Zimbabwe’s ruling party claims that its membership base is growing astronomically. A cursory glance at the Zanu PF’s cell registers shows that its scope is high. It has presence across the national territory and society down to the village committee in rural areas or cell level in urban areas.
A cell is the lowest organ of the party where membership is registered. Every member of the party including the President should belong to a cell structure and be recorded in a cell register. A cell structure has 21 position holders and a minimum of 50 members. ZANU PF’s Director of Information, Tafadzwa Mugwadi, claimed on 22 August 2021 that the party had ‘quantifiable and verifiable membership of 3 624 050 from more than 72 752 cell structures across the country’ in a context where the national voter register has about 5.6 million people.
The ZANU PF central committee report tabled at the 19th annual people’s conference put the officially registered party numbers at 3 637 600 as of 4 September 2021. The central committee is the party’s highest decision-making organ in between congresses. The Herald, a state-owned newspaper sympathetic to ZANU PF, reported that as of 22 February 2022 ZANU PF had 78 000 cell structures with a whopping 3.9 million members. One of Zimbabwe’s leading political scientists, Eldred Masunungure, has argues that ZANU PF has robust and active structures and has presence in virtually all the cranks and crevices throughout the country.
An inquisitive mind might ask why ZANU PF has recorded such large membership in a world where registered party membership is declining, Covid 19 has restricted political mobilisation, the Zimbabwe economy is biting and the country’s voter registration numbers are actually declining? The ruling African National Congress in South Africa which is one of the oldest national liberation movements in the world had only 1.4 million registered members in a context where the number of registered voters was about 26 million as of 12 June 2022. Could this be a situation of structures on paper that do not actually exist? Some of the ZANU PF politburo members are also not entirely convinced by these burgeoning mega numbers.
The politburo is a powerful executive committee of the central committee responsible for implementing all its decisions. Amidst a growing fear of fake structures, the politburo introduced the national cell day on 11 June 2022 to physically verify the structures. On this cell day, every party member including the President had to attend meetings at their respective cells. The ZANU PF leader, Emmerson Mnangagwa, attended at Dambudzo 1 cell in Sherwood Kwekwe. His deputy, Constantino Chiwenga attended in Chigondo, Makarichi cell in Hwedza South his home area.
It is important to note that cell verification exercises have been ongoing in ZANU PF amid fears of fake structures.
Zanu PF political commissar, Michael Bimha, said the exercises were meant to avoid ‘a situation of having structures on paper but in reality having nothing’. Bimha acknowledged that, ‘in the past, we [the politburo] could hear that there were districts which were only on paper, but the reality on the ground was that there were no branches or cells.’ The national commissar also accused party officials of creating ghost members. He explained that ‘these individuals would lie that they had members in their structures’.
However, Bimha emphasised that ZANU PF was ‘doing a good thing to know the number of people through a physical check’. Nevertheless, there was no evidence that the practise of creating ghost members had been expunged through previous cell verification exercises. Could this be a situation of paper tiger structures? This is the question I try to answer.
I argue that a number of party cells are composed of non-voluntary members or in short non-ZANU PF members. Part of the ZANU PF leadership forces mainly rural teachers, traditional leaders and school development committees to recruit party members. For example, in May 2021, Heal Zimbabwe Trust [a civil society organisation working on preventing conflict] ‘received verified reports where traditional leaders [mostly village heads], teachers and school development committees were forced to set up ZANU PF structures’.
In rural areas in Masvingo and Manicaland provinces, ‘those who delayed establishing these structures were threatened with dismissal and further action.’ The teachers are not only coerced to recruit but are also forced to register as ZANU PF members at the cell or village committee level. The Amalgamated Rural Teachers’ Union of Zimbabwe (ARTUZ) noted that ‘members of ZANU PF terrorised some teachers at Kagande in Mutoko district [in Mashonaland East province], forcing them to register as part of the five million voters for ZANU PF’.
In some cases, in Mutoko, ZANU PF had all the biographic details of the local teachers and wrote down their names in the cell registers before seeking their confirmation. In other farming and mining areas they registered resettled farmers and artisanal miners as party members without their consent. Part of the membership inflation tactics included directing village heads ‘to convert village household registers into structures for ZANU PF’. Others simply created ghost members to inflate the scope as Bimha hinted above. Even though ZANU PF claims on its official website that ‘the heart-beat of the party is the Cell’ it is difficult to know who is ZANU PF at heart and who is not even if we are to believe the bold folktale of 3.9 million registered members.
The cell register is not just a party document but an instrument of patronage. The register is linked to distribution of food, farming inputs and regalia and other freebies. Families have been denied food aid for not having a ZANU PF membership card. ZANU-PF’s use of patronage to gain membership has been widely noted, espe¬cially in rural areas, which are its electoral stronghold. The Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency highlights that close to 80% of rural households are poor, meaning the cost of basic needs is beyond the reach of many. ZANU-PF capitalizes on this dire rural poverty by positioning itself as the benevolent provider but with a bias towards its registered members in exchange for political loyalty. Walter Mzembi, a former politburo member explained, ‘these  positions [at cell level] are an insurance policy to patronage benefits.
In other cases, the cell chairperson is coincidentally the village head. This is in a context where traditional leaders have immense powers to allocate communal land albeit with the consent of Rural District Councillors. In some cases, traditional leaders abuse their authority to expel opposition members from the villages they control. In resettlement schemes farmers have been threatened with eviction if they do not support ZANU PF. For example, in Mhangura, resettled farmers were ordered to attend the 11 June 2022 national cell day or lose their farms. In urban townships, to secure a trading stall at some markets, one needs a ZANU PF membership card. Some traders even display a poster of Mnangagwa or a ZANU PF flag for protection.This compels citizens to register as ruling party members not out of loyalty but for their survival.
ZANU PF party membership is also an insurance policy against violence. This is in a context where state sponsored violence against non-ZANU PF members is endemic especially during general elections from 1980 to 2018. Those without membership cards are denied the right to protection under the law. As reported by The Guardian, it is common cause that during elections auxiliary forces working with state security departments set up ‘roadblocks around the country at which people are routinely dragged off buses and out of cars to demand… their ZANU-PF membership cards. Those who do not have them are at best forced to dance and sing ZANU PF songs.
The unlucky ones are tied to trees and beaten, or disappear altogether’. In rural hinterlands, non-ZANU PF members can be taken to torture bases where they are subjected to political indoctrination, beaten, tortured, raped and even killed. This has been done with impunity. According to the Human Rights Watch (HRW) ‘those who committed past abuses have remained free to carry out further acts of violence and intimidation.’ So, ZANU PF is recruiting ‘members’ based on what I conceptualised elsewhere as the harvest of fear. So, a number of people have ZANU PF membership cards as a way to protect themselves from the violence rather than as an expression of loyalty. The more courageous ones even go on to vote for the opposition rather than ZANU PF despite being in the cell registers. However, they still risk post-election violence.
Some ZANU PF internal strategists do not even trust the party structures to solely carry out a national election campaign as one would expect given the sheer number of 3.9 million members in a context of 5.6 million registered voters. In fact, they fear Bhora Musango (a deliberate act of voting for another party as a way to express disgruntlement) because it is not clear who is a genuine or fake card-carrying member.
ZANU PF structures are therefore being blended with the officials from the Ministry of Local Government compromising of the Chairperson of the Rural District Council, Chief Executive Officer and District Development Coordinator ahead of the 2023 general election campaign. In addition, the cell structures have to work with the traditional leaders especially the village head at the local level. In fact, the structures are also helped by the dreaded coercive security apparatus that includes the military institutions subordinated to the ruling party.
In addition, the politburo fears that ZANU PF’s electoral share in the by-elections held on 26 March 2022 did not reflect the mega membership numbers. The results still cast doubt on the ability of the cell structures particularly in urban areas to get the ‘members’ to turn out in elections, and to maintain voters’ loyalty from election to election. For in the by elections the ZANU PF vote did not grow especially in the urban areas signalling skeletal membership and party structures.
Mnangagwa’s party won only one out of 20 urban seats namely Epworth constituency, which, however, is in the urban periphery. ZANU PF’s scope therefore remains limited in the rural areas. Given this uncertain context, ZANU PF seeks to continuously use authoritarian tactics to decimate the opposition and vocal activists ahead of the 2023 general election. Hard authoritarianism would not be a necessity in a context of 3.9 million registered members translating to a political mobilization machinery of 1. 6 million office holders at the cell level excluding the branch, district, provincial and national office holders.
A mere statistical focus on the recorded cell membership of ZANU PF can lead to a simplistic conclusion that the party has a high scope across the national territory and society down to the cell or village committee level. However, a more qualitative investigation has revealed that ZANU PF broadens its territorial presence through unorthodox means.
These include: (a) the instrumentalization of the ZANU PF membership card as an insurance policy against violence and a tool of patronage in an environment characterised by scarcity and fear; (b) sheer manipulation and conversion of traditional leaders’ village registers as cell structures (c) registration of civil servants, resettled farmers and artisanal miners in cell registers without their consent (d) commandeering of civil servants, traditional leaders and school development committees to recruit members for the party and (e) sheer creation of ghost members to exaggerate the scope of the party and make it appear infallible.
This makes it difficult to decipher the exact scope of ZANU PF in terms of voluntary and genuine membership. Even the ZANU PF politburo leadership is unclear about the authenticity of the 3.9 million members hence the spectre of perennial cell verification exercises. To simplify, the politburo is also in the dark about who is a ZANU PF member or not in the cell structure. It was therefore not surprising that the ruling party’s second secretary, Kembo Mohadi, like other politburo members, was disappointed as a few people turned out at the 11 June 2022 cell day meeting in his hometown of Beitbridge.
Mohadi insisted that he wanted ‘to see faces and not just a register’. Independent media such as The Standard and New Zimbabwe widely reported low turnout in areas like Bikita, Hurungwe, Chivhu, Gwanda, Mutare, Chiredzi, Chipinge, Chegutu and Kadoma leading to either cancellation or postponement of the national cell day meetings. For example, at Gwanda High School, less than five people reportedly turned up. Some ‘members’ did not even know the cells they belonged to in areas like Bulawayo. Consequently, one would expect state sponsored authoritarian descent on the opposition and a decline in the democratic quality of the general election in 2023 in the absence of societal and international mobilisation.
Dr Phillan Zamchiya writes in his personal capacity. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org