Hot Seat: Candid Talk With Brian Kagoro On Zimbabwe Now & The Future

Violet Gonda: Zimbabwe is on the brink of collapse. Running battles between anti Mugabe protesters and riot police are becoming regular and violent, including an unprecedented war of words between ZANU PF leaders and war veterans. My guest on the Hot Seat programme this week is human rights activist and constitutional lawyer Brian Kagoro who has always said ZANU PF’s biggest opposition is the economy. Now, given the fragile political landscape, how much time do we have as a country and what is the way forward?


Welcome on the programme Brian.


Brian: Thank you Violet.


Violet: I am sure you have seen that the mood in the country has totally changed over the last few weeks. Can you define where we are right now?


Brian: I don’t think that this is the boiling point yet, but it’s a moment of great uncertainty, and this uncertainty in this moment arises out of three quick things. Number one, people have been suffering for quite a long time now and the economy has been on life support for too long. Number two, the ruling party; which has kept a false unity based on its vilification of the opposition and also this bogeyman of sanctions by the West. Well, the chickens have finally come home to roost within the ruling party because the veneer of unity has been wiped away and the real power disputes are coming to the fore. And the third and last thing is actually I think what has happened is that there has been an activation of a sector that for a long time had sub-let its entitlement to voice and place to the political parties – which is the citizen. So, the emergence of #ThisFlag, #Tajamuka and other movements indicate that there has been a re-activation of citizens outside of political parties occupying space and contending for their rights.


Violet: So are you seeing any similarities between what’s happening now and the historical struggles, especially the ones that you were involved with in the past?


Brian: Yes, I think this is essentially what happened in the late 1990’s and the contexts and circumstances were similar. We saw in the 1990’s – because of the Economic Structural Adjustment Programmes and the internal repression – that several things happened to catalyse activism and discontent, namely: The cost of living had reached unsustainable levels and the State dealt with the discontent about poor service and rampant redundancies through force and violence. And the ruling party, which had factions emerging then, dealt with opposition through labelling. What happened then is that labour organised itself as did the students and the women’s movements. And the coalescing or coming together of these entities led to what became in the mid to late 90’s ,the constitutional moment or movement. And of course, predictably, the state responded first through violence and containment and then, second, when it realised that the tide couldn’t be contained ,the same State attempted to arrest the tide of change through different forms of accommodation, co-optation and diversion. What they tried to do was to hijack the process by engaging in their own constitutional reform process on their own terms. Of course, it led to the referendum and the rest is history. When the state lost the referendum, its resort to violence was unprecedented in the history of independent Zimbabwe post-1988. So we saw from the 4th March, the death of Tichaona Chiminya ,Talent Mabika and many others and later on. This orgy of violence went all the way up to 2000, when we had the elections, various deaths, executions, and, post that date, abductions and human rights violations.


So, what we are seeing in response to these new protests is the Zimbabwean State doing what it knows best. When it cannot reason with its citizens, when it cannot engage in transformative reform, it employs violence to manufacture coerced consent and silence.

Violet: But, are there any differences Brian?


Brian: There are differences and I think the differences are interesting. The differences are this, that the military and the war veterans and the ZANU PF youth historically always waded in on the side of Robert Gabriel Mugabe and there seemed to be an unbreakable bond of unity between and amongst the military bourgeoisie, the political bourgeoisie and the administrative bourgeoisie.


What we are seeing now are severe cracks within the upper echelons of the administration and civil service, those who have not been paid now for a long time, we are seeing open dissent from the loyalists. Within the upper echelons of the coercive arms of the State, the Police, the Intelligence and the Army, we are seeing open dissent or the emergence of parallel structures of power diametrically opposed to the one centre of power and his kitchen cabinet. And within sections of the war veterans we are seeing that it’s no longer dissent but revolt, its outright revolt which even questions some of the collective lies that have been told repeatedly over the years about the history of the liberation struggle. The country is no longer at ease and the centre is too old and divided to hold. And this component is so different from the situation in the 1990s and 2000s that it risks undermining the pro-democracy component /movement. Dissent from within the establishment against the High Priest of its politics is likely to get gullible admirers within the broader society that has become a prisoner of false hope. The danger is that the pro-democracy forces, who for long have had the removal of Robert Mugabe as one of their key objectives, might mistake the discontented ZANU PF elements as their genuine allies and therefore cede the space and hand-over the business of doing transformation to these forces. I personally don’t see these establishment rejects representing any meaningful transformation and I don’t think they themselves are transforming.


Violet: This coalescing of opposition forces. Do you think there is a struggle for transformation there or it is a scramble for power? You have seen all these opposition political parties joining together and you also mentioned the Tajamuka and This Flag movements. Are they real alternatives?


Brian: No, if you were in ZANU PF you would be very happy with what #ThisFlag and #Tajamuka are doing. And what they are doing, although important for citizen agency, direct agency, is good for ZANU PF because what it does, it takes away real support and citizen confidence from the organised political parties that contest for the conquest of political power. And, we have less than 19 months to the next election in 2018 and so in essence, the more you have Tajamuka and This Flag, because these are not going to contest for political power, and the more citizens are aligned to these, I think that if you were the ruling party or the incumbent, you would be happy to have the opposition not commandeering or commanding the collective support and trust of the masses. The fact that the opposition has been reluctant to associate with and reach out to or endorse these movements suggests that there are fault lines . These movements may actually shelter persons who have ambitions for power and thus will oppose the current opposition leadership. So that’s fine, there is nothing necessarily wrong with that in and of itself. But, when you bring together opposition political parties you have to be careful that you are not simply bringing together opposition political parties but you are bringing together a collective or collection of strengths, not weaknesses. At the moment, the articulation of what the developmental, or rather, what the economic alternative is, seems to me to be grossly dilated, if not diluted. I have keenly tried to read the substantive relevance or similarities of each opposition economic blue print and how it compares to the other and the obtaining situation on the ground. There is no consensus on economic matters; there is no consensus on the electoral either amongst the motley of opposition political parties. We have to make sure that the minimum programme of action does not represent a false alliance and false hope.


Violet: So you have mentioned the issue of war veterans, that they might not really be on the people’s side and that even if we have any change within ZANU PF, it’s not going to be transformative. Did I get you right? That it will be change without transformation?


Brian: You know what, war veterans may very well be on some people’s side. What I am arguing is that they are not necessarily on the side of human rights, not necessarily on the side of the sort of democracy that people of my generation and people in the late 1990’s into the 2000’s were fighting for. So, in essence, aligning with them means you have to negotiate away your struggle for accountability and end of impunity, because some of them were engaged in brutalising our people and violating human rights. Some people who have formed part of the grand coalition of opposition parties were responsible for the abduction and assassinations of some of my comrades. I am not so bling that I can not see the attempt to have me and my comrades suddenly develop political amnesia just because some of our comrades think that it is necessary for the purposes of negotiating their way into likelihood of power. These are fundamentals and they just can’t be negotiated away like that with absolutely no guarantees.


So the question we have to answer is do we ignore this very recent history of unpleasantness and move forward? How do we tell the children of Chiminya and may other citizens who were murdered in cold blood? How do we justify doing this? Do we use the exigencies of attaining political power? Do we use a broader normative framework? My sense is – I am very uncomfortable because there is not a discussion in the formation of this coalition as to what will happen to the historical accountability and this history is not a long history, it is a very recent history.

Violet: So what do you think the opposition should do in this case?


Brian: I’m not sure why they thought they needed to bring the expelled ZANU components –as important as they are as citizens. I think the opposition has always lacked self-confidence and self-belief. In 2008 when I interviewed with you I was clear that the opposition party was going to do much better in the rural areas and win the election. Most of the leadership of the opposition did not remotely believe in this possibility. The main opposition party was almost bankrupt and it had a skeletal election command centre. It seemed that in 2008 we had a ruling party that was not prepared to lose and an opposition that wasn’t prepared to win. We again find ourselves in this instance in 2016 with much larger opposition which is using a traditional lens to view where citizen confidence is. Who they should be wooing now are those citizens in Tajamuka, in This Flagmovement by offering clear alternatives. So that they are able to say: ‘as those progressive components in the opposition movement we are able to marshal sufficient support. We have assured our people that we have a people’s manifesto that they can endorse and in which they will see themselves, their futures and solutions to their present challenges. We-as the opposition- are offering them a truly alternative leadership, not just recycling the old core.’ The dearth of youth and scarcity of younger-tech savvy- political leaders is a by-product of a coalition of retirees. We are reproducing the same politics that has manufactured gerontocracy.


Violet: Are you surprised that even though the ZANU PF house is on fire – there is all this in-fighting we are hearing about – that ZANU PF still seems to be winning elections and even getting more members, as we saw in the last by-election where ZANU PF won with more than 12000 votes? Wouldn’t you think that with the current mood and the way people are so ‘anti the ruling party’; that not a lot of people will actually go out and vote for ZANU PF?


Brian: I think that over the years I have avoided engaging in false analysis. There are some people who support ZANU PF and there are relatively many. Whether they do it willingly or under coercion, is a discussion for another day, but there are many. The 2000, 2005 ,2008 and 2013 elections prove this point. The reason for that support needs to be understood as it may be based on a lack of understanding of the political platforms and programmes of the opposition beyond the removal of Mugabe as President. Or it may pertain to wartime sentimentalities and the fact that Zimbabweans are politically polygamous by instinct.


I have suggested over the years that when you study the urban voter turn-out and in particular for the main opposition political party for the years 2000, 2005, 2008 and 2013 , you observe a progressive decline in that vote in terms of absolute numbers. When you look at the votes that David Coltart, Welshman Ncube, Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga, our brother in Mabvuku and so on and so forth, got in the first elections in 2000, and progressively what they got in the following elections, that vote, the winning margin, has declined by a threshold of between 10 to 19%, if not higher in some instances. Whereas, on the other hand , what has happened is ZANU has created this impression of growing support for Mugabe and their MPs . Whether their figures are manufactured or they are real, it is a fact that Martin Dinha, was elected just two or three weeks ago with close to 12 600 votes and this is an increase from the threshold of votes in the same constituency before for ZANU PF.

So, in a sense, ZANU PF is a creature of power. It is focused on telling a credible story about how it is likely to win 2018. The more the opposition focus on all other side-shows, ZANU PF is focusing on power. So in every constituency that the opposition has boycotted, even the urban ones, the ZANU PF winning margin has not been the 3000 or 2000 that they got historically when those were contested constituencies, it has been a much higher threshold. And, I have kept on asking my friends in the alternative political movements, are we not being sent into a choreographed electoral dance, in the 2018 elections? Firstly, we have seen court judgements that essentially make you think that the courts are very impartial because ZANU PF stalwarts are being convicted in the courts – some who are serving legislators. In a sense, for anyone to then wake up and say that the Zimbabwean courts are partial, it would be difficult to make that case, and equally so, for you to wake up and say ZANU PF does not have support when they have recorded in primaries, significant voter turn-outs in their favour, would be equally problematic, especially to an external audience. And, this is all choreographed for an external audience. I get the impression that the opposition believes that Zanu PF has so failed and the economy is in such a parlous state that no sane Zimbabwe will vote for Zanu PF . That might be a great wish , but it doesn’t necessarily translate into a realistic strategic outcome without any real political work on the ground. The folk that attend rallies are already converted and their loyalties are clear. The silent majority that pitches up on voting day or decides not to pitch up needs to be fully understood and courted vigorously. This requires much more nuanced communication and engagement and not merely slogans and historical clichés about a failed regime.


My sense is that we still do need the visionaries within the opposition who concentrate on big rallies and mass mobilisation but you also need the nuts and bolts people who focus on strategy and on the minutiae detail of how to turn a supporter into a voter and a voter into an avid mobilizer of dozens of other voters.

At the moment I’m not seeing this division of labour. I only observe the palpable arrogance within certain corridors within the opposition each time someone questions their strategy, they dismiss the questioning as either academic or they say you are a diaspora hamburger-eater who does not know the practicalities of the local struggle. Labelling doesn’t answer repeated failure , reflection does. Any refusal to be reflective is political suicide or self-sabotage.

Violet: But you know Brian, speaking about visionaries, William Muchayi, a political analyst, actually wrote something quite interesting a couple of years ago. He said that Zimbabwe is not short of political parties but has a severe drought of visionaries, like you have just pointed out, who can steer the boat in the right direction. But some go further and say people like you could have done much more but seem to have abandoned ship. How do you respond to this?


Brian: I live 50 percent in Zimbabwe. I keep hearing this nonsense of abandoning the ship. I live the other 50 percent in South Africa and this is purely because I run a private business and have to travel across the continent regularly and it is cheaper to do it out of either Nairobi, Johannesburg or Addis Ababa. I don’t work for anyone anymore, I work for myself. And for the 50 percent of the time when I am in my own country of birth , I do a lot, privately. I may not be in the press as much but do quite a lot to contribute to the democratisation of the country. I don’t think we have the luxury of saying let’s replace the cast of top opposition leaders that we have. We have 18 months and in 18 months we are not going to be able to do that and still hope to perform well at the election. It takes a whole lot to get ordinary masses to embrace a new face and be faithful to new leadership. The change management in this short-run to the next election would be messy. But we are able to put together winning teams to support what already exists. These are winning teams that focus on the technical aspects and clear political programmes… the think-tanks etcetera. My sense is that we have concentrated too much on shaming and naming the regime for all its ills and forgotten that the morning after the regime has left – there is a country to govern and an economy to run or reconstruct. And unless we are clear about what that process of turning around the system is, we are going to have a lot of empty rhetoric and vision without transformation. And concentrate only the conquest of power and forget that the citizens’ discontent is not just about an individual and an institution but about failed policies and the crises of livelihoods that they experience. No sooner that the opposition would have come into government and that same frustration and anger will turn onto them and they better have clear solutions and not just hot air and insults for questioners. It is not enough to say we have our own blue print . This is the moment to ask citizens in a very sober and inclusive way what they want and for their ideas across a range of issues. This is how 1999 was started with the Godfrey Kanyenze, Rene and Kondo Raw Data Report. Raw Data Report was an objective assessment and consultation with citizens about what they wanted.


Violet: We will talk about the economy later but there is this talk about creating a Transitional Authority and you have been associated with it. Press reports list a group of ‘concerned citizens’ who are said to be organising this. Names include Ibbo Mandaza, Trevor Ncube, Judith Todd. Can you tell us what you know about this?


Brian: Ok. I have not had the privilege of participating in the NTA discussions as yet. I was invited to the inception meeting, but was unable to attend. I have seen the documentation and raised a few questions privately to the group. The TNA mustn’t cause palpitations at all, it is not a new idea. You will recall that the crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition during mine and Brian Raftopoulos’s time had proposed a Transitional Authority at the time – when we thought the country was in crisis – that was around 2004/2005. The CPI, which did the Great Zimbabwe Scenarios, also proposed a Transitional Authority ahead of the GNU deal in 2008. So the idea itself is as old as the governance crisis in Zimbabwe. My understanding is very simple. You do not have consensus across the political divide. The primary focus for political actors is on the transfer of political power through an electoral process. At the rate at which we are going that is likely to be a fairly bloody and violent affair. In the meanwhile, the prolonged political bloodletting is not going to be kind on the economy . The economy is bleeding – if we, 19 months ahead of an election(in 2018) we have police officers not paid, soldiers not paid, CIOs not paid, civil servants not paid, ordinary vendors and cross border traders not able to do their trade – we have created a severe humanitarian crisis that will make the election year a highly emotive and polemic affair. So , as moderately reasonable people , we need to explore all possible options that will ensure that Zimbabwe remains stable and steers itself without external interference to stability and prosperity.


So the notion is. You do need a cooling off period and that cooling off period might be necessitated by several factors: An early step-down by Mugabe or an escalation of the sort of economic crisis and the political tensions within the country. And this requires that an expert group of people who are representative, technically competent help to stabilise things and steer the economy in the right direction. Whether this idea can and will fly in this context is immaterial, the nation needs to seriously discuss this and several other possibilities so that we are not hoodwinked into believing that everything stands or falls on the 2018 election.

Violet: But who picks the players? Is this by self selection?


Brian: There are several ways. The various ways in which the NTA is done is by expertise or by designation by parties. Parties do nominate folk for various commissions. Look, nothing is a likelihood in our country. I know a lot of people are critical of this idea as they are critical of many other ideas. Electoral reforms depend on Mugabe making the necessary concessions but the constitutional provisions requiring reforms must be adhered to. The NTA requires the subtle concessions across the political divide that this would be necessary. In any event ,the issue is that the country requires much more than one solution. The tragedy of our previous engagement is we have gone to the table with only one solution and when that solution fails we don’t have a Plan B or Plan C. I read the documents and they don’t seem cast in stone. The group insists that it is merely facilitating and not leading of predetermining a process that will be shaped by robust national debate. The idea is not yet fully cooked and citizens must help add the necessary ingredients to ripen it. Those who dismiss the idea as pie in the sky must cast their imagination far and wide and see whether an election is possible in 2018 without the requisite reforms. If not , what will they do , should the reforms not come on time? What is plan B and C ?


Violet: But how would you entice the opposition political parties who seem to have rejected this and how can this be successful without ZANU PF who have also said no to this because of the GNU experience?


Brian: I am actually very surprised by that question Violet. You know when constitutional reform call(NCA), which we initiated with Tawanda Mutasah, Deprose Muchena, Everjoice Win, Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga, Perpetua Bwanya ,Welshman Ncube, Tendai Biti and a few others – we were nobodies. And when we first put this idea on the table we were dismissed as idealistic, if not idiotic. In fact, that very year Emmerson Mnangagwa gave a speech at the Law School saying that they did not – as government – see the need for constitutional reform. In fact ,even some of our mentors told us that there was no way the idea of constitutional reform would see the light of day. This was our conversation in 1997. Barely two years later in 1999 ZANU PF was now discussing it at their Mutare Conference (or Congress) – and yet they had rejected the idea out-rightly. In 1998 we were not only discussing constitutional reform but we were moving towards a constitutional commission and the counter NCA position. The currency of ideas is not ended or founded on the acquiescence of political parties or political actors of the day. They are important, but not as important as they would like to believe. Transformative ideas are dependent on what citizens think is right for them. We have had an anomaly in Zimbabwe where we have mortgaged the future of the country to political parties and political actors who now assume the place of God in our lives and purport to think and speak on our behalf. This is an abomination. The future of the country remains in the hands of citizens and if there is a disagreement between the political parties and the citizens, the citizen always wins. Legitimacy of a political party is not in the fact that it exists, the legitimacy of a political party is in its ability to epitomise what we as citizens demand, desire and want. And at the moment, Zimbabwean citizens want a solution to their daily misery. Not to elect another dictator and not to have anybody who feels that they are entitled to leadership because they have suffered dictate what is and should be right for our nation. Kwete,No! This is a make or break time for our nation and I think we need much more than just one idea on the table to discuss and we are not seeking for permission from anyone to discuss the myriad of alternatives at our disposal. As citizens we are entitled to determine the course of our own destiny, with or without organised political parties. They need voters and we need our voices and the spaces to take our rightful place as the legitimate employers of governments.


Violet: So who will provide the resources for this NTA?


Brian: Well let&rsqu