On July 30th, Zimbabweans are scheduled to go to the polls to vote for a new President for the next five-year term. This time the ballot paper will not have the faces of Robert Mugabe and his long-term rival, Morgan Tsvangirai. The two men dominated the country’s politics for the past 20 years. Mugabe was deposed in a coup d’état in November 2017 and his estranged deputy, Emmerson Mnangagwa, became the country’s president and leader of the ruling ZANU PF party. Forty-year-old Nelson Chamisa took over the reins of the biggest opposition, the MDC (Movement for Democratic Change) party, after Tsvangirai succumbed to cancer in February this year.
For the first time since gaining independence from Britain in 1980, Zimbabweans will not hear Mugabe’s fiery “revolutionary” rhetoric that had become a defining characteristic of every election season. His successor, a former intelligence minister, is as reticent as they come. Laconic but brutal, Mnangagwa stands accused of supervising the early 1980s purge of political opponents that left an estimated 20,000 people dead, mainly civilians from the western parts of the country. It is his opponent Nelson Chamisa who has set tongues wagging with his youthful zest, but also for his message that is laden with odd populist concoctions. To anyone listening to him for the first time, he comes across as a weird chimera—bubbling with Barack Obama’s energy, Julius Malema’s loudness, and even Donald Trump’s exaggerations.
At his rallies, Chamisa delivers his speeches with the fervor of an evangelical preacher. Time and again he bloviates and throws in biblical aphorisms which cement his credentials as a lay preacher dedicated to the Apostolic Faith Mission, one among the many popular Pentecostal Christian denominations operating in Zimbabwe. Addressing his supporters at a rally in the border city of Mutare, he sensationally claimed that the government of the United States, through Trump, promised to give Zimbabwe US$15 billion if his party is voted into power. Of course, it was not true. At another rally, this time in Chinhoyi, a traditional ZANU PF stronghold, he said that constructing a bullet train that travels at 600 km per hour will be among his government’s priorities. At other times, he claimed the bizarre and the miraculous—from solving Zimbabwe’s liquidity crisis within two weeks of coming into office, to building airports in every village, and turning the resort town of Victoria Falls into Africa’s Las Vegas. “God is in it!” his disciples have egged him on.
During an interview on the BBC program, “HARDtalk,” the anchor, Stephen Sackur called Chamisa’s stories “nonsense” and “nothing more than fantasy.” After listening to Chamisa’s presentation at London’s Chatham House (a think tank closely following events on the continent), a British historian of Zimbabwe, Diana Jeater, also concluded that his message lacked any policy backing. She did not mince her words on Twitter: “Overall, #Chamisa came across as out of his depth, over-excited about the idea of winning an election but failing to recognise the seriousness of what happens after the counting is finished.”
In its rashness, the MDC party is placing more weight on telling voters what ZANU PF has done wrong without giving much attention to the practicalities of their own intentions and promises. A growing number of Zimbabweans are impugning Chamisa’s antics and have rewarded him with the unsavory moniker of pwere (“childish” in chiShona language). In a society that is still tied to gender and generational hierarchies, the word is readily swung at him by his foes like a devastating knobkerrie.
His showmanship has not been complimented with equal vigor and steady hands, either in the mobilization of voters or organization of his party. If not bitter dissension with senior members of the party such as Thokozani Khupe (who now leads a breakaway faction) and Jessie Majome (who withdrew from the party’s primary elections citing several irregularities and manipulation), Chamisa’s rallies seem to be one-off “people’s road shows.” They are entertaining but not penetrative and leave no foot soldiers to follow up his message and fortify campaign structures. If there’s anything that could be called “foot soldiers” then it is the party’s youth wing, the so-called “Vanguard,” but they have been accused of fanning intra-party strife by intimidating anyone challenging their favored parliamentary candidates in the party’s primary elections. Mnangagwa, to the contrary, with the help of military strategists, is immersing himself in people’s everyday lives, showing force and generosity at the same time. ZANU PF’s internal primary elections were supervised by the army and police who also continue to supervise the distribution of campaign largesse—cars, motorcycles, bicycles, food and many other things. As of this writing, the ruling party seems to have moved away from mass rallies which were favored by the former leader, Robert Mugabe, preferring a strategy they call Operation Spiderweb that is overseen by retired Major General Engelbert Rugeje. The “spider web” primarily focuses on the interconnectedness of countrywide voters’ cells that reach voters at the grassroots.
If Chamisa’s train wrecks later this year, he will have no one else to blame but advisors and strategists who encourage a copy-paste campaign strategy (usually aping the worst of populists on our planet). The past “defeats” of the opposition in Zimbabwe, and most likely the outcome of the July contest, depended not so much on the lack of rallies, or crowds, on the part of the opposition, but the inability to take root at the grassroots. Oppositions political parties in Zimbabwe, it seems to me, haven’t yet learned that movements for social change (and continuity), however exemplary, must be rooted in actual lives, experiences of people at the grassroots, for good and for ill.