BSR: Profiting from adversity


The ancient Chinese philosopher, war strategist and general, Sun Tzu had some advice on turning a weakness into a strength. A good soldier, wrote Master Sun, must turn the “long and tortuous route into the direct”. He must, “turn adversity into advantage”. This is an important skill which applies to all human encounters and conflicts. It was on show this week when the opposition found itself in a space that at first sight appeared adverse. But it walked away with its head held high, having accomplished more than one mission.

The Commission of Inquiry into Post-Election Violence was not a fair platform from the beginning and the opposition had previously expressed its concerns. Its composition and terms of reference were serious points of concern.

As has been argued in a previous BSR, the commission was appointed by an interested party because as president at the relevant time, President Mnangagwa would have been responsible for the deployment of troops during the protests on August 1 2018. There were also conflicted individuals on account of their political affiliation and previous statements regarding the incidents under investigation. Finally, the terms of reference were too limited and appeared to have a bias towards finding fault with the opposition.

In short, the commission was a point of adversity for the opposition. Therefore, there were serious questions over participation in its proceedings. Two diametrically opposed positions emerged:

One view was that the opposition’s participation would endorse and legitimise the commission’s work when there were serious concerns over its credibility. It would be difficult to dismiss its output after voluntarily submitting to it. There was a worry that it would also, by extension, signify opposition consent to Mnangagwa as legitimate because he is the commission’s appointing authority. Would it not be double-standards to argue that Mnangagwa was illegitimate while at the same time participating in a commission that he set up? It was a difficult question.

Furthermore, critics thought the commission was no more than an instrument to white-wash the unlawful killing of civilians and absolve the state, ZANU PF and the military while even laying blame on the opposition. A narrative that had been promoted through state media was that opposition leaders had incited protestors to go into the streets and that this was grossly irresponsible.

Others saw it as a public relations exercise by the Mnangagwa regime aimed at the international community which had been highly critical of the excessive use of force in response to the protests. Mnangagwa had spent months on a charm offensive, trying to woo the West and the August 1 killings had dealt a severe blow to these efforts. Indeed, there is force in the argument that the August 1 killings did severe damage to the credibility and legitimacy of the election as a whole. Those who had been prepared to ignore election irregularities and work with Mnangagwa on the basis of pragmatism balked and were forced into a hasty retreat after the brutal crackdown.

It was partly on this basis that it was argued that participating in the commission would be a pointless exercise.

The second view was that, in fact, the commission presented an opportunity for the opposition to articulate its position on elections and political violence and to counter the narrative that had been promoted by the state that its leaders had incited violence. They would be doing so not merely to the commission but to a wider audience following the proceedings. “Opportunities multiply as they are seized,” Sun Tzu wrote. This was an opportunity for the opposition to articulate its own narrative of political violence and place it on the record. This is a platform that had not been availed before.

It would be good for the opposition to give a voice to victims of violence over the years, because that history of political violence provides a good context for understanding what transpired on August 1. Furthermore, from a political perspective, the commission presented a second official platform after the Constitutional Court hearing back in August, to articulate the opposition’s narrative on the election and the legitimacy question. It would not change the Court’s decision, but it would enhance the opposition’s narrative on the question of political legitimacy.

The opposition’s leadership took the position that they would not volunteer to appear before the commission. However, the game changed when the commission summoned them by way of invitation. At that point, they decided, out of respect to the laws of the land and its institutions to present themselves before the commission.

However, they made it clear that they were appearing on a without prejudice basis and under protest. They accomplished one important objective which was to show the world that they were not petulant or petty and that despite their objections, they would submit before the commission. The challenge then was to turn adversity into advantage.

Turning adversity into advantage

Both Nelson Chamisa and Tendai Biti delivered eloquent, powerful and compelling testimonies. In the end, the commissioners were asking for recommendations from the two opposition leaders. What had appeared to be hostile territory was turned into friendly ground, where mutual respect was evident.

Biti was the first to give testimony. He was calm, composed and erudite as he delivered his testimony. An important strategy that enhanced Biti’s testimony was the element of surprise that it contained. “Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt,” wrote Master Sun, pointing to surprise as an important strategy of war.

That is precisely what Biti did. Detractors expected him to be emotional, aggressive and brash. Instead, he was humble, calm, controlled and respectful. Detractors expected the Biti the politician to turn up. Instead, it was Biti the advocate who turned up. He presented his testimony as he would do if he were arguing a matter in a court of law. He commanded the stage, knew when to pause for effect, to let the message sink and when to resume. He was respectful and recognised the authority of the commission, even though he disagreed with its composition and terms of reference.

He went on for a long time, but it was hard to let go. His purpose was very simple: he wanted the commissioners to get a full picture of the history of political violence in Zimbabwe. That context, he said, was relevant to understand the events of August 1. This was a violent state. It has always been violent from day one. Violence was there at the founding of the colonial state and throughout the colonial experience, during the liberation war and it continued after independence.

His critics think the historical testimony was irrelevant to the issue at hand. But it is more probable that their annoyance with the historical tour was not so much because it was irrelevant but because it was inconvenient. It was inconvenient because it gave the commission and the watching world a fuller and clearer picture that August 1 cannot be viewed in isolation; that he state is institutionally violent and what happened cannot be divorced from this history of state impunity. Biti excavated and gave life to old skeletons that ZANU PF has buried over the years and they did not like it.

The strategy was to remind the world that ZANU PF is a violent party. “We are the victims,” Biti said with emphasis, as he listed the periods of extreme political violence unleashed by ZANU PF including Gukurahundi and the 2008 election violence. Biti took his time to recount specific cases of political violence and perhaps the most touching were his stories of the murders at Chaona village and the murder of Tonderai Ndira. But where was this leading to? Not only that ZANU PF is a violent party but that perpetrators have never been prosecuted. He painted a picture of impunity that leads to state agents and ZANU PF supporters violating people’s rights because they are always protected.

Wherever they were, ZANU PF leaders would have been squirming in their seats as Biti eloquently traversed the stage. In the end, the commissioners expressed their gratitude for the history lesson. When Chamisa came, the main meal had been served and all he had to do was to prepare and deliver the dessert. And he did that with a flourish. Like his Deputy Chairperson, Chamisa was respectful yet firm in his delivery. A platform which had initially appeared like hostile territory turned into an opportunity to showcase the opposition as a credible and legitimate force with a clear narrative. The voices of victims of previous state-sponsored violence were heard.

In the midst of those testimonies was a conversation that went on between Biti and Chamisa on the one hand and Professor Lovemore Madhuku, one of the commissioners. Biti and Chamisa carefully decided not to antagonise Madhuku, an old comrade from the democratic struggle and a victim of state-sponsored violence who now sat on the other side of the desk. Biti poked Madhuku’s conscience, tactfully reminding him that he too was a victim of the violent state.

Madhuku sat quietly, and although he tried to remain composed, his face betrayed emotion sparked by the recollection of how he was beaten up along with other opposition figures in March 2007. It was a sobering moment, especially because sitting alongside Madhuku was fellow commissioner Manyeruke, whom Biti had already identified as an official and member of ZANU PF, the party behind that political violence in 2007.

Chamisa and Biti had shown respect to the commission and statesmanship by honouring its invitation and testifying despite their objections to its composition and terms of reference. They could have chosen petulance and refused to appear, sparking a tussle with the commission. Although they had strong objections, they would not have come out well from that tussle. Throughout the world, even if people have objections to an official organ, the expectation is that they would at least honour it if they are called. The opposition leadership did just that, thereby showing respect not only to the commission but also to its members.

The latter point is important because, despite the flaws in its local membership, the commission has highly-regarded international statesmen on its panel such as former South African President Kgalema Motlanthe and Chief Emeka Anyaouku, a former Secretary General of the Commonwealth. The commission appearance was also an opportunity to speak to them directly. It was also an opportunity to make an impression upon them and through them upon others with whom they are associated. They will be messengers of what the opposition is about and the in-depth and well-prepared submissions would have made a good impression.

Chamisa and Biti also recognised that the commission was a political opportunity to articulate the views of the opposition. It’s not often that the opposition gets a public stage which is covered both locally and internationally. There has been a lot of attention on the commission and its proceedings have been broadcast live on national television and also other broadcasters on the internet. It was their chance to showcase the opposition as a party of substance, contrary to the caricature that is often presented on national television.

That they were effective is shown by the fact that the national broadcaster had to pull the plug midway through the testimonies. Both Biti and Chamisa informed the commission that the ZBC had stopped broadcasting their testimonies. The behaviour of the ZBC was self-defeating. It confirmed the point that the opposition has always made in the past, and one that has been highlighted by international election observers, namely that state media is institutionally biased towards the ruling party. The Constitutional Court had given short shrift to these concerns back in August but here it was on show before the commission and the wider audience that was watching the proceedings.

Commission as avenue to resolve impasse?

While it remains to be seen what the commission will say in its final report, it is looking increasingly possible that it will be a politically-expedient vehicle for bringing the ruling party and the opposition through political dialogue. When the commission asked for recommendations, both Chamisa and Biti pointed out that the country’s political and economic problems required political dialogue.

Critics have latched on this as a sign of desperation by the opposition to be included in the current government. Some have criticised it as a contradiction given that the opposition leaders insist they do not recognise Mnangagwa’s legitimacy. This view, with respect, misses the point.

Biti and Chamisa knew they were speaking to an audience that is wider and far beyond the commission. It was not the occasion for intransigence and grandstanding. They had to provide a reasonable position that recognised the need to resolve the real problems that people are facing. They chose to demonstrate openness to finding a solution to the economic challenges which exercise is dependent on finding a solution to the political problems. A key issue in this regard is resolving the legitimacy deficit that currently burdens the current government.

As a matter of strategy, they threw the ball into Mnangagwa and ZANU PF’s court. It can’t be said that the opposition is unwilling to engage because the leaders made the first move. It is now up to ZANU PF to make a choice: to continue on its lonesome but futile journey burdened by the ghost of illegitimacy or to engage the opposition in devising a mechanism that can restore legitimacy and help arrest the economic collapse.    [Sun Tzu and leaving way to life]

The commissioners know that their exercise is of little benefit if it cannot help resolve the current political impasse. It is therefore possible that its recommendations will try to achieve multiple gals – the stated terms of reference and the unstated terms of reference which relate to resolution of the political impasse. If these recommendations are coming from the commission, they will be easier to sell to the respective constituencies in both parties. They will not appear like a climbdown. In this regard, the commission may, if it is so inclined prove to be the vehicle that initiates and facilitates further talks to help the country resolve its multiple challenges which stem from the long-running political grid-lock.

A Peaceful Demonstration

The opposition capped a good week with a demonstration in Harare on Thursday, four days after Chamisa and Biti made a solid impression at the commission hearing. The demonstration itself was a big gamble, which eventually paid off. It was a gamble because after the performance at the commission which turned the tables on ZANU PF in terms of the narrative, there was a risk that ZANU PF would try to regain control of the narrative by engineering chaos and violence during the demonstration.

At the commission, the Chamisa and Biti had insisted that the opposition was committed to peace and had not organised the demonstration on August 1 and that if they had, they would have been in control. They insinuated that the chaos on August 1 may have been caused by ZANU PF elements masquerading as opposition. One view was that the demonstration would be a perfect opportunity for the opposition to show that its protests are organised, peaceful and respectful of the laws of the land.

However, there was another view which captured the fear that any violence would detract from the goodwill that the party had gained at the commission. It would be very easy for ZANU PF to infiltrate the demonstration, cause chaos and soil the opposition’s reputation. The narrative would change, painting the opposition as irresponsible and violent after the leaders had established a narrative of peace at the commission.

The risk was exacerbated by the presence of the commission at the time of the demonstration – any violence would be in full view of the commissioners. However, on the other hand, the presence of the commissioners also increased the prospects of profit to be gained from a peaceful demonstration. A peaceful demonstration would confirm the narrative that a demonstration that is organised and controlled by the opposition leadership would be peaceful and non-violent, putting paid to efforts to hold the opposition leaders’ responsible for organising or inspiring the August 1 protests.

Therefore, a debate ensued as to whether or not to go ahead with the demonstration, which had been planned well before the appearance of Chamisa and Biti at the commission which had yielded so much political capital. In the end, the opposition must have concluded that the opportunity outweighed the risk. Demonstrating was, after all, a constitutional right and they would exercise it peacefully. Backing down would not only disappoint supporters who are desperate to express themselves, but it would also appear like succumbing to the government’s pressure. It might suggest that the leaders are timid in the face of ZANU PF.

In the end, the gamble paid off rather handsomely. Despite the propaganda and the rain, thousands of Zimbabweans, young and old, came to the capital to attend the demonstration. It served important purposes: first, it was a public expression of discontent with the government’s performance.

Second, it was a protest against the disputed legitimacy of the government. The formal election season may be over but the residual protests against the conduct and legitimacy of the protest continues.

Third, the public support bolstered the opposition’s leadership’s decision to withhold the “loser’s consent”, which the ruling party desperately wants to cement legitimacy claims. Fourth, the demonstration reaffirmed the Chamisa-led MDC Alliance as the most powerful force apart from ZANU PF and that it cannot be ignored. Finally, it was clear evidence to the commission that the opposition is committed to pursuing its political objectives through peaceful means.

ZANU PF may want to claim credit for allowing the opposition to demonstrate as an indication of a free political environment in which people are permitted to express their freedoms. However, even this claim is grossly undermined by the behaviour of state-controlled media whose nauseating propaganda against the opposition continues. The way The Herald dismissed and trivialised the demonstration as a “flop” against abundant evidence of a big turnout is an indictment on the Mnangagwa regime which despite pretences, remains rigid and refuses to change when it comes to media freedoms. These continuities from the Mugabe era make nonsense of the oft-repeated mantra that this is a new dispensation. Just like before, it takes with one hand what it gives with the other, meaning there is no progress.


It was an uncertain week as it was difficult to predict how the appearance at the commission would work. It could have been a disaster. But the boys were prepared and they performed well. They were composed, respectful and showed statesmanlike conduct, even offering solutions to the political problem that Zimbabwe faces. The demonstration could have gone wrong, if there had been any violence, sponsored or not. The question is whether they can sustain the momentum. The commission on the other hand looks like it might be a vehicle for some engagement between parties on either side of the political aisle. It remains to be seen what their recommendations will be. But it is likely that they will make recommendations that will seek to bring the feuding actors together rather than push them away from each other. In the end, much will depend on the political will of the parties. At the end of the day it’s the livelihoods of ordinary people at stake. They need a solution.