BSR: What’s in a Name?


The Bizarre and the Absurd

Zimbabwe has had its fair share of political absurdities but the current year is serving a bizarre and perplexing menu. To appreciate the absurdities of what’s going on in Zimbabwe’s opposition, one must take a brief historical tour of events and circumstances leading to the present day.

When the year started, and with the intervening pandemic it now seems like a long time ago, Thokozani Khupe was head of the MDC-T, a small party with two MPs in Parliament. Both were MPs by proportional representation – one in the National Assembly and the other in the Senate. The party did not win a seat in all the 210 contested constituencies.

Khupe herself managed just 45,000 votes in the presidential election. The two candidates ahead of her, Emmerson Mnangagwa and Nelson Chamisa had over 2 million votes each. The number of people who voted for her was not enough to fill the country’s largest football stadium, which has a capacity of 60,000. It was a calamitous performance marking a seemingly inexorable march towards political demise.

Facing a grim end, Khupe did not hesitate to jump into the lifeboat offered by President Mnangagwa, which he called the Political Actors Dialogue (POLAD). She was in the company of a motley band of other modest performers. It’s President Mnangagwa’s ruse to the world, a marionette show of “political dialogue”. Since Mnangagwa’s major political rival, Nelson Chamisa and the MDC Alliance are not part of it, few take it seriously and it has had no effect of note.

The Political Resuscitation

By the end of June, however, Khupe had experienced a dramatic resuscitation of political fortunes, courtesy of a series of events bearing the hallmarks of political direction from ZANU PF. In the two years since the 2018 elections, ZANU PF has grown increasingly frustrated by the MDC Alliance campaign to delegitimize Mnangagwa’s presidency. The withholding of the loser’s consent and the refusal to stand up for Mnangagwa in Parliament is a grievous wound on ZANU PF’s ego.

By early July, Khupe was firing MDC Alliance MPs from Parliament, even though they were her rivals during the 2018 election. The axing of MPs is being done in tranches and so far 21 have lost their jobs. The sacking spree has now been extended to local authorities, with 4 councillors already fired from Harare City Council. Politically, it’s a relentless and systematic assault on the country’s main opposition party, reducing its parliamentary presence. There have been sackings before, but not on this scale, character and impact.

How the loser came to have power

So how did a distant loser in the election come to wield so much power that she can axe a competitor’s MPs? The balance of power in Zimbabwe’s political community was remarkably affected by a decision of the Supreme Court ruled on 31 March 2020 after a long-running legal battle. It was that decision that rearranged Zimbabwe’s political map when the court reinstated Khupe as Acting President of the MDC-T, a party led by Morgan Tsvangirai until his death on 14 February 2018.

The main thrust was that the party would hold an Extraordinary Congress within 3 months to choose a substantive leader. However, the 3 months have been filled with much drama centred on the tenure of MPs in Parliament. So far Khupe and company have sacked 21 MDC Alliance MPs after Parliament accepted the view that they had the right to recall them under the Constitution.

This has left voters perplexed by the absurdity that the person whom they rejected now has the power to fire their MPs whom they voted into office. People cannot understand why they are not being consulted. They see the recalls as punishment for the MPs’ defiance of the call to support Khupe. If the expulsions are designed to coerce remaining MPs into supporting the Khupe-led party, they are having an opposite effect in the court of public opinion. For they have induced a sense of shock and disgust at the plain abuse of newfound and ill-gotten power. More restraint and forbearance might have drawn some respect.

Absurdities in filling vacancies

The expulsion of MPs and councillors has opened vacancies in Parliament and councils but this has also revealed more absurdities of the situation. There are two ways by which these vacancies are filled.

For seats that are based on proportional representation, the Women’s PR seats in the National Assembly and all Senate seats, the party which held the seat is entitled to nominate a replacement candidate. Ordinarily, seats that were allocated to the MDC Alliance should be filled by an MDC Alliance nominee. However, Khupe’s MDC-T party is claiming this right. Given its record in dealing with the opposition, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) will grant Khupe’s group this right just as Parliament permitted it to recall MDC Alliance MPs. It defies democratic sense but nothing that has happened so far conforms with democratic sense.

If the correct process were to be followed, the party which submitted the party list to fill the seats in the 2018 elections should be entitled to nominate the replacements and that party was the MDC Alliance. After all, the number of votes upon which the proportional representation is allocated is calculated based on votes for all candidates of the MDC Alliance at the National Assembly, not parts of the coalition.

For constituency-based seats, the law requires by-elections to be held to fill the seats. Here too, another absurdity appears to have arisen. Although the Khupe-led MDC-T is recalling MPs on the basis that they are no longer its members because they are asserting their identity as MDC Alliance MPs, the Khupe-led MDC-T is now suggesting that it will contest by-elections under the MDC Alliance label. This, the argument goes, is because the MDC-T is part of the MDC-Alliance which is supposedly due to expire in 2023.

It is often said that a person cannot have his cake and eat it at the same time, an idiom which essentially means you cannot have it both ways. But that is precisely what the Khupe-led MDC-T wants to do in this case. It is expelling MPs and councillors because they are refusing to assert allegiance to it but the MDC Alliance but at the same time, it wants to use the MDC Alliance label in the by-elections. And it will be allowed to because it favours the ruling party’s interests in so far as the total annihilation of the MDC Alliance led by Chamisa is concerned.

What is the Purpose?

The aim is to deprive the Chamisa-led MDC Alliance of a name. They have taken the MPs and councillors. They have taken the party headquarters. The state political referees have allowed them to do it. They will almost certainly take the party funding from the state under the Political Parties (Financing) Act. ZEC will also allow them to take the MDC Alliance name. Therefore, at the eleventh hour, the MDC Alliance will find itself without a name or at best with a shared name. ZEC will take the course of action that leads to the most confusion. It might even allow both parties to use the MDC Alliance label leading to an appearance of double candidates and confusion.

It is this absurdity which leads me to the next and critical issue for the MDC Alliance leadership and its members.

What’s in a Name?

There comes a time in the life of an organisation when it must seriously review the costs and benefits of its brand. For the MDC Alliance, this is such a time. The very real prospect that the Khupe-led MDC-T will be allowed to use the label of the MDC Alliance in the forthcoming by-elections should be enough to prompt serious and urgent reflection on the part of the MDC Alliance leadership. Do they continue with this name or do they dump it and start afresh? That is the question.

Now, it is true that the name MDC holds a special place in the hearts and minds of many people. The name of the party, as with any organisation or product is one of its major assets. From a commercial and legal perspective, it is its brand and trademark. It carries the multiple narratives of the party, from its birth in 1999. It is instantly recognisable. It is the brand that is most associated with the opposition politics in Zimbabwe.

Now in its twenty-first year, the party’s name is a symbol of resistance to repression and an undying desire for change. It communicates a powerful message to its members and supporters. The name has a strong presence in the regional and international community as a symbol of the opposition movement. It is the opposition that is known in international media or even those with a cursory interest in Zimbabwe will have heard of either ZANU PF or the MDC.

Therefore the value of the name cannot be underestimated. The name is also a representation of the continuity of struggle. It connects past generations to the present generation and the present to the future. It is closely associated with Morgan Tsvangirai who was universally respected, even by his foes for his courage in taking on a vicious system. Naturally, there is a strong fear that losing the name would represent a loss of that history. In the worst case, it might be seen as a rejection of that past; a disrespect of institutional memory. Indeed, this partly explains the continuous fights over the name.

When an asset turns into a liability

Yet against these powerful attractions is the undeniable fact that a great deal of toxicity is now attached to the brand. If the name MDC is a symbol of resistance to ZANU PF rule, it has also become indelibly associated with internecine conflicts, squabbles and splits. Of course, these challenges are not caused by the name, but they have caused it immeasurable damage. The point is, as much as the name of an organisation or a product is a major asset, it can also become a major liability. It is great when the goodwill is strong but goodwill is not permanent. This is why there is a need for an expert assessment of the state of the goodwill attached to the name.

Some will argue that people will always identify with the MDC, even through previous splits, they have been able to pick the main party and distinguish it from the rest. However, it is also fair to say that the multiple units bearing the same or similar names in the past have been a source of confusion and frustration. The appearances of a divided opposition movement is also an unedifying spectacle. What is worse, the latest fiasco, which is creating serious confusion, may not be the last.

Another consideration is that while the name carries great sentimental value, the toxicity may now outweigh any benefits. It is important to strike a balance between the value of keeping the name and the risks associated with it. This cost-benefit analysis is best done with the help of experts. Just as the party seeks lawyers to help with legal problems or doctors to deal with health issues, the party should consult branding experts for advice on the party name.

It is also important to consult the public, not just members and supporters. The latter two groups may find it easy to identify their party but other members of the public whose votes can make a difference in an election may struggle if there are similar names. The primary purpose of a party’s name in electoral politics is its role as a mark of identity and distinction. It must be easy for voters to identify the party they prefer from a list of candidates. The name should, therefore, be simple and distinctive enough to the ordinary voter to identify.

When it began, the MDC was almost the perfect name. It was easy both on the eye and the tongue. Both the old and the young, the urban and rural could pronounce it with ease. However, it has assumed amoebae characteristics over the past fifteen years, as a result of splits. The latest split will probably be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, with the clash over the name MDC Alliance being the most damaging. The only way to keep that name should the Khupe-led group be allowed to use it would be to add another suffix. But that is likely to add, rather than reduce the problems.

Dropping toxic labels and habits

There are situations when institutions have changed names or they have been shut down because of toxicity. Several businesses that used the name ISIS changed their names or the names of the products when that name became associated with terrorism. The brand had become toxic by association.

A decade ago, media mogul Rupert Murdoch was forced to shut down a highly profitable paper, News of the World, after it was caught up in a highly damaging phone-hacking scandal in the UK. There was such a massive backlash against it that the best-selling newspaper which had been published since 1843 was promptly closed down.

This is also a reminder that the brand is also impacted by the quality of its product. The product offered by News of the World had become too toxic because of the highly unethical and criminal ways of obtaining news. The brand was no longer sustainable because of its toxic product. Likewise, in considering whether or not to rebrand, the MDC Alliance ought to do a comprehensive review of its business of politics.

The party’s core business is the pursuit of political power, holding the government to account and governing the nation in the event of winning power. These activities have not been without problems including internal conflicts which sometimes have involved violence. These challenges have impacted the brand, particularly when violence has flared up on different occasions. This is a general problem which affects Zimbabwean political space.

What all of this means is that the challenges require more than just a change of name. There is, besides a need for a review and reform of the product that it is offering and how it is offered. While it is important to drop toxic labels, it is equally fundamental to drop toxic habits.

Three Options

Faced with a damaged brand, there are at least three options:

The first is to continue, hoping to survive the storm. This might work if it is just a temporary challenge.

The second is to take steps to repair the damage to the existing brand. This would involve patching up the brand. Twice the MDC has taken this route, first contesting the elections in 2008 as the MDC-T. The repair job was to add the suffix “T”, as a mark of distinction from the other MDCs. In 2018, they contested as the MDC-Alliance. This was a replacement of the one suffix with another – from “T” to “Alliance”. The next by-election poses a problem with the looming contestation over the suffix “Alliance”.

However, the repair option has limits. There are situations where the damage would have become irreparable. In such situations, the only option is substitution. The old tyre cannot be patched up anymore; a new tyre is required. You have to remove and replace. Nevertheless, this is also the most difficult option because it means letting go of something that is held dear by many, risking the loss of residual value in the old brand and taking on a new and untested brand which might fail. Our closets are full of old things that we can’t let go.

In my opinion, the first two options are no longer viable. The party cannot afford to go on as if nothing has happened. It cannot bury its head in the sand and pretend there has been no harm to the brand. This is not a temporary storm. It is the latest in a series of storms that have left the brand battered and damaged. The second is no longer a sustainable solution: adding another suffix to the MDC Alliance cannot be a long term solution.

The Future

The future does not just happen. It is not a random occurrence. Rather, the future can be shaped by decisions that are taken in the present. An organisation cannot be at the mercy of the law of randomness. That would be unstrategic and unwise. While there are things that are beyond human control, the so-called Acts of God in legal parlance, leaders must harness forces of the present so that they have some control over how the future unfolds. This requires leaders to anticipate possible scenarios of what might happen and to steer events towards more desirable scenarios while doing everything possible to prevent undesirable scenarios.

It is for this reason that I argue that the MDC Alliance leaders cannot wait for the unknown future concerning the identity of the organisation. There is a need to anticipate and acknowledge the threats and to provide countermeasures for them. If more attention had been paid to the warnings that the High Court judgment last year posed an existential threat to the MDC, some of the things that have been happening could have been foreseen and prevented. This is why, as I see it, the search for a new distinctive, independent and cleaner identity has become an urgent matter. It is urgent because by-elections are around the corner.

Unless corrective measures are taken soon, there is going to be a lot of confusion in the electoral market. Such confusion will work in ZANU PF’s favour. The MDC-T led by Khupe does not harbour serious ambitions of defeating ZANU PF. It already knows it is too small to make any significant impact, which is why it is comfortable with the politics of accommodation. They will be happy with the role of spoilsports for their opposition rivals.

Clear and Distinctive Identity

This is no time for half measures, prevaricating or sitting on the fence. If the leadership makes a decision, it has to be a decisive and complete one which leaves no room for doubt. This is no longer a time for new suffixes to differentiate yet another of the MDC variety. Whatever is selected must be a simple and clear name but more importantly, it must be distinct and independent from the current name. This is necessary because there must be no room for confusion with the MDC brand.

It must be so distinctive that when people see the old name, they will know it used to be home but NOT anymore; that they have now moved home. Change is hard to introduce, let alone to accept, so this is not going to be easy. People prefer the familiar; what they are used to – the proverbial devil they know compared to something new, which is an unknown quantity. This is why change requires persuasive change agents to sell it.

If an old brand is getting too costly to keep, creating a new brand is also an expensive exercise. Such an exercise would have to be accompanied by a huge investment in marketing and public relations. There must be true and genuine change. To do this requires bold leadership which is prepared to make strong decisions. There is no room for prevarication.

The organisation must undergo total reform. At the moment, although this is an inconvenient fact, the leader, Nelson Chamisa enjoys a greater hold and pulling power than the institution. This is why, while Khupe and company were handed the keys to the institution and grabbed the buildings, the vast majority of the people still identify with Chamisa and where he is, the MDC Alliance. But ideally, it is more desirable to have a stronger institution than a strong individual. That way there is room for institutional continuity.

Courage to Change

Some people might see walking away from the existing brand as a weakness; as a form of capitulation. It is not. There is another way to look at it as freedom; that the progressive forces of the MDC family are liberating themselves from the shackles of a much-loved brand which has sadly now run its course and is no longer fit for purpose.

There are moments in life when courage is defined by the ability and willingness to drop what you love the most because it no longer serves your interests. You have to be prepared to leave it because it has become toxic and counterproductive. It is my respectful submission that despite the sentimental value; despite the weight of history and residual asset value, the MDC brand has now accumulated toxic baggage in quantities that have polluted the political ecosystem so that political life is now imperilled.

The MDC Alliance has always championed the cause of change. But maybe now more than ever before, it is time for the party to look into the mirror and ask itself some hard questions.