Deputy Prime Minister Arthur and his knights of the political circus

Jan 1, 2012

One famous Arthur was an English king and his knights of the round table. An infamous modern Arthur is the deputy prime minister of Zimbabwe, Arthur Mutambara. Around his table he is gathering a dubious collection of individuals and tactics in his desperate bid to hold onto his position and perks. A youngish man who masquerades under the country’s fractured political ‘change’ movement, Mutambara is practicing precisely the old kind of politics Zimbabwe needs to put behind. In the process he not only manages to make himself look small and ridiculous, he illustrates how positive political change in Zimbabwe will take much longer and require much more fundamental societal change than just replacing some faces with new ones.

Mutambara’s main political pedigree is that he was a storied university student leader. When he re-emerged in national politics a couple of decades later, it was reasonable to expect that he would retain at least the dying embers of his past anti-establishment, reformist radicalism. A mixture of lucky circumstances saw him seemingly come out of nowhere to be made the head of a small political party. It was just before Zimbabwe’s political parties resolved a crippling national political crisis by agreeing to form a coalition government. The handful of parliamentary seats Mutambara’s party held at the time resulted in his finding his way to being one of three ‘principals’ of the coalition argument, and one of two of its deputy prime ministers.

Just like Robert Mugabe acts as if his world would come to an end if he no longer held the title of ‘president,’ Mutambara takes himself seriously about his being ‘principal’ and prime minister to an extent that is astonishing.

Mutambara has no electoral mandate, and it has never been fully explained what specific advantages it was thought he would bring to the MDC splinter group he was invited to head. It is far from clear what benefits, if any, his tenure as head of it brought to that faction. It is even less clear what benefits, if any, Mutambara contributes to the national political space as ‘principal’ and deputy prime minister.

Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the main MDC group, has considerable popular electoral support, his party occupying the biggest chuck of parliamentary seats. In a free and fair election, he stands a very good chance, perhaps even strong likelihood, of beating Mugabe and anybody else to be the country’s next president. But as current prime minister, he is basically a toothless bulldog, not allowed by Mugabe and ZANU-PF to exercise any real power.

In this scenario, no one pretends that the two deputy prime minister positions particularly mean anything. However, as coalition ‘government’ principal, Mutambara is said to enjoy the privilege of a weekly tea with Mugabe and Tsvangirai, the two other ‘principals’ on behalf of their respective parties. The highlight of each year for Mutambara in his role as deputy prime minister seems to be to travel to Davos, Switzerland to be on the sidelines of the G8 meetings. He enjoys the sound of his own voice, so he now and then spouts off like the student leader he once was, his specialty being airy exhortations of what Zimbabwe should/must do to move forward. Amongst Mutambara’s reported coalition government perks are weekend plane trips to and from South Africa, where his family apparently lives.

So Mutambara is in a sweet spot. By the nature of his position, not much is expected of him, and he makes no pretence of promising much. He enjoys the limelight and the perks. That seems to be about it.

Then the people who invited him to head their faction decided to un-invite him. It was humiliating, but Mutambara seemed to take it well. He received a temporary boost of public respect from initially seeming to take the high road and gracefully accepting to step down from leadership of the faction. But when it was suggested that with no party position and no known political constituency of any kind to speak of, he could no longer be considered a coalition government ‘principal,’ and furthermore, that he needed to step down (or be fired) from his deputy prime-minister position, Mutambara balked at relinquishing leadership of the faction.

“What? No more annual Davos trips? No more government-paid weekly jaunts to and from South Africa? Back from the ‘prestige’ of being ‘principal’ and deputy prime minister to looking for a real job, or trying to sell an actual product or service? How humiliating such a come down would be! Hell no, I won’t go!”    

It has been downhill from there. Whether it is Mutambara or Welshman Ncube who heads the faction is now a messy issue before the courts, along with convoluted political posturing and public name calling between the two men and their supporters. It’s not a pretty site and the fight greatly diminishes both men in public esteem.

The battle between Mutambara and Ncube to be called ‘principal’ and ‘deputy prime minister’ has descended into surprisingly bitter acrimony. Completely lost are the bigger issues that should dominate the public’s association with both men and their respective MDC sub-factions.

What is the reason for the existence of the faction the two men are fighting over heading? Aside from fighting over positions and perks, on what basis are Ncube and Mutambara appealing for voter support? If the ‘change’ in the MDC name they both use is to move the country out of the stifled development of the 30+ years Mugabe era, why is so much more of their time and energy focused on fighting each other?

If either of them have a manifesto, its points are vastly drowned out by their personal fight. If there is some principle involved in the Ncube vs. Mutambrara fight, what is it? The personal benefits that Mutambara is so tenaciously holding on to are clear, but what does he offer for a voter to say to himself/herself, “I support Mutambara in his fight against Ncube?”

The High Court ruled that Mutambara had legitimately lost to Ncube the right to claim to be head of their faction. Mutambara has appealed that ruling.

The published screed of an official of Mutambara’s sub-faction about their perspective of the messy fight makes fascinating but deeply depressing reading. As an interesting aside, it was published by the government-owned, ZANU-PF supporting Herald. The Herald takes any opportunity to disparage opponents of Mugabe and ZANU-PF, so it is telling that it finds entertainment and political value in publishing the attack of one MDC sub-faction on another.

It is awkward, that Zimbabwe has so many political groups operating under the name ‘Movement for Democratic Change’ as if there were something particularly magical and arresting about it. It is absurd, even ridiculous, that they distinguish themselves from each other by the first initial of the surname of the leader, as if it is a family business rather than a political party.

The secretary general of Mutambara’s sub-faction, one Maxwell Zimuto, refers in his article to ‘the Welshman Ncube-led MDC group,’ versus his sides’ ‘MDC-M.’  This makes both sub-factions appear to live under whatever glory reflects from the main faction led by Tsvangirai (MDC-T.) It would seem to make sense for both sub-factions (MDC-N or MDC-M) to carve out their own distinct identity, since they claim to not wish to be associated with the main MDC group they are splinters of. What is their expectation of the voter appeal of factions that are clearly taking cover under the nomenclature skirt of another political outfit?

How much ‘democracy’ could a prospective member expect in a political faction in which its name includes that of the leader? Would challenge of the leader who lends his surname’s first initial to the faction’s name be any more tolerated than in ZANU-PF, the long-ruling party the generic MDC brand promises to ‘change’ Zimbabwe’s politics from?

In his article, Zimuto goes into great detail about the intricacies of the court fight between Mutambara and Ncube. He tries to counter the mostly unflattering recent coverage of Mutambara and his sub-faction in assorted media. He defends Mutambara’s change of mind about accepting the decision of the sub-faction congress that recalled him from leadership and put Ncube in his place.

Completely absent from the impassioned article was any mention of what Mutambara’s faction stands for, if anything. There was nothing from the sub-faction’s secretary general to make a reader and voter appreciate why s/he should be politically sympathetic and supportive of Mutambara in his fight with Ncube.

It was a sometimes confusing point-scoring article that left a reader with the impression that indeed, there really is nothing more to the whole fiasco than Mutambara’s desire to retain his position and privileges, along with the support of acolytes who hope to pick up any associated crumbs.

The article’s style of arguments, heat and the points made all entrench the impression of Mutambara and his sub-faction as being crafty, but in a shallow and utterly cynical way. That may be nothing unusual in politics, but an unavoidable irony is that Mutambara is amongst a younger generation of politicians who it was thought would help the country make a break with the ZANU-PF style. It is also notable that Mutambara has earned his negative reputation amongst many Zimbabweans so early in his political career.

In the person of Mutambara we see a once promising ‘change’ politician who shows all the signs of using everything possible for little more than self-gain and glory. It is exactly the kind of old politics that many Zimbabweans hoped the alphabet soup of MDC factions would be helping ‘democratically moving and changing’ them away from. Even by the very low standards of Zimbabwean politics, Mutambara’s cynicism is breathtaking.



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