Nelson Chamisa: A charismatic leader living dangerously

December 7, 2021

Tawanda Majoni

There are millions of Zimbabweans and other interested people who would just love to break the Zanu PF chain of political hegemony.

The hope for political change—call it a protest against drawn-out Zanu PF misrule—has been there for a long time, but particularly from the turn of the millennium just after the formation of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

So, the late charismatic leader of the MDC, Morgan Tsvangirai and his popular party—became a beacon of that hope for a substantively disillusioned electorate, particularly in urban and peri-urban constituencies.

But then, Tsvangirai repeatedly failed to take disgruntled Zimbabweans to Canaan. Many people out there don’t think it was fundamentally due to his faulty leadership that Canaan remained a mirage.

Habitual fraudsters

He had his own weaknesses, yes, but the major problem was his arch-rival, the late Robert Mugabe, his lieutenants who subsequently pushed him out of power through a coup in late 2017, and an intricate machinery that they put in place to rig elections and persecute the opposition. The ruling elite is a notorious club of habitual fraudsters where elections and a whole gamut of other things are concerned.

Still, hope for change persists, despite previous failures. There are inspiring cases in Southern Africa whereby ruling parties have lost to the opposition. Talk of DRC, Zambia and Malawi. And down South, the ruling ANC is seeing fire, as we say. It recently lost key metropoles o the opposition in municipal elections.

That makes it look like the ANC is going the Zanu PF way, whereby the generally informed urban electorate has turned its back on the rain-soaked founding party.

It is, therefore, not surprising that there are millions of people out there—if we go by the numbers he got at the 2018 polls—who are pinning their hopes on the unarguably popular Nelson Chamisa to bring a new political order to Zimbabwe, come 2023. It took six attempts for Hakainde Hichilema of Zambia to bag the presidency this year, after all.

Chamisa, also known as Nero, Cobra and Wamba, was born in Masvingo almost 44 years ago. He cut his teeth in politics as a young Harare Polytechnic student activist and secretary general of the Zimbabwe National Students Union. The union was pretty aligned to opposition politics, so it was predictable that, when the MDC was formed in late 1999, he was one of the founders.

Gifted with captivating oratory skills and a sharp wit, Chamisa quickly became a leader of the MDC youth wing, later being elevated to party spokesperson at the 2006 congress. Five years later, in 2011, he rose to the strategic position of party organiser—the equivalent of national commissar in Zanu PF.

Setbacks and tact

He suffered a painful but passing setback in 2014 when he was beaten to the position of secretary general by Douglas Mwonzora. He had rattled to the elections with 10 out of the 12 provinces in the bag but lost under unclear circumstances. When I talked to him then, he certainly sounded devastated and hinted that some big guys in the leadership no longer wanted him.

But leaving the party when the likes of Tendai Biti had already done so earlier in the year due to frustrations with Tsvangirai’s leadership wasn’t what he was thinking of doing so soon. And, from a point of tactic, he was right. In 2016, Tsvangirai made some kind of political volte-face and appointed him co-vice president of the party alongside Elias Mudzuri and Thokozani Khupe. 

Chamisa is the former MP for Kuwadzana East in Harare and was ICT minister between early 2009 and mid-2013 during the Government of National (Imp) Unity. He first attended the Harare Polytechnic before enrolling at the University of Zimbabwe for a Bachelor of Science in Politics and Admin, then a law degree which he obtained with a book prize.

Nero rose to the leadership of the MDC in February 2018, when, just after the death of Tsvangirai from colon cancer, he convened a hasty national council meeting that controversially appointed him interim president for 12 months, following which he was endorsed as the substantive leader at a congress. He contested in the 2018 elections under the Movement for Democratic Change Alliance (MDC-A) banner and missed narrowly to the current president, Emmerson Mnangagwa.

The MDC-A leader was, no doubt, one of the best ministers during the 2009-2013 coalition government. He demonstrated conviction to his work and amply showed an anxiety to implement pro-poor policies as the ICT minister. No wonder he easily earned the respect of Mugabe. The former president had a soft spot for hard workers with a fair share of brains in the skull. Of course, he was not entirely a saint during his tenure as ICT minister, as there have been concerns relating to probity in the manner in which he handled the issue of mobile data and airtime prices. 

If you are going to judge his worth as a future president, you may want to use this aspect of him being a hard worker in office. For, going forward, Zimbabwe really needs hard workers. Not the thieving lazy bones that populate our politics today.

Chamisa has a sharp mind, no doubt about it. So, if you combine that with hard work, you are bound to get a good candidate in Nero. He is a good schemer and strategist too. That’s the reason why he is in the position of leadership, never mind how he got there for now. The fact that he has managed to mobilise and maintain political emotion in his favour to the extent he has done is no ordinary feat. He has managed to leapfrog all his seniors in the party, among them Tendai Biti, Welshman Ncube and Thokozani Khupe.

He has a natural knack for being popular, it seems. That started from as far back as early college days at the Harare Poly. That’s perhaps because he knows what the people want to hear and see and just goes ahead and gives them the stuff with the whip of a sweet tongue. After all, he enjoys a useful appeal to the young who, if they registered well enough to vote, are most likely to run with him.

All things being equal, you can’t think of anyone who would beat Chamisa in 2023. If there are going to be adequate reforms, no intimidation and no rigging, Nero will definitely win against any candidate.

Unprincipled

Problem, though, is that the huge part of the electorate that likes him has tended to overate Chamisa and plays blind to his evidently serious fault lines. To start with, Chamisa lacks principle. He doesn’t own a position of his own, but tends to ride on populist appeal and capitalises on an excitable electorate.

At a time the MDC was bitterly fighting Mugabe and his regime, Chamisa hopped into bed with the late leader and was doing business with the former’s president’s family venture, Gushungo Holdings.

In 2015, he was part of a legal team that represented Zuva Petroleum in its dispute with its workers. Zuva won the case and Chamisa actually celebrated. But this judgment led to thousands of workers in Zimbabwe losing their jobs without desert or recourse to internal or other forms of redress. So, in a way, Chamisa contributed to the current joblessness that Zimbabwe is suffering. All that, despite having founded a largely labour-based movement, the MDC.

Nero has the advantage of being a young leader with enough charisma to also lure the youths, but it seems he tends to overate the issue of generational change. When he controversially took over the MDC leadership as Tsvangirai was breathing his last, he set about marginalising the old guard.

That way he has tended to lose a valuable stratum that is meant to not only provide valuable wisdom and counsel but stability in the party too. He has surrounded himself with too many youths whose advice and support may not provide the best results.

Currently, Chamisa is doing pretty brave things going round the country to meet and excite rural people. But there is something strange about this. You don’t always see the likes of Biti, Welshman Ncube, David Coltart and other senior guys with him on those tours. This may betray over-dependence on youths, who Nero might find easier to work with because they are malleable and bound to grovel up to him.

This leads to another serious issue. It seems everything must be about him. If you go back to the 2018 elections, you will notice that the campaign strategy was far more to do with Chamisa than MDC-A. He had managed to mobilise people into rallying support for him, with negligible resources and attention going to the legislative and municipal candidates.

That’s the reason why you had such slogans like “Chamisa Chete Chete” (Chamisa Only). Currently, they are running with “Ngaapinde Hake Mukomana” (Let the Boy Rule). This is about Chamisa, never the party. Besides the blandness of the chant-line, this is so demeaning. It perpetuates the stigma that Nero is still a boy, which he definitely is not. It also strips him of his social identity as a respectable and married family man by calling him a boy. Ultimately, it isolates him from his social and political surroundings and brands him as an irresponsible and immature loner.

Living dangerously

All because of this anxiety to turn Nero into a deity. But deification of political leaders is a very dangerous thing. That’s how we ended up with that monster called Mugabe. Chamisa can easily turn into one of the worst dictators modern politics has ever known if this culture persists.

A culture that creates a one centre of power. But Chamisa must know that relegating the party to the periphery this way can easily bring him down. Let’s say he had won the presidential election in 2018. Then what? Zanu PF won the majority then. So, you would have a situation whereby Nero would sit on a parliament dominated by a party that’s not his. They would impeach him within a day of taking the oath of office! And the same can happen in 2023.

Even though he is always complaining about Mnangagwa’s legitimacy, Chamisa has his own legitimacy issues. It was immoral for him to convene a meeting that gave him power before Tsvangirai was even buried. The manner in which the national assembly chose him was unconstitutional and there is also a tag of violence around him.

We will wait to see if Chamisa has enough arsenal to dribble past a cheating Zanu PF in 2023.

Tawanda Majoni is the national coordinator at Information for Development Trust (IDT) and can be contacted on tmajoni@idt.org.zw

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