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Where do we go from here?R.W. Johnson
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Vol. 30 No. 9 · 8 May 2008

Where do we go from here?

R.W. Johnson in Zimbabwe

The sequence of events that produced the current deadlock in Zimbabwe began on 11 March last year when Morgan Tsvangirai and a number of other members of the Movement for Democratic Change were arrested, tortured and beaten. Robert Mugabe had banned all MDC meetings and rallies in the hope of suppressing the MDC completely before this year’s elections. The local churches entered the fray and organised a prayer meeting in Highfield, a suburb of Harare. Tsvangirai drove to the meeting, but found that the area had been cordoned off by riot police and the meeting closed down on presidential orders. Informed a little later that a large number of civic leaders and MDC activists had been arrested and were being held at Machipisa police station in Highfield, he drove there straightaway. As soon as he arrived, he was pulled from his car and his head repeatedly slammed against the wall by police. Inside, the police used rifle butts, army belts, whips and sjamboks. ‘They were mostly targeting my head and my face,’ Tsvangirai recalled. He passed out three times and was revived with buckets of cold water so that the beatings could continue, the most determined assailant being a woman with an army belt.

The pictures of Tsvangirai as he emerged several days later from hospital, his face so swollen that he couldn’t see, went round the world. He had had a fractured skull and needed several transfusions. One of his bodyguards, who had been beaten along with him, later died of his injuries; another MDC activist was shot dead; scores more were tortured and beaten. But it was the TV footage of Tsvangirai, smuggled out of the country, that elicited international protest so vociferous that even Thabo Mbeki, Mugabe’s most loyal supporter, politely asked, through his deputy foreign minister, Aziz Pahad, that the Zimbabwean government ‘ensure that the rule of law including respect for rights of all Zimbabweans and leaders of various political parties is respected’. Mugabe realised the harm the footage had done and tracked down the cameraman who had taken the pictures, Edward Chikombo. His body was discovered some days later.

These events brought about a change in tactics by Mugabe and Mbeki. Mbeki’s fundamental position was that, as a fellow national liberation movement (NLM), Mugabe’s ruling Zanu-PF had to be maintained in power at all costs. According to this theory, the NLMs of southern Africa are those movements which 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 it will use various local parties as lackeys: Inkatha and the Democratic Alliance in South Africa, Renamo in Mozambique, Unita in Angola – and the MDC in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe is the weakest link here, which means that the other NLMs must defend Zanu-PF to the death, for if Zimbabwe ‘falls’ South Africa will be the next target.

Ever since the Zimbabwe crisis first erupted in 2000, Mbeki had seen it as his role to support Mugabe (while insisting that he was using ‘quiet diplomacy’ to solve the problem) and give him time to carry through his land revolution (i.e. to get rid of the white farmers), extirpate the imperialist lackeys of the MDC, and restabilise his country, with Zanu-PF then regaining its de facto position of unchallenged single party in a re-equilibrated Zimbabwe. The problem was that Mugabe had damaged his economy beyond repair by getting rid of more than 90 per cent of the white farmers. Decline continued rapidly and the MDC, despite endless persecution, refused to disappear. The reaction that followed last year’s attempt to make them do so shook the Southern African Development Community (SADC), most of whose member states are not ruled by NLMs, do not share the paranoid imaginings of Mugabe and Mbeki about the reimposition of white/colonial rule, and are in any case heavily dependent on Western aid. SADC has adopted a 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 those of its constituent states) wanted to see it observed. SADC, though normally deferential to South Africa, the regional great power, was now pushed by its Western donors, as well as by some among its own ranks, to work towards a mediated resolution to the Zimbabwe crisis, with no more flare-ups of state terrorism. Mbeki was, accordingly, appointed as mediator.

Mbeki led the SADC team in long 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 the presidential election a candidate must get at least 50 per cent of the votes in the first round or, failing that, face a run-off within 21 days. SADC emphasised that they did not wish to be embarrassed again by the state-sponsored violence that had marred previous Zimbabwean elections and Mugabe agreed to allow in election observers – but only from SADC and other friendly states thought likely to sign off on a Mugabe victory as ‘free, fair and credible’.

In effect, this new dispensation represented a deal between Mbeki and Mugabe that was supposed to see Zanu-PF returned to power, though by more genteel means. Mbeki, who is concerned that Zanu-PF rule has become too identified with Mugabe, wanted the 84-year-old to stand down in favour of a younger moderniser, Simba Makoni. When Mugabe refused, Makoni, with Mbeki’s tacit support, ran as a dissident Zanu-PF candidate, hoping to split the vote sufficiently to make it through in the second round.

But on one thing Mbeki and Mugabe were agreed: Tsvangirai and the MDC must not be allowed to win. And they were confident that the new arrangements were sufficiently loaded against the MDC to guarantee that. ‘Sure, they thought Mugabe would win and SADC would be quite happy with that,’ Willias Mudzimure, an MDC MP for Harare, told me when I was there for the election. ‘They had seen how Mugabe had the rural vote locked up solid and the idea was that by increasing the number of parliamentary seats, there would be a large increase in the number of rural seats, all of which Mugabe would win. And because there’s been such a reign of terror in those rural areas in past elections, frankly we often couldn’t get good candidates to stand for us there – people were just too scared.’

The prospects were good. 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, suppressed and its presses blown up, the MDC would be at a huge disadvantage in getting its message across. Besides, the MDC had split and the two rival movements were running against each other: 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, now so conscious of its problems that it was frantically appealing for the election to be postponed for three months.

The state had complete control of the electoral register – large numbers of dead and fictitious voters were registered to vote – and the MDC was denied any access to it. This was enough for Mugabe and Mbeki to feel that a Zanu-PF victory could be guaranteed even in a peaceful election, though, leaving nothing to doubt, Mugabe decreed at the last moment that policemen could be allowed inside the polling stations to ‘assist’ voters. It was all so outrageously one-sided that when election day closed some of the SADC observers could be seen vigorously shaking their heads even as their mission head gave his blessing to it all.

But the best-laid plans . . . It is unlikely that Mbeki paid attention to the detail 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 to get police permission to hold private meetings. In the past the police had used their powers to prevent MDC leaders from meeting local activists but now these meetings were classified as private, which made it much easier for the MDC to organise on the ground. This was particularly important in rural areas in hitherto safe Zanu-PF territory, where the Tsvangirai forces staged huge rallies and ultimately won many seats.

Willias Mudzimure told me that in the rural areas two factors had been crucial. ‘Mugabe’s land reform has been a catastrophe, so he couldn’t talk about that. Moreover, when he tried to win votes by giving out tractors and farm implements these just went to the fat cats who now have the land. People were saying: “Is that the meaning of independence, that these people must now eat for us?” So he fell back into talking about the 1970s war against Ian Smith. This meant nothing at all to young people and it addressed none of today’s problems.’ Second, in past elections Zanu-PF had distributed food and seeds to those with a Zanu-PF card: if you didn’t vote Zanu-PF you didn’t eat. ‘But now everyone has a party card and there’s still no food because the state simply has no more resources.’ And when Mugabe tried to blame Britain and sanctions for this, ‘people would say, you’ve said that before but what are you doing about it? They were in no mood for more excuses.’

Moreover, Zanu-PF was clearly destabilised by Simba Makoni’s campaign. To hear a senior Zanu-PF figure admit that none of what Mugabe said about the harm done by Britain and targeted sanctions was true, and that the dire economic situation was entirely Mugabe’s own fault, was deeply disillusioning for the party faithful. Normally the combination of violence and ballot-stuffing has meant that the campaign didn’t matter: this election was different. Ultimately, allowing a peaceful campaign in the rural areas completely undid the assumption that those areas were ‘safe’ Zanu-PF territory.

What no one seems to have noticed was that SADC’s drafters had inserted into the new Electoral Act Section 64(1)E, requiring all votes to be counted at the polling station where they were cast and the results, witnessed by the party agents, to be posted publicly on a V11 form outside the station. This gave the opposition a virtually foolproof way of detecting and preventing cheating, and MDC election agents were instructed to photograph the V11 forms to provide cast-iron proof of each polling-station result. Nobody doubts that without this provision the election would have been stolen in the usual way. But neither Mbeki nor Mugabe has any experience of free competitive elections and, initially, they simply missed the significance of the new requirement.

Some eighteen hours after the polls closed the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) gave the Zanu-PF Politburo its first private prediction of the presidential result: Tsvangirai 58 per cent, Mugabe 27 per cent and Makoni 15 per cent. In fact these estimates were based on too narrow an urban sample and were too favourable both to Tsvangirai and Makoni, but the message was clear: Mugabe had lost. Enraged, he ordered the ZEC to declare him elected with 53 per cent. He was also angry at Makoni’s ‘treachery’ and demanded that his vote be reduced to 5 per cent. This produced resistance both from the ZEC and from the army, police and intelligence chiefs. The ZEC objected that manipulation of the results on such a massive scale would be too obvious, while the security chiefs were concerned that the country might become ungovernable if the popular will was so blatantly flouted.

At this stage Mbeki, continuously on the phone from Pretoria and with his own emissaries in Harare, intervened. Could not the results be ‘adjusted’ so that Tsvangirai was brought back under the 50 per cent mark, while Mugabe got 41 per cent and Makoni 10-12 per cent? With no candidate getting more than 50 per cent there would have to be a run-off; Mugabe would then withdraw, leaving Zanu-PF to rally behind Makoni and, provided the security forces were given a strong role in the way the run-off was conducted, Makoni could be given just over 50 per cent and Tsvangirai kept out. This was acceptable to all parties except Mugabe, who again refused to stand down. Dismay and indecision followed – and serious discussion of a military coup. In the end that idea was discarded for fear that it might tempt a British military intervention. The interesting thing is that on the day after the election, key Mugabe supporters – including his cousin Perence Shiri – concluded that Mugabe could no longer save himself, despite his furious avowals, only the week before, that he would ‘die in State House’ and that ‘Morgan Tsvangirai will never rule Zimbabwe.’ Not long before he died, the former Rhodesian premier Ian Smith said that he hoped to live to see Mugabe’s funeral. He didn’t. But now even Mugabe’s closest supporters were conscious that the old man was mortal.

Meanwhile the parliamentary results dribbled out, disguising for as long as possible the fact that the opposition had won 111 seats to Zanu-PF’s 96 (with three seats – all safe MDC – vacant). There were discussions about Tsvangirai heading a government of national unity that would include some Zanu-PF ministers and grant complete amnesty to Mugabe and his henchmen, but the real struggle was going on inside Zanu-PF and the armed forces. It was a desperate time to be trying to write about the crisis since there was rising euphoria but no news. One heard that Mugabe’s family had flown out to Malaysia. But the guards outside State House were still there with their bayoneted automatic rifles. In the end I decided there were other ways of checking. Some discreet inquiries revealed that the Mugabe supporter and ‘self-styled emissary of Beelzebub’, as one British judge described him, Nicholas van Hoogstraten, had left the country on election night. One had to assume he knew something. I drove along Churchill Avenue, past Normandy and Arundel Roads and Dunkirk Drive – echoes of Ian Smith’s Rhodesia – and stopped outside a house guarded by a soldier with a rifle. The house belonged to the former Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, convicted in absentia of genocide but shielded for many years now by Mugabe. The soldier advanced threateningly. I said I’d come to see Mr Mengistu. ‘He is not in.’ I asked if he’d gone away and was told that he had and that, like Titus Oates, he ‘might be away some time’. Mengistu’s alternative choice of exile is probably North Korea. So, if he’d done a runner, Mugabe really was in trouble.

It was not until the Thursday after the vote that we got the picture. Perhaps foolishly, I had that morning sallied into MDC headquarters at Harvest House in central Harare, a place watched by the security police and frequently raided by them. Failing to find Tsvangirai, I sat around making a nuisance of myself until I was slapped on the back by a bevy of MDC MPs from Bulawayo whom I knew. They’d arrived for their caucus meeting only to discover – the usual MDC shambles – that the meeting had started five minutes before, 12 miles away, and that there was no transport to take them there. I put my car at their disposal and we happily drove there together. I then went to Meikles Hotel to hear the MDC’s press conference. The lounge there is always abuzz with journalists, but I don’t like it. It’s full of spies and electronic surveillance, so I left quickly and went back to the lodge where I was staying.

That was the day, it turned out, that Mugabe finally reasserted control: the crackdown began. A few minutes after I’d left Harvest House the riot police raided it, smashing things up as usual and 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 the lodge where I was staying. They had caught some journalists at a neighbouring lodge and arrested the 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 was lucky enough to bluff my way through this visitation. After the police had gone I poured myself a large drink, reflecting that three close shaves in a single day meant I was pushing my luck. But the story was now quite clear. Mugabe would do whatever it took to stay in power.

Which is what has happened: ZEC officials arrested, appeals to overturn the parliamentary results, a presidential recount even before the first count has been released, and a new campaign of violence against anyone suspected of not having voted for Mugabe. In other words, Mugabe has rejected Mbeki’s new softly-softly approach and we’re back to ballot-stuffing and terror. Mbeki has, of course, 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 there has been ridicule and protest. Mbeki’s credibility is threadbare.

Where do we go from here ? In two directions. First, by June inflation in Zimbabwe will reach 500,000 per cent. All normal life will become impossible sometime before then. Mugabe’s rule can continue so long as there are well-armed and well-paid men willing to protect him, but we are now close to the Papa Doc model and rule by the Tonton Macoute. Mugabe has suffered a huge blow to his legitimacy both domestically and internationally and clings on only by brute force. Even Mbeki and SADC can’t really pretend otherwise.

Second, Mbeki’s great rival, Jacob Zuma, has picked up the issue and adopted a more critical attitude towards Mugabe. Zuma could be president of South Africa in a year’s time and there is a good chance that he will pull the rug from under Mugabe. One way or the other, the end game in Zimbabwe could be near. Whether it will be accompanied by a final paroxysm of terror as Mugabe realises he is cornered is an open question. Mbeki, having been heavily voted down by the ANC at its Polokwane conference in December, is also cornered. He and Mugabe clearly live in a paranoid world all of their own. There’s no knowing what they might attempt before the final Götterdämmerung.

Perhaps the most important thing about the election was that, because Mbeki and Mugabe had miscalculated so spectacularly, Zanu-PF was caught off-guard and for several days there was complete uncertainty. That period provided an aperture through which Zimbabweans could glimpse an alternative future – and many did. It was clear that, with a new democratic government, there would be immediate British and American help, quickly followed by the EU, the World Bank and IMF, with the emphasis on food aid and the restabilisation of the currency. One consequence would be that Zimbabwe would cease to be a client state of South Africa and instead become more generally dependent on developed country donors and investors. Doubtless, Mbeki and Mugabe would see this as a victory for neocolonialism, though one is bound to say that even if the prospect was described in those terms, ordinary Zimbabweans would happily vote for it. And, in no time at all, as the Zimbabwean economy revived, South African companies of every kind would move in.

This merely highlights the absurdity of the Mbeki-Mugabe theory. To be sure, for many years their parties took an orthodox Marxist-Leninist line and aimed to set up people’s republics in their liberated states, replete with Soviet and Chinese advisers. Had this occurred and the Cold War continued, then doubtless it would have been correct to see the major Western powers as intrinsically hostile to these new Cubas-in-Africa. But nothing of the sort happened. Not just Zimbabwe and South Africa but all the other states ruled by NLMs have retained mainly capitalist economies, and everywhere a new black middle class is attempting to establish itself. Indeed, the intransigence of the Zanu-PF leadership derives essentially from the fact that it has used state power to enrich itself and is determined to hang onto its enormous gains.

When such an elite feels its power threatened, it tends to fall back on its original self-definition as a national liberation movement. If one posits the problem in those terms then it follows that the defeat of an NLM can only mean the triumph of the forces of colonialism and apartheid which it came into existence to fight. In that view national liberation, once achieved, is the end of history. There can never be a point when it would be desirable for the gains of liberation to be lost, so the theory provides a watertight rationale – and a legitimating self-righteousness – for the ANC, Zanu-PF and the region’s other ruling NLMs to cling to power indefinitely. Seen this way the drama of Zimbabwe may indeed prefigure a more general crisis as these movements age and decay. We have seen enough of movements that believe they will remain to see the state wither away or to usher in a thousand-year Reich to know that bringing them to accept a less intransigent view of themselves is seldom a gentle business.

24 April

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