The generous ones put it at 10 000. The modest ones put it at 2 000. The niggard ones put it at 800. And all claimed to be reading from the same crowd which the MDC-T is alleged to have mustered in the wake of a court ruling favouring the demonstration to go ahead without any interference from the authorities. And as it turned out, the court order was respected, with the demonstration proceeding as we saw and read in the media.
Of course the Police were on hand to deal with any likely mischief. And there was a bit of it, if media reports are a guide. However, the big story appeared to be over numbers that attended. It is always a contested terrain given that politicians love numbers. And where they cannot have them, they will invent them, even relying on innumerates to count for them.
When two ten thousands clash
But to my mind the story lay elsewhere. Except we need to release ourselves from this fixation with numbers to grapple with the real news. Let us be charitable to the MDC-T, granting its propagandists’ wishes: 10 000. The same figure is about what the President had with screened war veterans last Thursday. Screened out of 34 000 who would have loved to attend the same meeting. So what is the story?
Why should a poorly scribbled message from a motley crowds ascribed to some political party assume greater resonance than that from the war veterans of the same number? So really, unless one wants to self-serve, there is little to be got from the numbers’ game. Or from an attempt to read apart either of the crowds so closely juxtaposed by time and purpose.
Actualising the new constitution
I think the real news is that the demonstration took place at all. And that has little to do with numbers. It has all to do with the new constitution, temperament of the Bench and disposition of the Executive. The new constitution makes demonstrations an unhindered right of association or assembly. It is the first right which the opposition sought to speedily claim and naturalise. It is also the same right which the war veterans tried and failed to claim the other week.
When you see interest groups each drawn from polar opposites of the political divide, seeking the same right and so soon in between, good watchers of social change will tell you society is about to outgrow its old rights, ripe enough to break the integument, to use a popular Marxist term. I think on this one, both the Bench and the Executive read the situation well, choosing to grant and concede a right respectively, so as to spare us sterile litigation. It’s a big step forward in terms of actualising the new constitution.
For the Police, a huge step forward a developing new policing habits dictated to by the new constitution and the ethos it creates. What is not clear is if at all the responsibilities the come with the exploitation of this right have been fully grasped by those claiming it. The onus of ensuring peace, law and order remains theirs and the future should see the Bench make serious pronouncements against those who fail to ensure those values we all know to counterbalance the freedom of association and assembly.
Dearth of messages
Which takes us to the second observation. Tsvangirai looked shrunken, ashen and wistful. It is not my role as a commentator to speculate on his state of health. What falls neatly within my purview is to try and interpret what make him wistful, even against glowing praises from the likes of Pedzisayi Ruhanya who sought to be happy on his behalf.
Interestingly one reason there was so much focus on numbers is because there was no message from the MDC-T leader to topple numbers copy. Tsvangirai had no message absolutely. Even the placards said it all, with abortive attempts at a sparkle using the name of Itai Dzamara. And of course the $15bn dollars said to have been lost to the country since the start of diamond mining. I am not ignoring the banal Mugabe must go mantra, only recognising its status in dramatising a messaging crisis in the opposition. Such a worn mantra cannot carry opposition politics or the country’s politics an inch forward.
And $66bn lost to sanctions?
Talking about the $15bn, surely it makes poor political inventiveness to rely on introspective observations by your opponent for your programmes? Are you holding Government to account at all? And as it emerges, Mugabe has moved miles and miles ahead in correcting the situation, in the process even serving surprises to his closest of allies.
We are moving to a new diamond mining dispensation, in which case the figure $15bn will cease to matter sooner. And that President could take such a drastic step even against the Chinese clearly indicated the depth of the principle he espouses. That is what makes Afrobarometer repeatedly discover he is a much trusted politician. And to add it all, he proceeds swiftly to clarify government stance on indigenisation and economic empowerment. If one reads the $15bn said to have been lost to illicit diamond trade against over $66bn lost to MDC-T wrought sanctions, how long is it before these guys drop $15bn? The opposition is wading into dead matter.
Headed for a cul de sac
But that is not even the most vexatious issue for the opposition. They have now been granted the right of assembly and combination. What next? More demonstrations? To what end? In politics there is nothing as terrible as being granted without a fight a right which comes with such onerous responsibility, and which soon exhausts your impetus.
I saw what attempted to be a clever reading of the so-called new phenomenon of a graduate vendor who is being read as the change factor in the current equation. This myth of drawing imaginary gains for itself, that has always been the bane of opposition politics and its pundits. The concession done to the opposition is sure to see it hit the high road to cul de sac. And that is what worries Morgan Tsvangirai.
From bicker to brawl
Add to that add the rivalry messages from People First and PDP which urged its people to keep away from such demonstrations. It was less out of fear of conflict and more out of fear of being upstaged by MDC-T. The MDC-T had gone to court alone, a fact which branded all that followed after it.
The other parties could not be seen to buoy MDC-T politics, something of some sweet music to ZANU-PF. It was worse for People First which attempted a baby demonstration against our embassy in Pretoria, South Africa. What was the idea? So far from underlining that the opposition is filling up the space it has just wrung free, we hear a bicker gathering into an open brawl.
Numbers do not matter at all
Lastly, as the MDC-T was busy building fictitious numbers, it’s real support base was depleting. Check the confusion, the stories of passion and embezzlement in the civil society, MDC-T’s equivalent of local government. The whole place smells dirty sex through and through. And monies that have been stolen, leaving Government amused, and backing western governments and organisations angry and frustrated.
A few resignations have followed. As if they matter. No audit will take place. And if ever it did, Mr Government will be very interested. And as with these political NGOs so it is with the ZCTU. And here is the key question for the political donor community: to dismantle the whole civil society and then start afresh. But how to do so less than two years from the next elections, and to do so without risking getting caught by an extra-vigilant Government, that is the issue.
Already part of the money meant for that purpose has been impounded by the authorities. More is sure to follow. Of course there are other donors who are cautioning against dismantling the thing. They want to keep it with its imperfections for the sake of looming elections. When you look at these preceding points, then you realise the debate on numbers is indeed inane, a sideswipe. Meanwhile, let’s see how it pans out.