BY BRUCE MUTSVAIRO
SYDNEY-Even if he wins the elections and becomes Zimbabwe’s third president, Nelson Chamisa will need plenty of media and political communications training if he wants his global peers to take him seriously.
You would have to be completely thoughtless to dismiss Chamisa’s potential. But those who have followed Zimbabwean politics for a while will tell you potential means nothing.
His talent was never in doubt. I was a fellow pupil at Alheit Mission when Chamisa was appointed a senior prefect to a team that was headed by journalist and public relations guru Sugar Chagonda.
Chamisa was always the dominant one. He easily won all public speaking competitions. He frequently stood in for the headmaster (Mr Makanyire) delivering powerful addresses, laden with political jargon, to the school’s assembly. No one even noticed or felt the school head’s absence. He enjoyed the limelight and everybody, including those who didn’t understand him, loved him.
His political style earned him a nickname, which for now I won’t share. It was easy to like Chamisa because he was witty, chatty and humorous, even though sometimes he tried really hard to be funny. It didn’t matter. Most of his audience were nyii-eating, young and sometimes bored high school pupils with little or no ambition to hit the world stage like he has done.
Chamisa is hoping to become the President of Zimbabwe. He has a chance. Some say a very good chance. MDC-T supporters won’t care but clearly, there are a few things that evidently need fixing before he can challenge the mighty Mnangagwa.
Chamisa reminds me of an academic friend, who has been trying to move away from his current employer. He is the nifty type: confident, attractive and like Chamisa, very expressive. It was easy to find out why he can’t easily switch universities. When I asked him how often he prepares for a job interview, I was shocked to find out he barely prepares.
He said he “prefers to improvise.”
I am sure Chamisa, like most political leaders, does some form of preparation. However, I also know he loves to speak from the cuff. A former teacher at Alheit used to tell those of us in the student leadership reading from the script showed you are not confident. I wonder whether Chamisa took this advice seriously. For someone, who often loves to hear himself speak, it is very important to know when to stop, what to say and where to say it.
Some of the gaffes like the lies about meeting Donald Trump or promises to build an airport in Murewa, which is less than 80KM from the main airport in Harare, could benefit from some basic (very basic) political communications training.
Very few African politicians take communication training seriously because as long as they can speak, they feel they can communicate. They don’t realise not communicating is a form of communication. Luckily it is very easy to train Chamisa because he is a smart guy. But his shrewdness could also be the source of his potential downfall.
At school, Chamisa was used to getting compliments only. He cannot afford to surround himself with people showering him with praises. He needs to pick a team of media and political advisors, who have the confidence to bluntly tell him it’s too early to sit down with Stephen Sackur. Most of his friends will be telling him he did very well at Suckur’s Hard Talk programme. Whether that’s true or not, it really comes down to timing. I am not too sure if they got their timing right.
Obsession with Mnangagwa
Chamisa doesn’t need to remind anyone about Zanu PF’s ruinous policies. Some of the people who attended his UK rally or his Oxford Union gig would have known what’s wrong with the ruling party through personal experience. What they wanted was for him to demonstrate how different he is from Emmerson Mnangagwa.
He didn’t need to demonise the veteran politician. Neither do you want to go out there in the UK to present yourself as a victim of Zanu PF policies. That doesn’t work anymore. It didn’t work with the late Morgan Tsvangirai. It won’t work now. Just tell them how you intend to beat Mnangagwa. That alone shows maturity.
When addressing people in Murewa or Murambinda maybe some form of political banter could be useful. However, those in the UK would have been keen to know how he intends to fix the economy, for example, so that they potentially could return home. I felt he wasn’t convincing on this one. Again, these elements can be improved through basic training.
Worse still, Chamisa was visiting a country that has already sent two ministers to Zimbabwe, a country that is single-handedly helping Zimbabwe back into the international fold, a country that has already openly supported Mnangagwa’s reforms. Yes, that is the word they have used. Reforms.
It, therefore, was clearly unwise to visit Britain at this stage. Unless he had something really important to say (for example backed by a credible pollster telling him he will win the election by so and so percent) he perhaps was supposed to visit countries that are using a wait-and-see approach. Or perhaps just stay at home and wait for the perfect moment. They normally present themselves.
Apart from a few gaffes (a promise to chase the Chinese away if he wins being one of them as well as the bashing of the judiciary after Khupe ruling), he was doing very well on the ground if attendance at his rallies is anything to go by.
Chamisa or his supporters will probably tell you he doesn’t need training. Everybody does. Not every training will turn out to be useful but the process of development is an endless process.
There is no room for improvising at this stage.
Bruce Mutsvairo is an Associate Professor at the University of Technology Sydney. His latest book Perspectives on Political Communication in Africa (with Professor Beschara Karam) was released in April 2018 at Palgrave.