Nqaba Matshazi

WHEN news filtered in that Zanu PF was planning to organise a march against sanctions, I and many others were apoplectic, there were more pressing issues that needed urgent attention rather than holding a demonstration that was not going to yield any results, we argued.

If Zanu PF needed sanctions removed, they knew what to do and that was to implement reforms, we pontificated.

It was a waste of taxpayers’ money, we went on.

With the benefit of hindsight, while these were legitimate concerns, we failed to look at the bigger picture and understand what the march was really about and it may have had precious little to do with sanctions.

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I will get back to this point, please bear with me.

In 2007, former war veterans leader Jabulani Sibanda organised a march, which he dubbed the million-man march to express solidarity with the late former President Robert Mugabe.

Very few people were brave enough to confront Mugabe and Sibanda over this plan, but many were not happy about the march.

I remember interviewing Mugabe’s deputy then, the late Joseph Msika, who said he supported the President, but would not join the march.

Msika failed to read the nuances behind the march and instead read it face value.

My reading of it now is that Mugabe knew that the economy had tanked and that he was facing open resistance from some Zanu PF members and he wanted to put those dissenters in their place.

The million-man march was Mugabe’s way of telling the dissenters that he was still in charge and he was far more popular than them.

In short, the march was meant to demonstrate that he was Zanu PF’s best foot forward even during the party’s darkest moment.

Almost a decade later, in 2016, with the sprouting of social movements like This Flag, Mugabe once again felt under pressure and he countered in the way he knew best; another million-man march was organised.

Again, those opposed to the march looked at it at face value and criticised Mugabe and his party for wasting taxpayers’ money, among other issues.

A year later, the murmurs and discontent in Zanu PF were growing, Mugabe was ageing but still wanted to go on, yet the party was even more divided.

The faction that supported his then deputy and later his successor, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, was on the ropes, but were fighting back strongly.

Mugabe realised that his power was under threat and soon youth interface rallies were launched countrywide.

These rallies had little to do with the youth, but rather were a demonstration that Mugabe was still powerful and commanded lots of support.

He used the rallies to berate his enemies, real or imagined, with the final rally probably meant to finish off Mnangagwa politically.

It was a strategy that he had used to perfection and there was no way it would fail him, so he thought.

It had worked before, but this time it failed spectacularly and the penultimate youth interface rally in Bulawayo proved to be his Waterloo.

Now, back to the anti-sanctions march that we started with.

Mnangagwa is a student of Mugabe, politically at least.

For almost five decades he stood by Mugabe’s side and certainly learnt a lot from the former President.

It is only natural and expected that when confronted with problems, Mnangagwa’s default mode would be to try and solve them in the same way his predecessor would have done.

Just like in 2007, Zimbabwe is on the brink with a collapsing economy and almost non-existent social services.

The opposition to his rule is quite strong and there is open dissent.

There are also murmurs of deepening divisions within the ruling party and factions seem to be taking root again.

It feels like déjà vu; and how does Mnangagwa respond, by organising a march just as his predecessor did 12 years ago.

But instead of the numbers that Mugabe commanded, Mnangagwa spoke to a handful of supporters at the National Sports Stadium in Harare on Friday.

While the earlier million-man march emboldened Mugabe, Mnangagwa emerged from last Friday’s rally arguably weaker because of the low turnout and obvious lack of enthusiasm for the demonstration.

Declaring Friday a public holiday was meant to ensure that as many people as possible turned out for the demonstrations, but sadly this fizzled out into a damp squib and left Mnangagwa probably licking his wounds.

After Friday, it was probably hoped that all those opposed to Mnangagwa would be put in their place; that even with a disputed election outcome just over a year ago, the President remained popular with his supporters and that he was in control.

The rally was meant to project Mnangagwa as a strong and popular leader, who despite the problems the country and Zanu PF faced, was in command.

Instead, the rally may have achieved the opposite and his opponents have been emboldened as they may have spotted a chink in the armour.

It seems Mnangagwa and his party may have overestimated their support and in the process exposed themselves.

Bureaucrats may put on brave faces and say they achieved their goals with the Friday rally, but in reality they know they are weaker than they were a day before.

Friday’s rally was meant to be similar in terms of size, reach and impact as Mugabe’s 2007 million-man-march, but instead it had echoes of his last youth interface rally in Bulawayo, where his wife Grace was jeered.

This is not the end for Mnangagwa, but a steep political slope has just become even steeper.

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