Simple but effective ways the MDC could spruce up its battered image

Sep 25, 2012

Public revelations of the astonishing sexual escapades of Zimbabwe coalition government prime minister and Movement for Democratic Change leader party leader Morgan Tsvangirai have for now totally derailed his party's ability to focus on its message in preparation for an election expected in the next several months. Even before the details of his messy sex life hit the public, the MDC had begun to experience perhaps its most serious crisis of public confidence. Perhaps this is a good opportunity for the MDC to take stock and change some of its ways to prevent a further haemorraging of its public support. Here is a random list of some simple things they could look at doing to try to stem the tide of their relative decline.

Put a tighter leash on Tsvangirai

Left entirely to his own devices, Morgan Tsvangirai may be dangerous to himself as well as the party. The amazing number of overlapping sexual partners that have come to light so far (there's no telling how many others there might be who have not come out in public to claim a piece of the prime minister) and the sheer, brazen, naive carelessness of his affairs with them could not have been secrets in the upper echelons of the MDC. While it is difficult to control the sexual urges of the 60 year old leader of your party, the enabling/cover up of his behaviour that many of his senior aides must have engaged in until things blew up must stop.

Senior party leaders need to find the courage to call Tsvangirai to a disciplinary hearing to make it clear, if he still doesn't get it, how much embarrassment and damage he has caused his party. If Tsvangirai is presently surrounded by ass kissers who are afraid of and intimidated by him, the party must insist that more professional, less intimidated people surround him. They might not be able to keep him from dropping his zip at every opportunity, but they perhaps could save the party and Tsvangirai himself from some of his potentially damaging tendencies.

Continue to de-emphasize use of the party leader's initial as part of the party's name 

There are so many flavors/factions of the MDC now that it's hard to keep up with them. To distinguish them, the unimaginative practice of putting the leader's initial after 'MDC' has arisen in the last several years. The Tsvangirai-led MDC is obviously a major political force in Zimbabwe, while almost all the other MDCs are little more than personality cults for their leaders. So the Tsvangirai-led MDC could argue that it is the 'real' MDC and does not need any distinguishing initial after its name.

But 'MDC-T' is a widely recognized appellation for the party. It should now be obvious to all in the MDC that too close an identification of the party with the person of its leader can be very damaging. When the leader's personal stature is strong, the party can bask in it. But when it takes a severe bashing as at present with Tsvangirai, the party disproportionately shares in the mud and derision that are thrown at the leader.

ZANU-PF and the person of Robert Mugabe can be conflated in many ways. As a strong character of a party leader who is also president of a repressive state machinery, ZANU-PF can get away with the sloppy personality-cultisim, although it will work against them if Mugabe drops dead today.

The MDC cannot afford this. They are the underdogs in the coalition government, and their main claim to fame is that they will bring 'change' in how things are done. The MDC must find a way for its leader to still carry the authority that is due him, but at the same time seek to divorce the fortunes of the party from those of its individual leaders. Tough task, but necessary.

Cultivate better relations with the sympathetic media 

In an recent interview with the Voice of America's Violet Gonda, she pressed home the point that many members of the private media, mostly very sympathetic to the MDC, felt that Tsvangirai had become very hard to access in recent years. Tsvangirai seemed to have been taken off guard by Gonda's claim, finally weakly promising to investigate the issue.

He also referred to regular briefings he holds for the media (unlike the media-scared Mugabe) but Gonda  pointed out that while stage-managed meetings with the media are 'safe' for politicians, they are of little effectiveness in winning over hearts and minds. 

If Gonda's claims are true, it is a bad sign that the situation obtains in the first place, and that Tsvangirai had to find out about it in such a public, embarrassing way. Gionda specifically mentioned the complaint as coming from the Daily News, which is arguably the most obviously, unapologetically pro-MDC of Zimbabwe's private newspapers, sometimes overly so.

That even the pro-MDC Daily News feels sidelined and ignored by Tsvangirai and his handlers suggests something fundamentally wrong with the party's media strategy. Perhaps if he were more in touch with the sympathetic media he would have found out earlier that he was developing a dangerous reputation as being sexually loose and reckless. The media would have known, and it is the job of his public relations handlers to manage relations with them in an advantageous way, not to facilitate cover-ups, but as part of keeping the party's ears close to the ground.

It is shocking that in the last few years the MDC has thrown away this private media advantage. A lot of soul searching and hard work needs to be done in this regard.

Don't be so obviously, publicly chummy with your main opponent

That Tsvangirai and Mugabe can now be seen together in public without any obvious peronal tension between them is a good thing, and is in keeping with the whole spirit of the coalition government.

But Tsvangirai has far more to lose than Mugabe from the occasional appearance of their being almost buddies. Even if they actually have become personal friendss, making it publicly obvious by body language, speech and demeanour has the effect of separating Tsvangirai from a significant part of the hard core anti-Mugabe/anti-ZANU/PF elements of his base. As Tsvangirai has recently found out, every gesture of his will be scrutinized, and he needs to be more aware of some of the costly-to-him interpretations that some of his supporters will arrive at from careless or un-intended symbolisms.  

Just as Mugabe and Co. often accuse Tsvangirai of being in the pockets of the westerners/whites, he will have to be careful that his supporters do not see him as being a soft, compromised pussycat in the hands of Mugabe.
Who are the MDC's public intellectuals? 

ZANU-PF has the shrill voices of  Jonathan Moyo and George Charamba at its top propaganda tier, and a host of others slightly below that, all tirelessly working to continuously repeat a pro-Mugabe/pro-ZANU/PF view of the world at every given opportunity. They have the huge advantage of access to the state media to do their job.

But who are the identifiable countering voices on behalf of the MDC? The private media might resist being seen as mouthpieces for the MDC, but it is hard to believe that they would reject publishing well-argued defenses of their positions by MDC people charged with getting the party's positions out, and with poking holes in their opponents words and actions. While ZANU-PF is unwavering, relentless in both its defensive and offensive propaganda, the MDC has chosen to take a lackadaisical, laid back attitude. Can they still afford this given the findings of recent polls and Tsvangirai's zipper malfunction issues?

At one point MDC 'policy advisor' Eddie Cross was the most prominent, most prolific written defender of 
the MDC's messages, even in perhaps a mostly private role. Articulate and well-written as he is, his old-fashioned 'Rhodiness' often comes through in his articles in a way that does the party no good. People like Cross having a prominent place in the MDC might show the party's broad inclusiveness, but it would be disastrous and a free gift to ZANU-PF propagandists for someone like him to be perceived as the MDC's  main 'ideas man.' Party secretary general and coalition government finance minister Tendai Biti has in recent weeks written some good articles, but they were defensive rather than proactive pieces. Besides, Biti is too pre-occupied to do dedicated propaganda consistently and often.

So the MDC badly needs to find or develop Moyo and Charamba equivalents amongst its ranks, although they do not need to sink to the levels of crudeness and long-windedness of these two gentlemen. Not having access to as broad a range of media as ZANU-PF, the MDC propagandists would have to be very innovative about how they got their points and arguments across.  

The MDC needs to overhaul its media strategy, and it needs to develop fora for regular ideas-engagements with the public that it has failed to do so far.

Make it clear, obvious what the party stands for 

When the VOA's Violet Gonda quizzed him on charges that what the party stood for, other than a generic message of 'change' was not clear to many people, Tsvangirai expressed great exasperation. All our policy positions are there on paper if you look for them, he effectively protested to Gonda.

In a startling way Tsvangirai missed the main point in this respect. It is the nature of politics that very few ordinary people are going to read your detailed policy papers or go to your website for them. You have to distill them into simple, accessible, and memorable ways. The person on the street who rarely reads the newspaper in any great detail must still be able to count off the top five or so principles your party stands for. Then you can say you have been successful at penetrating the public mind. Get people talking about your positions, let them carry simple slogans that encapsulate complex ideas to be periodically explained in greater detail at appropriate fora.

The chinija/change slogan was simple, widely understood and perfectly appropriate for a time when there was almost unanimity that Mugabe/ZANU-PF just needed to go, almost regardless of who came in their place. The MDC did not need to articulate any thing other than that it was the party that was going to deliver that widespread wish for 'change,' nor did it then really need to detail what the change entailed. But the situation has changed in the last few years. The urgency for 'change' is not as great as it was in the crisis years up to the 2008 election, and the MDC are now co-incumbents with ZANU-PF. Things have moved on, with the simple idea of 'change' no longer carrying its previous punch.

Yet the MDC has not thought to clearly, easily articulate 'what it stands for' in the simple but effective way that 'change' articulated when that was the over-riding issue of the day.   

The appearance of western stoogism needs to be addressed

The western world makes no secret of its regard for Tsvangirai as the brave anti-Mugabe. But given the relentless, effective accusations by Mugabe and Co. that Tsvangirai and the MDC are lackeys of the West/local whites, whose mandate is to 'reverse the gains of the revolution' on behalf of those purported puppet masters, Tsvangirai's good standing in western capitals is a double-edged sword.

Tsvangirai and the MDC have so far failed to keep good relations with their western friends while separating themselves from the impression of being subservient to them. This may not have mattered much when it was taken for granted that the MDC's electoral support was overwhelming, but there now seems to be an emerging consensus that there is a growing swing vote. There could be significant numbers of these swing voters who might be attracted to the MDC, but are turned off by the perception of too-close relations with western countries whose motives for a deep Zimbabwe interest are not always trusted.

Despite signs of progress at one time, Tsvangirai and the MDC seemed to have made very little progress in significantly winning over African and non-western support and sympathy. The party might find that when it needs support from these quarters, it simply will not have cultivated relations with them to have it. But the main point is that at this point in Zimbabwe's post-colonial progression, how relations with western nations are conducted and perceived needs to be managed much more carefully than the Tsvangirai and the MDC have succeeded in doing.

Think things through carefully ten times before going public with a position or action 

For all his political skills, Tsvangirai has also proven to be a bungler in countless ways that have come back to haunt him and the party over the years. But the many ill-advised actions suggest a systemic problem within the top echelons of the MDC, rather than a situation where Tsvangirai can be made to carry all the blame.

Some random examples of questionable actions that would not likely have been the result of Tsvangirai's decisions alone:

Was it wise for Elizabeth Macheka Tsvangirai to very showily make an appearance at the high-profile trial of some MDC activists just two days after her 'mock wedding' to Tsvangirai? The supportive symbolism it was supposed to portray is appreciated (some of the families of the accused have accused the party of forgetting them), but was it not a case of trying too hard, too soon? Is she going to be forced on the MDC supporters in a 'mother of the party' role, or should party members be allowed to warm up to her naturally? ZANU-PF tried to impose Grace Mugabe in a 'mother' role onto the party when she married her husband, but that effort was a spectacular failure. The MDC 'change' party should be learning from ZANU-PF's blunders, not copying them. 

Does Elizabeth need to play an overtly, publicly supportive political role of her husband, or is there a high chance of this back-firing given the controversy with which she came into the party leader's life and bedroom? There is something amateurish and over-eager about throwing her into 'the deep end' like this.

Why did it not become obvious much earlier to the MDC that even before details of Tsvangirai's expensive playboy lifestyle came out, his overall image of excess and being in it for the luxuries had become damaging? The MDC seemed to have been taken by surprise by the seemingly sudden explosion of public discussion about this. Why? Which rock have the MDC top leadership been hiding under the past year or two for them to have missed this? What is the quality of the MDC's public intelligence?

Who okayed the dum idea for Tsvangirai to grant an interview to the racist, anti-African British paper the Telegraph in 2011? Do your research, pick your interviewers more carefully. Ditch the Mugabe-style colonial mentality of being more accessible to the 'international media' than to the media in your own backyard. International exposure is important, When it is necessary to open yourself up to foreign media, be mindful of the symbolisms of your choice of interviewers.

And so on and so forth. While having a committee picking apart the pros and cons of every public action of the party leadership will reduce spontaneity, at least for the current damage-limitation mode that the party must be in now it is necessary, otherwise Tsvangirai may continue to trip himself up, taking his whole party down with him because of his centrality to its image.         

 MDC leaders need to go on diets, a fitness regime

A surprising proportion of the MDC’s prominent leaders, young and not so young, men and women, are overweight, some of them morbidly so.

Of course there is a whole variety of reasons for people being beyond their recommended weight, not all of them within their easy control. But the point is that the high incidence of obesity amongst the MDC leadership makes it more serious than just an individual issue. The bloated look of many top MDC officials since theey joined the coalition government detracts from the image of scrappy, disciplined idealists trying to dislodge an entrenched old ruling party. At a subliminal level, the MDC now increasingly gives the appearance of being a party of fat cats. Not only would healthier diets and exercise give the public a more positive image of the MDC, its leaders would also look and feel better, live healthier and be more energetic.  

The best thing of all for the MDC is that almost all the 'change' suggested here does not need to cost the party any money. The first thing the MDC needs to overcome its present troubles is a mindset change. MDC, chinjai mafungiro.

The Zimbabwe Review 


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