Soon after the Supreme Court of Zimbabwe delivered a judgment that was to have long-lasting effects on the geography of opposition politics in the country, the BSR observed that while the court of law had made its verdict, ultimately the critical questions would be resolved by the court of public opinion. It is fair to say that today the court of public opinion delivered its preliminary verdict, and as predicted, it is a stark contrast to the verdict of the court of law. It is also a reminder that ultimately, political questions are resolved politically, not by judges.
Back in March 2020, Dr Thokozani Khupe, Douglas Mwonzora, and Morgen Komichi were on cloud nine, having scored one over Nelson Chamisa and his allies in the then MDC Alliance courtesy of the Supreme Court verdict. But Mwonzora and Khupe did not read the political room accurately. Their conduct afterward as they carelessly fired elected representatives without any concern for public sentiment only confirmed that they had become intoxicated with cheap power. The more they took from Chamisa and his allies, the more they lost favour and respect in the eyes of the opposition public. They were digging their own political graves. That is why we argued at the BSR that they would face the wrath of the court of public opinion as events of the last week have demonstrated.
Last week, Mwonzora held a pitiful star rally at Zororo Ground in Highfields, a high-density residential suburb that can lay a legitimate claim as the traditional home of modern politics in Zimbabwe. It was a paltry crowd that reflected his poor standing in the public’s estimation. Mwonzora attracted laughter when he claimed that the crowd at his rally was 5000 people. Observers said he was delusional. It was just a few hundred people. But if there was any doubt, it was put to bed today when by contrast tens of thousands converged at Zimbabwe Grounds, also in Highfields for the Citizens Coalition for Change’s star rally addressed by Chamisa. If Mwonzora’s estimation of 5000 people at his rally was accurate, then by the same measurement, it might be said Chamisa’s rally had a million people!
The comparison between the two rallies resolves the political question as to who the top dog between the two opposition leaders is. Not that there was ever any rivalry between the two, but to the extent that there was any perception of it, it must now be extinguished. The regime was trying so hard to create the impression that Mwonzora and his party were the legitimate opposition. They were even entertaining the idea of dialogue. If anybody believed them, they were equally delusional. But after these two rallies and their sharply contrasting numbers, it would be embarrassing for anyone to mention Mwonzora and Chamisa in the same sentence. Chamisa and the CCC delivered an emphatic political statement at Zimbabwe Grounds, that they, not Mwonzora and his MDC-T are the legitimate leaders of the opposition in the country. It would be preposterous to entertain any type of dialogue that excludes them.
The great show is more remarkable because it was achieved against several odds. For the past couple of years, the regime has embarked on a systematic process of decimating Chamisa and his party. The aim was to bury them as a political force, installing a pliant opposition first led by Khupe and later by Mwonzora. After the dubious Supreme Court judgment that revived a political matter that it acknowledged had long become moot, the regime allowed Khupe and Mwonzora to destroy Chamisa and his party by recalling MPs and councillors that were elected in 2018. It also assisted Khupe and Mwonzora in forcibly grabbing the party headquarters.
The regime went further to suffocate Chamisa and his party financially by diverting public funds that they had legitimately earned in 2018 and giving them to Khupe and Mwonzora. And to twist the knife further, Mwnzora and Khupe grabbed the name that Chamisa and his party were using all along. Stripped of all these things, Chamisa and his party were facing an existential threat: their very existence was under imminent threat. Faced with these dire challenges – no elected representatives, homeless, penniless, and almost nameless, it looked like the political gods had turned their backs on Chamisa and his allies. That is why the huge turnout today is quite a remarkable feat.
The first thing was to remain calm and united under serious pressure. Any other organization with less resolute souls would not have contained the pressure. Chamisa would have been left alone without a party, something that would have pleased Mnangagwa no end. But the more they were attacked, the more galvanized they became. A few of the lily-livered variety jumped ship, but the majority stayed put. Some remarkable happened: citizens who for so long had outsourced the funding of their party to donors realized that they had to do something. They started to fundraise for their party in ways that have not been done before.
And although there was some reluctance to give up the old name, it soon became apparent that it had to be done. The change of the party’s name, colours, and symbols reinvigorated the organization, marking a historic moment in the life of the opposition party. That act on its own has been a mark of renewal. The old red of the MDC has given way to yellow, bringing a remarkable freshness and brightness to the party. The electric spirit among the people, as witnessed at the star rally at Zimbabwe Grounds is reminiscent of the spirit of 1999, when the MDC was formed. But the MDC has run its race. It was interred last week at the aptly named Zororo Grounds, the place of rest. Just over two decades after the formation of the MDC, the CCC represents fresh hope and determination to overcome tyranny. There is a whole new generation that has emerged in that period, and it needed a new vehicle.
The star rally was also a reminder that the road remains strewn with impediments for the opposition. The Zimbabwean regime specializes in selective application of the law and it was just as apparent in how the authorities handled the CCC’s star rally. When the CCC notified the police of its intention to hold the rally, the police responded with a flurry of conditions, many of them utterly unreasonable. None of these conditions were given to ZANU PF or the MDC-T led by Mwonzora. Just as the police were banning the CCC from transporting people to his rally, scores of buses were commandeered to transport ZANU PF supporters to a rally addressed by Vice President Chiwenga in Marondera. But this is what happens in authoritarian Zimbabwe: one law for the opposition and another for the regime and its surrogates.
Still, true to the adage, where there is a will, there is a way and citizens found a way to show their support to the CCC at Zimbabwe Grounds. On the morning of the start rally, the regime mounted roadblocks on arterial roads leading to Harare. In the days leading up to the rally, the regime used violence against opposition activists mobilizing people. Some were arrested on spurious charges and remain in jail. The purpose was simple: to stop citizens from travelling to the CCC’s star rally. The regime did not want any large crowds at Zimbabwe Grounds. They wanted a paltry crowd to claim that the rally was a flop. It even tried jamming the internet to affect the live streaming of the event. None of this worked because people were determined.
But the violence and unlawful arrests are yet more red flags showing that the political environment in Zimbabwe is hazardous to free and fair elections. We have always argued at the BSR that the by-elections are an important process that foregrounds the 2023 elections. Current events foreshadow a violent election in 2023, especially as the regime realizes after today that the people are firmly behind Chamisa and the CCC. Further onslaught can be anticipated as the regime seeks to intimidate and cow people into submission. The regional and international community must watch closely what happens between now and 2023 because, at this rate, the country is headed for yet another violent and illegitimate election.
There will be time to consider substantive issues, but today was all about the numbers and optics. The most important political statement was not in words but numbers. It was a battle of political supremacy between the opposition parties that have been haggling for the past two years. After today the scoreline is firmly in favour of Chamisa with Mwonzora trailing by a long margin. If it were a boxing match, Mwonzora had the early rounds but the tide has turned and he is now taking punches without responding, the defence is non-existent and his legs are gone. It is painful to watch.
Yet for all the euphoria of today, it is important to end on a cautionary note. Chamisa and the CCC have the ball and while the repressive regime and its apparatus of coercion and cheating are a threat, they must be careful to avoid unforced errors. As stated in the main BSR this week, the immediate challenge for Chamisa and the CCC is change management. They need to invest in change management so that they can navigate the complex waters of change. The euphoria must not be a cover for internal challenges that require attention.
As the leaders have seen today, the citizens delivered an important political statement not only to the regime but to them as well. They have entrusted them with a major responsibility. They trust the leaders to do the right thing and the leaders must not let them down. Those of us in the intellectual trenches will not pamper the leadership. We will exercise vigilance and highlight errors that need correction.
Finally, the challenge for the authentic Zimbabwean opposition over the years has never been its inability to attract large numbers of people to rallies. It has always drawn huge numbers. It is what we might call the “Conversion Challenge”. This refers to the ability to convert rally attendees into voters; rally numbers into voting numbers. If every one of those people who attended the star rally today is registered to vote and can persuade at least three more people to register to vote and to turn out to vote on polling day, the CCC will have done something remarkable.
The most important call, therefore, and it must be incessant, is for everyone eligible to register to vote. To do well, the CCC needs a high Conversion Rate – every rally attendee must be a voter. Those who are not registered must register and those who are registered must inspect the voters’ roll to be sure that their details are correct. Without this it may yet another case of all froth and no beer; all bark and no bite; indeed, all hat and no cattle. And that would be a disaster.