Who can lead Zimbabwe out of crisis?

Ben Freeth says Morgan Tsvangirai’s greatest gift to his country would be to step down as the grandfather of the MDC

Ben Freeth
Ben Freeth

As Zimbabwe slides deeper into economic crisis, despondency and decay, people question the options under a dictator and the relevance of elections that serve only to provide pseudo legitimacy to President Robert Mugabe’s repressive regime.

A contentious component of the debate is this: If the dictatorship had not been challenged by democratic forces – and Zimbabwe had been able to develop without the destructive forces of power politics which entered the equation, where would Zimbabwe be today?”

Before we consider this question, we need to revisit the main reasons for the significant decline in the popularity of Mugabe and ZANU-PF during the 1990s which led to the democratic challenge. These were massive, unchecked corruption, notably in the parastatals, the awarding of huge, unbudgeted payouts to restive war veterans of the liberation war in 1998 and the costly, unbudgeted deployment of Zimbabwean troops to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) from 1998-2002 to prop up the regime of President Laurent Kabila.

The mix of a burgeoning, educated, urban and progressive middle class, coupled with a dictatorial ZANU-PF autocracy that was mismanaging Zimbabwe, meant that it was only a matter of time before a democratic challenge was launched. The reaction by the aging ZANU-PF regime to further entrench its power – in the overriding goal of retaining a one-party state – was swift, ruthless and incredibly destructive. The fall-out from the massively damaging events outlined below has led to a broken, demoralized and largely written-off country.

Formation of the MDC party

Firstly, if an opposition party which posed a significant threat to the ZANU-PF government for the first time since 1980 had not been formed in September 1999, the leaders of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and its rapidly escalating, country-wide support base would not have been persecuted. Thousands of government-sponsored murders, beatings and cases of arson, as well as systematic campaigns of torture and rape would not have taken place during elections, notably in the catastrophic 2008 presidential run-off election. Consequently, fear would not continue to play a pervasive, paralyzing role today as the situation regresses further.

The land invasions

Secondly, the disastrous land invasions would not have taken place. In February 2000, Mugabe lost a crucial constitutional referendum which would have further entrenched his power and declared Britain unilaterally responsible for paying for land reform. When Mugabe’s strategists analysed the voting patterns, it became clear that the commercial farmers and their workers – who may have accounted for up to 600,000 votes, had constituted the crucial swing vote.

In order to win the parliamentary elections in four months time, Mugabe had to gain the rural vote – which constituted as much as 70% of the entire vote and had traditionally been his main power bloc. The solution was to spread terror throughout the rural areas and neutralize the commercial farming sector.

If Mugabe had not decided to initiate the brutal and disastrous land invasions – which he knew he could “sell” to the African continent as “black empowerment” to “benefit poor, marginalized people” – the livelihoods of more than two million farmers, farm workers and their families would not have been destroyed. Furthermore, the majority of the people would not be hungry today.

At that point Zimbabwe was the second most industrialized country in Africa – and this was based largely on agriculture. If the agricultural sector had not had to be so comprehensively destroyed to prevent the defeat of the ZANU-PF government by democratic forces, the substantial industrial sector in cities and towns across the country would not have collapsed. Instead, if the rule of law had continued to exist, it would have developed further, just as is happening in countries like Zambia today.

For Mugabe to have regained the confidence of the electorate, a sane alternative to the land grab already existed. Additional large dams could have been developed and irrigation schemes along the lines of the highly successful black-owned Kondozi* farming enterprise, which employed 5,000 people before it was invaded in 2004, would have benefitted the country greatly. The engine of the economy would have then been able to finance the building and effective maintenance of schools, hospitals, water systems, electrification, roads, railways and other essential infrastructure.

Demolition of urban homes

Thirdly, the destruction of 700,000 homes of mainly poor urban dwellers, as well as markets and the vending sites of informal traders during the Operation Murambatsvina (Drive Out the Rubbish) blitz by the dictator in 2005 would not have taken place. This ruthless demolition exercise – which affected a further 2.4 million people – was strategised to reduce the MDC’s urban power base and to punish people for voting for the opposition in the parliamentary election that year.

The government-sponsored 2008 election violence

The next crucial and damaging event – from which the country has never recovered – was the government-sponsored election violence of 2008. On March 29, 2008 the MDC contested the crucial presidential, parliamentary and senate elections and, for the first time since independence in 1980, ZANU-PF party lost its majority in parliament and Mugabe lost the presidential vote. However, after a contentious, month-long recount during which Mugabe and his senior military personnel re-strategised, Tsvangirai was forced to agree to a rerun on June 27.

The regime immediately unleashed a horrifying campaign of state-sponsored intimidation, torture, rape and murder, forcing Tsvangirai to withdraw. More than 500 MDC members and supporters were killed, some 12,000 were injured and tens of thousands were displaced.

A group of retired South African generals sent by then President Thabo Mbeki to assess the violence reported that Mugabe and ZANU-PF were clearly to blame. "What we have heard and seen is shocking. We have heard horrific stories of extreme brutality and seen the victims," commented one of the generals. "We have seen people with scars, cuts, gashes, bruises, lacerations and broken limbs, and bodies of those killed. It’s a horrifying picture." To date the South African government has refused to release this vital report.

Marwick Khumalo, the head of an African parliamentarians' observer mission in Zimbabwe, said he had received “horrendous stories” of political violence and would not endorse the election if it continued. A number of African governments, including Tanzania and Kenya, admitted that there was no hope of a fair election.

Under pressure from Zimbabwe’s neighbours and the shocked international community, regional mediators intervened to organize a power-sharing agreement brokered by Mbeki, resulting in the formation of the Government of National Unity (GNU). Although the MDC emerged as a powerless junior partner, steamrollered at every turn by ZANU-PF, MDC secretary-general Tendai Biti, who took on the onerous role of Finance Minister, received local and international acclaim for largely stabilizing the economy after the Zimbabwe dollar completely collapsed.

It is important to mention at this point that for more than 10 years, the South African government has also refused to release the Khampepe report on Zimbabwe’s contentious 2002 elections. Mbeki had commissioned two judges to visit Zimbabwe and report back on the state of that election. The report was handed over to Mbeki but never made public, although the former President insisted the electoral process in Zimbabwe was completely democratic.

In September 2014, South Africa’s Supreme Court of Appeal ruled that the government must hand the Khampepe Report on Zimbabwe’s 2002 elections over to the Mail & Guardian newspaper. This report, which was finally made public the following month, found that the 2002 Zimbabwe elections were not "free and fair".

The Mail & Guardian reported that “the 27-page document found the running of the three-day voting process, excluding delays in urban areas Harare and Chitungwiza, to have complied with the legislative requirements and to have been free of violence and/or apparent ballot tampering.

“But the judges weighed this finding against pre-election activities such as intimidation and the deaths of 107 mainly opposition members and lengthy legal battles to change laws in favour of Zanu-PF, largely around citizenship and the reduction of polling stations in urban areas, where the strongest opposition party Movement for Democratic change had its largest support base.

“The report objected to the Zimbabwean government’s failure to respect and implement recommendations by the Supreme Court of Appeal and the high courts.”[i]

Furthermore, the Khampepe report also pointed out that the 2002 elections were a turning point in Zimbabwean electoral history – seeing ZANU-PF going from a 93% majority in the 1996 presidential elections to just 51.9% in 2002, which demonstrated ZANU-PF’s dramatic decline.

It is clear that if there had been no pre-election violence and intimidation, or the reduction of polling stations and other manipulative strategies, President Mugabe would have lost the 2002 election to the Movement for Democratic Change party.

This means that the ZANU-PF government has been illegitimate for the past 13 years, which has resulted in catastrophic consequences for democracy, the economy and food security. This has resulted in more than a quarter of the population fleeing the country, with South Africa bearing the brunt of the Zimbabwean influx into the region – estimated by some organisations to be between one and three million people.

The fallout for South Africa has also been very serious as is evidenced by simmering xenophobic issues and the violent outbreaks of xenophobic violence in 2008, 2010 and April this year which have resulted in a damaging backlash from African countries and widespread international condemnation.

The flight of Zimbabweans into South Africa could be further exacerbated by Mugabe’s tribalistic comments at the end of April when he said that most Zimbabwean emigrants to South Africa in the past were Kalangas from Matabeleland.

Mugabe said they had little education and that they were also reputed to be crooks. He added that Kalangas were widely regarded in the past to have engaged in petty criminal activities in South Africa.

The massively rigged 2013 elections

For the July 2013 elections, held after the expiry of the fractious GNU, Mugabe’s strategy had to be different. Although a campaign of overt violence was out of the question, covert threats and isolated incidences of extreme brutality ensured a climate of fear countrywide.

Furthermore, with the help of the Chinese Communist Party and Nikuv International Projects, a private technology company from Israel, a shameless electoral swindle was strategised at almost every level while maintaining the façade of an orderly poll on the day itself.

The results of this disputed election were once again endorsed by the South African government and the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

Economy back in crisis

With ZANU-PF firmly back in the driving seat and hell-bent on retaining its destructive and xenophobic economic policies – Mugabe reiterated last year that British people should “all go back to England” – Zimbabwe is once again in crisis. In January this year, Zimbabwe was rated the most repressed economy in sub-Saharan Africa and in the bottom five worldwide. The reasons given by the 2015 Index of Economic Freedom were government intervention, policy inconsistency and corruption.

Returning to Mugabe’s options in the 1990s, he could have created a stable environment where the rule of law was respected and foreign direct investment was encouraged. If he had chosen this route, more jobs would have been created and there would have been a net influx of skilled people into Zimbabwe. Orderly development in the towns – with title deeds to all properties – could have taken place.

And it would have only been a matter of time before the demand for title in the communal and resettlement areas would have become a reality, providing the security of tenure that would have enabled these areas to be developed productively. Instead, more than three million people, many of whom represented a crucial skills base, emigrated or joined the ranks of the Diaspora.

As the dictator dug the hole deeper to stay in power, it was essential for him to bring his cohorts into the abyss with him so that they were equally culpable. The only way they would be enticed to do this was with obscenely massive rewards and by condoning headline-grabbing corruption that made previous incidences look tame by comparison.

With lawlessness and corruption spreading like a cancer down through the system, it has strangled Zimbabwe and made a mockery of the honest, hard working, ordinary people struggling to keep themselves, their families and the country afloat. Indeed, the three million people who voted with their feet are now putting their hard work into building other countries.

And it is their hard-earned remittances that are now keeping the country afloat. In January this year, Central Bank Governor John Mangudya announced that the country had received US$840 million in remittances from the Diaspora in 2014, an increase of US$50 million from the previous year. Without this support, millions of Zimbabwean families would simply not survive.

The democracy debate

The ongoing debate as to whether democracy has in fact been good for the average Zimbabwean leads to the next logical question: Was Zimbabwe really ready for democracy? Do people who vote for dictatorship in the fear-plagued rural areas each election fully understand sound economic policy, international law, the independent pillars of the State, the protection of the individual and property rights? Do they understand the implications of continuously voting – albeit under duress – for a dictatorship which has no concern for the masses and uses food aid as a weapon of control?

In Western democracies it took hundreds of years for a full-blown democracy to develop. The irony in Zimbabwe is that it was not the Western democracies which championed democracy for Zimbabwe in the cold war era. The undemocratic, dictatorial one-party states in the Communist bloc were the great sponsors of so-called “democracy” in Zimbabwe. The training they provided – and continue to provide – focuses on terror, where power is won and held through the barrel of a gun. It is the “One man, one vote, one time” type of democracy that is of course not democracy at all.

Unfortunately, naively, many decent people went along with the warped and power-crazed thinking of the ruthless revolutionaries from the Communist bloc, and so helped usher in the current suffering of the common Zimbabwean.

Alternatives to the current dictatorial system of democratic voting?

We cannot under-rate the fear factor and its implications for a country like Zimbabwe. In a climate of total fear where the majority of the people live in grass roofed houses – without the protection of the law, is it reasonable to expect them to put an “X” in a box for an opposition candidate if their houses are liable to be burnt down when they don’t?

If the people in the rural areas are to remain purposefully uneducated with respect to internationally accepted democratic principles; if they are subjected to the institutionalized fear; and if the vote buying continues through state-crafted hunger, we can only expect more of the same in the tribalistic, xenophobic and oppressive dictatorship we have lived under for so long in Zimbabwe.

Furthermore, if the government refuses to allow election observers and monitors from democracies within the international community into the country to monitor the duration of the election process – and to travel deep into the rural areas which bear the brunt of the brutal intimidation, nothing will change in Zimbabwe. It is clear to me that if the international community does not have the stomach to step in to help Zimbabweans by monitoring elections, nothing will change in our country.

If an internationally monitored election was good enough in 1980, then it stands to reason that it should be good enough now. If the world was really committed to helping the suffering people of Zimbabwe, there should be discussion around it. And if MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai remains totally committed to change as he claims, an internationally monitored election would be central to his campaign, just as it was Mugabe’s in 1980.

As Sue Onslow from the Institute of Commonwealth Studies explained in an article published on the day of the crucial 2013 election, the Commonwealth observers for the 1980 poll doggedly “criss-crossed the physically vast country (the size of France). The observers maintained standards of strict impartiality, maintaining lines of communication with formal authority, and all political parties. Understanding that ‘Facts are facts. But Perception is Reality’, they knew information and transparency was key, and to make sure that the two connected – as much as possible…. These Commonwealth observers also knew that intimidation could be overt, or subtle and covert…”

Since 2000, the Mugabe government has not welcomed observer missions which cover the entire country and observe the situation deep in the rural areas where fear dictates the vote. They prefer pliant observers from “friendly countries” who remain in the cities, cast a cursory glance over lines of orderly voters and then claim the poll was “free and fair”.

It is therefore not surprising that, for the 2013 poll, the State-controlled Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) refused to accredit the Carter Center, a globally accepted observer mission which has observed 94 elections in 37 countries and is comprised of experts from a range of countries. Also excluded were Britain, the United States and most of Europe, while countries with very chequered human rights and democracy histories such as China, Belarus, Ethiopia, Sudan, Venezuela and Cuba were welcomed.

Stalin, speaking from his repressive and controlling regime once said, “The people who cast the vote decide nothing. The people who count the vote decide everything.” Under similarly repressive and controlling regimes the same is true. Anyone who believes Zimbabwe has got democracy when the regime controls every election, is deluded.

New leaders and a new value system needed

When the MDC rose to prominence, offering new hope and a new democratic order under the leadership of the former Secretary General of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, Morgan Tsvangirai, millions of people were courageous enough to vote for the party. This was out of a deep inner conviction and despite the very real danger to themselves and their families of rejecting the ruling party.

Shortly after launching the party in September 1999, Tsvangirai, a humble man at that point, received a visit from a peasant farmer who said God had told him in a vision that the new party should use as its slogan “Real Change”, accompanied by an open hand salute. Tsvangirai took this seriously and both were adopted when the party took to the streets.

The immense contribution of Tsvangirai, notably in the early years of the MDC, will be etched into the country’s history: his remarkable bravery, refusal to be broken despite undergoing torture at the hands of the police and his resilience after being badly beaten up en route to the ill-fated 2007 prayer rally in Harare. Many of his close associates and supporters were murdered and his wife, Susan, was killed in a suspicious car accident in 2009.

However, 15 years on, and comfortably ensconced in a mansion provided by the State, Tsvangirai, the main “democratic” leader, has regrettably followed his dictator opponent’s example by wielding dictatorial power within his own party. During the MDC’s November 2014 congress, Tsvangirai managed to change the party’s constitution in order to concentrate power in his office, as well as heading off potential challengers to his position. As a result, he has drawn significant fire from those who believe that their “X” has been betrayed.

As Wisdom Katungu, an independent commentator wrote on December 19, 2013: “A man of modest educational credentials, Tsvangirai has demonstrated how determination and courage can lift one from being a nonentity to becoming a global figure. I respect and admire him for his achievements so far in the struggle for change in the country. However, I strongly feel that he has done what he could and can do no more. After his heavy defeat in the recent elections, several voices have questioned Tsvangirai’s ability to unseat ZANU-PF and I think these voices have a point. The man needs to step aside and let new blood take the party to the Promised Land….”

I also believe it is time for us to consider another approach to the future system of leadership of Zimbabwe – and indeed in Africa. Integrity, fundamental principle and the rule of law must be our guiding lights, while power politics – dominated by personalities and the headlong greed that it demonstrably engenders – must be curtailed.

Last month I was in the Surveyor General’s office in Harare and heard a young Ugandan talking to one of the senior ladies there about why it is that so many Africans are desperate to leave Africa. He put it down to the corruption, greed and lawlessness of so many of Africa’s leaders.

That lawlessness has again hit the headlines following the abduction of a high profile political activist and journalist, Itai Dzamara, who was seized by five unidentified men – believed to be Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) operatives – on March 9 and bundled into an unmarked truck near his home. Human rights defenders worldwide are calling for his safe return.

In November last year, Dzamara was brutally assaulted by the police, together with Kennedy Masiye, a human rights lawyer affiliated with Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, for protesting in Africa Unity Square in Harare. As Dzamara wrote from his hospital bed, “…there are elements and forces bent on resisting our struggle for a better Zimbabwe – including through murder. [But] there is only one route to take – to fight for a better nation…”

What Zimbabwe needs now to take the country forward is commitment to a new value system. We need people who are wise, honest, virtuous, courageous and hard working – men and women who prize justice, righteousness and human rights above political ends, who look to bettering the lot of others rather than themselves. This has been the foundation of every successful society through history.

Sadly, Tsvangirai has shown himself to be no longer in that mould, but I believe there are men and women out there who can take up the challenge and turn the country around. Tsvangirai’s greatest gift to his country would be to step down as the grandfather of the Movement for Democratic Change and unify the electorate around such people as he works selflessly for an internationally monitored election where the people will be free of the institutionalized fear that has gripped them so relentlessly throughout every election to date.

Ben Freeth is Executive Director of the The Mike Campbell Foundation

Post published in: Analysis

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