ALEX MAGAISA . . . “The many different voices in opposition, each doing their own thing, trying to fight a formidable opponent like zanu-pf, do not inspire a great deal of confidence among the people”

ALEX MAGAISA . . . “The many different voices in opposition, each doing their own thing, trying to fight a formidable opponent like zanu-pf, do not inspire a great deal of confidence among the people”

Tichaona Zindoga THE INTERVIEW

Former advisor to opposition MDC-T leader Morgan Tsvangirai Dr Alex Magaisa has conceded that opposition failure to defeat the ruling zanu-pf is down to the ruling party being too “formidable” for the weak, ever-splitting opposition which lacks the “formula” to breach the dominance of zanu-pf. The academic discusses a range of other opposition political issues with our Political Editor Tichaona Zindoga (TZ). We bring you the excerpts of their wide-ranging interview.

TZ: The MPOI/Afrobarometer survey on political attitudes, which you tried to unpack in an article on your blog, shows a majority preference for President Mugabe and poor, if consistent, showing for the opposition. In your assessment, has the opposition reached its ceiling in Zimbabwe?

AM: My message to the opposition in the wake of the Afrobarometer survey has been that the opposition should not be flippant in their response to its findings. Even if they have criticisms of the report and believe that it is not a true reflection of the people’s attitudes, my advice has been to adopt the “What if it is correct?” approach.

In other words, even if you don’t believe it, assume that it might be right and find ways of addressing the issues that it raises. More directly, I don’t think one could definitively say the opposition has reached its ceiling in Zimbabwe. Politics is dynamic and it is dangerous to pronounce the death of opposition politics on the basis of this survey. Nevertheless, it is common cause that the opposition has gone through some difficult times in the past two years. These challenges were more prominent last year and, at the time that the survey was conducted, in November 2014, the main opposition party – the MDC-T – was dealing with a messy internal split, after some of its senior leaders broke away to form the MDC Renewal formation. There was a lot of confusion and uncertainty among the ranks and all these problems afflicting the opposition may have contributed to its poor showing in the survey.

TZ: What can you attribute this to if that is the case? If not, how do you see the opposition improving its fortunes?

AM: I have already addressed most of the issues under the first question. Like I said, I don’t think the opposition parties have reached their ceiling yet. Let me be clear here: Zimbabwe needs a strong opposition because it is a necessary part of the checks and balances that are critical in a democracy.

Zanu-PF itself knows that a firm opposition is necessary. It is in Zimbabwe’s interests to have a stable opposition that performs its democratic mandate. But really, the most important issue, the elephant in the room, for the opposition is unity among the numerous formations.

The opposition needs to address this issue of fragmentation. There is too much fragmentation of opposition forces in Zimbabwe and this is unhelpful especially when dealing with a formidable opponent like Zanu-PF, which is not only older and has considerably more experience but also has the advantages of incumbency.

This is the question they have to deal with to bring a new dynamic to the Zimbabwean body politic. If they can unite, they will provide a more effective voice of opposition to the ruling party and rejuvenate morale among their supporters and Zimbabweans generally. It will excite people and bring a new vibe to Zimbabwean politics. The many different voices in opposition, each doing their own thing, trying to fight a formidable opponent like Zanu-PF, do not inspire a great deal of confidence among the people.

TZ: What do you make of the constant splits in the opposition MDC-T?

AM: My theory is that post-2013, there was a lot of frustration and fatigue in the party. I had worked very closely with all these people and I know how much we were all hopeful that we would form the next government and I also know how there was serious trauma after what happened on July 31 (2013 elections). People do not talk about it often but it was a traumatic experience, and it still is for many people. This frustration and fatigue, I think also led people to ask questions and to think that it was necessary to explore new channels. After July 31, people did not know what to do. They looked at what had happened in shock and asked, what else do we have to do to win power that we have not done before?

But even if the questions that were being asked were important, I had my misgivings over the manner in which those who asked handled it. I think there was a lot of haste and impatience, at a time when calm reflection was required. But ofttimes, it is hard to restrain the force of ambition. I still hope that people across the divide will find common ground and that they will work together again. They are better together and I still have a lot of respect for colleagues on both sides. We endured a lot together and those ties don’t just melt away like that.

TZ: Between strategy and policy, which do you think is Tsvangirai’s undoing?

AM: I don’t think Tsvangirai’s undoing has been a lack of strategy or policy, but the fact that he has been fighting a strong opponent who has the backing of the State and its considerable apparatus. If strategy is an issue, then it is that the MDC has yet to find the formula to unlock Zanu-PF’s grip on political power.

Zanu-PF has been in power for a long time and it has entrenched itself so that when you look at it, you would think the State is Zanu-PF and Zanu-PF is the State. This is difficult to separate and to defeat. The MDC has not found the formula to breach this and this has been a key impediment in the path towards power. The MDC almost got there in 2008 but again they found Zanu-PF too hard and impossible to overcome.

TZ: Do you think boycotting elections is a good policy decision by MDC-T?

AM: In politics, the principle of majority rule has to be respected and boycotting elections is a decision that was taken by the party’s Congress in October 2014. For that reason, it deserves respect. They have given out their reasons for that decision. The only point I would say is that no rule in politics is immutable and for that reason, the election boycott decision should never be regarded as immutable. You have to be dynamic. If you have immutable rules, you become predictable and easy for your opponents.

Having been close to the scene of action in the July 31 elections, I understand and have sympathy for the party’s decision to boycott, although I also believe that the decision was two years too late. That decision would have made more sense in 2013, when it was clear that we were going into a rushed election without reforms.

Further, I also believe that when you take a position such as a boycott, it makes sense only if you have a back-up plan. You have to say, you are boycotting but you are also doing A, B, C, D, to ensure that your demands for reforms are met. Otherwise you will remain in a perpetual state of boycott.

Or if you eventually change your mind after many boycotts, people will say, but why did you waste all those opportunities boycotting elections? Knowing Zanu-PF, I think it’s hoping for too much to expect it to ignite reforms simply because of a boycott without more. You have to apply pressure and to do more to bring about the needed reforms.

TZ: Do you think the MDC-T is genuine or logical in calling for electoral reforms after failing to implement the same under the inclusive Government?

AM: Looking back, failing to have electoral reforms during the GNU era was a big failing but having been close to the action I know they tried but they were facing a well-drilled and stubborn system. When the GNU came, I was one of its biggest supporters because I believed it was an opportunity for the opposition to bring some influence into Government and to promote reforms from within the system. But the opposition remained the opposition. They were always outsiders, like distant relatives at a wealthy cousin’s wedding.

It was a difficult experience, partly because the Global Political Agreement was not very well negotiated and it left Zanu-PF with a lot more power than the results of the 2008 elections allowed. The result was that constrained by the protocol of office and comforted by the luxuries of office, the MDC was not able to use its vantage position to influence many reforms. It is very hard, now that they are out of Government, to see how these reforms can be achieved to full satisfaction.

TZ: The expulsion from Zanu-PF of former VP Joice Mujuru has long been speculated to provide the elixir to local politics. What are the chances of an alliance between Mujuru and Tsvangirai and what would be the implications of that on the political landscape of the country?

AM: That cannot be ruled out. Both have critical constituencies and both command respect in their respect zones of influence. But they might realise that they are better together. In 2008, I called for a coalition between Simba Makoni and Morgan Tsvangirai, because I believed each would give the other something they did not have. But to do that some sacrifices needed to be made. At the time people did not pay attention. Some even castigated me and said I was wrong in my assessment. However, five years later, in 2013, Tsvangirai and Makoni formed a coalition, the very same coalition that I had suggested five years earlier. But by 2013, it was five years too late.

TZ: Two former heavies in Zanu-PF, Messrs Rugare Gumbo and Didymus Mutasa, have been vocal in the Press. Do you think they may amount to much politically in their Zanu-PF afterlife and what do you think they may do; join the opposition?

AM: They were part of the same system that they are now castigating, so when they speak it sounds like a case of sour grapes. All these things that they are castigating now, we have castigated them before. It’s not new. But we shouldn’t forget that both are also part of the old generation. I think it’s time for a new generation of Zimbabwean politicians and Government functionaries. The older guys can help us with their wisdom, but we should be there at the forefront and taking greater responsibility for our country. We cannot stand by and remain commentators forever.

TZ: Lastly, your take on the future and prospects of opposition politics in the short to medium term?

AM: As for the opposition specifically, I think there is need for stability in leadership but the current leaders need to put their heads together and explore a broad coalition. The people are not happy with a fragmented opposition because they know that Zanu-PF is formidable and a divided opposition will always struggle against it.

But after all is said and done, every Zimbabwean should appreciate the importance of a strong opposition. It is a necessary part of our fledgling democracy.