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Opinion / Columnist

Zimbabwe no country for 'nice men'

14 Jul 2017 at 07:05hrs | Views
In 2000, after the ruling Zanu-PF party had been shocked by the opposition at elections, it went through some soul searching.

Just five years earlier, Zanu-PF had won 118 of the 120 seats on offer. Now, in just its first election, the MDC had grabbed virtually half of Zanu-PF's seats, leaving a party so used to dominance with just five more seats than this upstart rival.

Inside Zanu-PF, the inquest began. The party's central committee set up a "reform subcommittee," tasked to look at why the party had done so badly and, more importantly, what it needed to do to win back voters. The committee comprised mostly junior members of the party, among them Patrick Chinamasa, David Parirenyatwa and Jonathan Moyo.

One of the recommendations was that the party needed reform and a way to mend the economy fast. To do this, technocrats would need to be brought into government; new, untainted nice guys to help do the job.

Nkosana Moyo had just returned from Tanzania, where he had been heading Standard Chartered Bank. He wrote articles in the Financial Gazette, urging reform. As he tells it, President Robert Mugabe liked the articles, and Moyo soon got the call to join the government.

"The President told me that it was through those articles that he figured that if there was an opportunity to serve my country, I would take the opportunity, and that is what I did," Moyo said this week.

Mugabe was doing what he had never done before, and what he has never done since; bending to the so-called reformists in his party.

On a Saturday night in 2000, Mugabe addressed reporters at State House, telling them he was appointing a Cabinet that would bring "new thinking." Ten of the 17 ministers announced that evening were new. Long serving stalwarts, among them Emmerson Mnangangwa and Edson Zvobgo, were out.

In were the likes of Joseph Made, who had been heading ARDA and was then regarded as a technocrat, a laughable notion now with the benefit of hindsight. There was Simba Makoni, widely respected in business, as Finance Minister, and Jonathan Moyo as Minister of Information. Others included Francis Nhema, Patrick Chinamasa and Nkosana Moyo himself as Industry and Trade Minister.

It was a surprise to many, and the news of a new Cabinet of "reformers" was widely welcomed.

For Nkosana Moyo, all this must have been rather foreign. Munhumutapa Building was a long way from his previous life at Batanai Capital Finance, the venture capital company that he had founded just three years earlier, which he had run out of a humble office on Lawson Road in Milton Park.

Probably detecting Moyo's nerves, Mugabe, in the style of an old football coach putting his arm around the shoulders of a nervous rookie, told him to run the ministry like a business.

"Go and show us how things can be done within your ministry in a manner which is more aligned to how the private sector operates," Moyo later quoted Mugabe as saying.

Despite the chaos all around the farms at the time, that new Cabinet raised a lot of hope. Big business was happy seeing their own in power. There was a nice guy in charge of Finance, and another nice guy in charge of Industry.

But soon, Moyo was to learn a lesson that, now that he is running for president, he will need to remember really fast; nice guys seldom win, especially not in Zimbabwean politics.

Not long into Moyo's new job, groups of war veterans started invading factories, extorting managers and assaulting workers. Just as they were taking back land from whites on the farms, the war vets said, they were taking over businesses from white capitalists.

Moyo publicly opposed the invasions, and the war veterans accused him of working with white capital. In Mugabe's "new thinking" Cabinet, Moyo found little support in his defence of industry. Frustrated, Moyo quit and left the country.

In an angry editorial after the resignation, the Herald called Moyo a lover of "international capitalists", and said he should have "known what he was getting into when he joined the government."

Mugabe, realising that the "new thinkers" were losing him the political support of his base, had now abandoned his experiment with nice guy politics for the dirty politics that he had made his forte.

A year after Moyo resigned, Makoni also left government, after Mugabe called his proposal to devalue the Zimdollar "sinister". Makoni's replacement, Herbert Murerwa, another of the nice guys, was to also be later replaced. He was too "bookish," Mugabe said.

"I want amadoda sibili (real men), people with spine," Mugabe said at a rally, referring to Moyo.

In one unintended sense, Mugabe was right. In the political culture that he has bred and perfected over decades, it is only the dirty brawlers that seem to stand a chance, inside or outside government. Voters are so used to dirty politics that anyone that tries a cleaner brand of politics is viewed with suspicion. Scars and insults appeal more to voters than fancy policy documents.

And this is what Moyo and his campaign will need to learn, fast. They may want to sell their man as the "cleaner" alternative to Mugabe and his rival Morgan Tsvangirai. However, they still need him to be sharper in his criticism of Zanu-PF and its leader, to brawl a bit more.

Moyo says "hurling insults at anyone is not a good starting point," but that is just what voters want. Those who try to play nice always end up losing. He should ask Makoni, whose messaging early in his own campaign bears a striking resemblance to Moyo's. Makoni refused to openly attack Mugabe, choosing instead to tell voters that he preferred a clean campaign focused on issues.

But in a country used to gore and thunder in its politics, playing "Mr Nice Guy" is a handicap. That frustrated Makoni who, in an interview back in 2013, appeared resigned to that fact.

"Maybe that is because our people are used to the culture of politics of denunciation. We must see beyond that," Makoni said at his party offices in Harare.

Zimbabwean voters are unforgiving and polarised; the two main opposing sets of supporters are equally fanatical in defending their leaders. Loyalties are to parties and their leaders more than to anything. However divided they are, Zanu-PF and MDC-T supporters are united in their suspicion of anyone that tries to come between them in their long fight.

"This environment is hostile to new political players," Makoni conceded in that interview. "It does not frustrate me, it saddens me. 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."

Even more than Moyo today, Makoni's candidacy had been greeted by excitement. Makoni was better known then than Moyo is now. The MDC, far more experienced in opposition and schooled well by Mugabe in their fights with him, whispered loudly that Makoni was a Zanu-PF plant.

"I was carrying the baggage of being labelled a Zanu-PF project. People in both parties went round whispering that Simba is a plant of Zanu. That did a lot of damage."

In conspiracy-loving Zimbabwe, such labels stick easily. Makoni's campaign was crippled in no time. It was not helped by his refusal to get down and dirty in his speeches. An engaging public speaker, he however spent most of his time at the podium regaling supporters with "issues", steering clear of insults.

He resisted advice from inside his campaign to hit harder at Mugabe, and lay off his obsession with details of his vision for consensus building and other such nice terms. But Makoni insisted: "They (voters) will not see me sling mud at competitors, but they will hear me talk about the issues that touch their lives."

It did not help him. Now, almost 10 years later, it is Moyo on the scene, playing "Mr. Nice Guy". It is not the first time he has considered political service. In 2000, he had toyed with the idea of running as an independent in Harare Central, but withdrew to remain in business.

He has a great C.V. Unlike most political leaders in Zimbabwe, he started and ran a successful business. He worked for large global finance corporations and knows how the modern world works. He speaks well and, at least according to Twitter, he would make for a dashing Presidential portrait.

Sadly for him, that may not be enough. He may appeal to a minority that is tired of Mugabe, but is unsure Tsvangirai represents change from Mugabe-style politics. But for Moyo, expanding his support outside this small group will need both brawn and brain, but certainly more of the brawn. For now at least, Moyo doesn't seem to have the will, and perhaps not even the means, to go down that route.

Zimbabwean political history is littered with the dead hopes of men and women who thought good ideas alone would convince voters. Decades of bitter battles for power have polarised the country and left little room for smooth talking third options. A battle must be fought to convince Zimbabwe that there can be another type of politics. It will be a tough one.

Nice guys are treated with suspicion. Nice guys lose, whether inside government as ministers or outside as opposition. This, so far, is no country for nice men.


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