MATABELELAND South province, which shifted from supporting the ruling Zanu PF to rallying behind the opposition during the 2000 and 2008 elections, has now returned to backing the ruling party.
There are many reasons, including failure by the opposition to articulate its policies, failure to attract big-name politicians unlike in the past as well as Zanu PF’s vote buying and intimidation tactics.
In the 2000 elections, Matabeleland South had eight seats in the House of Assembly and the opposition MDC won six of them.
The candidates who won seats for the opposition were: Moses Ndlovu (Bulilimamangwe North), Paul Themba Nyathi (Gwanda North), Edward Mkhosi (Bulilimamangwe South), George Joe Ndlovu (Insiza), Lovemore Moyo (Matobo) and Nomalanga Khumalo of uMzingwane.
Zanu PF managed to get only two seats, with Kembo Mohadi taking Beitbridge and Abednico Ncube winning Gwanda South.
At the time, there was a strong showing from the opposition, with the electorate shifting from Zanu PF to the opposition due the mismanagement of the economy, among other grievances.
In the 2005 elections, the MDC again got more parliamentary seats than Zanu PF, with the opposition winning four seats through Moses Mzila Ndlovu in Bulilima, Edward Tshotsho Moyo Mkhosi in Mangwe, Lovemore Moyo in Matobo and Nomalanga Mzilikazi Khumalo in uMzingwane. Zanu PF got three seats after Kembo Mohadi won Beitbridge, Abednico Ncube took Gwanda South and Andrew Langa won Insiza.
In the 2008 elections, the people of Matabeleland South continued with their fight for political change as they were yearning for better economic fortunes and development.
Despite cases of torture and violence endured by the opposition supporters in the province, they stood firm and voted for the opposition, which won nine out of 12 House of Assembly seats.
But in the 2013 elections, the opposition failed to win a single parliamentary seat, leaving Zanu PF to bag all the seats.
The 2013 election marked the end of the five-year inclusive government in Zimbabwe which was formed following the disputed and violent 2008 presidential election run-off election. MDC-T leader Morgan Tsvangirai withdrew from the race.
In 2018, out of 13 National Assembly seats, only one seat was won by the opposition. Patrick Dube from Gwanda Central took the city.
Thandeko Zinti Mnkandla, who is the former MP of Gwanda North, believes the opposition is missing some big hitters.
“When opposition politics came to Matabeleland South after the formation of the then MDC it was led by former Zapu stalwarts like Gibson Sibanda, Fletcher Dulini Ncube, Paul Themba Nyathi, Moses Mzila Ndlovu, Edward Mkhosi Moyo, Lovemore Moyo and others whose message found traction among the populace,” Mnkandla said.
“When Zanu PF realised that they were losing to the opposition, they resorted to violence using the ex-Zipra war veterans whose allegiance to the ruling party was induced by pensions and land resettlement. As someone who was directly and indirectly involved in the elections, l can safely say when Zanu PF realised that they were definitely losing ground to the opposition they resorted to violence and other unorthodox methods to entice the populace to vote for them. With that action from Zanu PF, the majority of the opposition then diverted to the ruling party”.
Moyo, a former Speaker of Parliament and MDC-T chair, said the opposition’s failure to win power also contributed to the shift in popular allegiance.
“Politics is dynamic and evolves, largely depending on the socio-economic imperatives. The formation of the labour-backed political party, the MDC, in 1999, cultivated a new political interest, hope and culture. The introduction of the politics of change quickly gained momentum and traction among the masses of Matabeleland South province. Consequently, the new waves of political change that swept across the country in the year 2000 significantly influenced the form and structure of the Matabeleland South politics.
“This new political environment prevailing brought about new political energy, belief, and enthusiasm among the Matabeleland South electorate. Accordingly, the people of Matabeleland South overwhelmingly voted for the MDC in large numbers. This is so because the newly formed MDC had clear alternative policies, vision, and objectives that resonated with the majority of voters in the province.
“As time went by, the failure by the MDC to win power in the successive general elections, combined with electoral fatigue, led to the decline of political support in the province. Further, unprecedented political violence, intimidation, and repression perpetrated by the Zanu PF regime resulted in the dwindling of the opposition support base. Despite the declaration of war against the opposition supporters by the Mugabe regime, the opposition went on to win a majority vote in the 2008 plebiscite in Matabeleland South province. Also, the presence of strong leadership of the late MDC president, Mr Tsvangirai, persistently gave people hope and belief that regime change was inevitable and, therefore, achievable.”
Moyo said Tsvangirai’s death also resulted in the decline of opposition popular support in the country, particularly Matabeleland South province.
“Sadly, after the death of the MDC president Morgan Tsvangirai there was discord, divisions, power struggles, and the absence of mature leadership which further exacerbated the decline in the state of opposition politics and, therefore, resulted in the diminished opposition support base. In essence, the absence of an organised and structured opposition party to fiercely challenge the Zanu PF regime contributed to a decline in the opposition electoral votes both in the 2018 and 2023 harmonised general elections,” he said.
“Besides the fact that the electoral playing field was uneven in both instances and favours the ruling party, the opposition parties were badly organised and did not do enough to convince the electorate about their readiness to govern the country. Therefore, the fractured and divided opposition parties worked in favour of the Zanu PF Regime to retain state power”.
Paul Themba Nyathi, a former spokesperson of the MDC-T, says the diversion of multitudes of Matabeleland South people from the opposition parties to Zanu PF was attributable to the failure of the opposition to paint a picture of what the new Zimbabwe would look like.
“The opposition failed to picture what will the new Zimbabwe, specifically Matabeleland South province, would look like so that people could believe in it. People aspire for something that they think is possible. Meanwhile, Zanu-PF being the incumbent gives people food such as mealie-meal, rice and Chicken Inn, thereby pulling more followers. Moreso, the issue of intimidating the opposition followers by Zanu PF pushed more people to the ruling party,” he said.
“The opposition has lost experienced leaders as such people diverted to Zanu PF. The majority of voters were born after Independence and had never seen any change or something tangible done by the opposition, so it was hard to change the mindset of such people when they are not seeing any promising change. The other reason for the downfall of the opposition was that it has lost the experienced organisers and now it’s being led by the new blood who have limited knowledge of politics and they are struggling with resources as the opposition. The opposition has no resources to go out and mobilise and build strong structures.”
Nyathi also said that people in rural communities have limited knowledge, and the issue of information dissemination in the countryside becomes a barrier. The failure of the opposition to have structures in rural communities becomes an advantage to Zanu PF as the rural communities will only rely on what the Zanu PF persons will be telling them.
Nkululeko Khoza, a lecturer at Joshua Mqabuko Polytechnic in Gwanda, said: “Voter intimidation and unfair electoral processes have led Zanu PF to be the winner since years back. The majority are now supporting Zanu PF to fatten their pockets and to secure property like resettlements and farms”.
According to the World Bank, 67.4% of Zimbabweans were living in rural areas in 2022. Zanu PF has long enjoyed strong support in these areas where a lot of voters were coming from and also where state funds and powerful patronage networks have helped the ruling party secure support.
Most of Zanu PF’s rural supporters believe the Constituency Development Fund, food donors and social welfare handouts are mobilised by the ruling party. That is why there is a larger number of voters backing the ruling party in rural areas than in urban zones.
Also, a few people from rural communities know about the opposition as they mostly held their rallies in urban centres.
A long-standing resident of Mangwe district, Mkhululi Sibanda, says people returned to Zanu PF in last month’s elections because of abductions and kidnappings of opposition supporters.
“There are cases of abduction, arbitrary arrests of political opposition figures and government critics that people of the opposition are subjected to. Therefore, for safety reasons people tend to support Zanu PF not because it is their own will but due to the circumstances that they cannot control,” said Sibanda.
But the Zanu PF Matabeleland South chairperson, Nqobizitha Mangaliso Ndlovu, said the ruling party gained the upperhand in the province because the party has deep roots in local communities and gives itself time to understand what the people want.
“Zanu PF is rooted to the people, it gives itself time to understand people’s concerns and wants. Zanu PF gives its ear to the community where it has grievances and as a party we make sure we resolve those issues. In 2018, we lost one constituency to the opposition and in 2023 we lost four constituencies so as a party we will go back to the people and ask and understand what went wrong and resolve that. The approach that we use to the people makes them feel important and valued by the party and puts the President’s emphasis on ilizwe lakhiwa ngabanikazi balo (Zimbabwe is built by its citizens). We always give ourselves time to introspect on our performance, whether we have done well or not. We always ask why.”