Game of numbers ahead of 2018 plebiscite
By Njabulo Ncube
THE much-hyped ZANU-PF million-man march and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T)’s “red-sea” protests in Harare and Bulawayo have long come and gone.
And so has the Zimbabwe People First (ZPF) “star rally” held over the weekend in the second city of Bulawayo.
But debate continues on the political significance of these gatherings ahead of the seemingly crunch 2018 polls.
Various estimates of the latest ZANU-PF, MDC-T and ZPF gatherings have been bandied around, as the party faithful put a spin on the numbers.
With all the political gladiators in Zimbabwe’s body politic firmly focusing their eyes, ears and minds on the next elections, ZANU-PF pulled out all tricks in its political bag to literally gang-press thousands of impoverished citizens, mostly rural dwellers, to attend its million-man march, ostensibly in honour of President Robert Mugabe.
Critics say although the numbers were far less than 100 000, love him or hate him, President Mugabe showed he is a master at commandeering the full might of everything at his disposal to round-up the populace despite the bulk of the 13 million citizens wallowing in abject poverty.
It was largely a bootlickers galore as party leaders fell over each other to hero-worship President Mugabe in front of the multitudes; and the numbers at the venue shocked all and sundry in the opposition and the international community who view the ZANU-PF leader as facing his Waterloo, citing factionalism in the party, advanced age and suspected ill-health.
Analysts canvassed by the Financial Gazette are adamant that numbers matter in politics, particularly in Zimbabwe where a politician and his or her party are judged by the attendance at political gatherings.
“Indeed numbers do matter in politics,” says Maxwell Saungweme, a development analyst closely following Zimbabwe’s political situation ahead of the 2018 polls.
“Whether by hook or crook (President) Mugabe has shown he has support,” he said.
“But numbers matter more if they are numbers of declining unemployment levels, declining poverty levels, increased household incomes, improved corruption perception indexes, improved human rights indexes, increased access to drugs, housing, among other things lacking in Zimbabwe,” Saungweme added.
Alex Magaisa, a political analyst and constitutional law expert, argued that President Mugabe called the march to deal with “self-doubt, low confidence and confusion and to prove to everyone and himself that he is still a man”.
“But these numbers have to translate into jobs, a better economy, and better living standards otherwise the numbers might come to haunt him,” said Magaisa.
On its part, the MDC-T had sizeable numbers at its marches despite its leader Morgan Tsvangirai having been hospitalised at a top South African hospital over an undisclosed ailment.
At the Bulawayo rally held exactly a week after the ZANU PF million-man march, MDC-T supporters trudged into the city centre on foot, on bicycles and private vehicles without being forced to attend the gathering, according to party spokesman Obert Gutu.
“People came out in full force. It was voluntary and one thing which should be noted is that it was an event for one province, the Bulawayo province, unlike the ZANU-PF march which was a national event,” said Gutu.
It is estimated that more than 10 000 people braved the chilly weather to attend the Bulawayo event. As for ZTF, a capacity crowd filled up the iconic Stanley Square in Makokoba, a high density suburb in Bulawayo
Ricky Mukonza, a political analyst teaching at Tshwane University of Technology, believes the numbers at the ZANU-PF event emboldened President Mugabe whom he claims is battling to keep his legacy intact before his political sunset.
“Some of President Mugabe’s achievements as the leader of government such as successes that he scored in education, health, rural development and land reform have been eroded in the subsequent years due to poor governance coupled with poor performance of the economy. It renders him less of an icon.
“In fact, he ate into his legacy and, as things are, the man has no real legacy to talk about. The only things worth talking about are people who got land, but they are struggling to utilise the land because of the inhibiting economic conditions.”
Mukonza, however, admitted that given past experiences, it is difficult to defeat President Mugabe with the State apparatus on his side.
While the incumbent is credited with ushering in positive populist policies such as free education, health, promotion of gender equality, and attempts at land redistribution and economic empowerment, critics say human rights abuses, political intolerance, corruption and the general mismanagement of the economy has dented his legacy.
However, President Mugabe’s spin-doctors have been quick to dismiss assertions that their “icon” has lost his shine, pointing to the numbers at “Freedom Square”, renamed “Robert Mugabe Square”, and posting pictures on social media platforms to show that he still has got the pulling power.
The State media has also been awash with reports waxing lyrical about the numbers.
As for the MDC-T, critics say the numbers have to translate to votes.
Mukonza said: “The MDC-T has had encouraging numbers at its rallies and marches, but the question is: Are these registered voters?”
But for many ZANU-PF supporters, the numbers are a clear sign President Mugabe is on his way back to State House, come 2018.
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