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by Sam Kabele in Pambazuka, 15 April 2008

At the time of writing President Mugabe is refusing to engage with his reasonably supine fellow southern African leaders, concerned about the crisis and lack of declared results from the presidential elections. Instead he has chosen the path he knows best, that of formal and informal state-inspired violence with reports coming in especially in Manicaland of targeted intimidation and beatings of opposition activists, especially in areas that swung to MDC. The votes in the parliamentary elections went so overwhelming for the opposition that the government was unable to fix that election and we thus had a historic victory for the Movement for Democratic Change. It seems clear the ruling ZANU-PF party are desperately trying to avoid a similar meltdown in the presidential ones. So, unsurprisingly, Zimbabwe’s High Court refused to rule on the MDC’s urgent application for release of the presidential election results on April 14.

As President Mugabe opts for the path he knows best, that of formal and informal state-inspired violence, it is worth asking how we even reached the stage where the opposition was allowed to win the parliamentary elections and where the usual violence and intimidation appear not to have paid off. Were the ruling party over-confident and the rest of us, expecting the usual stolen election, too dismissive of the effect of the crisis on ordinary Zimbabweans – urban and rural? Of course in any normal situation, hyperinflation signals an end to any ruling government, but Zimbabwean ‘normality’ has been different since 2000, and arguably before that. Given the normal retaliation that ZANU-PF unleashes when it is threatened as in 2000 after the referendum (farm invasions etc) and Operation Murambatsvina after 2005, there is a second and probably more important question. Who is willing and able to stop a descent into repression and violence? And, thirdly, who in Zimbabwe and the region has the strategic vision to change this? Is there still the possibility of a peaceful transition (even if not a transformation as such)?

The ZANU-PF government has largely appeared impervious to international pressure to reverse repression and its economic policies. Zimbabwe has few close allies, after leaving the Commonwealth, having been near to expulsion from the International Monetary Fund (perhaps the only possibly advantageous element), its policies criticised by the UN and some African institutions like the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights, and with its elite subject to ‘smart’ sanctions from the EU, Switzerland, US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. It has retained some African, Chinese and some Third World state and popular support by astute playing of the ‘anti-imperialist card’. Is, however, the southern African region now sufficiently worried to push harder for real change after the (unadmitted) failure of their negotiation process and the obvious gerrymandering of the ‘harmonised elections’?


Whilst the results dribbled out, the courts are largely supine and the counter-offensive starts. After the failure of the negotiation process and the obvious gerrymandering of the ‘harmonised elections’ perhaps the real question is whether their self-interest in a reformed ZANU-PF without Mugabe is likely to continue? With the exception of South Africa’s ANC president Jacob Zuma – who called for the election results to be declared after meeting Zimbabwe’s opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai – the region has been largely silent. It has, however, after its weekend summit issued a lame statement calling for the election results to be ‘expeditiously’ declared and for the parties to contest any run-off. This is despite evidence of increased intimidation and violence and strong opposition from regional civil society.

The only path appears to be people power, but is the fearful population, committed peaceful forms, subject to eight years of intimidation, and having to engage in every possible strategy for mere survival able to sustain this? Recent general strikes such as the one called for from 15th April cannot really be anything other than staying at home since only 8% of Zimbabweans are actually employed.

It has been argued that in any transition Zimbabwe should be characterised as a post-conflict state since it exhibits many characteristics of a society in violent conflict due to the scale of economic collapse and casualisation, political violence and social trauma, the breakdown of basic services (although the party structure of ZANU-PF remains intact), mass flight of people and capital. Zimbabwe currently has the highest rate of inflation in the world, with an annual rate of over 100,000%.

1. Wages have plummeted as the cost of necessities spirals out of control. About 80% of the country’s population lives in poverty, while about 3 million people have left the country in search of work.

2. Failed agricultural policies have meant widespread food shortages of food with this year’s harvest predicted to be one of the lowest on record.

3. Agriculture was the motor of the pre-crisis economy, but is massively depleted in production and export. Zimbabwe once a food exporter (in good years) is now food insecure with up to half the population reliant on food aid.

4. The above is particularly worrying given the generalised HIV and AIDS pandemic and life expectancy being the lowest in the world at 34 years for men and 33 years for women.

5. The humanitarian crisis is exacerbated by government food distribution being manipulated to secure votes.

6. Demands for change emanating from civil society have been routinely suppressed by the state, including the use of assaults, arrests and torture.7 The number of health professionals fleeing the country has escalated while resources for the health sector have collapsed, with dire effects on the around 20% of the population with HIV or AIDS.

The strategies of the Zimbabwean state of both structural and physical violence in all its parallels with the last years of apartheid seem to be both unravelling and at the same time becoming more vicious. The combination of centrally directed and presidential-inspired incitement to violence, including sexual violence, securitisation of state institutions, state of emergency in all but name, the use of informer networks and covert ‘Third Force’ hit squads to brutalise the opposition and destroy its structures before elections, and the manipulation of the media and hate speech attacks, all seek to provide ideological justification for the demonisation of the opposition and licensed informal violence. However, whether through over-confidence or under pressure from South Africa and the region, there was less violence in this election with both the opposition factions of the MDC and the ZANU-PF ‘renegade’ Simba Makoni being able to campaign in rural areas.

Several post-Mugabe scenarios are possible, including a transition to Mugabeism without Mugabe, an MDC-led government, the rise of a reformist faction within ZANU-PF, a broad government of national unity, a military coup, or even a descent into chaos. But at present a Mugabe hardball response urged on by the ‘Jacobin’ faction inside the party around a presidential run-off seems likely. Violence and intimidation have worked in the past to keep the president in power, have tended to divert the party from its internal divisions, and sidelines the ‘moderate’ ZANU-PF faction which is tempted to reach out to MDC and the international community – not least to try to safeguard their businesses, and other resources including land. Use of the militia and to some extent the police also avoids using the military some of whose loyalty is suspect – at elite level where the would-be kingmaker is thought to have bankrolled the Makoni presidential bid, and at lower ranks level, where many soldiers presumably voted MDC.


The background to the elections was of fear of state-sanctioned violence through use of police, military and militias with the aim of ensuring a ruling party victory at whatever cost8. Conditions for free and fair elections in the called for in the recent pastoral letter from the Catholic bishops were not followed. Key aspects of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections, ratified by the Zimbabwean government were not respected.9 These included the pro-government bias of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC)10, insufficient mechanisms for voter registration and roll inspection and ZEC failing to clearly publicise boundaries of new voting constituencies and locations of polling stations. There was also the disqualification of three million diaspora Zimbabweans, lack of voter education, state domination of the media and a lack of independent international and civil society observers.

All reports from partners and credible observers note that the organisation of the elections was partisan, the opposition parties had little access to state media and to rural areas of the country, and the state media overwhelmingly privileged the messages of the ruling ZANU-PF party11. Nor was there sufficient time between the unilateral announcement on 25th January of the election date for political parties to organise their campaigns. Indeed the electoral commission itself was disorganised as well as partisan. The weighting of the new constituencies is also towards the rural areas – normally seen as government strongholds where opposition parties rarely get access. (But it seems that rural voters were less intimated, including in areas that were formerly ZANU-PF-leaning, although there have to be concerns about any second round where there are no observers). There were widespread reports of government attempting to buy voters’ allegiances through provision of agricultural equipment and (deferred) pay rises to the armed forces and teachers. President Mugabe also amended the electoral law on 18th March to allow the police into polling stations – widely seen as an intimidating tactic, although it is not certain that it was that effective.


The conditions of the post-election period do not promise well for Zimbabwe escaping from its current interlinked crises and hence helping to stem the increasing poverty of its citizens. Civil society is currently working out its strategy, but it is uncertain what the MDC’s is bar the general strike weapon and Tsvangirai’s regional tour of uninterested leaders. There are worries in civil society that violence and intimidation will characterise any possible second round and that manipulation of results is aimed at gaining either an outright victory or to provide a weakened MDC that will be railroaded into a spurious government of ‘national unity’ to provide greater regional and international legitimacy for continued ZANU-PF misrule.

It seems that any effective response to the Zimbabwean crisis must be African-led, however unlikely that currently seems. There should be support and encouragement for the efforts of the African Union (AU) and SADC to provide stronger political mediation in the post-election period aimed at securing government commitment to political and economic reform and to the restoration of basic rights of citizens. Secondly, there is a need to respond to the long-term humanitarian crisis and its effects on the people of Zimbabwe.

Even if Mugabe were to win the run-off vote he faces a country in total meltdown. A transition point – if not a transformation point – now appears inevitable. The immediate tasks will be to reform the security and legal sectors; create legitimate institutions of government; political reconciliation; rebuild the state; economic recovery, normalisation of relations with the international community for aid; debt relief and investment. All will take place under circumstances in which Zimbabweans will be extremely vulnerable to externally imposed agendas.

Sequencing of reform will be vital. A return to due process of law and transparency needs to take place with depoliticisation, demilitarisation and demilitia-isation of formal and informal state institutions top of the agenda. Perhaps Zimbabwe can then start to move away from a culture of violence, impunity, corruption and cronyism.

Addressing the question of land will be a volatile process. There will need to be a detailed investigation into who has what land under what conditions. It would be politically unacceptable to return to the highly unequal colonial-pattern of land ownership. But for those former commercial farmers prepared to share their expertise innovative land sharing/ renting schemes could be piloted.

The tasks will be immense and there is already talk of creating a Trust Fund to help Zimbabwe’s absorptive capacity which will be fairly modest. Measures to help the skilled and the diaspora return will need to be balanced with employment creating schemes for those who stayed,without overwhelming what few social services remain. Health care professionals could be invited back, initially on a short term basis without losing residence rights elsewhere, and with a range of inventive packages.

A national convention process could be vital in producing a new people-driven constitution. A stakeholder conference to take this forward could address issues of constitutional reform, electoral reform, land reform, truth recovery and economic and social recovery.

Promoting justice and reconciliation will be a long term process, but Zimbabwe is one of the best-documented sustained human rights abuse processes. Finally from a rather longer run historical view are we seeing the end of the sustainability of the nationalist/ liberation project as it is unable to recuperate and reproduce itself except through violence? State authoritarianism had the dual inheritance of the interventionist settler state and the command politics of the liberation movements.

The seeming illogicality of the politics of disorder has been functional for rewarding clients and supporters, once the original nationalist coalition of workers, peasants, trade unionists, urban dwellers, students and intellectuals had been destroyed through structural adjustment, elite accumulation strategies and corruption. ZANU-PF has been unable to address what Chris Alden saw as the interlinked crises of illegitimacy, expectations and governance; it has only been able to respond through violence/ clientilism, destruction of the disparate social forces opposed to it such as farmers, farmworkers and urban dwellers through militarisation/ militia-isation. This has been accompanied by a location of the crisis as external – Western imperialism and ‘sanctions’. Whilst these have their niche the crisis is overwhelmingly local although not without an initial external dimension that Patrick Bond has pointed to – acceptance of settler debts, ESAP etc, with an ideological debate around ‘who is a real Zimbabwean’? This has acted to exclude urban, white, farmworker, professional etc Zimbabweans through denial of their legitimacy as citizens. The battleground is not just economic and political but also ideological through identity, exclusion and exclusion questions and demonisation of non-ZANU supporters, ruralisation/ totems etc.

For now Zimbabweans need the greatest international solidarity and pressure on regional governments. The UN Security Council should also be a forum for laying open the human rights abuses which are likely to get worse in the days and weeks ahead.


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