Bernie Stephens, Harare
With the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) divided down the middle, President Robert Mugabe would have celebrated his 82nd birthday in February with temporary respite.
The MDC split in the lead-up to last November's Senate elections. MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai rejected government proposals to reintroduce the Senate and insisted that they boycott the election. He called it a waste of money and argued that the whole system was so rigged it would be a waste of time to participate.
A faction of the MDC, led by the party's general secretary and MP Welshman Ncube, defied Tsvangirai. This faction went on to run candidates, but they lost heavily in an election campaign dominated by apathy, low turnout and the well-oiled election machine of Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF).
The acrimony caused by the Senate campaign spilled over into battles — legal and otherwise — to control the MDC's name, assets and properties. Each side has since been eagerly expelling and suspending each other, a process expected to culminate in two separate congresses by the end of March.
While Ncube's pro-Senate faction is roughly based on the western, Ndbele-speaking part of the country, it appears to be successfully carving out a national following among the MDC's middle-class supporters. It has attracted some prominent party leaders from central and eastern Shona-speaking regions, as well as 32 of the 48 MDC parliamentarians and the seven MDC senators.
The Ncube faction is committed to the parliamentary process backed up by legal challenges against the rigged elections and, as recently revealed by South Africa's President Mbeki, secret negotiations with ZANU-PF. As Ncube has put it, "if ZANU-PF say that there is an election for toilet caretaker we will participate".
His conservative group is more likely to be able to strike a deal with the right-wing of the ZANU-PF, itself faction-ridden as internal cliques jockey in preparation for Mugabe's eventual retirement.
Given his increasing isolation, Tsvangirai, a former leader of the Zimbabwe Council of Trade unions (ZCTU), appears to have opted to return the MDC to its roots as a party built out of industrial action and extra-parliamentary struggles. He has supported the call for a broadly based Working People's Convention in early March, like that which helped launch the MDC in 1999.
In October, Tsvangirai started walking to his office each day in solidarity with the thousands of workers and school children who were having to walk due to the ongoing and crippling fuel shortage. It was a dramatic gesture that contrasted with the huge cavalcade of limousines, troops, ambulances and motorcycles heralding the approach of the president's cavalcade. For a few days, Tsvangirai was joined by a growing crowd of activists and party supporters.
MDC economic spokesperson Tendai Biti even criticised the government for paying US$126 million to the International Monetary Fund. He argued that the scarce foreign exchange would be better spent on importing essentials such as food, fuel, medicines and the inputs needed to keep factories and farms operating.
Activists are recovering from the dislocation and disorientation caused by mass evictions and demolitions in urban areas unleashed by the government last year. The attendance of more than 3000 people at the Southern Africa Social Form in Harare in October was particularly significant. Forum activists, especially the HIV and AIDS cluster, subsequently mobilised strongly for the ZCTU day of protest against poverty on November 8.
This action, despite more than 100 arrests, was further inspiration for activists — especially women's, HIV and AIDS and human rights activists and the International Socialists (ISO) — to organise small but morale-building marches on December 1 and 10. These marked World AIDS Day and International Human Rights day respectively. However, ZCTU and MDC participation in these protests was minimal. Presumably the MDC was too consumed with its feuds at the time.
The ZCTU appeared to pull back from any further protests after it rejoined the Tripatatire National Forum (TNF) with bosses and government on November 24. The ZCTU even organised a human rights public meeting that deliberately clashed with the Human Rights Day street march.
Despite the MDC's apparent self-destruction and the ZCTU's re-entry into the TNF, Mugabe's government remains nervous.
The ZCTU is now sponsoring the upcoming Working People's Convention. Its leadership must be feeling the pressure of its workers having to survive with inflation running at over 613%. Few workers earn anywhere near the poverty line of ZIM$20 million a month.
The government knows that the people are going hungry. Defence force commander General Constantine Chiwenga recently warned that soldiers could again be "forced to turn our guns on hungry Zimbabweans".
The security apparatus is now paying particular attention to key civil society figures, such as independent journalists, student activists, ISO members, human-rights lawyers and women activists.
In recent weeks, demonstrations and arrests have occurred in Harare and Bulawayo. Students have protested the introduction of up-front fees and 400 women from Women of Zimbabwe Arise were arrested at "bread and roses" Valentine's Day marches. The women distributed roses while demonstrating for bread.
While still small, these protests are a reminder of the mass actions that led to the rapid and spectacular growth of the previously radical MDC, which almost toppled Mugabe.
From Green Left Weekly, March 1, 2006.
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