Guest Opinion

Populism: The MDC leadership albatross? – Dr Itayi Garande 




FRANZ FANON, one of the 20th Century’s most revolutionary voices, wrote in “The Wretched of the Earth”, “Each generation must discover its mission, fulfil it or betray it, in relative opacity”. The 21st Century generation has faced many challenges in discovering its mission, fulfilling it or betraying it. Zimbabwe has not been spared in this challenge. Today, political systems face periods of high volatility in established political systems across the world. These include rising social inequality, poverty, unemployment, increased migration flows, international terrorism and global financial crises.

A neo-liberal and globalised economy altered the power structures of advanced and developing countries alike, making it difficult for national governments to respond quickly enough to national grievances. New challenges to the political arena have emerged, chastising the failures of mainstream elites and offering an alternative, sometimes controversial agendas. These include political parties, social movements and individuals claiming to represent the sovereign will of the people. Populists have emerged, garnering unprecedented media attention and sometimes electoral support. Whether the populists in Zimbabwe have discovered their mission and fulfilled it or betrayed it, is a major question.

What is clear is that opposition leaders in Zimbabwe have effectively shaped our politics, society and culture, despite having many shortcomings. Zimbabwean voters include some of the most civic-minded and intelligent citizens in the land. But opposition politicians, especially the MDC ones, have proved to be a fiasco and a volatile troupe incapable of offering a credible and coherent alternative that commands hegemonically, the political, social and cultural capital of Zimbabwean politics. The MDC, from day one, was an unwitting pawn in a bigger geopolitical agenda of discouraging African leadership from being independent of the West and punctuating the growing influence of China.



It was used as a forward march for the neo-liberal agenda in the whole of Southern Africa. The leadership of that party was too naive, too ambitious and too populist to understand the global context and the wider agenda in which they were couched. They truly believed they were Democrats and progressives. In that regard, the liberal project was successful. The party became, too early in its life, a concerto with too many notes and no single theme – a safe space for anything anti-Mugabe and the promotion of neo-liberalism. There were too many interests, leaders and ideas in that party, all shooting from their individual corners. This scattergun and scatterbrained-approach to politics is a major reason for the current challenges facing Zimbabwe.

There was nothing to unite the diverse political, social and cultural interests in the MDC. For example, there was no ideological meeting of minds between the Rhodies who funded the MDC, the Westminster Foundation, former white farmers, the student and labour movements of the 1990s and the early 2000s and the leadership of the MDC itself. There were too many ideological and class contradictions within that party to sustain the claim that it was a party of the working class.

At the heart of its crisis now is the question: What is the MDC-T for? It is not: Who is their next leader? This is a huge challenge. This is because there is no human resources solution to an ideological problem. There is no Who answer to a What question. Tsvangirai and his team had no clue how to use their power in the Harare political ecosystem during the inclusive Government. Populism and power can make for uncomfortable bedfellows. They arrived super-idealistic about their own capabilities to deliver and resolve intractable 20-century problems.

Thus they found power politics prickly; stranded in office but not in power.

They offered nothing much, but an attitude and a piety, rather than an analysis or a look forward: Zanu-PF should scrap this, ban that, reverse the other. This was not because they were not intelligent, but they had no real strategy, only a bunch of tactics. This is the problem with populism. It offers no honest thinking about practicalities. The modus operandi of populism is to roar, not to reason. Thus you cannot engage populist leaders in the MDC on real issues without sliding into fights or violence. The supporters of these MDC populist leaders welcome the outrage that their leaders provoke. This polarises and bastardises public discourse on serious matters. That’s why today it is difficult to engage the MDC leadership on pertinent cross-party national issues.

The resultant tragedy is that MDC leaders failed to transform into statesmen. Today they face a long struggle to reinstate themselves as a credible alternative, especially without Tsvangirai. They also cannot strike a chord with a growing young and expectant population and rebuild an atrophied party structure on the ground to address challenges in Zimbabwe.In the past the, MDC strategy was to shield its shortcomings by using populist statements against Zanu-PF. This is the insidiousness of opposition politics; that MDC ineptitude needs to be discussed in the context of Zanu-PF shortcomings. This strategy does not work in the post-Mugabe and post-Tsvangirai era and in periods of high volatility in political systems.

Harvest House is now a tangle of chaos and intrigue because it is frustrating to exist for nothing. There’s no political strategy to gain power and nothing works. The MDC-T party looks like an old Western movie in which wheels fall off and axles are shattered as the horses are whipped relentlessly on. You wouldn’t want to run a political party like that.

The question of leadership

The compelling question now is: Who can take over the MDC as the new leader in this populist era to deal with the challenges of the 21st century facing Zimbabwe? Is it Nelson Chamisa, who is populist, sometimes excitable, unfocused, insouciant and slightly flaky?

His rush to galvanise the MDC National Council to appoint him acting president before even Tsvangirai’s body was interred, proves that he has what George Orwell termed “power hunger tempered by self-deception”.

His opportunistic rush to claim leadership of a party in a state of nervous disintegration is a measure of his lack of foward thinking, and his inability to understand the extent of the challenges the country faces. The effect of his move is that he has now backed himself into an impossible position by dividing the party further at a time when the mantra in Zimbabwean opposition is that of a Grand Coalition against Zanu-PF.



The trouble with Chamisa is that he has time and again demonstrated narcissist tendencies. He is not an ideologue. At one time, while pampering Tsvangirai with praises, he took a heavy dig at him in private. WikiLeaks exposed in 2014 that he saw Tsvangirai as a “weak and inept puppet”.

It now smacks of crass opportunism to hear him describe the late Tsvangirai as a hero, and declare that his “legacy is in safe hands”. The irony is that Tsvangirai’s legacy of “weak and inept” leadership might indeed be in safe hands in Chamisa, but their party is not.

Yet Chamisa could transform, age is on his side; but he is encumbered by populist tendencies, and is always searching for applause and hollers from crowds, which does little for his political success.

So far he has not demonstrated that he has compelling ideas about a future Zimbabwe like the young Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo did for their generation in the 1960s.

Chamisa missed an opportunity to deliver an impassioned eulogy for Tsvangirai. That will cost him dearly. His brand has now taken an almost irreversible whiff of toxicity. Many leaders make momentous speeches at such occasions to present themselves as serious contenders for leadership.

He failed to change his abrasive personality and transform into statesmen Thus, in Gramsci’s words, within the MDC, “The old is dying, and the new cannot be born”.

Like Tsvangirai’s, the paradox of Chamisa’s personality is that he wants mainstream recognition, yet he also wants to be a perpetual populist rebel. He thus self-destructs by always pushing the political boundaries with politically charged vacuous statements that are less cerebral and more combative. His leadership cannot, therefore, be trusted.

His bizarre rumbling “eulogy” characterised by vacuous bombast and outrage against President Mnangagwa, Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga and Zanu-PF in general at Tsvangirai’s funeral was naive and rose-tinted. It may have been indulged as political cabaret by an MDC audience, but elsewhere it looked crass and unprofessional as a eulogy for a leader the party was otherwise canonising.

The greatest tragedy of opposition politics in Zimbabwe is that most of its leadership is like Chamisa are combative and always expressing outrage at Zanu-PF, with no articulation of any vision for a future Zimbabwe. “Outrage is easy, but strategy is difficult. Outrage may provide the necessary motivation, but only strategy can deliver generational solutions,” one Western leader said.

Disenchantment with politics generally

The political fault lines in Zimbabwe have changed in line with the global changes and challenges of the 21st century. In a populist, fake-news, anti-intellectual era, we see disenchantment with all political parties and all political players.

In Zimbabwe, the rush to embrace flaky individuals like those of the “This Flag” movement and other zero-hit political wonders is a sign of that disenchantment. The irony of such disenchantment with mainstream politics – in the absence of a good alternative – is that it’s the most mainstream establishment party – Zanu-PF – the one that gains the most despite its own internal problems.

However, disenchantment is not an open ticket for ineptitude. Leaders are still punished for their ineptitude because it is more glaring in a world of social media as events move fast and the people are more informed.

The leadership of the MDC – including the late Tsvangirai, Tendai Biti, Welshman Ncube, and others, indulged in far too much high-flown waffle and promised more than they could deliver. Zimbabweans, however, saw a yawning gulf between their populist rhetoric and reality once they went into Government.

Chamisa and other opportunistic opposition leaders today are making the same mistake of pre-programming disgruntlement by promoting another futuristic grand design that will never be delivered. Zimbabweans are tough people. Opposition politics is just an overlay on a socio-political culture of resistance that goes back over 120 years to the Pioneer Column, to the two Chimurengas and to the post-colonial struggles against neo-colonialism and neo-liberalism.

The MDC-T still has to understand this and offer serious alternative positions on the future of Zimbabwe. Their intellectually lazy habit of ignoring history is one reason why they cannot think of an alternative that appeals to the generality of the Zimbabwean population in the 21st century.

To bring about change, and then shape Zimbabwe afterwards, is a feat of high politics. It requires conviction politicians with stamina and seriousness, not an inexperienced political class whose amateurism is validated by populism.

If the opposition leaders today are to discover their mission, they need to understand the challenges of the 21st century and provide properly nuanced alternatives.


Dr Itayi Garande is a lawyer based in the United Kingdom and at the Gold Souk in Dubai. He can be reached via itayig@hotmail.com

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