By RW Johnson
The sequence of events which produced the current deadlock in Zimbabwe began on 11 March 2007 when a number of activists and leaders of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), including its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, were arrested, tortured and beaten.
The pictures of Tsvangirai as he emerged from hospital, his head so swollen that he could not see, went round the world. He had a cracked skull and needed extensive blood transfusions. One of Tsvangirai’s bodyguards, who had been beaten along with him, later died of his injuries; another MDC activist was shot dead; and scores more were tortured and beaten. But it was the TV footage of Tsvangirai, smuggled out of the country, that exposed the Mugabe regime so badly. If this was what could be done to the leader of the main and non-violent opposition party, everyone could understand the rest in an instant. An unprecedented volume of international protest and condemnation poured in, so vociferous that even Thabo Mbeki’s South Africa, Mugabe’s most loyal supporter, expressed concern and politely asked the Zimbabwean government “to ensure that the rule of law including respect for rights of all Zimbabweans and leaders of various political parties is respected” (see “South Africa: not yet post-colonial”). Mugabe realised the harm the TV footage had done and tracked down the cameraman who had taken the pictures, Edward Chikombo. He was abducted from his house in Harare. His body was discovered some days later.
The international repercussions of these events were so severe as to cause a change in tactics by Mugabe and Mbeki. Mbeki’s fundamental position was that Mugabe’s ruling Zanu-PF party must, as a fellow national liberation movement (NLM), be maintained in power at all costs. The NLMs of southern Africa are, according to this theory, those movements which successfully used armed struggle to overthrow white rule – that is, the ruling parties of Angola, Mozambique, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa. In Mbeki’s and Mugabe’s minds, western imperialism is engaged in a struggle to overthrow the NLMs and restore, if it can, the preceding regimes – apartheid, colonialism or white settler rule. In so doing, imperialism will make use of various local parties as their lackeys – Inkatha and the Democratic Alliance in South Africa, Renamo in Mozambique, Unita in Angola – and the MDC in Zimbabwe. Faced with this onslaught, in which Zimbabwe is currently the weakest link, the other NLMs must defend Zanu-PF to the death, for if Zimbabwe “falls”, then South Africa and the others will become the next target.
Ever since the Zimbabwe crisis first erupted in 2000, Mbeki had seen his role as one of giving firm support to Mugabe (while insisting he was using “quiet diplomacy” to solve the problem) who was thus to be given a breathing space in which he could carry through his land revolution against the white farmers, extirpate the imperialist lackeys of the MDC – and then re-stabilise his country, with Zanu-PF regaining its de facto position of unchallenged single party. The problem was that Mugabe had damaged his economy beyond repair by getting rid of the white farmers. So the economy and society would not stabilise – decline continued rapidly – and the MDC, despite endless persecution, refused to disappear. Now Mugabe had made a yet further and energetic attempt to make them disappear, but the result had been a massive international reaction which had shaken all the states of the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
Most of these states are not ruled by NLMs, do not share the paranoid imaginings of Mugabe and Mbeki about the re-imposition of white/colonial rule, and are in any case heavily dependent on western aid. SADC has adopted an electoral code of conduct, fully up to Westminster standards, which is supposed to apply to all elections within SADC and western donors (who finance much of SADC’s affairs as well as that of its constituent states) wanted to see it observed. SADC, though normally deferential to South Africa, the regional great power, was thus now pushed by its western donors as well as by some voices in its own ranks, and wanted to see a mediated resolution in Zimbabwe. Mbeki was, accordingly, appointed as mediator.
Mbeki led the SADC team in negotiations, which eventually produced a new Zimbabwean constitution, a new Electoral Act and amendments to the Public Order Act. The number of parliamentary seats was increased from 120 to 210, the president’s right to name 30 extra MPs was abolished, and it was determined that to win a presidential election a candidate must win at least 50% on the first round or, failing that, face a run-off within 21 days. SADC emphasised that it did not wish to be embarrassed again by the state-sponsored violence that had marred previous Zimbabwean elections and Mugabe, in return, allowed in election observers from SADC and other states thought likely to sign off on a Mugabe victory as “free, fair and credible”. This new dispensation was essentially a deal between Mbeki and Mugabe to see Zanu-PF returned to power by more genteel means. Mbeki, who was concerned that Zanu-PF rule had become too identified with Mugabe, wanted the 84-year-old to stand down in favour of a younger moderniser, Simba Makoni. When Mugabe refused to stand down, Makoni, with Mbeki’s tacit support, ran as a dissident Zanu-PF candidate.
Freezing out the MDC
But on one thing Mbeki and Mugabe were united: Tsvangirai and the MDC must not be allowed to win. And they were confident that the new arrangements would achieve that. They believed that Mugabe could rely on the rural vote and so the number of rural parliamentary seats was heavily increased, with Mugabe expected to win them all. The MDC would, as in the past, be barred from all state-owned media, including radio and TV. With the only MDC-supporting newspaper, The Daily News, now suppressed and its presses blown up, the MDC would be at a huge disadvantage in getting its message across. Moreover, the MDC had split and the two rival movements were running against one another – one an essentially Ndebele party, with support in rural Matabeleland; the other Tsvangirai’s majority faction. This was bound to be a major handicap for the opposition. The MDC was so conscious of its problems that it frantically appealed for the election to be postponed.
On top of that the state had complete control of the electoral register, had large numbers of dead and fictitious voters registered to vote, and the MDC was denied any access to the register or any copy of it. Mugabe and Mbeki thus believed that a Zanu-PF victory was guaranteed even in a peaceful election. At the close of voting the SADC election observers hurriedly proclaimed the election free and fair and left the country before any results were declared. But the best laid plans of mice and men had gone awry. It is doubtful if Mbeki read the fine print of some of the administrative changes made by his SADC underlings, but a few of these were crucial. One was an amendment to the Public Order Act which removed the need for police permission for private meetings. This was vital in allowing the Tsvangirai forces to penetrate and win many seats in hitherto safe Zanu-PF territory. Allowing a peaceful campaign in the rural areas had completely undone the assumption that these areas were “safe” for Mugabe.
But SADC’s drafters had also inserted Section 64(1)E into the new Electoral Act, requiring all votes to be counted at the polling station where they were cast and then the results, witnessed by the party agents, to be posted publicly outside the station. This gave the opposition a virtually foolproof way of detecting cheating. Neither Mbeki nor Mugabe had any experience of competitive free elections and they simply missed the significance of this clause.
Once the polls closed the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) gave the Zanu-PF Politburo its first private prediction of the presidential result: Tsvangirai 58%, Mugabe 27% and Makoni, the dissident Zanu-PF candidate, 15%. These estimates, based on a narrow urban sample, were too favourable to Tsvangirai, but the message was clear. Mugabe ordered the ZEC to declare him elected with 53%. Angry at Makoni’s “treachery”, he also demanded that his vote be reduced to 5%. This produced resistance both from the ZEC and from the security chiefs. The ZEC objected that manipulation of the results on such a scale would be obvious, while the security chiefs worried that the country might become ungovernable if the popular will was so brutally flouted. Mbeki was continuously on the phone from Pretoria and had his emissaries in Harare. Could not the results be “adjusted” so that Tsvangirai got less than 50%? Mugabe could get 41% and Makoni 10%-12%. Mugabe should then withdraw, leaving Zanu-PF to rally behind Makoni and, provided the security forces could be given a strong role in the way the run-off was conducted, Makoni could then be given just over 50% and Tsvangirai kept out. But Mugabe refused to stand down.
The opposition had won 111 seats to Zanu-PF’s 96 (with three seats vacant). There were discussions about Tsvangirai heading a government of national unity, including some Zanu-PF ministers and granting complete amnesty to Mugabe and his henchmen, but the real struggle was going on within Zanu-PF and the armed forces.
It was not until the Thursday after the vote that we got the picture. I had that morning sallied into MDC headquarters at Harvest House, a place watched by the security police and frequently raided by them. Failing to find Tsvangirai, I sat round until I was slapped on the back by a bevy of MDC MPs whom I knew. They’d arrived for their caucus meeting only to discover – the usual MDC shambles – that the meeting had started five minutes ago and there was no transport to take them there. I happily drove them there and then went to Meikles Hotel to hear the MDC’s press conference. Meikles lounge is always a honeypot, abuzz with journos, but I don’t like it. It’s full of spies and electronic surveillance, so I left quickly and went back to the lodge in which I was staying.
Mugabe had finally re-asserted his control that day and the crackdown had begun. A few minutes after I’d left Harvest House the riot police raided it, arresting anyone remotely like me. Then, not long after I’d left Meikles, the police surrounded the place and arrested the journos they found inside. Finally, that night 30 armed police arrived at my lodge. They had caught some journos at a neighbouring lodge and arrested the lodge owner. He, poor man, was sitting on the back of an open lorry, being taken away god knows where, his lodge now shut down for the newly invented crime of harbouring journalists. I managed to bluff my way through this visitation. But the story was now clear. Mugabe would stay in power and do whatever it took.
Which is what happened: ZEC officials arrested, appeals to overturn the parliamentary results, a presidential recount even before the first count was released and then a ferocious campaign of terror in which some 136 people died and many thousands more were tortured and beaten, leading up to a much-delayed run-off on 27 June, a contest from which Tsvangirai withdrew, leaving Mugabe as sole candidate. Tsvangirai was frequently arrested, prevented from campaigning and Mugabe made it quite clear that “only God can remove me”: mere votes would not be allowed to count. Mbeki flew to Harare and tried frantically to cover for Mugabe. (“There is no crisis in Zimbabwe,” he told journalists after an hour’s talk with Mugabe. He was, as he spoke, holding hands with Mugabe.) Even within South Africa this was greeted with widespread ridicule and protest.
Is Mugabe really in charge?
For the first time it was unclear whether Mugabe dominated his ruling group or whether it dominated him. Its key members are all part of Mugabe’s Zezuru clan, several of them directly related to Mugabe, and were members of Zanla (the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army). All have benefited enormously from Mugabe’s rule and own numerous farms stolen from white farmers. Gideon Gono, the Reserve Bank governor, is also Mugabe’s private banker and accompanies him on his trips to Malaysia where most of his ill-gotten assets are stashed. Emmerson Mnangagwa and Perence Shiri (who is Mugabe’s cousin) were the two men principally responsible for the Matabeleland massacres of the 1980s. Constantine Chiwenga, the army boss, and Paradzai Zimondi, head of the prison service are also part of this top group is as Augustine Chihuri, the police chief.
The current campaign of terror has been carefully planned and implemented by the Joint Operations Command (JOC) which Mnangagwa heads and in which Shiri, the air force chief, plays a key role. All of these men have committed major crimes against humanity and all of them are wealthy, with much to lose. There is a further stratum below them whose ill-gotten wealth is still mainly held inside Zimbabwe and who lack the well-stuffed foreign bank accounts necessary to make exile a palatable option. During the liberation war those who offended Mugabe or the Zanla high command were routinely consigned to “the pits” – specially dug holes in the ground where almost indescribable tortures would be inflicted. Interestingly, a number of this hard core – Chihuri is one – endured “the pits” and were thus in no doubt about the ruthlessness of the cause they served. Mugabe’s rule could continue while there were well-armed and well-paid men willing to protect him, but his regime now resembled that of Papa Doc Duvalier and rule by the tontons-macoutes.
Mugabe had suffered a huge blow to his legitimacy both domestically and internationally and the MDC openly rejected Mbeki as a mediator because of his open partisanship towards Mugabe. Similar doubts were openly expressed by the western powers, at the UN and throughout Africa. Together, these developments meant that things could not go on as before. Meanwhile, Mugabe launched a campaign of terror which continued after the election, the aim being to pre-emptively eliminate the MDC so that it could never become the successor regime. In effect the Mugabe regime held its people hostage, threatening a Rwanda-scale genocide unless international pressure upon the regime was de-escalated.
The key move was the ban on the distribution of food in Zimbabwe by international famine relief agencies. One must never forget the statement by Didymus Mutasa, a Mugabe intimate and Minister of State Security, that the country would be better off with only six million people – all presumed Mugabe supporters – rather than the 14 million which normal demographic growth would suggest. In fact up to four million have fled and perhaps another one to two million have died of Aids or starvation. But thanks to the disastrous results of Mugabe’s “land reform”, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation now estimates that production of maize – the staple African diet – is down to only 28% of what is needed. By the end of August, two million people will face starvation, a number which will grow to 5.1 million by January 2009. If nothing is done to prevent this, Zimbabwe will become a wasteland with perhaps only three to four million survivors. A genocide many times larger than Rwanda’s now threatens unless there is rapid intervention to prevent it.
The new factor: Jacob Zuma
What can stop this? With inflation multiplying by 10 every month, the rate should reach 100,000,000% before the end of August. That is to say, the currency is worthless and the armed forces can be expected to demand payment in foreign currency – which the regime cannot do. There is also the fact that the new president of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC), Jacob Zuma, has taken a considerably more critical attitude towards Mugabe. Zuma will be president of South Africa in nine months’ time and he already casts a long shadow.
The chances are that the negotiations now under way between Mugabe and the MDC will see the end of the game for Zanu-PF simply because of the weight of development aid poised to go in to help a new democratic government and the fact that the Mugabe regime has nowhere else to go. Moreover, US pressure on Mbeki has built up very strongly in the past month. Mbeki too is cornered, his mediation now suspect in the AU, SADC and the UN. The probable result will be a transitional government with Mugabe still the titular president but with Tsvangirai, leading an MDC cabinet majority, the real boss as prime minister. In that event, the key variable will be the question of immunity from prosecution for Mugabe’s major security chiefs, even as they are forcibly retired from office.
What we are watching in Zimbabwe is the death agony of a national liberation movement. In a genuinely free election Zanu-PF would now be almost wiped out and would quickly reduce to a tiny residual sub-culture. This will be a very frightening example for the ANC and the other ageing liberation movements. Across southern Africa we are watching the gathering throes of a dying culture, still impregnated with a lethal militancy and self-righteousness. Zimbabwe has been a terrible warning of how dangerous the dying kicks of such a movement can be. Such movements came to power believing that they solely represented and incorporated the people. A loss of popular support was simply not in the script and Zanu-PF’s response to that situation was effectively to take its own people hostage, visiting terrible punishment upon it to try to force “the popular masses” to behave as they were supposed to in the script.
This could happen again; though one must hope against hope that the lessons of Zimbabwe will now sink in across the region, obviating the need for this almost genocidal defiance of historical change. For the national liberation movements would like to believe that their coming to power was the end of history, that they will stay in power forever. The beginning of wisdom is to accept that nothing lasts and that the “popular masses” will happily embrace a “neo-colonial” future if one is on offer.