Why Matabeleland calls the shots

It only commands 21 seats, an insignificant number to influence the 150-member House, but Matabeleland is presently calling the shots in national politics.

Though it seems to have been brought to the fore by the so-called Tsholotsho Declaration, which saw six provincial chairmen - three of whom were not from Matabeleland - being suspended from the party, Matabeleland has always played a key role in Zimbabwean politics.

Soon after independence, the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU), which dominated politics in the region, played the crucial role of toning down ZANU-PF. Though ZAPU was part of the government of national unity, it was still regarded officially as the main opposition.

Though it controlled only 20 seats, Matabeleland was so critical that President Robert Mugabe, then Prime Minister, was forced to the negotiating table despite his military might.

ZANU-PF failed to stamp its authority in the region which regarded ZAPU leader Joshua Nkomo as the father of the nation, forcing President Mugabe to negotiate with Nkomo culminating in the Unity Accord of 1987.

While this appeared to be a major victory for the ruling party, with some diehards in ZAPU claiming that their party had been swallowed, Matabeleland continues to call the shots. But commentators disagree on the reasons why the region is so critical.

Reggie Moyo of the National Constitutional Assembly, a non-governmental organisation fighting for a new people-driven constitution, said Matabeleland played a crucial role because of the unity factor.

He said any organisation involved in national politics had to encompass unity and anyone who was viewed as being against the spirit of unity was immediately isolated.

"The present leaders are doing everything to guard against division and because they cherish the foundations that were laid down during the liberation struggle, they tend to favour those who participated in the liberation struggle. If there are any dissidents or dissenting voices, they get rid of them," Moyo said.

A political observer argued, however, that Matabeleland's power base lay in the fact that though it only had 21 seats, it represented three provinces.

"As long as national politics is run the ZANU-PF way where people vote by province, Matabeleland will always be a key player because it has three provinces out of 10. Because of the political differences in the other seven provinces, Matabeleland will be a key player as anyone who wants to command a majority has to win their support," the observer said.

The plot by those who mooted the Tsholotsho Declaration allegedly to vote against Joyce Mujuru was scuttled after one of the Matabeleland provinces changed its mind.

The observer said Matabeleland would only lose its influence if voting by the provinces is weighted, taking the population into account and awarding provinces with higher populations more votes.

He brushed aside the argument that Matabeleland was critical to national politics because of the unity factor, arguing that though the Unity Accord was forged by ZAPU leader Joshua Nkomo and ZANU-PF leader Robert Mugabe, it was essentially a unity of the people.

"When Nkomo signed the Unity Accord, people were solidly behind him," the observer said. "Now we should look at who has replaced Nkomo. Does he have the support of the people?"

Though it was once ZAPU territory, Matabeleland is now controlled by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. The party won all but two seats in the region in the 2000 elections but lost a further two in subsequent by-elections.

"If you want to be realistic about this unity, look at where the people are. Follow the people and not the leaders," said the observer.

Moyo agreed that people were critical for the Unity Accord but argued that the people of Zimbabwe had always been united. It was the leadership that was divided. He added, however, that divisions were now trickling down to the individual level because of the hardships people were facing.

"Because of the suffering, people are increasingly becoming individualistic," Moyo said. "They now say I have to look after my family, my tribe, and so on."

A ZANU-PF "Young Turk" who was kicked out of the party following the Tsholotsho meeting said that Matabeleland was critical because it ensured that Zimbabwe, which has been facing regional and international isolation for over five years, enjoyed the support of South Africa, the region's powerhouse.

South Africa has been accused of taking a soft stance on Zimbabwe but President Thabo Mbeki has defended his policy of quiet diplomacy, saying it is the best solution as Zimbabweans must find a lasting solution to their own problems.

Mbeki even castigated the United States for describing Zimbabwe as "one of the six-outposts of tyranny", arguing that this was an exaggeration of the situation in the country.

The Young Turk argued that Mbeki was sympathetic to Zimbabwe not because he liked President Mugabe, but because President Mugabe was taking care of his former allies from ZAPU.

"What the people and the West forget is that the African National Congress (of South Africa) and SWAPO were ZAPU allies while the Pan African Congress was an ally of ZANU. So Mbeki, and even (Namibian President Sam) Nunjoma, will support Mugabe as long as he is assured that Mugabe is taking care of his former allies from ZAPU," the Young Turk said.

He argued that this was one of the reasons why President Mugabe had ditched the Young Turks from the region who had worked hard since 2000 to regain seats that had been lost to the MDC and brought back the ZAPU old guard that had been sidelined.

Moyo brushed aside this argument, saying President Mugabe had support from Mbeki and other regional leaders because of his patronage of the Southern African Development Community.

 

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