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Zim elections: Bringing a third option into focus
Jason Moyo, Mail and Guardian (SA)
April 26, 2013

Zimbabwe voters must know that there are alternatives to Zanu-PF and the MDC, says opposition leader.

In a country that has become increasingly divided, Simba Makoni's brand of play-it-clean, "issues-based" politics seems out of place. Makoni, a former finance minister and now head of the Mavambo/Kusile/Dawn party, is fighting to convince Zimbabweans to look beyond Zanu-PF and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

Zimbabwe's political environment is unforgiving and polarised; supporters stack up high on two sides, defending their positions with similar fanaticism. They are, however, united in their suspicion of anything in the middle, which makes the chance of a "three way" improbable.

"This environment is hostile to new political players," Makoni said in an interview with the Mail & Guardian this week.

Two extremes have emerged over the past decade: supporters of President Robert Mugabe on one side, fiercely loyal to him and his nationalist rhetoric; and those backing Morgan Tsvangirai, who support him not for any of his policies, but because he is their best chance of getting rid of Mugabe.

For a man who is battling to convince Zimbabweans that they do not have to endorse either Zanu-PF or the MDC, all this must be very frustrating. "No, it does not frustrate me, it saddens me," Makoni says with a sigh.

"People have been forced to believe they can only pick from three choices: Zanu-PF, the MDC or no party at all. This is wrong."

But he insists that those who are unhappy with the two main parties are in the majority. "Many have opted out of voting because the current choices do not represent their yearnings. We are mobilising that silent majority."

Very little 'middle ground'

Given the extremes, there is very little "middle ground" in Zimbabwe. Media and critics are quick to force politicians into declaring whether they lean towards either the MDC or Zanu-PF. Makoni himself denies he is trying to occupy a middle ground.

"There is no middle ground. There is only one ground, where the people are, and that is where we are."

Makoni's journey as an opposition party leader has so far been rocky. His expedition began in January 2008, when, frustrated in his efforts to force change from within Zanu-PF, he walked into Mugabe's office to tell the president that he was leaving the ruling party.

"I gave him a brutal critique of the conditions of the country, the condition of the party, and the fact that the prospect of winning, in an ossified party that had refused to change, in a free and fair election, was zero. I told him that I had tried to influence change from within, and that that effort had failed. I therefore bade him goodbye." And how did Mugabe react to his decision to leave? "He told me I was making a grave mistake."

Mugabe may have been right, some of Makoni's critics would say. The initial excitement that greeted his candidacy was quickly clouded by a combination of factors; rumours circulated that he was backed by a powerful faction of Zanu-PF, which he denied. The MDC, more experienced in opposition, branded him a Zanu-PF plant, a label that sticks easily in conspiracy-loving Zimbabwe.

This crippled his campaign. "I was carrying the baggage of being labelled a Zanu-PF project. People in both parties went around whispering that Simba is a plant of Zanu-PF. That did a lot of damage. I hope now, five years after I left, no one is still in any doubt about where I belong." Some have suggested that Makoni could have been a potential successor to Mugabe had he stuck around and bided his time, but he says he has no regrets about leaving.

Zanu-PF was a stifling environment, where issues affecting people were ignored in the race to sing Mugabe's praises, he says.

Work lies ahead

"There was very limited discussion about issues [in the Zanu-PF politburo], but a lot of praise singing, as there is now. When I tried to raise issues I was called all sorts of names, they are very good at that."

Yet, should he not have left Zanu-PF earlier?

"I don't regret my time in government. But I'm proud of the fact that I could read the signs when they came, that this path was a path towards destruction, and that I could no longer be associated with the destruction of my country."

The hard work lies ahead, having to convince Zimbabweans to give him another chance after he scored only 8% of the presidential vote in 2008. That campaign delivered some tough lessons for Makoni.

"We have to communicate our message better, very clearly and explicitly. I don't think my message was not clear, but I can understand that others did not get it clearly, because people positioned us relative to Zanu-PF and MDC."

Though he still needs to shake off that "Zanu-PF plant" tag, Makoni refuses to get down and dirty, something that frustrates his sympathisers.

"I want to alert our people that, in the next campaign, they will not see me sling mud at competitors, but they will hear me talk about the issues that touch their lives. It's about issues, not about how ugly or handsome, or how old or young a person is."

But isn't playing Mr Nice Guy a handicap in a country that loves some blood and thunder in its politics?

"Maybe that is because our people are used to the culture of politics of denunciation. We must see beyond that," he insists. It is a tough task in a country where only the meanest politicians thrive, and where voting is along party lines, and hardly on policies. "There is a saying that people get the leadership they deserve. I'm quite sure we don't deserve the leadership we have, but because we acquiesced, look at where we are."

Chances are slim at the polls

His chances are slim at the polls, and by insisting on contesting, is he not there only to split the vote? He is visibly annoyed by that suggestion, and sits up to respond: "I challenge that notion. Those who voted for me in 2008 were not going to vote for any other candidate. This notion presumes that if people had not had the option to vote for me, they would have voted for a candidate they did not like."

He has grand plans for what his government would look like. It would have no more than 20 ministers, who would be appointed for their competence alone.

"People today are given offices of responsibility according to their loyalty, according to how much praise singing they can do, not according to how competently they can serve people. We need to change that."

A key first step would be to get rid of fear, which he says is the overriding factor in Zimbabwe. "Even Mugabe himself lives in fear, the fear of losing his power."

Ordinary people, he says, live under the "fear of having their hut burnt because of their political beliefs, of falling sick and finding themselves in hospital with no medication".

Mugabe cannot preach sovereignty when a vast section of the people he leads remains in such fear and poverty, Makoni says. "Does Mugabe not have any shame? Does he not ask himself these questions?"

Elections are expected late this year, though the government has not yet agreed on when they will be held.

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