G40-aligned individuals plunged the country into uncharted waters.

Earlier in ZANU history, Robert Mugabe had pushed for a one-party state with some minimal, albeit weak and uncoordinated opposition. There was a faction opposed to a one-party state. There was no openness within the party and room for accommodating different ideas without being excommunicated.

As a result, Edgar Tekere left and formed his Zimbabwe Unity Movement. At a press conference, he argued: “The ruling party is vigorously advocating the conversion of Zimbabwe into a one-party state and thereby seeking to entrench its internally undemocratic self as a state dictatorship.”

Predictably, Tekere was accused of sowing seeds of division in the party and across the country. There are some important lessons from the Tekere affair.

Tekere’s important contribution was to prove that Mugabe could be challenged. Secondly, Tekere would soon repeat the very same things he disagreed with when he was within ZANU PF. When he left, some people thought he was a genuine reformer with a deep respect for institutionalism and democracy.

ZUM was established as an alternative to the undemocratic nature of ZANU PF. However, like Nkomo in the early 1960s suspending his VP Michael Mawema for disagreeing with him, Tekere would subject those who criticised him to the same fate.

A faction, including Emmanuel Magoche, Alois Masepe, and Wurayayi Zembe, would eventually break away and form the Democratic Party.

Anyone critical of Tekere’s undemocratic leadership was either suspended or expelled from the party, a plague that has remained a common occurrence across the political divide.

Edgar Tekere left ZANU PF to form ZUM

After the party

This second lesson is important and prompts ‘us’ to critically think about the democratic and undemocratic nature of the opposition parties. There were no particularly big names or a group that left ZANU PF with Tekere into ZUM. He did not depart ZANU PF with a contingent coalescing around an idea or policy.

Some possible explanations could be that the so-called reformers within ZANU PF did not think Tekere was any different from the leader he was fighting and the party he was criticising, or it could have been down to groupthink nearing hysteria. The events that followed underlined the intolerance and violence that befalls divergent views.

It was not uncharacteristic for a liberation party in Zimbabwe not to tolerate a political faction. In the formative days of the struggle, ZAPU split into two because different factions disagreed on the direction the party was to take for liberating the people of Zimbabwe.

The faction – including Robert Mugabe, Leopold Takawira, Morton Malianga, Herbert Chitepo, Nathan Shamuyarira, Ndabaningi Sithole, and others – argued that Nkomo was indecisive.

Political mudslinging and violence followed the split. The Nkomo and Sithole factions traded toxic rhetoric. ZANU comrades were labeled as sellouts and imperialist stooges. YES!, ZANU was accused of being a front for American interests and dividing the struggle. Chikerema led the “Tshombe” (sellout) charges. The rhetorical back and forth reflected a continuation of the disagreement between the former two factions. In the 1980 elections because of unresolved factional problems, there were two ZANU formations. Even the deep distrust between ZAPU and the two ZANU formations outlasted the liberation struggle.

In need of metamorphosis?

Our collective aversion to factions symbolises a deep intolerance of political pluralism expressed in the form of ideas, yet factions in and of themselves may carry productive and insightful value for the body politic.

For ‘us’, political intolerance shares the same birth kernel as our nationalist struggle: they are born of the same peanut pod – with political intolerance issued concreteness by violence. As such, for us, our national struggle – and narrative – are imbued with passionate violence against any idea outside that which is generated by the status quo.

Perhaps, it is not only our factional politics that need a metamorphosis, but it is rather the entirety of our national political culture. Our national politics today are firmly wedded in their roots of aversion to political pluralism and resolutions homed in violence.
There is a productive role that factions can still play in our politics. With cooperative and competitive factions, it means a political party constantly goes through metamorphosis, transforming policy and adjusting to respond to the needs of the people.

Factions should not be confused with party departments. Factions are about ideas and policy formulations, and departments are about the implementation and execution of aggregated ideas. Arguing for factions is not some naïve or idealistic enterprise, but a productive political strategy. The benefits derived from factions and having an environment in which divergent ideas and interests thrive in a political party outweigh the short-term centralised power in one individual.

Of ‘sellouts’ and other labels

‘We’ need to see political factions as they are: signposts for difference, conflict, competition, and divergent thinking within political parties. They are reminders that people organise and congregate around interests that best serve them, and that those interests are not static. It serves no purpose to remain a member of an intra-party faction when it no longer aligns with your ideas and material interests.

The same applies to political parties. People are free to move back and forth depending on policy direction, ideology, and personnel changes. These are things we need to normalise in Zimbabwe politics. In the process, we need to shed off limiting terms like “counter-revolutionary” and “sellout”.

Factionalism has been blamed for causing disunity and party fracture. Inversely, politicians always push for a united voice without regard to how one gets to a united voice. It almost suggests that party stability is predicated on the absence of factions. A united party voice can be a product of policy compromise. How many times have opposition supporters and sympathisers wondered what would have happened if the MDC split in 2005, and every other mutation that followed, had not happened? Where would the opposition be?

It is much easier to focus on the effects of fracture and completely ignore the reasons why the compromise was not found in the first place. Beaming the searchlight on why political organisations are sensitive to factions, and why those factions don’t thrive, might be a useful starting point for democratic deepening conversations.

In a glib announcement of the expulsion of Tendai Biti, the late Morgan Tsvangirai accused Biti of being used by the regime and called him a power-hungry opportunist. In response to the allegations, Biti charged that Tsvangirai had turned the party into some personal fiefdom and challenged the continuation of his undisputed mandate. Tsvangirai, said Biti, was an “illiterate dictator”.

Tendai Biti as leader of breakaway party, PDP


The sellout, counterrevolutionary, or “being used by the state” allegations go back to Charles Mzingeli ’s days.

The theatrics muddies important issues, such as why divergent ideas cannot thrive in a political organisation. When a party lacks a mechanism for handling divergent thinking, often the party risks degeneration, poor policymaking, splinter groups, and a lack of cohesion and organisation of party position. The absence of a robust belief in institutionalism is good fodder for a toxic environment that does not accommodate differences from positions espoused by the one center of power.

Normalising political growth

Zimbabwe has never had a shortage of intra-party-political factions. Ethnicity, class divide, personality, elitism, and ideological bankruptcy have been some of the reasons thrown into the mix to explain factionalism.

The current political rivalries and splits are not an anomaly to the Zimbabwe political scene. An ahistorical (mis)reading of Zimbabwe politics might land one on a belief that factions and factionalism are a new phenomenon. There is value in what historical context brings into the discourse, placing the conversation along a historical timeline of national narratives.

There is a tendency in Zimbabwe politics to consider those who differ from the mainline party position as disloyal and unprincipled, a discourse aided by the public media.

It should be normal within a political party for leaders to lobby members and different groups to leave a faction in favor of another one. The reasons why people congregate or choose to leave a faction are vast. These actions do not necessarily mean one is a sellout, it simply means their interests have changed and found a new home.

The governing party has a blueprint and a direction for Zimbabwe the members envision. The opposition disagrees with the blueprint and vision, and consequently, it has a different one to what the governing party envisions. This disagreement on vision and interest does not cease at the inter-party level, it gains more life and nuance at the intra-party level.

We need to normalise even individuals crossing the lines across a political party. This should not be seen as an indication of ideological bankruptcy; it is a statement of authority that reflects a change in interests. The overbearing and one-sided negative narratives on political factions render moot the exercise of trying to untangle whether an individual’s actions within a political party are opportunistic or genuine changes in policy positions.

The lack of an intra-party democratic environment usually makes leaders and supporters alike conclude that someone is anti-revolutionary, sellout, or is being used by some third force to compromise the struggle. There has been a lot of discourse that paints factions as political cancers and bad for democracy and national politics.

‘We’ have almost treated intra-political party factions as treasonous. Indeed, some calls against personalist factions not organised ideas are noble. However, some of that criticism must be seen as factions trying to outdo each other.

Factions are inevitable. They reflect differences in opinions and interests. They are at the core of our politics. Political factions are group instruments for those without and with. They will not go away, and we must get used to it!


Tatenda Mashanda is a Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland-College Park studying Rhetoric & Political Culture. He can be reached on his Twitter at @tatendamashanda.