Zimbabwe: Who Is Best Suited to Take Over From Tsvangirai?

Photo: The Herald
Morgan Tsvangirai.

The opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T), has found itself in a quandary yet again. It is a crisis symptomatic of the post-2013 general election which splintered the MDC and gave birth to various political outfits. Its president, Morgan Tsvangirai may only be a few months into involuntary retirement due to his increasingly failing health attributable to a virulent cancer. For the most part last year, he has been missing, away on (sick) leave. This has created a national leadership vacuum, when national politics has reached a crescendo.

Calls for Tsvangirai's resignation are growing louder everyday yet there's no clear indication about a succession plan, especially considering that there are three vice-presidents deputising him. A lot of supporters are now disillusioned with Tsvangirai. Desperation and a great sense of uneasiness are altogether palpable across party affiliations while the calls for an extraordinary congress to "retire" Tsvangirai are billowing.

The Tsvangirai brand equity is gradually diminishing. The international community particularly donors, have been fatigued by his leadership for so many reasons, and have altogether shunned funding the opposition party.

Three vice-presidents (namely Thokozani Khupe, Elias Mudzuri and Nelson Chamisa), the subject of heated electoral speculation, are already jostling to take the reins from the ailing "father of the opposition". The biggest question is: Who is better placed to take the mantle and why?

The next few months prior to 2018 elections, promise an uncertain future for a party that has thrived on Tsvangirai's cult of personality. His legacy is at stake, making it imperative to carve out a path for graceful exist in order to avoid an abrupt anticlimax. If not carefully managed, this succession issue is certain to cause further party fissures. Tsvangirai is in the twilight of his career and the succession hullabaloo is gathering momentum.

The main contenders

Elias Mudzuri

Mudzuri, a civil engineer by profession, Harvard-educated, and an accomplished executive, comes in as a serious contender to replace Tsvangirai. Though coming from semi-obscurity, he has unquestionable integrity, credibility, credentials, grassroots support, acumen and strategy.

As former executive mayor of Harare, Mudzuri is credited with turning the fortunes of the city around by restoring it to its former glory as the "Sunshine City". While he was the national organising secretary, Mudzuri secured electoral victory for MDC in 2008 in Masvingo Province where MDC garnered 14 out of 26 parliamentary seats thereby displaying his organisational prowess.

Mudzuri has a real chance of becoming the next leader of the opposition. He is a fiscal conservative with an impeccable record of successfully running the Ministry of Energy and Power Development as well as Ministry of Mines and Mining Development during the 2009-2013 era.

His power base is resoundingly derived from party structures and traditional chiefs in MDC constituencies and beyond. As a war veteran, he commands respect among chiefs who happen to be indispensable opinion leaders. Zanu PF has been in power largely because of their influence.

Mudzuri clearly has a head-start over his competition in so far as grassroot mobilisation is concerned. He also knows something about running a national campaign.

The oft mentioned downside to his candidacy is that he lacks charisma. Without downplaying that attribute, it is important to note that there are many presidents across the world (past and present) who never possessed that quality but still excelled.

Historians agree that George Washington wasn't particularly charismatic yet he is considered one of the greatest presidents that ever lived. Researchers concluded that he was not charming, energetic, outgoing or gregarious. In fact, it is reported that Washington's inaugural address was uninspiring and overwhelmingly disappointing.

Nelson Chamisa

Chamisa is a bombastic and charismatic candidate but with little executive experience. He has a strong base of youthful supporters across the country. His status as a rising political star and frequent national appearances makes his brand recognition more conspicuous than his opponents.

On paper, Chamisa looks like a strong candidate. However his unbridled ambition causes so many stumbles for him.

He enjoys melodramatic rhetoric and offering simplistic solutions to complex challenges. His age becomes a liability, especially considering that the country is still entrapped in sensitive liberation politics making him less likely to be embraced by the "mature crowd" internally and externally (outside his own party). Traditional party loyalists eye him suspiciously while his perceived cleverness and presumptuousness irk many.

His understanding and management of party politics leaves a lot to be desired. No wonder he suffered heavy defeat in 2014 for the secretary general position which went to Douglas Mwonzora, the incumbent. For a brief moment he found himself in political wilderness having been rejected by the party. It is believed that he was being punished for masterminding candidate imposition back in 2013 which caused a lot of disaffection among MDC structures.

However, Tsvangirai resurrected his career when he appointed him to the tripartite vice-presidential position early this year. It has been ominously concluded that Tsvangirai personally prefers Chamisa to be his heir.

Unverified reports claim that in the background, there are a lot of machinations.

Chamisa enjoys cordial relations and massive support from Elizabeth Macheka, Tsvangirai's wife who paradoxically hails from a deeply entrenched Zanu PF family and whose father is a well-known Zanu PF stalwart who has held influential positions in the party such as central committee executive and mayor of Chitungwiza on a Zanu PF ticket.

Recently Chamisa moved a peripheral motion in Parliament that would criminalise "small houses" (extramarital affairs) much to the chagrin of women, and more so at a time when the country is facing more urgent issues such as economic upheavals and how to deal with a resurgent Zanu PF under the guise of patriotic militarism, an obvious case of state capture by the military.

The latest politically disastrous blunder came in the form of a hastily announced trip to Washington DC to push US Congress for "maintaining sanctions" against Zimbabwe. Last minute efforts to disown his own statements proved futile. If the trip was ever sanctioned by Tsvangirai then it shows how out of touch with reality he (Tsvangirai) has become. One thing is abundantly clear, there was serious lack of strategy in the decision-making process building up to the Washington trip.

Thokozani Khupe

In the aftermath of the 2014 congress, Khupe has emerged as one of the most respected members of the party based on her progressive stances. She has increasingly become vocal about gender equality and women representation in politics as well as her direct criticism of the leadership of Tsvangirai. She is mature, eloquent and well-educated to a doctoral level.

However two key considerations make her path an uphill task. The first is the fact that women are such a minority in political leadership in Zimbabwe which makes her presidential bid untenable. Women are supposed to be Khupe's solid power base.

Secondly, the opposition parties in Zimbabwe have unofficially embraced a Zanu PF model which regrettably buys into the narrative that the country is not yet ready to be led by someone from Matabeleland region given that the Ndebele population is only a minority (approximately 15% of the entire population).

Arguably, another unsettling label is that she has been viewed in some quarters as a divisive leader. Her open antagonism towards Tsvangirai creates unintended consequences for her brand. Going openly against Tsvangirai is usually suicidal as it attracts rebuke from party faithfuls.

For Khupe to succeed in her presidential bid, she would therefore need to heighten her national profile thus transcending regional and tribal politics. At present she's not mainstream enough to win a presidential bid.

In addition she has to display more policy breadth if she is to be a formidable contender. In that context, she has enormous hurdles to overcome. However, regardless of effort, for Khupe vice-presidency comes on a silver platter because of the constituency she represents coupled by the need within the party to maintain a semblance of gender sensitivity.

Mwonzora is a potential wild card who has noticeably become more animated in the political sphere. He certainly could offer a Democratic alternative in the 2018 presidential election. In 2014 he buried Chamisa to claim the prestigious Secretary General position of the MDCT.

Unfortunately his public image suffered a huge blemish emanating from allegations of corruption in his professional life as a practising attorney. He has been mired in controversy surrounding abuse of trust funds and forging court documents. In those cases he has been acquitted. Mwonzora, a hardworking fearless cadre who has served the party well, is firmly in the mix as a powerful dark horse.

Morgan Tsvangirai

For all the talk about his failing health and fatigue, Morgan Tsvangirai is no stranger to defying odds or expectations. He can still shake off the adversity and get back on his feet to reclaim his authority until his party goes for Congress in 2019. He survived attempted political assassinations, death traps and internal coups. He is still standing.

Decades of political experience and continued support (though waning) across the country make him all too popular a candidate. But that all depends on how quickly he can get fit again to withstand the rigmarole of the seasons intense political campaigns. His leadership is severely impaired by the infirmity he's currently battling.

Had it not been because of that, Morgan Tsvangirai would be the perfect candidate to 'finish what he started' and possibly serving only term like Nelson Mandela. But the bottom line is that he has fought a good fight and deserves the entire nation's respect.

His two clearest options would be to appoint a running mate, a potential successor to carry his weight on the campaign trail or resign and leave the rest to internal democratic process. He must be allowed to rest immediately, voluntarily or the 'asante sana' route kicks in. The stakes are high, Zanu PF is forcibly gaining ground while the opposition is losing on a daily basis. This cannot be a game of playing chances but a game of devising winning strategies.

Being a moderate, in a post-Tsvangirai era, Mudzuri would be an asset in so far as uniting the party and the country at large is concerned. He could successfully bridge the gap between bitter political rivals -- Zanu PF and the opposition, in pursuit of national interest. Zanu PF's Machiavellianism brought down the country to its present sorry-state. In addition there's no doubt that Mudzuri is a practical and progressive candidate who possesses technocratic leadership, a key requirement in extricating the country from further rot.

For years, Zimbabwe has been plagued by lack of capital to jump-start the economy. So, in these murky socio-economic and political times that Zimbabwe faces, who will the investors trust more with their precious money and support? An upstart political novice or a seasoned technocrat and mature politician? The choice is clear but time is running out. Tough decisions have to be made. In the final analysis, the inconvenient truth is that, like his predecessor Tsvangirai (sic), Mudzuri is in the same league with Cyril Ramaphosa: they inevitably unlock the much-needed "white monopoly capital'".

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