Zimbabwe Between Military Regime and Civilian State

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Flag of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC)

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July 21st 2008, the day Zanu-PF, MDC-Tsvangirai and MDC-Mutambara signed an agreement to begin power sharing talks, was surrounded with great media fanfare. However, more than two weeks after the end of the 14 day period initially set for talks, they are on the verge of collapse. Meanwhile very little has changed for most Zimbabweans.

Just over two weeks ago, the Harare offices of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition were raided and staff had to go into hiding. Last week, members of Women of Zimbabwe Arise were arrested. The economy is in an unstoppable downward spiral and basic goods, even when available, are unaffordable for most. A recent crop assessment by the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organisation (UNFAO) predicts that the already widespread malnourishment and hunger will soon turn into countrywide famine. Despite this Zanu-PF refuses to allow relief and aid organisations to resume their work, thus sentencing entire communities to death by starvation. While victims struggle to recover from the severe emotional, physical, and economic trauma of operations ‘Mavhoterapapi’ ( → background) and ‘Tsuronegwenzi’ (1) politically motivated intimidation and victimisation continues unabated. 

Mavhoterapapi  and Tsuronegwenzi 

Many in the media have reduced the Zimbabwean question to the outcome of Thabo Mbeki’s mediation efforts. Yet, from the outset it was clear that it would take far more than mediation to transform Zimbabwe from a military regime to a civilian administration. The analysis below seeks to make the case that unless future talks aim to achieve fundamentally different sets of practices and power configurations, it is unlikely that they will result in genuine transformation.

It is true that the elections of March 29, 2008 were a step ahead for Zimbabwe’s governance. They were the country’s first elections in decades that allowed the state broadcaster to cover opposition rallies and give airtime to dissenting positions – plus countrywide campaigning was largely possible. Most importantly, the vote counting mechanisms combined with Zimbabwe’s active (and suddenly unhindered) civil society election monitoring network (ZESN) made vote rigging very difficult.

ZANU-PF - no genuine political will for change

There is no doubt that this success – encapsulated in the Constitutional Amendment (CA) 18 – was important for Mbeki’s mediation efforts. While Zimbabwean civil society reacted angrily when, in September 2007, CA 18 was adopted unanimously by both MDC and Zanu-PF MPs, the general elections showed that it facilitated a transparent election process. Still, a number of unprocedural and even illegal steps taken by Zanu-PF in reaction to their decreased share of the vote prevented real democratic reform. Zanu-PF was willing to conduct transparent and free elections only as long as it believed that it could not lose. This assumption is what underpinned Zanu-PF’s seemingly conciliatory approach; there was no genuine political will for change.

The lack of political will for reform has to do with Mbeki’s insistence on ‘quiet’ diplomacy. Yet, Thabo Mbeki is clearly not a disengaged mediator. He works to strengthen Zanu-PF both within and without: Within, by pushing a Zanu-PF agenda; without, by legitimising the regime’s actions and staving off criticism.

The strange tactics of Thabo Mbeki

In May 2008 six former army generals from the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) were sent to Zimbabwe to assess reports of political violence. Until today Mbeki has refused to make their findings public. The report of the generals, who were apparently ‘shocked’ by the level of state sponsored violence, would lend credence and moral authority to the MDC. It would also spell out that while there have been retaliatory attacks by MDC supporters, these cannot be equated with the state terror dished out by Zanu-PF.

Mbeki refuses to acknowledge the reality of political violence and intimidation in Zimbabwe. This enhances Zanu-PF’s position in the talks and makes it easy for them to flaunt the most basic rules: the cessation of political violence, the lifting of the ban on food aid and the release of MDC activists (including MPs). Those key demands are no different to what the ANC itself demanded prior to opening negotiations with South Africa’s National Party.

Mbeki’s half-hearted mediation efforts and the sham elections of June 27, 2008 strengthened Zanu-PF: The party now holds the power to unilaterally constitute a cabinet. Although the June 27 election was condemned all over Africa, Mugabe firmly remains part of the SADC heads of state meetings. Accounts of the SADC meeting that took place on August 16-17, 2008 suggest that the SADC’s sympathies lie with Zanu-PF and MDC-M.

The MDC's strength: legitimacy

While Zanu-PF wields the power of the state apparatus, the MDC-T’s strength is its legitimacy. This claim to legitimacy is closely linked to support on the ground as indicated by the March 29 elections. The MDC-T’s has a further ace up its sleeve – the promise of western aid: The more Zimbabwe’s economy implodes, the stronger Tsvangirai’s position becomes.

The problem is that these strengths are fragile, either as a result of Zanu-PF repression and manipulation or the MDC-T’s frequent leadership blunders. Although the MDC-T claims it has broad support among Zimbabweans, it is unable to mobilise the masses. It is long since Zimbabwe has seen strong mass action. In the current climate of repression, and taking into account the losses suffered by the MDC-T in terms of organisational skills and middle leadership courtesy of operation Tsuronegwenzi, it is unlikely that collective action will suddenly re-emerge. A further aspect is that while it is true that the MDC-T won the majority on March 29, 2008, it did not win by a large margin. In parliament MDC-T has a 100 seats to Zanu-PF’s 99. Under these circumstances, MDC-M, with its ten seats, emerges as kingmaker. While it is true that these results are tainted by Zanu-PF’s gerrymandering, the numbers remain and are the basis for negotiations. Thus, while the MDC-T has a strong claim on legitimacy, one has to wonder whether it will be strong enough to break the deadlock the negotiations have reached.

The West and the region

It is only in the eyes of western powers that the MDC-T has unquestioned legitimacy. Ironically, in the context of the racialised nationalist rhetoric championed by Mugabe, and US driven interventions that have undermined national sovereignty, this source of support is also a significant weakness, one that works to make regional leaders suspicious of the MDC-T.

Without regional support, diplomatic pressure from the West is unlikely to yield results and the absence of aid will be somewhat balanced by the influx of capital from Asia and the exploitation of Zimbabwe’s natural resources. This is unlikely to stop the economic meltdown, yet, thus far, it has worked well to sustain the country’s ruling elite. 

While the principled stance on Zimbabwe taken by Zambia, Tanzania, and especially Botswana are encouraging, it remains doubtful whether such criticism will have any impact other than symbolic. To date, divisions within the SADC and the AU have led to nothing but lukewarm actions and resolutions. Tsvangirai clearly knows how feeble support from the SADC is. Yet, what the MDC-T seems to neglect is that, in order to get regional support, it must enhance its claim to legitimacy.

Mass action and solidarity

Zimbabwean civil society is central to the MDC’s efforts. While an ANC type of mass action is not likely, the importance of trust between and unity with organisations on the ground is critical to the MDC-T’s legitimacy.
To be sure, Zimbabwe’s civil society has long been irked not only by Mbeki’s insistence that the crisis in Zimbabwe can only be resolved through a game of complex horse trading, but also by the MDC’s participation in negotiations despite Zanu-PF’s failure to meet basic preconditions. Mbeki’s secret diplomacy has meant that processes of consultation have been curtailed and, in classic ‘divide and rule’ style, this has fuelled tensions between the MDC and Zimbabwean civil society.

New coalitions?

Yet, if the chances of mass action are slim, regional civil society and trade union action has proved its power in regards to the An Yue Jiang arms ship (→ background), and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) has announced a week of further action during which all workers will refuse to handle goods destined for Zimbabwe. While such actions cannot replace Zimbabwean expressions of will, they could assist in a shift of popular sentiment. Moreover, solidarity is important in its own right, although, at this point, its impact may be mostly symbolic.

The Zimbabwean struggle for democracy looks set to continue for some time to come. With this in mind, the MDC-T needs to ensure that future rounds of mediation will take place within a different, a more equitable, framework. For this the MDC-T will have to collaborate with other pro-democracy forces, be they governmental or civil, national or regional. Without such alliances the MDC-T is unlikely to emerge from this battle for democracy a victor.

August 25, 2008

Keren Ben-Zeev is project coordinator of the Transparency and Participation Programme at the Regional Office of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung in Southern Africa.

(1) Tsuronegwenzi translates as “attack both the hunted and those who shelter them” and refers to Zanu-PF’s campaign to weaken the MDC through the elimination of its middle leadership and organisers on the ground. The operation undertook to attack not only the targeted persons, but also their families, in the process brutally murdering and torturing wives, children, or any other relatives of targeted persons in hiding. See the report by the Solidarity Peace Trust, Desperately Seeking Sanity: What prospects for a new beginning in Zimbabwe? 29 July 2008, pg 29.