The More Things Change the More They Stay the Same: How to Break the Politics of Continuity in Zimbabwe

On the 31st of July 2013, Zimbabwe held its seventh presidential election. Robert Mugabe leading the Zimbabwe African National Unity (Patriotic Front), ZANU PF, has contested every one of them in his 33 years in power. Zimbabweans who headed to the (hastily convened) polls remain hopeful for a return to employment, restoration of basic services and an end to political violence.  Yet the increasing economic and military might of ZANU PF and its affiliates significantly dampen those hopes.

The 31st July election was ordered last month by the Constitutional Court in its first ever ruling. The court’s decision has been criticized by legal analysts who say the Chief Justice deliberately misread the constitution’s position on holding elections after the dissolution of parliament. Despite concerns raised by the opposition, who brought a separate challenge to the election date these were dismissed.

The court itself was established after Zimbabweans endorsed a new constitution in a referendum held earlier this year. The new constitution is perhaps one of the few victories to emerge from the Global Political Agreement (GPA) brokered by the regional body, the Southern African Development Community (SADC). The agreement, facilitated by South Africa, came about following Mugabe’s unopposed victory in the 2008 runoff elections. The election results were roundly rejected as illegitimate by regional and international leaders due to intense violence and intimidation by the armed forces, forcing ZANU PF to enter into a power-sharing agreement with the opposition.  The GPA set out the terms for a new Government of National Unity and laid out the reforms necessary for a credible election to be held in the future. One of the conditions was a new constitution to replace the 1979 Lancaster House Constitution.

Endorsed by a citizens’ referendum, the constitution’s expansive bill of rights, its progressive view of citizenship, granting of the franchise to those with a parent born outside the country count strongly in its favor. Importantly it does not allow tampering with the election law once elections themselves have been called.  However, a culture of impunity threatens the minor gain it represents. The arrest of human rights’ lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa and the subsequent flouting of a court order for her release only hours after the constitution was endorsed in the referendum underline the somewhat pyrrhic victory it represents.

The GPA’s other promises remain even more starkly unfulfilled. These include the promised reforms to the electoral system, reforms to the media, the establishment of an anti-corruption commission and restoring human rights. In each instance, these reforms have been largely stillborn.  The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission continues to be staffed by ZANU PF appointed personnel, many of whom have a state intelligence or military background. The voters’ registration roll, containing the names of those allowed to vote, is filled with the names of thousands of deceased individuals. Numbers of voters in ZANU PF strongholds have been apparently inflated as a result. Additionally, recent reports of the involvement of a shadowy Israeli firm named Nikuv-long associated with vote-rigging in elections across the continent through the production of fake voters’ registration cards-suggest that widespread vote-rigging is underway. At the time of writing this, numerous reports of dumped ballots, insufficient ballot papers and other irregularities were widely reported. Civil society organs have been banned from inspecting the voters’ roll. The electoral commission has neither stopped nor condemned this. Most recently the continental body, the African Union (AU) has expressed confidence in the electoral process, saying it felt the preparations for elections were “satisfactory”.

The Zimbabwe Human Rights’ Commission has been similarly hamstrung in conducting its work. Particularly stifling is the requirement that it limits its investigations of abuses to the period after February 2009, thus insulating the armed forces from culpability for the various atrocities committed in 2008. During that period it is reported that over 200 people were killed, 5000 tortured and beaten and nearly 36 000 displaced.

Media reform has fared little better. Although Zimbabwe has recorded an increase in print media circulation and diversity since 2008, with nearly six daily newspapers in operation, including the once banned Daily News, the media commission has done little to reform the repressive legislation under which journalists operate. Journalists continue to be arrested under the defamation laws that broadly interpret writings in the press as insults to the president.  The law continues to criminalise “publicly making statements that may cause feelings of hostility towards or cause hatred, ridicule, or contempt of the president whether in person or in respect of the office of president”.  

Radiowaves remain barred to the opposition. The ZANU PF minister for media, information and publicity unilaterally made up the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe which issued licences to two private commercial radio stations, both run by state-owned companies, one of which is headed by Supa Mandiwanzira, ZANU PF’s treasurer for Manicaland Province. Meanwhile, short-wave radios, which broadcast the only non-state-controlled content on a nationwide scale, have been confiscated or banned spuriously to avoid the “hate speech”.  The guarantees undertaken in the GPA to ensure fair and equal coverage in state-owned media to all political parties have been all but ignored. In general, freedom of expression and freedoms of association remain elusive to ordinary Zimbabweans. Through notorious laws such as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) and the Public Order and Security Act (POSA) which are policed in partisan fashion, the sum effect is to maintain a climate of fear in which citizens are neither free nor safe.

Most importantly however, there has been no meaningful reform of the security sector-the police, military and central intelligence organization-which remains firmly under ZANU PF control.

Leaders of the security forces, many of whom have been comrades-in-arms with Mugabe from the days of Zimbabwe’s armed guerilla struggle against colonial rule, have remained steadfast in their support for ZANU PF since independence.  This has resulted in the intimidation, torture, arrest, beating and in some instances murder of MDC supporters and human rights’ activists.  The concerns about the armed forces’ neutrality remain critical not just to the fairness and freeness of the elections but to the post-election period as well.

Since 2008, the tyranny of the state while more sporadic and less overt continues to be visited upon activists and opposition members. Sokwanele developed a metric for the number of abuses of the GPA by analyzing media reports and recording instances in which the agreement was breached. Tellingly, “rule of law” is recorded as having been breached in over 4500 instances since 2008.

 Central to the agreements underlying the formation of unity governments is an attempt to alter the conditions that make being in power a zero sum game. By providing all parties with access to power, such agreements offer the shortest route to ending conflict. They facilitate the broad participation of a range of parties and by doing so aim to reconcile them. Importantly, as warring parties remain close to power, they become more invested in a system that reduces their incentives to resort to conflict.

Principally therefore, Zimbabwe’s unity government has failed to allow for effective sharing of power. In 2008, as sanctions sank their teeth into ZANU PF’s rent collection machinery which was heavily dependent on the revenues extracted from the issuing of foreign currency licences to foreign investors, through subsidies  among others. Production had collapsed and the Zimbabwe dollar became worthless. ZANU PF required regional and international legitimacy in order to survive. Through entering into a unity government with MDC, it was able to buy the latter. Further, by intensifying its presence in the diamond extraction industry through brute force and continued human rights abuses, it was able to commandeer one of the only sources of foreign revenue flowing into the country. Additionally, through its indigenization policy it has effectively monopolized whatever gains exist to be made from the nascent economic recovery. By requiring all businesses which have assets worth over US$500 000 to hand over 51 % ownership to indigenous ownership-with indigenous counterparties available in a ‘database’ possessed by the Minister, new avenues for corruption have been opened.

This of course does not mean that MDC has not enjoyed any of the ‘fruits’ of power. The reported wealth of its president, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai has infuriated many opposition supporters. Living in a US$ 3 million mansion funded through taxpayer revenues his lifestyle and that of his peers has left many Zimbabweans questioning the opposition’s ability to govern transparently and accountably. The resounding excoriation of the two parties by Finance Minister, Tendai Biti, for their unbudgeted travel expenses, which at US$157 million surpassed the health and education budgets combined, echoed throughout the poverty-stricken country. It underlined for most Zimbabweans the sentiment that rent collection and corruption were not the exclusive preserve of ZANU PF.

Despite the failures in governance, Zimbabwe’s economic growth may yet proceed in ways unforeseen by economists and other analysts. Tobacco sales have raked in over US$550 million last year alone for instance, a figure that was last achieved before the farm invasions began in 2000. The consumer and property markets in the country are booming. Reports emerge on a daily basis of greater investments into the country’s retail, mining and agricultural sectors. A proposed US$100 million mall development in Harare’s upmarket suburb of Borrowdale is reported to have had half its space acquired by South African investors.  Zimbabwe’s stock market continues to experience among the richest growth in foreign investor funds seen in the region, with a reported US$60 million flowing into the country’s bond markets in January alone. Despite 2008 being a year in which almost no-one went to school, the massive damage to education has still left the country’s vast literacy rate untouched at over 90 %, easily the highest in Africa. Infrastructure, while frayed and unmaintained for nearly a decade, remains largely intact. Bereft of opportunity and unable to join the mass exodus of Zimbabweans abroad, many Zimbabweans in the country have devised industrious ways of surviving-through backyard businesses, artisanship and subsistence agriculture.

Ultimately, the economic growth that buoys ZANU PF may prove its own undoing. In one possible scenario, rent collection from natural resources could be viewed as a finite source of income with little scope for its expansion. As more serious investors arrive with greater capacity to extract and refine raw materials into finished products, they will demand greater assurances of the government than it currently provides. The current quid pro quo will morph into more precise and broader rules of engagement. Through a process of gradual liberalisation of economic policy, the middle class-hitherto a vanishingly small sliver of the population-will grow. It is this middle class that will once more press its demands of a government that is unlikely to know how to ignore them.

Of course, this is an optimistic scenario. It is just as likely that Mugabe and ZANU PF, after winning a ‘free and fair’ election this week, will feel they have regained the legitimacy lost in 2008 and will slough off the former pretences of working with the opposition. They will then continue to run roughshod over banks and businesses in a bid to centralize all economic power. We might see further attempts to erode what little power the opposition has managed to secure through more arrests, detentions and ‘disappearances’. The opposition itself, mirroring the factionalism and hierarchy of the ruling party, may further implode and fracture into smaller and smaller groups, none able to wield enough influence to mount another serious challenge to ZANU PF. The regional powers, which have mostly been aloof if not complicit in some of ZANU PF’s worst excesses, seem unlikely to exert any meaningful influence on the situation.

The only scenario which remains difficult to evaluate properly is perhaps the most obvious one: if Mugabe finally dies. Many observers point out that this would create internal divisions within ZANU PF which may turn violent as warring factions attempt to secure power. This is possible. My personal suspicion is that ZANU PF is held together only by the towering and intimidating presence of Robert Mugabe. Over nearly 40 years at the helm of the party, he has thwarted any attempt to succeed him as leader of his movement. This has left the party structures too weak and divided to organize themselves without his direction: absolute loyalty to Mugabe is just about the only thing that binds ZANU PF members to their party. In his absence, and with no clear succession plan, the party is likely to unravel, leaving it as vulnerable to fissures and strategic failures as the MDC. Indeed, MDC being all too familiar with a situation of unpredictable and chaotic leadership may find itself in an unusual position of strength in such a scenario. Due to its greater international legitimacy it may succeed in winning over former lieutenants of the old guard who may well hitch their fates to MDC’s bandwagon as a way of avoiding international prosecution for their past heinous crimes.

Citizens of democracies are said to get the leaders they deserve. Zimbabwe is a country whose greatness belies the pettiness of its leaders, whose beauty outlives its tainted politics, whose people as a whole are greater than the sum of their parts.  The Zimbaweans I know deserve better leaders.

Bhardwaj is a Zimbabwean documentary filmmaker working with a news organisation in Johannesburg, South Africa.