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Zim opposition pivots to Yellow as Chamisa dumps damaged MDC brand

Citizens Coalition for Change leader, Nelson Chamisa

After a nervy period of unsureness and deliberation, the political midwives eventually attended to the arrival of the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) on the 24th of January 2022. That date earned a place in the history of party politics in Zimbabwe when the MDC Alliance underwent a metamorphosis into the CCC. 

Those who live through moments of history do not usually grasp their significance. It is those who look back and therefore have the advantage of hindsight, who can appreciate the weight of such moments. The events of this week carry some historical significance, and it’s not just because something big was born, but because a little bit of us also died in the same moment. 

It was like that hard moment for a farmer when realizes that although he loves his animal so much, the best option because it is broken beyond healing, is to put it to sleep. That way he spares it the excruciating pain and himself, the agony of watching it suffer. It was time for the MDC to be put out of its misery. The sight of it being mutilated and misused by men and women who obsequiously succumbed to ZANU PF was painful.      

An unforgiving world

Hours before the arrival, Nelson Chamisa, the leader of the CCC had posted an image of a pregnant woman on his social media accounts. The expecting woman was dressed in bright yellow. Accompanying the image were the words “Behold the New”, a clear indication that something momentous in the life of Zimbabwe’s main opposition political party was afoot. There had already been much chatter among Zimbabweans concerning the issue of the party’s name given the murkiness that had developed around the old one, the MDC.

But if what was to come was a new baby, it was more wildebeest birth than human, for politics in Zimbabwe mimics politics of the jungle. The moment a wildebeest calf is born during the Great Migration in the Serengeti, it must learn quickly to both walk and run at the same time. It is a cruel and unforgiving world filled with predators with a voracious appetite, always eyeing the weakest members of the herd. In that world, there is no allowance for youth. There is neither charity nor pity. The young must quickly adapt or perish. It is into this tough world that the CCC arrived, one in which hungry political predators lurked, ready to pounce at the slightest sign of error, weakness, or opportunity. The CCC has had to hit the ground running. 

The decision to change the party’s name had long been overdue. The MDC brand had become so toxic that retaining it was just unproductive stubbornness. This much was plain to everyone. It had not only become a source of confusion, but it also reflected the conflicts and confusion in opposition ranks. But as always, change is a hard proposition. Older hands found it hard to drop something that they had lived with for two decades. The idea of leaving was like betraying a longstanding love. It required a big mental leap to let go of a brand that had become a part of their lives. The history, the emotions, the experiences – for many dropping the name was sacrilege.

But as the weeks went by, and as the reality became more apparent, it dawned on many of them that this insistence was just a sunk cost fallacy. They were swayed more by past investments and not by the reality of future costs which weighed more than any perceived benefits. It took a lot of persuasion to accept that there was a great opportunity to build afresh, drawing an entirely new generation that has fewer attachments to the old. This new generation, which is the future is not burdened by commitment bias. 

One day, when historians look back into events of this period, they might find that this has also been a time of generational disjuncture. A closer look reveals that many of those around Mwonzora is the older generation of the MDC, some of them gallant fighters of the past. But twenty years of fighting a dictatorship had taken its toll. Many gave up. It is not surprising that the approach of the Mwonzora has not been to fight the regime but to seek accommodation in the gravy train. The younger generation, on the other hand, many of them born just before or after the MDC gravitate toward Chamisa and the CCC. The older generation is retiring, while the new generation is up for a fight. 

Solomonic wisdom

To be sure, the MDC had run a wonderful race. But the brand had been dragged through the mud that retaining it was now counter-productive. For example, the fact that there would be a dogfight over the MDC brand was almost certain. Douglas Mwonzora had already staked his claim to the MDC Alliance brand, never mind the fact that he had fired elected representatives based on the accusation that they had joined the MDC Alliance. But was it a necessary fight? Even if Mwonzora’s claim was absurd, a legal fight placed the fate of the MDC Alliance in the hands of a judiciary whose decisions have often gone against it.

It was not necessary when there was a cleaner alternative. Solomonic wisdom dictated that it was better to let the aggressors have the baby than fight to have it cut in half. Unfortunately, in this case, there was no King Solomon to deliver judgment. That judgment lies in the hands of the citizens. The prognosis is that the baby is destined for a future of political malnutrition and probable expiration in the hands of Mwonzora and his allies. After all, it is Chamisa and his allies who appear to have the most important asset in politics: the people. 

Chamisa and his allies may have given up the name, but they gained the favour of the people. Mwonzora and his allies may have the name, the buildings, and the public funding, but they are likely to struggle to retain the hearts and minds of the people. It is not too early for scribes to start writing the political obituary of the MDC – The Rise and Fall of a Movement that Dared to Dream. Few are not without blemish in that sorry saga, but it is Mwonzora who will carry the dubious distinction of having carried it into the grave.  

One of the ironies of the past two years of the political onslaught against Chamisa and the MDC Alliance is that far from draining and exhausting them, it motivated them to unite and defend themselves. They became stronger, benefiting from the empathy of supporters and neutrals alike who were appalled by the abuse of power and clear favouritism by the regime. The arrogance with which Mwonzora and his allies carried themselves did little to endear them to the political market. Instead of eclipsing Chamisa as he had hoped, Mwonzora became the archetypical villain in the sordid political drama.

Rational choice

But hard as it might have been to drop the MDC brand and walk away, it was the only politically rational choice for Chamisa. As the weeks went on, the question was no longer if the MDC Alliance would change its name but when. The proclamation setting the dates for the by-elections and the nomination day made the decision more urgent. But even then, there was a reluctance to make a declaration. Some thought it was too soon and that there would be time during the year to launch the new name and brand. There was a mistaken view that the only thing that mattered was the 2023 election and that the by-elections were just a sideshow. But others rightly observed that further delays would not only frustrate supporters but also cause confusion. Far from being a sideshow, the by-elections were the beginning of the show. 

Already, candidates for the by-elections were announcing their candidates under the MDC Alliance label while Mwonzora’s candidates were also telling the world that they were MDC Alliance candidates. This was an unpleasant situation that caused misery among supporters. It was causing needless confusion. The risk of losing the legal battle in courts that have consistently favoured Mwonzora’s side meant that it was foolhardy to continue insisting.

The Yellow Sea

As it happened, the launch of the new name was overwhelmingly endorsed by the political marketplace. The MDC Alliance was history and so was the colour red, by which the main opposition party had been associated for more than two decades. By the end of the day, the CCC brand and the colour yellow were trending on social media. Supporters shared pictures in yellow apparel or with yellow backgrounds. What was even more remarkable were the numerous pictures of individuals who would not normally declare their political allegiances. They silently joined the bandwagon, making loud political statements with their images. The new baby was receiving a glorious welcome both within and outside Zimbabwe. The sense of excitement has been palpable. If anyone in the leadership had doubted the wisdom of the bold step, the reception must have been a hugely pleasant surprise.

The deliberations

The decision to adopt the new name was not an easy one. One view was to make sure the name closely resembled the old name and identity. The reasoning was that the new should not lose touch with the old. For this reason, it was necessary to have a name that retained some resonance with the old. The name Alliance for Democratic Change was mooted. It was persuasive but ultimately misguided in its pursuit of nostalgia. It reflected another fallacy of commitment bias toward the old brand.

The contrary view, which eventually won the day, was that it was necessary to have a clean break with the past. There was no point in having a half-divorce from the MDC Alliance and the Alliance for Democratic Change carried a lot of baggage from the past. It carried with it a sense of denialism, a refusal to accept that the past was indeed the past. What it did for the Alliance for Democratic Change was that any name that would prompt the question “Which Alliance?” was more trouble than it was worth. It would cause the confusion that the change was trying to overcome. It sounded well, but it had all the hallmarks of someone who was refusing to let go of an ex-lover.

Alliance for Transformational Change was another option. Apart from the baggage embedded in the word Alliance, it sounded too wordy and convoluted. The name of a political party should be easy on the tongue and transformational was such a heavy load. It was for the same reason that “convergence” in “Citizens Convergence for Change”, another candidate with the same CCC acronym did not find favour. In the end, the Citizens Coalition for Change carried the day. It represented a break with the past, but more importantly, both in tone and content.

From a content perspective, it places the citizen at the centre, which makes for a defining feature of the new political party. It retains the notion of a movement without necessarily mimicking it because after all a movement is constituted by citizens. The placement of citizens at the centre is consistent with the philosophy upon which the country’s constitution is based, namely that authority to govern derives from the citizens. The idea of coalition denotes citizens that are converging despite their differences. The ethos of the coalition is right at the centre of modern-day politics: it is perfectly possible for citizens to have differences and to acknowledge them while pursuing commonly held goals. The MDC Alliance was an alliance of political parties. The salient message is that the CCC is a coalition of citizens.   

Old habits die hard

Having overcome the mental inertia of the status quo, the next big challenge for the CCC is to demonstrate that change is not just a superficial exercise. It must demonstrate that it is not just form ahead of substance. As it happens, the first few days have shown rude but important reminders that old habits die hard. The party name was launched just under 48 hours before the nomination day for the by-elections. This was bound to lead to problems and they duly happened. By the end of the day, it had emerged that the CCC had fielded double candidates in wards in Bulawayo and Masvingo. This was disappointing because it reflected a disconcerting continuity of old habits.

The MDC in its various incarnations had acquired a bad habit of fielding more than one candidate where it was contesting elections. This nasty habit had cost the party dearly in several electoral contests. With votes split between candidates, it allowed ZANU PF candidates to win by default. It was a subversion of democracy because in such cases a constituency or ward ended up being represented by a minority candidate simply because most of the voters’ allegiance was split between the MDC’s double candidates. Therefore, seeing the CCC falling into the same trap less than 48 hours after its formation was deeply disconcerting for its followers and embarrassing for the leaders.

That the problem may have affected just 3 of the 143 electoral contests might suggest that it is small in scale; the fact that it happened during a period when supporters were euphoric is disappointing. The new message was that the new brand represented a break with the past, so even if it had affected one race, it would still have been too bad. At the time of writing the leaders said they were resolving the problem and one candidate had since withdrawn from the race. But even if the remaining disputes are resolved, this should not obscure the need for a systemic overhaul of the process of selecting and nominating candidates.

Deal with systemic failure

The fact that there were double nominations is not an aberration. Instead, it points to a systemic failure: there is something fundamentally flawed in the party’s selection and nomination process. This is not resolved by ad-hoc measures. It demands a thorough review of the processes and a systemic overhaul. The idea that a political party has multiple signatories for nominations is obviously a source of problems that appears to lead to a free for all. Authority must be centralized and where it is delegated, it must be approved by the authorized officers. If the party’s bank accounts have specifically designated signatories, there is no reason why its primary activity, the electoral process, is not similarly safeguarded.

In some ways, it is a good thing for the CCC that this debacle happened during the current by-elections because it gives the party sufficient lead time before the 2023 elections to review and deal with the systemic flaws. But to achieve this, the party leadership must first accept that there is a systemic weakness that requires attention.

Indeed, those of us who argued for participation in these by-elections feel vindicated because it has provided a lesson before 2023. We argued that the by-elections were an opportunity to test the electoral machinery, including the party’s systems. The nomination process has already raised an important red flag. It would have been far worse if this problem had reared its head in 2023. Now that it has happened and there is a clear flaw, the leadership shouldn’t take the ostrich approach of burying heads in the sand and pretending all is well.

As former Harare Mayor, Ben Manyenyeni often says, “If we don’t fix the big things, we will always be embarrassed by little things”. They may be just 3 double candidates in local authority wards, but those seemingly small things cause huge embarrassment. To fix the big things that result in this systemic failure, it is recommended that the party appoints a panel of persons of integrity to review the candidate selection and nomination process and make recommendations to the party organs for adoption and implementation. If this is not done, these small things will cause embarrassment and disappointment in 2023. 

Faces and political literacy

The colour yellow was yet another big change from the past. Red has been the MDC’s colour since its inception in 1999. It worked well for its time. It was bright and visible. When thousands fathered for rallies, it created a sea of red which had a high impact. But no matter how appealing it might have been, it would have been a mistake to carry on with it. Apart from it being a refusal to give up the past, it would have created confusion in the political market. It was therefore necessary to make a complete break and yellow fulfills that objective. It is just as bright but with a mellow and softer appeal. It already has a presence in the natural environment and it is easy to associate with and wear. When thousands gather, it is just as likely to create a powerful sea of yellow with a similarly high visual impact.

Some people were not enamoured with the current logo because it includes the face of the party leader, Nelson Chamisa. In an ideal world, their point of view is understandable. Building a party’s image around an individual is not ideal. They are not wrong when they worry about the risk of building a personality cult. The problem is that Zimbabwe is not a normal political environment where this purist perspective applies. People who make these arguments may be politically literate, but they skipped a module on the nuances of Zimbabwean politics.

Anyone who has followed Zimbabwean politics lately knows that the main opposition party’s name and logo are two of the most endangered political assets. Some predators are always on the prowl, ready to steal these assets. For the past 4 years, Chamisa and his party were using the MDC Alliance as their name and brand. Everyone, including the government, parliament, the courts, and other political parties knew them as such. When Mwonzora was expelling MPs and councillors, it was because he accused them of having joined Chamisa’s MDC Alliance. They suddenly, when it was convenient, Mwonzora woke up and decided that he was going to take the name MDC Alliance. Given the pattern of previous political and judicial decisions, there was every chance that Mwonzora would have been successful, leaving Chamisa and his party without a name.

If they don’t steal the name and logo, they will simply create one that closely resembles the opposition’s assets, and they will be allowed to do so by the compromised political referees. Now, considering these absurdities, a politically literate person would understand why the opposition political party must take unusual measures to safeguard its name and logo. This includes measures that ensure that the logo is distinguishable and harder to imitate. These unusual measures might seem absurd in a normal political environment, but they are understandable in an authoritarian environment. It makes for easy identification of the party on a ballot paper that usually has many names and imitations. Even if an impostor tried to imitate the logo, the one thing they would not be able to use is the leader’s image. Therefore, what might be a retrogressive step in a normal political environment is a necessary defensive strategy when operating in an authoritarian environment. 

A vicious response

As might be expected, the response from the authoritarian state has been vicious. The announcement of the new name appears to have taken the regime by surprise, which was a rare achievement for the opposition which is heavily infiltrated by regime spies and informants. The initial reaction of most of the regime’s propaganda machinery was to pretend that nothing had happened. The day the CCC was announced, among the traditional newspapers, only one private daily, The Newsday, headlined the news on its front page. The rest blanked the CCC.

But this strategy was soon abandoned because it did nothing to stop the yellow tide. Subsequently, the propaganda machinery began to concoct conspiracies against the CCC. The worst of the lot was a disgusting piece in The Herald which sought to link the CCC’s symbolism to Islamic terrorist groups. But it was so beyond the pale that even the political editor whose title appeared on the by-line could not associate his name with it. Other regime apparatchiks are trying hard on social media to dilute the yellow concentrate, but they are hollow voices. The regime thought announcing the allocation of public funds to the ZANU PF and Mwonzora’s party in the same week would deflate the buoyant mood among CCC supporters and demoralize them, but this only served to highlight the absurdity of the political shenanigans. They have not learned that persistently hammering the CCC and being vengeful and spiteful only serves to emphasize the CCC’s victimhood and draws more public empathy towards it.

More significantly, the more the regime attacks the CCC, the more it lends weight to the authenticity of the CCC as the genuine opposition. From that perspective, the regime’s media attacks are to be welcomed by the CCC as they serve a public function of separating it from ZANU PF’s surrogates like Mwonzora’s party that are treated as allies. The propaganda machinery is therefore providing free advertising to the CCC, which is not a bad thing at all because even if the publicity is negative, Zimbabwe’s political market is experienced enough to know that vitriolic attacks from the regime are an indicator of the authenticity of the target.

Building the party

That said, the CCC cannot afford to sit back and hope for the implosion of its opponents’ campaign against it. One of the great challenges it faces as an organization is to prove that the recent change is not merely limited to form but extends to substance. We have already observed how old habits manifested in the nomination process. This only serves to bolster critics who argue that the change is superficial. The CCC must demonstrate that the ways of the past are truly in the past. It must strengthen existing structures and re-build where structures have broken down. Again, this demands a professional and independent audit of the current party structures. The leadership cannot rely on officeholders to report truthfully on this issue because they are conflicted.

Conclusion

The launch of the CCC was a glorious affair but the road ahead will not be easy. The grace and goodwill with which the CCC has been received will give confidence to the leadership. But as anyone who has succeeded at anything before knows, the greatest challenge comes afterward. You must keep winning because the standard set is already high. The CCC leadership has the ball at their feet, and it is theirs to lose. The whole world has seen how it has been unfairly treated, but it cannot continue to run on empathy. At some point, the empathy tank runs out.

There is an expectation for the party to stand on its feet and survive in the well-known political jungle of Zimbabwe. The leaders have a huge responsibility, which they must take seriously, starting with these by-elections. They must invest themselves fully to make a political statement. Their rivals will want to make a political statement too, to deflate the momentum, hence the need for vigilance. The issue is not about the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates – the battle is between the political parties and their leadership. It is the leaders and their political parties that are under trial. Epitaphs will be written on some political careers while others will receive huge boosts.

When history is told, this week will probably be remembered as the one when the sun began to set on the MDC but also when it began to rise with the CCC. This story is taken from this blog.

Dr Alex Magaisa holds a PhD in Law from University of Warwick in the U.K. He trained as a lawyer in Zimbabwe and the U.K and he currently teaches law at Kent Law School, the University of Kent. Alex has extensive experience in and knowledge of Zimbabwean law and politics.