After the Election

R.W. Johnson in Zimbabwe

I was in the Harare headquarters of the Movement for Democratic Change when news came through that two boxes of uncounted ballots had turned up in Buhera North, the constituency in which the MDC’s leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, had been narrowly defeated by his Zanu-PF opponent a few days before. I asked Tsvangirai what he made of this. ‘Well, it means we can apply for that election to be declared null and void too. But frankly I can’t look forward to contesting it again, not if it means Zanu-PF is going to go round beating and torturing people who support me.’ You can’t blame him: his home village is near Buhera and many of his family live there.

This illustrates the MDC’s dilemma as it confronts the sullen and battered Mugabe regime in the wake of the election. For, despite the campaign of state-sponsored terror waged against it, the MDC is in good heart, while the ruling party, which suffered almost no casualties, is in terrible shape. In Kwekwe, for example, Emmerson Mnangagwa, the Minister of Justice and much-feared former head of the secret police, was up against an MDC newcomer, Blessing Chebundo. Chebundo and his agent were offered bribes to stand down and, when they refused, Mnangagwa issued death threats against them at a party rally. Not long afterwards, Zanu-PF thugs tried to burn Chebundo alive and then attacked and burned down his house, and that of his agent, severely beating the women and children they found there and throwing one unconscious boy, doused in paraffin, into a burning house. It is difficult to believe that Mnangagwa – the man Mugabe wants to succeed him – could not have prevented all of this if he’d wanted to. Chebundo spent the rest of the election in hiding, while his family joined the ten thousand or more refugees created by the election.

In the event Chebundo trounced Mnangagwa, despite being unable to campaign. Elsewhere it had not been safe for the MDC to put up posters, hold rallies or wear party T-shirts, but even in those constituencies, major Zanu-PF figures squeaked home only by the narrowest of margins as thousands of MDC voters suddenly materialised in the secrecy of polling booths.

It was obvious to both the Government and the MDC that only the violence and intimidation had prevented an MDC landslide: a fact confirmed by an exit poll conducted by the Helen Suzman Foundation which showed that 12 per cent of voters admitted they had been bullied into not voting the way they wanted. On the other hand, a comfortable MDC win would have been very dangerous, probably tempting Mugabe to ignore the result and step up the campaign against his opponents. As it is, the MDC has 57 elected MPs to Zanu-PF’s 62, and one can already feel the change of atmosphere. Even the venomously pro-Government Zimbabwe Herald now treats the MDC with a little more respect and it is impossible for the radio and TV to ignore them any longer. MDC T-shirts are being worn in the streets of Harare for the first time and it is widely expected that the Party will make a clean sweep in the Harare and Bulawayo municipal elections in August. This will give it a chance to put down local roots and to show the electorate what a non-corrupt administration can deliver: Zanu-PF proved so corrupt in their running of Harare that six months ago commissioners had to take over from them.

Race relations, too, have improved, at least in Harare. The tiny white population voted MDC unanimously. Inside MDC headquarters, about half the party workers were white. And in all four of the seats where the MDC put up white candidates, they were elected by huge (black) majorities. After Tsvangirai criticised Mugabe for anti-white racism and declared that ‘the whites are our cousins,’ I found myself joshingly addressed as ‘cousin’ by some blacks – it makes a change from ‘comrade’ – and when my briefcase was stolen from the car, a group of Africans gave chase, floored the robber and returned the briefcase to me with wallet and passport intact. Even a week before the election this would have been inconceivable.

Zanu-PF, on the other hand, have lost not only many of their big guns (though some will simply be appointed as MPs by Mugabe) but almost every seat in Matabeleland. After the anti-Government victory in February’s constitutional referendum, Mugabe was twice asked by the Zanu-PF central committee to consider standing down. The first time, he put forward Mnangagwa as his successor – a terrifying prospect, instantly dismissed, because Mnangagwa is as deep in as Mugabe and can be relied on to defend his old boss from demands that he stand trial for the Matabeleland atrocities of the 1980s. The second time Mugabe merely sulked and warned that no one should bring up the subject again.

Immediately after the election, there was renewed murmuring to the effect that Mugabe should step down. A moment’s reflection will suffice to show that this will have no effect. Mugabe may be 76 and increasingly erratic but there are no other leaders with such a following within Zanu-PF. Were Mugabe to step down, there would have to be a Presidential election – which Tsvangirai would win. So Zanu-PF is saddled with Mugabe until April 2002 at the earliest. It is generally assumed that Mugabe won’t run again then – but this could well be wrong. Five years ago, people didn’t believe he would run in 1997. He is depressingly healthy – teetotal, non-smoking, a yoga fanatic. And the purpose of his attempt to change the Constitution in February was to allow himself two more terms. More importantly, he will not be immune from prosecution either in Zimbabwe or at an international tribunal unless he dies in office. After the events of the last four months there are thousands more who could claim against him and, as Tsvangirai points out, with the ex-President Canaan Banana in jail for homosexual rape, there is now a clear precedent for the incarceration of former officeholders in Zimbabwe.

All of which emphasises the point that Zanu-PF is not a proper political party at all. It is commonly said that it has failed to transform itself from a liberation movement – in other words, that it is psychologically stuck with a set of antediluvian vanguardist and single-party assumptions. This was borne out by what Didymus Mutasa, Zanu-PF’s Organisation Secretary, said about the whole election exercise. It should not even be happening, he complained: everything should be discussed within Zanu-PF and settled there. An open challenge to the Party from the MDC was quite wrong. Zanu-PF is the party of liberation and no one should want to oppose it.

In practice, the Party has become an old-boy network of former freedom fighters. As Mutasa put it, ‘the war vets are us and we are all war vets.’ The veterans, still the main body of Zanu-PF candidates this year, and often opposed by MDC candidates half their age, believe that democracy is not a process but an event – and that event was the liberation war against Ian Smith. The fact that they won it means they have a permanent right to govern. As Zanu-PF decomposes, it becomes ever more reliant on a band of 12,000 farm-invading war vets, many of whom are in fact young recruits added to a much smaller core of bona fide veterans. Mugabe’s personal dominance merely masks the process of decomposition.

The situation in Zimbabwe is significant for South Africa, though in ways which the Mbeki Government seems hardly to have understood. Since February, Mbeki has been backing Mugabe hard – most recently pressuring first South African and then all Southern African observer groups into pronouncing the election free and fair and subsequently publicly congratulating Mugabe on the result. The human rights heritage of the anti-apartheid struggle has been pawned to support a regime which organised the gang-rape of two hundred women (many of whom will die of Aids as a result), the beating and torture of tens of thousands more and the murder of more than thirty political opponents.

The rand has dropped to new lows as a consequence. Now, with the election over, Mbeki is pretending that the Zimbabwe crisis is also over, that normal business can be resumed. But it can’t. And there is a deep, if often unspoken, feeling in business circles that the ANC has shown that it, too, is a liberation movement which cannot change, that in the end it cares little for the rule of law, that it takes up knee-jerk anti-white positions, that if things go badly for it, it will also expropriate without compensation, and that it might well behave like Zanu-PF if it were challenged by an opposition it was unsure of defeating. The damage all this has done is evident in the departure of people and capital from South Africa. Much is made of the rand’s post-election recovery to around R6.80 to the dollar, even though this is still 10 per cent down on its level before the Zimbabwe crisis began.

Equally serious is the fact that the Mugabe regime is not going to get much aid from the IMF or the World Bank – whose initial demands are the immediate withdrawal of Zimbabwean troops from the Congo, the rescinding of Mugabe’s constitutional amendment allowing expropriation without compensation and the cessation of violent and illegal land seizures. To state these demands is to recognise that they will not be met – and yet Mugabe can’t manage without aid. With crop planting and food production now badly disrupted there will be food shortages – and probably food riots – before the end of the year. Mbeki has announced his own ministerial task force to ‘assist Zimbabwe’s economic recovery’ – another way of saying that South Africa could inherit responsibility for the basket-case next door.

Mbeki came to power with a reputation as a fine diplomat with great expertise in international affairs, but the Zimbabwe crisis – by far his greatest foreign affairs challenge to date – has found him wanting. As it developed, he was hardly ever to be found in Southern Africa. Instead, he was on protracted international tours of the UK, the US (debating with Aids activists in Washington and discussing globalisation in Silicon Valley), Europe and the Middle East. He took on the bizarre role of international fund-raiser for Mugabe, suggesting that he could somehow ‘deliver’ World Bank and IMF help and trying to bludgeon various Scandinavian governments into funding Mugabe’s land reform. All these efforts have collapsed and Mbeki has now started to insist that he be allowed to attend the forthcoming G8 Summit in Tokyo to harangue the great powers about his current wish-list. This, too, is unlikely to happen.

In practice, the international community may well turn to Mbeki and say, in effect: Mugabe has survived thanks only to your efforts – so we’ll hand the Zimbabwean problem over to you. Already Mbeki is supplying much of Mugabe’s electricity and all his oil and petrol needs on tick – and this could be only a beginning, as other countries and international agencies back away. Meanwhile it is noticeable that the South African Broadcasting Corporation and Mbeki’s favourites in the South African press continue to get exclusive interviews with Mugabe and to echo his interpretation of events.

As international pressure on Mugabe mounts, Mbeki will find himself increasingly drawn towards military intervention in the Congo. A sudden collapse of the current regime in Harare would, after all, be deeply destabilising for the Congo and if Mbeki is going to make South Africa Mugabe’s major bulwark against other international realities, he could well find himself paying the bills for Mugabe’s 11,000 men to stay in the Congo, or – despite the fact that every senior serving officer in the South African Army has made it clear he doesn’t want to go to war in the Congo – sending in South African troops. Given that these troops performed so badly in Lesotho two years ago, and that there is zero public support for such a move, this possibility is ominous.

Whatever Mbeki may say, the Zimbabwe crisis is not over. At most, we have a short respite – and there are already reports of Zanu-PF violence in areas thought to have voted MDC in uncomfortable proportions. But even with help from South Africa, Mugabe is going to have to take draconian action on the economic front, which is only going to deepen his Government’s unpopularity. As the scale and tenacity of the MDC challenge become increasingly apparent, a resumption of the state-sponsored terror against white farmers and the MDC is only to be expected. Moreover, as the courts begin to annul Zanu-PF election victories, disbar their candidates and declare reruns, and as MDC mayors take over in the nation’s two biggest cities, red warning lights are going to start flashing in Mugabe’s Presidential palace. After all, the campaign for the Presidential election will start in less than eighteen months’ time and the issue now – the loss of power by the old liberation movement élite – will be the issue then.

It is difficult to see how the MDC can protect itself against renewed intimidation except by organising its own militia forces – which would open the road towards civil war. Tsvangirai has always refused such options. His own solution has been to offer Mugabe the prospect of an ‘honourable exit’ – a negotiated retreat from power with something analogous to the Presidential pardon Gerry Ford granted Nixon to get him out of the White House. Mention of graceful exits brings to mind the fact that the former dictator of Ethiopia, Mengistu Haile Mariam – still wanted for large-scale atrocities there – was given refuge in Harare by Mugabe. He is, apparently, exploring the prospects of moving to the better suburbs of Pyongyang. But what of Mugabe himself? His nervousness is patent: on the second day of voting in Harare, six tanks were drawn up outside the Presidential palace in case a victorious MDC crowd might decide to storm the building. The only graceful exit left to Mugabe may well be to leave Zimbabwe altogether – presumably for a safe home with his backers in South Africa or Namibia. But before this point is reached it remains to be seen just how ruthless the ageing and Mercedes-borne Zanu-PF leadership will be as it tries to hang onto the fruits of liberation.