Today, Zimbabweans go to the polls. Robert Mugabe, geriatric and cranky, is aiming for another win for himself and for ZANU-PF. The MDC, his main rivals, are already crying foul, citing irregularities in the electoral rolls and intimidation campaigns in rural areas. A Crisis Group briefing billed the election as “Mugabe’s Last Stand” (which is as tired and oft-used descriptor as Mugabe’s speeches) and urged the Southern African Development Community to find its spine in responding to what is unlikely to be a “free and fair” election.
People in Zambia look south a little bit askance. Many of them understand Mugabe’s appeal. He is a hero of a liberation campaign which met stiff opposition from white Rhodesians who declared independence from Britain and created their own apartheid-style state in Central Africa, with the support of the South African regime. And for people whose material lives have failed to improve significantly in the past decades, the eloquence and fury that he combines in his lengthy excoriations of Britain and the west undoubtedly strike a chord. Zambia’s first President, Kenneth Kaunda (who eventually presided over a party-state), was an advocate of the view that countries like Zambia would never really be safe until their neighbours were also independent, and under his rule, Zambia provided refuge for South Africa’s ANC and Zimbabwe’s ZAPU. But in Zambia today, where some people see the government creeping back towards a one-party state, Zimbabwe also offers a cautionary tale.
I was chatting about the election a couple of months back with my barber in the Northmead Market. His view was that the problem lies not with what Mugabe is trying to achieve, but rather with how he has chosen to take action at various points. Indeed, the redistribution of land after nearly a century of rapacious colonial rule is hard to argue with. And farm seizures only began after the British broke off their agreement to subsidise the gradual purchase of farms.
But there is a lot of ugliness and violence in the method. Whether it’s Mugabe threatening to behead gay Zimbabweans earlier this week, turning farms over to “war veterans” who happen to be party cronies, or the massacre in Matabeleland in the ‘80s, it is hard to see how he retains any moral authority to rule. But Mugabe understands that neo-colonialism is real, and he relies on the fears of exploitation of many Zimbabweans to whip up support. It is a testament to the viciousness of the colonial era that now, over thirty years on, those memories—with a little intimidation and manipulation—can provide an election victory.
Tellingly, Britain and the international community were largely silent about the Gukurahundi in the 1980s, and indeed awarded Mugabe a knighthood in the ‘90s. It was only when he turned to the white farms that they found their voices, and the MDC fears that their selective outrage might generate an international climate of impunity, in which Mugabe’s brutality will be overlooked.
And today, having cleverly drawn the opposition into a coalition from which it could not help but emerge tarnished, Mugabe is aiming for a return to respectability. The Guardian story which suggested as much was cited on Zambian radio yesterday, which predicted a win for the incumbent.
Combining the bigotry of his fellow fundamentalists in the U.S., a dose of truth (calling Tony Blair a “real liar, downright one”), control over the media, and the ultimate ability to unleash violence through the loyal security services and military (the interests of which many believe are the real reason Mugabe has decided to contest yet another election... generals have said they would refuse to serve a winner who is not Mugabe), a Mugabe ‘victory’ would not be surprising.
I was back at the barber yesterday, and he shook his head, allowing that while Mugabe has done some good things for Zimbabwe, there has been too much hardship of late, and that his time should be up. It will likely be a few days until results are released, and in the interim, Zimbabweans and people across Central Africa will be waiting with bated breath to see whether the election heralds the end of an era, and of a rule which became increasingly brutal, hateful, and divisive over the decades.