The Herald

(UNDER THE EAVES with Igomombe) Opposition: Back to war of positions

Tendai Biti

UNDER THE EAVES with Igomombe
DEAR reader, we regaled each other leisurely under the eaves last week. But it can’t be play, play, play forever. We have to get down to the business of interpreting our times, what with so much happening, and even so much more awaited. Soon Zimbabwe will decide, which means you and me will produce a party to govern us, and a president to lead our beloved nation. Now that is serious business, one set to pre-ordain our prospects in the immediate, and may be to foreclose our fate in the long term.

Into the echo chamber
I have intently followed the level of political discourse in the country as we hurtle towards the forthcoming plebiscite. For now it’s pretty much a one-sided affair, a solo act in which one politician monologically shouts himself hoarse, all to great echoes from his chamber. And he seems to like his echo, much like a caller on live-radio who does not turn down the dial of his transistor in order to vocally self-love. I don’t know whose plan it is, or if it is a consequence of running an unresolved alliance.

The solo carnival is thronged with many speakers, each representing a face in this fragile broad church without a common hymn, a common choirmaster, let alone blending voices. There is a jockeying for self-projection by big egos that irrepressibly wait in the wings to break in or break out, soon after the alliance is trounced.

Behold a crowded deck
A few viewers have been impressed by Chamisa’s roving crowds which they regard as big and winning. Except they cannot reckon with a basic issue which is barely philosophical: that nothing is big or small except by comparison. Which means in the absence of rivalling Zanu-PF star rallies, there is nothing to compare, still less to say except there are simmering ruptures which these meetings have tried so hard to hide.

And instead of inviting comparisons between Chamisa and ED, the premature rallies have invited intra-alliance comparisons in ways that detract from the overall message. This is before we attend to the quality of the messaging which is a subject for another day. Simply, the current formal disperses attention, instead of concentrating it. Hardly a clever strategy in political communication. For the discerning, there has been enough on display to point to interpersonal and ideological ruptures that augur fratricidal wars ahead.

For writers of book of rules
Overall, the young man has done his best to make party politics seem playful. With each rally, you gird yourself for a new low by way of boyish excesses. It’s nail-biting for those who believe in his cause, yet another humorous farce and therefore a propaganda boon for those ranged against him. And the attempt to lift the young man from an unimpressed home audience to an international one has aggravated matters. But beyond furtive smirks, there is much to engage and tax the thoughtful in our midst. And to judge rather harshly those supposedly fine legal minds to whom we owe our supreme law. Much worse, to self-chastise us all who passed this supreme law in a referendum whose positive outcome made it the fitting governing code for our nation. Just how much fore-thought went into the whole drafting process? Just how weighing precede its adoption?

Drafters recommended the age of 40 as the cut-off age for presidency. We agreed, which is why we have a 40-year old for a presidential candidate. It is lawful; but is it sensible? The answer gets personified in the young presidential aspirant who, youth-like, has exuberantly sped ahead for all of us to singularly watch, see and assess before our attention gets dispersed across a thronged, wider political vista. Today we are able to weigh what a forty-year old is capable of. It’s breathtaking; it’s befuddling, and downrightly frightful when you realise it is all lawful!

The number, the person or us?
Is what is wrong the number forty? Or is it the young soul who claims the number as the count of his age? Until you realise that however you choose to answer the two questions, the point is it’s a figure we commissioned through a well-attended, cross-party referendum, indeed an age we ennobled and lionised. So, today we cannot condemn the kid for being playful, for being “pwerile”, as some imaginative hand at Herald House has put it. Rather, you cheer at the result you have got, having so diligently invested in it. Cheer on for as long as the kid does not at burn down the village.

A parcel of live coal
Did I say burn down the village? This is where the concern begins. We have turned a very serious matter into a nursery pantomime. For are we not talking about governing a country, about running a nation? And what is more, a nation emerging from a serious crisis that has destroyed and strained livelihoods. Given the job at hand, is it time for enacting such bad jokes, for showing such levity? Just in case your vocabulary is sparse, let me help you.

Levity is when you treat weighty matters lightly, handle them frivolously. Except I am not so sure who I am attacking here: the law, the young man or the embracing society. Maybe not the young man. You don’t give a kid a parcel of live coal, and then ask him handle and deliver with utmost care. Now watch with what care he carries live embers, and where and how he deposits the precious parcel. Which elders then cry? Who to? That is us.

Our bad patch called Nelson
A positive, self-comforting way of looking at it is to say, like humans, nations do learn from bad patches. That means we must accept that ours is called Nelson Chamisa. We have to live with it, finding solace in the rationalisation that good constitutions are never drafted; they are tested. They are not what begins; rather, they are what follows. What follows after hard reality has tested, tempered and tethered the idealism of starry-eyed drafters. Which means we are the generation ill-fated to suffer it all, to absorb all these imperfections of idealism which today walk the land as pranks of youthful childishness.

Beyond perfection of idealism
To humour you a bit, let me digress light-heartedly. I recall John Milton’s heaven (always with a small “h”). Reportedly, it had good laws, complemented by a good, neat power hierarchy: Milton’s god (again small “g”) at the zenith; arch-angels just below; then angels and, after them, all creatures of multiple frailties, led of course by man.

Man with the freedom to choose. Except it was a false freedom in that it could only be exercised and realised on way: by transgressing and thus by falling irretrievably. And thanks to Eve – the foremost matriarch — and the serpent — munyengeri — that choice was exercised, leaving all of us where we are now, creatures of mortality and fallibility. But I am not about to rue our fate, which has become an existential condition we have all grown to accept and suffer stoically. Or with equanimity, if you are into big words.

When god was not god enough
I am on about heaven and its perfect laws, and of course its pecking order. Until one day god’s underling called Satan sized his boss up, and concluded he wasn’t best thing ever born. Ahh, did I say ever born? God being born? Maybe Milton’s god, which is my clever way out of this self-kneaded creative imbroglio! Satan wanted to be where god sat in such holy eminence. Nowadays what moved Satan is called ambition which, as legend has ever had it since, must be made of sterner stuff. And the material that sewed Satan was indeed stern, sterner.

He had the brawn for it; the brains too! But because heaven’s laws had never been tested or stretched by vaulting ambition, by heaven’s idealism, Satan had created an abomination: initially in thought, subsequently in deed. As Miltonic legend has it, Satan began by scornfully snorting in front of a god who exuded and exhaled sweet holiness. Then Satan grew bolder, and eyed god’s celestial chair. Next came “operation overthrow divinity”!

Where the devil almost won
I am not so sure I am enamoured of Milton’s god who allows tanks to roll, when “he” should be all-seeing, all-present, all-powerful. Why would he allow Satan to have his way, thereby laying ground for the mortal struggle which reportedly followed? Milton’s scriptural Paradise Lost Book IX and X capture this deadly heavenly tussle whose reverberations are depicted as cosmic in proportions.

Satan, according to the same Milton, came this close to causing an upset! It leaves me wondering what I would be today had the Devil won, thrusting him at the helm! Perish the thought! Eventually of course, God (with a capital “G” this time) prevailed, which is why things are what they are to this day. Or believed to be, according to priests and scriptures.

Better a dungeon
In retribution, the rebellious Satan is flung out of Heaven, violently tossed into the dark, bottomless pit. As I write, he is still on his way down, and will be until God “dies”! As I said, he fell, and continues to fall, a raging flame tracing his downward fall-path to perdition. Except that is not the dramatic part, the intense part. This comes soon after the divine judgment, and just before the divine sentence. Haughtily, Satan looks god right into his face, before defiantly drawing out a derisive finger with which he points at Milton’s god to say: Better a dungeon than a heaven without democracy! After which he flings himself into the dungeon, his naked hind following!

Virtue versus necessity
Could this be what we have done? Preferred a democratic dungeon of experience to the celestial airs and idealism of heaven? Whichever way, the commandments that governed heaven needed a rebellion to be turned into real governing laws. It is experience that tempers — I was going to say which ravish — virgins laws that govern real societies. True, virginity is a virtue. But it has to break for life to multiply. We have to stay the riotous night: you and me, an ill-fated generation.

After all, putting aside 2013 and its distorting raft of transitional clauses, strictly this is just about the first plebiscite held under the new Constitution. Its goodness, efficacy if you want, can’t come from the printing press whence it was minted. Rather, it comes from the rough stretches and rough tumble of electoral governance. Hopefully the morning after the poll, we pluck the courage to isolate those portions of starry-eyed idealism, all then to expurgate them, so we have a living Constitution that governs fallible man. Whichever way, I am pretty clear 40 isn’t the age.

I am also pretty clear that even it is a ripe age elsewhere, it doesn’t follow it is in our part of the world. And to say so is not to self-deprecate. It is to assess in the light of the repertoire of experience of an African child, with all the historical limitations of colonial and post-colonial history. It is, indeed to cull experience from property access which is pre-ordained us by a peculiar history we have lived through, much of which makes us largely a workforce at 40, as opposed to a property-owning age. All these are critical to experience and maturity, which is why the age debate must always be situated in a specific milieu. Regai vana vakombe kani veduwee!

Too young to retire, leave
But there is another worrisome dimension to the whole matter. Nelson Chamisa is only forty. Today he runs for Presidency. Let’s assume the impossible: that he wins. Which makes him a retired head of state at 50, just about the age when life begins, or just about when the exuberant mind begins to settle down for more mature thoughts. Really? Why tempt fate? Why leave so much to human goodness? Thrown into the saccharine world of power at forty, then licking the sweet block of power for a short ten years.

You expect that soul to bow out gracefully, and then sink into eternal quietude? Give me a break! Which fool ever spits out a juicy morsel which the favouring gods have put into a mouth still delicately serrated by a row of milky teeth, a mouth which is just beginning to take over from the tongue, to maidenly chew the joys of the world? After a chew or two, you tell that mouth the show is over? This is how constitutions are torn, brazenly apart on a rude day, through sophisticated amendments of clauses on term limits on a civilised day. Good constitutions don’t tempt fate. Let alone presume human goodness. They would still be in the Garden of Eden, and without us. This Adam and his Eve.

Soon-to-be nowhere man
Let’s look inside the MDC and its so-called Alliance itself. They will lose, that’s for sure. They know it. Much worse, the impatient world needs them to lose, so a settled Zimbabwe emerges after so long a period of turbulence during which eager capital has kept out. The world cannot wait to come back into rich Zimbabwe’s good graces. Only waiting for an excuse, which is what the impending plebiscite is all about. Not that Zanu-PF has to sleep with the breast in the mouth, to use a local trope. Work has to be done, as indeed it is being done as I write. The work of winning, knowing fully well the opponent is not Chamisa and his stitched, nondescript rag-tag electoral crew.

The real opponent takes the form of a shibboleth — a test which we have to pass to be readmitted into the fold. It’s never about voting; it is about parading a show called internationally passable democracy, with an eager world playing partisan jury. So poor Chamisa is set to lose. Must! Which means he loses nationally at 40; but won locally at twenty-something in past by-elections and national elections in which he ran as a member of parliament. What do you do with a 40-year zero, who was a twenty-something hero? He can’t be leader of the Opposition after his defeat as a presidential candidate.

He goes back to being an MP, unless Makoni-like, he has no shame in being a failed god who accepts to dwindle back to a mere man. And in his camp, vultures presently fawning loyalty, will bare their fangs and show their feral instincts. They have many arguments against him, poor youngster: you lost to ED; give others a chance, says one group. It was about your immaturity, give way to the mature ones, says another. No, it was about your illegality, your pilfering the crown from the coffin which divided the Party before, during and after Buhera, which divided our vote and launched a Khupe. So let’s go to Congress which you circumvented, says yet another group.

More ambitious than Satan
And here is the unadorned matter, truth if you want. You have Biti who no longer has a party, but whose ambition rages wilder than Satan in heaven. He has swallowed his pride to walk back to the MDC which humiliated him before he created the breakaway PDP. An MDC now without a “T”, thanks to God who has taken away his own.

But a Biti who schemes and calculates to grab the political infrastructure which Tsvangirai took years to build. For him this plebiscite does not matter, except in so far as it eliminates Chamisa. On his part, he only has to make occasional “clever” interviews which keep him in the leadership loop, all to invite a deadly comparison with the tender Chamisa who — Tsvangirai-like — must be egged on into treacherous waters where he is sure to be swallowed by the hungry Crocodile.

One dead-man-come-to-inherit
Then you have Welshman Ncube, a virtual political corpse brought back to life by a dying man – one Morgan Tsvangirai – once his bete noire. Give it to Save: he knotted an intricate one as his valedictory political imponderable to this world he could not govern. And each time the MDC tries to un-stitch Tsvangirai’s knots, the whole world remembers him. What a memorial! So Welshman is back into the MDC fold, no less bare than he was when he left his mother’s womb. Politically bare, that is. But he has age or maturity on his side.

A missing link for Chamisa. And a sedate personality, a rare commodity for Biti who is intemperate and fiery. He eyes the same seat, to be got after Chamisa’s fall. There are many more like Biti and Welshman, all looking at this political upstart and young cub-lawyer who dares overreach. These include Mwonzora who beat Chamisa at congress and today cannot understand why democracy belittles the winner by being so vulnerable to whims and caprices of a dying leader. Which reminds me of last week’s instalment: if the trick under Rhodesia was to make us younger, now the requirement under Chamisa’s Zimbabwe is to “grow” older, mature. Pretty impossible: for while it is always far easier for a man to recede into childishness, it is much harder for a child to become the father of a man.

Messy, preferable
There is a broader question which haunts Chamisa. Zanu-PF has borne the brunt and burns of internal democracy. Nobly, if you ask me. The whole thing is virtually over, except for dregs which cannot change the weather. Typically, democracy has lived up to its billing as a noisy, messy, but preferable good. And far from being unnerved, ED chose to boldly err on the side of it, than score on the side of autocratic neatness. And by giving the internal voter the final say, he has aligned political allies to electable candidates. That smartly frees him from larger-than-life players who think he owes them a favour.

A Gorbachev, a Deng
Potentially, he has brand new raw material to re-work into leaders, colleagues and cadres. Which means Machacha has to up his act as Principal of Chitepo School of Ideology. But ED was chasing a bigger game. He has consolidated his image as Zimbabwe’s political Gorbachev who introduces glasnost and perestroika into the body politic, a definitive plus on his Deng image in relation to management of the economy.

Both pass for rich-layered signifiers politically, strategically ahead of the July plebiscite. Hard on the heels of this was the launch of his Party Manifesto which though with no foil to measure it against, seems to be winning the ratings war. Meaning the world is not interested in comparisons; only in reading Zanu-PF’s mind for investment decisions impatiently stayed for a predictable election outcome.

A parade his did not need
Chamisa is still to launch his manifesto, his ostensible reason for delaying being that he fears pilferage from ED. Except no one steals from nothing. What is more, except no one needed a published manifesto better than a Chamisa awaited by a hard-to-please audience at Chatham. And a tearing Sakur he didn’t have to meet so unprepared.

Mr Chamisa

Now in the absence of a manifesto, his interlocutors had no choice but to read his lips, speaking as he did from headache! Feedback from Oxford, exemplified by Diana Jeater — a fundi on Zimbabwe and a former UR lecturer — is far from flattering. Which partly explains the young man’s string of goofs, and increasing irritability best captured in the recent Standard newspaper interview. I had a chance to listen to his Chatham presentation.

I got a distinct impression of a high school debater, only standing before a mature, discerning audience. And, without knowing, grappling with a serious subject. If you have eaten big book, you could easily paste a multitude of authors, each against a good phrase he dished out to such a well-read audience, one so particular about originality. It was a disaster. But that’s no big deal. Scholars of Chatham don’t vote here.

No happy bind
Arguably, it is back home that he faces his biggest reputational cost. Against the Zanu-PF democratic foil, his party has decided against holding party primaries. It makes sense, which is not quite the same as saying it makes good politics.

Today the movement that vaunts itself for “democratic change”, swears at democracy, kicking its basic tenets in the mouth. In the face of this monumental failure and miscalculation, Zanu-PF builds on its November 2017 record as the vanguard of democracy and resolution of the National Question. Which means MDC must never aspire to govern, only aspire to be a good sounding board for, or an outrageous foil of those that govern! All this makes Chamisa real fodder both within and without his party.

Already tainted by being raised to party leadership through appointment, he now deepens his legitimacy crisis by equally appointing candidates for the forthcoming plebiscite. Which wins him friends he stands beholden to in the NEC; but sees him scoring so badly on the democratic test, as the self-vaunted vanguard of the movement for democratic change.

Behind him is a doyen notorious for evading democracy through appointments. On either side of him is the excoriating example of an elective Zanu-PF and a congressing Khupe. And ahead is an elective 2018 still to be got. Not a happy bind if you ask me. Overall, the opposition finds itself fighting a war of positions, not of offensive manouvres. Chachizorira under the watchful eaves!

igomombe@zimpapers.co.zw