Zimbabwe: Deep-Rooted Culture of Political Violence

THE late 1940s, '50s and '60s in Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, witnessed the development of a national consciousness among African people, and a concomitant rise of nationalist political parties fighting colonial rule.

However, as these parties grew in support, strength and capacity they were riddled with political divisions and infighting as well brutal colonial repression.

Despite these impediments, by the end of the 1960s nationalist movement, mainly comprising Zanu and Zapu, had launched the guerrilla warfare that would ultimately bring majority rule to Zimbabwe in 1980. However, divisions and infighting within and between them never ended.

Nationalist politics started in earnest with trade union protests and activities in the late 1940s before successive political parties emerged in the '50s and '60s. Political activism in Southern Rhodesia remained moderate until the late 1950s although anti-colonial groups remained committed to reforming the system.

The first challenge to the colonial order appeared shortly after World War II when African workers staged a series of strikes to protest urban segregation and low wages.

The settler regime ultimately broke the strikes and imposed further restrictions on Africans. This early political activity established a pattern of African protests and severe government backlash that would characterise colonial politics until independence 1980.

There were several parties before the formation of the National Democratic Party (NDP) in 1959. When the Southern Rhodesian government banned the NDP in 1961, its leadership formed Zapu.

However, the government banned Zapu shortly after its formation, and this time the leadership decided to go underground.

After Zapu's banning the party suffered a split that had devastating consequences for the future. In 1963 Ndabaningi Sithole and his followers, including the future leader of independent Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe, broke away from Zapu to form Zanu, while Joshua Nkomo remained the leader of the Zapu.

The two parties were divided by differences in approach, personality clashes and ethnicity.

But their objectives essentially the same. After the split, fierce clashes broke out between Zanu and Zapu supporters.

The conflict, which lasted for years, had a disastrous effect on the nationalist movement. Among other things, the fight sowed the seeds of conflict among blacks and introduced a culture which still endures up to this day: political violence.

Zimbabwe has hardly known peace after independence when it began to lurch from one crisis to another, starting with the Gukurahundi killings following a fall-out between former liberation allies, Zanu and Zapu.

Prior to that, there were clashes between Zanu and parties like Abel Muzorewa's UANC and Sithole's Zanu (Ndonga). Intra-party and inter-party clashes were pervasive and that entrenched a culture of violence in local politics.

After the 1980s massacres, an inquiry was set up but the findings have never been made public. Zanu PF also reacted violently to the formation of the Zimbabwe Unity Movement by its ex-secretary general, the late Edgar Tekere.

The advent of the MDC in 1999 raised expectations of a new political culture, free from violence, given that this was a different generation coming during a different era and under different circumstances.

However, the MDC's promises of a new democratic culture were shown to be mere rhetoric in 2005 when the party faced a split over violent internal power struggles, with the dispute over senatorial elections as the catalyst.

Today, there exist two formations of the MDC, one led by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and the other by his former secretary-general Welshman Ncube. The two foes joined a coalition government in 2009, but violent tendencies seem to have taken root among them, mainly in the formation led by Tsvangirai, indicating the cult of violence remains embedded in local politics.

In the run-up to its congress in Bulawayo last year, the MDC-T was rocked by intra-party violence which swept across its Bulawayo, Chitungwiza, Midlands North, Masvingo and Mashonaland West structures.

Tsvangirai moved to tackle the problem after last year's ugly events.

However, a growing lack of consensus over the issue is delaying its conclusion and punishment of the culprits, Political analyst Blessing Vava said the MDC-T's failure to confront internal political violence was worrying.

"The MDC-T has many heads like an octopus and there is no discipline at all," said Vava. "In the morning, one official says the colour of blood is red and in the afternoon another says it is blue, and in the evening another one says it is pink," he said.

Bulawayo-based commentator and director of Habbakuk Trust, Dumisani Nkomo, said the conflicting statements were symptomatic of "major policy confusion" within the MDC-T which needs to be addressed before elections.

"It may also be an indication that the party is in a quandary as to how to deal with big-wigs implicated without destabilising the party ahead of elections," said Nkomo.

While many are willing to give the MDC-T the benefit of the doubt, the party's leaders are under immense pressure to root out internal violence to avoid going the Zanu PF route.

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