An ailing long-time leader allegedly being taken advantage of by a faction that is using his wife. A presidential spokesman under attack. Party leaders responding to calls for new leadership with shouts of “there’s no vacancy.”
A party’s women’s and youth wings vowing to stand by their leader forever, and a vice president accused of trying to usurp power.
That is the ZANU-PF we have all known over recent years, right? Except, this is not ZANU-PF. It is the opposition MDC-T.
Denials and praise singing
In the escalating war over the future of Morgan Tsvangirai, and for control of the party he has led for close to 20 years, the MDC-T is going through all the ZANU-PF stages of succession.
First are the denials that the party is divided over succession. This is accompanied by praise singing for the leader, as rivals battle to show loyalty, lest they be accused of being too ambitious. Then there is the stage in which rival leaders are accused of working with external forces.
Then come the messy stages, in which the family steps in, leaders trade insults, and stories against rivals are planted in the media.
All the while, the party leader is portrayed as some indispensable god, even if the praise only makes him actually appear as a helpless figure fast losing control.
First, the denials. “There are no factions in the MDC. We just read about these clashes on social media but in reality there are no factions,” MDC-T spokesman Obert Gutu said this week. In 2013, Emmerson Mnangagwa had almost identical denials. “Who said there are divisions in ZANU-PF? I just read that through newspapers.”
They get to the stage where they admit there are differences, which they try to spin positively.
These are just “healthy differences and spirited debates”, MDC-T VP Elias Mudzuri said this week. Compare with Mnangagwa two years ago, when he said: “People share different views and it’s healthy for the party.”
Then there is the “we only have one leader” stage.
The no vacancy syndrome
In ZANU-PF, ahead of the 2014 congress, the chant “Gushungo Chete Chete” dominated meetings, as members were browbeaten to show support for Mugabe’s “one centre of power” move. Today, the MDC-T has adopted a similar slogan, “Save Chete Chete”, to show loyalty.
Just as ZANU-PF told us there was “no vacancy” in the presidency, MDC-T secretary general Douglas Mwonzora used those exact same words on Monday. “I now that there is no vacancy for president in my party because Tsvangirai is still there,” he said.
Then you get to the stage where the party leader is compared to royalty, in order to silence talk of succession.
“In my Ndebele culture, it is wrong for a king’s two sons to discuss succession when the king is still alive,” MDC-T organising secretary Abednico Bhebhe was quoted as saying this week.
Shades of Johannes Ndanga, a pro-Mugabe apostolic church leader, who last year declared: “Mugabe is our king, and kings are not elected, they are installed by God”. Or Didymus Mutasa, who once told the BBC, “You have your queen, we have our king”.
The woman behind
There is also the stage when the family gets involved.
For Mugabe, it was his wife Grace taking over as women’s league leader, before angling to be Vice President. For Tsvangirai, it has not yet come to that. So far, his wife, Elizabeth, has steered clear of the limelight. However, a rival faction is whispering to journalists and in the party structures that she too is pulling levers behind the scenes, prodding her husband to retire and leave power in the hands of Nelson Chamisa.
We have even seen the stage where the leader’s spokesman is accused of being captured by a faction. MDC-T’s Bhebhe criticised Luke Tamborinyoka, Tsvangirai’s spokesman, for a statement in which Tsvangirai hinted at retirement.
“We all know that any sick person does not think straight hence we suspect that the statement did not originate from him,” Bhebhe said, casting his own leader in bad light.
One group in the MDC-T claims Tamborinyoka is not speaking for his boss, but for a faction. Nothing new there. A flashback to Sarah Mahoka, who openly challenged Mugabe in public to say whether or not his spokesman George Charamba was speaking for him when he criticised G40 politicians. Jonathan Moyo whined at the time: “Charamba must not abuse his civil servant role as Information Perm Sec to serve successionists.”
It has not been as dramatic as when Grace put down Charamba in Chinhoyi, but we have again seen a spokesman being silenced by a leader’s family. Last week, Tsvangirai’s two brothers, Collins and Manase, publicly muted Tamborinyoka and made Elias Mudzuri Tsvangirai’s sole spokesman. Bizarrely, Collins later told the media that Tsvangirai had not authorised that decision. It was a family decision to silence a party employee.
There is now talk of the family being used to get to Tsvangirai. We’ve seen this before, when Charamba complained about people “who think by sheer proximity, they can build messages around the First Family”.
There is also the stage in which leaders secretly accuse each other of being used by external forces. In ZANU-PF, it was either a rival was used by the whites, big business or even the CIA. In the MDC-T, Chamisa has been accused of leading a faction somehow backed by the army.
Then, leaders will start lobbing barely hidden insults at each other. Just as ZANU-PF leaders insulted each other through the press and through social media, MDC-T leaders’ bitter online posts are today a window into the internal battles going on behind closed doors.
On Tuesday, Chamisa tweeted: “I’m ready for it all. They’ll manufacture lies, construct theories, drag my name in the mud, call me names, label & condemn me, claim me preposterously & align me to imaginary sides, own and even disown me, but that won’t change who I am; a patriot fighting for my generation.”
The familiar script
We have all read this script before, and it comes from one place; a refusal by leaders to plan for their own succession. Tsvangirai has led the MDC-T since 1999. Externally, he made his party a force in Zimbabwean politics, ever a thorn in Mugabe’s side. But, internally, the party suffered damaging splits that bled out some of its best brains over the years.
Appointing two extra VPs was a move to try and manage competing interests, but it only helped to isolate Thokozani Khupe, the only elected deputy. Tsvangirai cannot cherry pick a successor and still leave his party intact. Khupe’s allies say she will quit if he does so, and supporters of Mudzuri too would protest.
An open contest at a special congress is the only option that is in line with party laws, and he will likely eventually go that route to ensure that he leaves with his democrat credentials intact. But given the bitterness on display, the MDC-T seems unprepared for a cordial internal election, especially so close to national polls.
In their two decades of rivalry, Mugabe and Tsvangirai hardly ever agreed on much. But on succession, Tsvangirai and the MDC-T seem intent on following the Mugabe and ZANU-PF manual.
Just like Mugabe, Tsvangirai left his succession planning too late. Now, he fears that whatever options he has left – staying, anointing a successor or allowing an open contest – may weaken his party. And with each passing day that he dithers more and more on a decision, he looks less and less in control of his fate or that of his party.
We have seen this all before.