MDC leader Nelson Chamisa believes that the country’s economic situation will remain dire until a solution is found to the legitimacy question that he is currently pursuing. In this wide-ranging interview with Mugove Tafirenyika, Chamisa speaks on these and other issues.
Q: The economy is bleeding amid runaway inflation and sky-rocketing prices of basic goods. What needs to be done?
A: The economy functions on the basis of trust and confidence. These two are a feature of stable politics. Our crisis in Zimbabwe is a crisis of governance and leadership.
Zimbabwe went to an election on July 30, the people voted, the people decided overwhelmingly but there was a reversal and negation of the people. The people’s victory was ousted and this plunged the country into the current crisis.
So, the economic crisis you are seeing is a result of the political crisis because economics flourishes in good political environments. The economy wilts and withers under bad politics and governance. The solution lies in inspiring confidence and respect of the will of the people, to return to political legitimacy, to honour what the people voted for and to respect the outcome of the election. We must have sound politics and zero tolerance to corruption.
Q: Is there political will to do that?
A: It is clear there is no political will to do that but because there is no political will on the part of our colleagues in Zanu PF also means there is no capacity to resolve the economic challenges the country is facing.
Zimbabwe — our nation — is deeply divided, it requires a unity of purpose; it requires collective effort by all Zimbabweans to resolve our challenges. Each generation has an obligation and a duty to define its problems and be able to fashion solutions to those challenges.
This is why we have produced a five-point plan which is a path to stability and transformation. One, the need to return to legitimacy, two we need a comprehensive reform agenda around electoral reforms, political reforms, media reforms, constitutional and legal reforms. The judiciary also needs to be reformed.
Q: There is a very strong sentiment among Zimbabweans that there is need for you to work with President Emmerson Mnangagwa to navigate this crisis. Is that feasible?
A: Look, people are very cautious about the government of national unity (GNU) that does not address fundamental issues. I am not for an elite pact or unity of the top without the unity of the base, the unity of the people. This country is deeply-divided.
It requires a nationalistic and patriotic leadership beyond narrow partisan agendas to move it forward. That does not necessarily refer to a GNU but an immediate meeting of the minds on key national issues.
We must all agree on what the national question is. And once we resolve what that national question is, let us then say what is our national solution. We cannot address the problems we are faced with; a narrow partisan perspective cannot be the answer to our problems. We also must talk about nation building and peace building, national healing and reconciliation.
Q: There are also reports that church leaders are burning the midnight candle to get you guys to find each other. What role are they playing?
A: I think the best thing is to ask the churches you are referring to. All I know is that there are bishops who have come to hear our perspective and we have given that perspective. There have not been any contacts with Mnangagwa. We made efforts before the elections because we knew that our country required us to work together as Zimbabweans.
When I say working together I must hasten to say that this is not about a unity government. It entails people being able to agree on the national issues. Right now, there is no agreement on the national issues. There is no agreement on what the common problem is. The key institutions in the country must agree on that then we take the country forward.
Q: How do you react to governments’ response to recent protests by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions over the deteriorating economic crisis?
A: Look, you must also know that the establishment acts illegally in trying to avoid and crush demonstrations.
Instruments of terror and force are temporary, they cannot be sustained. People have the right to demonstrate, people have the right to express themselves and because they have that right, nobody has the power to stop them, including the government.
In terms of our Constitution, section 59, people have the right to demonstrate. The treatment of labour leaders, for example, was very unfortunate. It tells you how the 38 years of power have corrupted my colleague Mnangagwa. It is totally uncalled for.
Why should we have that in power abuse it to suppress the legitimate expression of the voiceless and the powerless?
Why should one be uncomfortable with people who are demonstrating peacefully? You must have problems with people violently demonstrating either through arms of war or other means but these are peaceful people.
Q: The MDC controls the majority of local authorities. What can we expect from them outside the usual complaints of corruption?
A: We thank the people of Zimbabwe for entrusting us with the important role of being the stewards of cities and towns. For the record, we have over 28 cities and towns that we are leading and we have said there is going to be five fundamental issues in those cities.
We are going to adopt a zero tolerance to corruption attitude; we will emphasise strongly on accountability and transparency. That is why we have set up a standalone hotline at the party headquarters and in the various cities in the provinces for purposes of whistle-blowing if there are any councillors that are misbehaving.
So, corruption is one thing we must be able to deal with because it is alien to us while it is part of the Zanu PF DNA. It is foreign to us, we do not accept it in our midst. That foreigner is not a welcome one. Our emphasis is on our smart policies, smart delivery of service.
Service delivery is very important so we have a very high standard that we are emphasising on. The third issue is the participation of residents in decision-making, respecting their associations, budget consultations that involve ordinary residents, town hall meetings to feedback on progress is being prioritised.
Number four, we are also emphasising the issue of building strong cities in towns not just in terms of infrastructure but also in terms of twinning programmes to get best practices from across the globe. So that our people are given the honour and respect they deserve.
Last but not least, is also the principle of devolution. The biggest problem is that we have local authorities that are not autonomous and independent in decision-making. There is consistent and constant interference by the central government through the local government ministry to the detriment of service delivery and judicious decision making.
In particular, we have seen how town clerks are an appendage of a political party and they become a prohibiting factor in dealing with corruption.
Corruption in local authorities is at the software level, the technical level, the employee level. The councillors cannot be corrupt but because the software is corrupted it makes it difficult to deal with it. We have said we must deal with those issues.
We have said we need political reforms to remove excesses and imperial powers of the minister. You don’t need those because the Constitution is alive to the principle of devolution.
We must give the local authorities the chance to succeed or fail independently because they are the local people. We are also saying going forward we want restoration of executive mayors but they also must be accountable to the people.
We need to have a right of recall by residents on councillors, mayors and even MPs who are not performing but there has to be a mechanism in place so that we don’t have people who sleep on the wheel, people who are hands in instead of hands on the job they will have been given.
Q: A lot has been happening in the party since you took over as president including the reintegration of Tendai Biti and Welshman Ncube back into the MDC. What is the state of the party right now?
A: We are rebranding the party; we are revitalising and repositioning it as the dominant party in the country. There is no doubt we are the first in terms of size, in terms of reach, in terms of appeal and we want to maintain that position.
But for us to be able to do that we are taking the party to the original and even bigger. This was the vision of our founding president. I am simply walking his talk. We are taking the party back to the strong roots in terms of our social base, the working class and also students and the youths and war veterans.
We are revitalising the party from a structural point of view, culture, infrastructures, values and ideologies going even to the extent of changing strategies, rejuvenating our thrust and emphasising to go into the rural areas, engage war veterans to galvanise the women voice.
In fact, we are having some big debate around the need to discontinue the dichotomy of men’s wing and women’s wing in the party. We need equal positions in the mainstream because this thing of saying women’s wing has a sense of marginalisation and treatment of women as a charity case and second-class citizens.
We have started with the integration, rejuvenating our internal democratic process, broadening our institutions in terms of internal processes around primary elections, congress, deployment of cadres and leaders into the various zones of autonomy, Parliament, training our leaders to build their capacities and working on the party’s organisational strengths.
Q: Talking about internal processes, there have been allegations that you are avoiding congress and that you do not want to be challenged. When is congress coming? Are we going to see you being challenged?
A: It is very clear in the Constitution that congress in our party is held after every five years that is 2019. We have already begun processes leading to that congress and I am glad to say that we want this organisation to continue as a multi-generational party, the fusion of the old and the new, the past and the future, women, men, the working class.
We have a vision to develop this party into a modern 21st century developmental party, that done not only have the capacity to win an election but also to deliver to the people, respecting citizens, consulting, being nonviolent.
One thing that I have said I don’t want to see in this organisation are tendencies of corruption, State-party conflation, violence as a way of transacting political business, we don’t want that culture.
Look, it is very important for internal process to be supported by the constitution and the people. Being challenged, I must emphasise, is not a weakness, it is actually strength because we need competitive politics in our structures. We are democrats and democracy entails the freedom of the people to choose.
In our party leaders do not choose them, leaders are chosen, they are deployed, they are nominated by the structures, the lower organs.
So, I am not the one who decides in as much as I am the leader it does not mean that I must dictate to them who should be contesting or is not to be. My duty is to encourage competition because it strengthens the organisation. It is an important ingredient of democratic politics.
Q: Are you going to retain three VPs seeing that they came about as a way of managing Tsvangirai’s health?
A: Let me just correct you. The whole issue of three VPs was a result of congress. It was not because of health of the president. Part of the changes we are contemplating entail organisational, constitutional and institutional changes.
The party is constantly strengthening itself through its organs and I would not be able to say what congress will decide.
There is a difference between a political party and government structure.
In the party we do what we want in government we believe in a mean and lean government. No more 15 ministers in terms of cabinet and one vice president in terms of the constitution.
Q: You are called by various nicknames, including Cobra, Nero, Wamba dia Wamba, Olympus. Where did they come from?
A: What people call you is not necessarily who you are. I am actually surprised. I don’t even know about them so I don’t know why I have so many of them. Of course, when you are in leadership you assume certain dimensions that people will want to associate with you. I wish to focus on, Cobra.
We had a workshop some time with Tsvangirai we were asked to contribute to the discussion we were having and I then made the point that when it comes to national focus and direction I am one person who does not pay allegiance to anyone.
I don’t pay particular attention to personalities and I don’t mind if you are my friend, brother, colleague or whoever, I treat you as a comrade and when i treat you as a comrade, I don’t pay regards to salutations and other relationships. I’m like a snake, cobra. A cobra doesn’t mind that you are calling it Mr Cobra, it will still bite you. So, from that day I then realised that people began to call me Mr Cobra.
Q: But who really are you? People would want to know who this man who has become so popular as to win over two million votes in first his attempt at presidency is.
A: I am a Zimbabwean born in some district in Masvingo, in a district by the name Gutu where I spent the better part of my life. I was born and educated in this country except for a little bit of education I got from America at Stanford University.
Basically, I am 100 percent local content. I am very proud of my rural home, I think that is my roots. All the honour and respect should go there.
Q: Did you envisage becoming a politician as you grew up?
A: Well I have always wanted to be a servant of the people and in that process of choosing to serve others a discovered that I earned myself the tag of a politician. I have seen that the label comes with all sorts of bad condemnation like politics is dirty. It is not politics that is dirty, it is the people in politics that are dirty hence we need to chlorinate and disinfect our politics and get it rid of that dirt.
I started as a student activist and of course that is when I was invited by Tsvangirai in terms of labour to lead the formation of the MDC. That is why the party is difficult to destroy, it is a people’s project, it is God’s project so it is an idea whose time has come and cannot be stopped by splits and any other such seasonal problems.
Q: People draw similarities between you and the late Learnmore Jongwe and former president Robert Mugabe owing to your eloquence. Are you their student?
A: You must know that we have been very close friends and we shared everything proud moments, sorry moments as colleagues in the struggle. Our objective and dreams and aspirations for a great Zimbabwe bound us together. I am not sure in terms o who was a student of who because we met as students.
So perhaps we had a cross pollination of certain tendencies and attributes by association. I take that as a complement to be elevated to that level of Jongwe because he was a giant. I feel humbled. About Mugabe, I don’t know because they say at times I am too heavy-handed when dealing with some issues. Of course, on corruption I am ruthless. I am a very unkind and have a very firm hand. I don’t tolerate that. I have always wanted transparency, so yes, the attribute I must acknowledge is the positive tenacity of Mugabe and being principle in his thinking, right or wrong. Those are good attributes but there are also bad ones.
I hope to take the good ones and leave the bad ones because I don’t want to be associated with. I must say however I am thankful for his vote. He voted for me, of course, it was a secret but he made it a public secret that he would vote or me over his former ally Mnangagwa. To me, that is a source of encouragement to say we can be able to get support from such people. I know some will say that is not a good endorsement but in leadership you don’t choose who to inspire so I am very humbled.
Q: What do you do when you have time with your family?
A: Well when we have time, because we are always busy with the MDC and the Zimbabwean families, so I don’t know which family you are referring to because I have those families as well, I find time with them. I have my family of Zimbabweans, MDC family and Chamisa family. When I am with the Chamisa family, we are basically a family of prayer so we spend a lot of time in worship and when we do choose to do social things, I am a villager. I love rural life so I usually retreat to my rural homestead.
Q: It has been nice talking to you. What is do want to say to your Zimbabwean family as a parting shot?
A: We are winning we are almost there. Good things don’t come without a fight. Of course, it is hard but we are almost there. Struggles are never a bed of roses, it is never easy, and the bed of roses sometimes comes from the bed of thorns.