Zimbabwe’s Moment of Hope – 20 years of the MDC

Twenty years ago today a major new political movement emerged in Zimbabwe. The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) was founded at a mass rally on 11 September 1999, in the capital Harare. At the time it marked the high-point of popular struggles across the continent and it was the first time since independence in 1980 that the country’s president, Robert Mugabe, was seriously threatened. Farai Chipato celebrates both the achievements of the MDC and examines its tragic and calamitous mistakes.

By Farai Chipato

11 September 2019 marks 20 years since the founding of Zimbabwe’s main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the first movement that truly threatened the dominance of the ruling ZANU-PF party and president Robert Mugabe. The MDC began as the political voice of a broad alliance of Zimbabweans who sought political, social and economic change in Zimbabwe, spurred by disillusion with the failures of the country’s once radical liberation movement.  Since 1999, it has weathered two difficult decades, beset by an authoritarian government, violent elections, internal strife. Moreover, much of the party’s original ideological drive has been lost in its struggle to unseat long term president Robert Mugabe, and his successor Emmerson Mnangagwa. It is worth reflecting on both the achievements and the mistakes that have led the party to this point and considering its prospects for contributing to a more equal future for Zimbabwe.

The MDC was born in 1999 out of a broad movement of civil society groups that had been pushing for constitutional reform in the face of increasing economic hardship and political repression. Led by a mixture of trade unionists, church leaders, and intellectuals, the movement had arisen in response to the economic devastation created by structural adjustment economic policies in the 1990s, frustrated by a lack of government consultation, and the erosion of earlier gains in education and health, made in the 1980s. As it became clear that ZANU-PF was intent on subverting the constitutional reform movement, its leaders came together to form the MDC, with respected trade union leader Morgan Tsvangirai as its leader.

The new party had an immediate political impact, striking an early blow against ZANU-PF in early 2000. When the government put forward a new constitution for a referendum in February, intended to centralise and strengthen its power, the new MDC party was at the forefront of the campaign that defeated the new document. Building on this success, the party won a significant number of seats in the parliamentary election later that year. In the early 2000s, the MDC leadership moved to strengthen and institutionalise the party, whilst setting out to challenge the long-held ZANU-PF hegemony. In 2002, Tsvangirai contested his first presidential election, receiving over 40 percent of the vote, despite an unfair election and providing Robert Mugabe with his first serious challenger since independence in 1980.

Despite these successes, the party struggled with contradictory impulses and factional rivalry from the beginning. There was always a tension at its heart, between its more radical elements, including trade unions and socialist groups, and elite interests, like professionals and business leaders, particularly white Zimbabwean farmers. The association with white agricultural capital became more detrimental as ZANU-PF shored up its base through its support of invasions of white owned farms and a programme of land redistribution in the early 2000s. As the international community lent its support and financial resources to the MDC in opposition to these policies, some Zimbabweans dismissed the party as a neo-colonial agent, due to its lack of engagement with the issue. By rejecting many of the legitimate demands of the land reform movement, the party ceded the agenda to ZANU-PF, alienating many rural Zimbabweans. Moreover, the more radical elements of the party were already being marginalised, with socialist member of parliament Munyaradzi Gwisai expelled from the party in 2002. Gwisai argued that the party had been co-opted by elite interests, straying from its roots in the trade union movement.

These problems were exacerbated by factional splits within the party over strategy, leading to a breakaway group forming the rival MDC-M after the 2005 senate elections, led by academic and former student activist Arthur Mutambara. Key leaders, including former trade unionist Gibson Sibanda, and lawyer Welshman Ncube left to join the new party, weakening the opposition. This dynamic was mirrored in a fragmentation of its support among civil society groups and the workers movement, who were forced to take sides in the disputes. The strain of violent reprisals and persecution by the security services also took their toll on the opposition, as the government became increasingly ruthless in its bid to stay in power.

By the 2008 general election, Zimbabwe was in crisis, due to hyperinflation and increasing repression by the ZANU-PF government. Electoral violence reached a crescendo when Tsvangirai narrowly beat Mugabe in the presidential vote, precipitating a second-round ballot between the two candidates. The government responded by deploying the security services to terrorise opposition supporters, prompting many to go into hiding and Tsvangirai to withdraw from the second round, ceding victory to ZANU-PF. Whilst an internationally mediated settlement ended the crisis by creating a government of national unity (GNU), MDC-T’s decision to back down cost them overall victory, allowing ZANU-PF enough space to cling on to power.

During the GNU, both the MDCs entered government with Mugabe’s ZANU-PF, with Tsvangirai installed as prime minister, Mutambara as his deputy, and prominent MDC leader Tendai Biti taking on the finance ministry. The party played a key role in stabilising Zimbabwe’s ailing economy, introducing a basket of international currencies to replace the now worthless Zimbabwe dollar, and providing a foundation for some economic growth. However, MDC leaders were unable to put in place security sector reform or overhaul the electoral system, key elements of the state that had been captured by ZANU-PF. The party leadership also became increasingly distant from the wider movement, as the international community channelled funding to Tsvangirai’s office, and its policies became heavily influenced by international development orthodoxy Several MDC politicians were also embroiled in embarrassing corruption scandals that tarnished the reputation of the party.

When the GNU ended in 2013, and a new general election was called, Robert Mugabe had rebuilt his party’s strength, and skilfully sowed dissent among opposition politicians, who proved ill-prepared for the campaign. ZANU-PF won a surprise landslide victory, leaving MDC supporters demoralised, and the Zimbabwean people disillusioned with the possibilities of opposition politics. The party was engulfed with further factional struggles, leading Biti to be expelled from in 2014.

As Tsvangirai’s health failed, the impetus of resistance to ZANU-PF’s authoritarian policies and economic mismanagement shifted to new, social media-fuelled social movements, led by a new generation of activists. Many young Zimbabweans and civil society commentators felt that both the MDC and NGOs had become too fixated on promoting political rights, like freedom of speech, at the expense of focusing on the socio-economic needs of ordinary Zimbabweans, that had originally animated the opposition movement. Activist and human rights lawyer Doug Coltart argued that, ‘when the 2016 social movements emerged, MDC was in disarray and people found a new avenue.’ By the time Robert Mugabe was finally ousted in 2017, due to his erratic policies and intra-party intrigue, it was his own deputy, aided by the security services, who led the way.

The MDC-T’s decision to support what amounted to a military coup in 2017 proved another error, as it helped to legitimise the rule of Zimbabwe’s new president Emmerson Mnangagwa, who entrenched an increasingly militarised ZANU-PF in power. However, by this point Tsvangirai was ailing, and he passed away in February 2018, mourned by many across the political spectrum for his brave leadership and unrelenting activism. Unfortunately, his dominance of the party over the previous two decades left a political vacuum, leading to further factional disputes over the succession to the leadership. Nelson Chamisa, a young lawyer and evangelical preacher, and a former vice-president of the party ultimately prevailed as the new leader, but many within the party questioned his undemocratic ascent to power. One of Tsvangirai’s other deputies, Thokozani Khupe disputed Chamisa’s leadership, and left the party, taking many supporters with her to form a rival MDC-T.

Despite these inauspicious beginnings, Chamisa was able to unite many elements of the opposition in the new MDC Alliance, which brought back several previously alienated leaders, including Biti and Welshman Ncube. This allowed the MDC to make a strong showing the 2018 presidential election against ZANU-PF, with Chamisa’s firebrand oratory and youthful enthusiasm comparing well to Mnangagwa’s stiff campaigning. Whilst the president was just about able to secure victory, once again helped by electoral manipulation and the use of state institutions, Chamisa was shown to be a potent electoral force and a threat to ZANU-PF in future contests.

Less encouragingly, the campaign was increasingly fought on personality rather than policy, with both MDC and ZANU-PF putting forward manifestos that promoted similar neo-liberal policies that involved cutting public spending, encouraging international investment and reducing restrictions for businesses. The MDC’s background in the labour movement was becoming increasingly irrelevant, as the new generation of leaders were drawn from the legal profession or academia, and the trade unions were hamstrung by mass unemployment. Academic and labour researcher Godfrey Kanyenze believes that de-industrialisation and informalisation during the 2000s ‘really destroyed the social base of the MDC and also of the labour movement,’ leaving the party disconnected from the workers who had initially supported it.

Since the 2018 election, Zimbabwe has once again suffered from a rising economic crisis, coupled with political violence, as the government seeks to consolidate its control. Although ZANU-PF put on a front for the 2018 elections, promising an end to corruption and an opening up of democratic space, by 2019 the violence and repression had returned. The MDC has refused to recognise the results of the 2018 election but has little recourse to overturn Mnangagwa’s win.

MDC’s future trajectory is hard to judge, but the party seems to have drifted far from its roots in radical economic activism and the workers movement, moving more towards its pro-business wing. There are also some worrying signs from Chamisa’s new generation, which has focused on building up his personal brand, using chauvinistic rhetoric to attack those who question his authority in the party.

Despite these misgivings, the MDC remains the best hope for change in Zimbabwe, compared to the ZANU-PF, which is now fully reliant on the security services, the army and a kleptocratic system to maintain its rule. Beyond its potential to bring about change, the brave activism of MDC politicians and supporters, often in the face of mortal danger, must be also recognised. Over the past 20 years, members of the party have suffered financial hardship, harassment, injury and even death in pursuit of a better Zimbabwe, and for this they should be saluted.

Farai Chipato is a PhD candidate in the School of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary University of London. His research concerns the relationship between development donors and civil society organisations in Zimbabwe, with particular reference to democracy and human rights issues. Farai is a member of ROAPE’s Editorial Working Group.

Featured Photograph: an MDC-T demonstration in Harare in April 2016 (‘MDC-T Demo: A reflection of people’s growing anger‘ in The Independent 22 April, 2016).


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