15 Years of Resistance
Harare – Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe has weathered many storms since he entered politics more than 50 years ago.
For many people, his toughest battles were those against the colonial regime. Now, some believe that what he has faced since 1998 rivals those liberation war experiences.
The July 31, 2013 poll represented the decisive round in the 15-year-long Mugabe versus the West battle.
At the time of writing, results had not yet started coming in, with expectations – depending on which survey one read – ranging from a very tight race, to a clear victory for President Mugabe.
Regardless of the outcome, the fact that there were such high expectations for a President Mugabe triumph indicates the resonance that the politics of empowerment have among African peoples.
What is remarkable about this is that since the 1960s, no African leader has withstood 15 successive years of pressure from Western governments to stand down.
And not only has President Mugabe resisted, he has thrived.
The year 2008 was definitely President Mugabe’s nadir, and he wanted a decisive victory this year to end all doubts as to who is on top of Zimbabwe’s politics.
Since that near-defeat in 2008, his star has been on the rise thanks to both the popularity of his economic empowerment drive and the main opposition’s ineptitude and increasingly corrupt disposition.
Experts, many of them begrudgingly, have added wind to his sails by concurring that the man commands massive support among voters.
Witwatersrand University analyst Susan Booysen, who supervised a survey last year that pointed to a President Mugabe victory, reiterated her belief that President Mugabe would win.
Pollsters at the Council on Foreign Relations and Freedom House (US), Zimbabwe Vigil (UK) and Afrobarometer (South Africa-Ghana-US) have all reached the same conclusion.
Further, another survey by Freedom House, which the US government has allegedly barred from being released, this past week said ZANU-PF could get as much as two-thirds of the vote.
The main challenger, Morgan Tsvangirai of MDC-T appeared to be feeling the pressure ahead of the elections and despite putting on a brave face, the veneer of confidence cracked rather too often for comfort.
At rallies and press conferences over the past two weeks, Tsvangirai and his lieutenants lashed out with abusive language at the electorate and the electoral authorities, and the party leader has also poured scorn on the AU, SADC and other observer groups. Tsvangirai also lamented that the West has “abandoned” him.
On the other hand, a buoyant President Mugabe appeared ready for what could be one last hurrah.
What is it that has enabled President Mugabe to withstand the onslaught against him for so long and remain right at the centre of Zimbabwe’s politics?
This is a question that has provoked various answers.
A popular claim in some sections of the media is that his strengths lie in violence, election rigging and cronyism.
But observers are increasingly pointing out that such a mix of Machiavellian brutality cannot retain power in an electoral democracy – more so in the face of European and American interventionism – for so long.
After all, why would people vote for someone who beats them up, the analysts ask?
These observers point out that like it or not, President Mugabe’s pro-empowerment ideology, as captured in the land reforms and now in economic indiginisation, has huge resonance with many people.
Simukai Tinhu, an expert in international relations and African politics, adds that: “ZANU-PF has had an overwhelming share of Zimbabwe’s most talented politicians. The contemporaries include Patrick Chinamasa, Jonathan Moyo, and Herbert Murerwa.
“This vanguard of elite politicians, who have masterminded ZANU-PF’s stranglehold on Zimbabwean politics since the 1980s, are not only street smart and academic, they are also ruthless.
“This personnel has created an ideology that appears to resonate with a staunchly anti-Western and nationalistic section of Zimbabwean society.
“It could be argued that ZANU-PF has a ‘permanent’ support base of mostly rural peasants that have more or less consistently voted for them since independence. Though the MDC has started to make some inroads into this, historically, it has been difficult for the opposition to claim significant support from this group.”
Tinhu also says President Mugabe’s machinery has perfected the art of using historical narratives to get the party’s message across to the electorate.
Furthermore, President Mugabe’s strong Africanist approach makes the opposition’s neo-liberal, pro-Western stance look insufficient in a country that had to endure 90 years of colonialism and a 16-year liberation struggle that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of blacks.
Tinhu says, “Western powers have publicly backed the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change. However, their pronouncements may undermine the very democratic ideals that they seek to uphold.
“They played into the hands of President Mugabe as he rallies his core supporters’ against these perceived attempts of external interference in Zimbabwean politics. Calls from Washington and Brussels have afforded ZANU-PF the perfect opportunity to frame the MDC as a front for neo-imperialism.”
Phases of the Struggle
The decision by some Western countries to impose sanctions on Zimbabwe served to strengthen his hand from a political perspective, though the economy has suffered greatly due to the embargo.
But in essence, Zimbabwe’s troubles did not start in 2000 with the Fast-Track Land Reform Programme, as is often assumed.
The drive to get President Mugabe out of office can be traced to the 1998 decision by Harare to deploy militarily in the DRC in defence of that country’s territorial integrity and against Western-backed Rwandan and Ugandan forces and rebels that were trying to bring down the government in Kinshasa.
Zimbabwe’s intervention – along with Namibia, Angola and, for a short while, Chad – raised the ire of Rwanda and Uganda’s backers in Europe and America, who have for long viewed the area stretching from Zimbabwe to Central Africa as “the Persian Gulf of strategic minerals”.
While that military deployment saved the DRC from complete capitulation to foreign domination, it also caused a fiscal strain on Zimbabwe’s economy and the IMF used this as an excuse to squeeze support for the country just a year later.
Incidentally, 1999 was the same time that organisations such as the Westminster Foundation and the National Endowment for Democracy – funded respectively by the British and American governments directly – provided the money and moral support to create the MDC party with Morgan Tsvangirai at its helm.
What followed is well known: Zimbabwe embarked on land and agrarian reforms that saw more than 250 000 black families getting farms previously held by just 6 000 whites; the EU, US, Canada and Australia imposed sanctions; and the economy went into decline.
That ushered in a new phase in the Mugabe versus the West battle, with sanctions serving to steel the Zimbabwean leader’s resolve to steer through the empowerment revolution.
Professor Mahmood Mamdani says, “Clearly, the old paradigm of sanctions – isolation – has given way to a more interventionist model (by the West), which combines punishment of the regime with subsidies for the opposition…
“Nonetheless, sanctions mainly affect the lives of ordinary people. Gideon Gono, Governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, wrote … that the country’s foreign exchange reserves had declined from US$830 million, representing three months’ import cover in 1996, to less than one month’s cover by 2006.
“Total foreign payments arrears increased from US$109 million at the end of 1999 to US$2.5 billion at the end of 2006. Foreign direct investment had shrunk from US$444.3 million in 1998 to US$50 million in 2006.
“Donor support, even to sectors vital to popular welfare, such as health and education, was at an all-time low. Danish support for the health sector, US$29.7 million in 2000, was suspended. Swedish support for education was also suspended.
“The US issued travel warnings, blocked food aid during the heyday of land reform and opposed Zimbabwe’s application to the Global Fund to Fight Aids – the country (had) the fourth-highest infection rate in the world. Though it was renewed in 2005, the Zimbabwe grant is meagre.
“Agriculture has been affected too: scale matters, but no one disputes that subsidies are vital for agriculture to be sustainable, and sanctions have made it more difficult to put a proper credit regime in place.”
All this has been in pursuance of US legislator Chester Crocker’s rallying call to fellow lawmakers on the eve of the imposition of the sanctions in which he said to separate the people from President Mugabe, Washington had to make Zimbabwe’s economy scream.
West in Retreat?
In the days leading to July 31, the tone from the West was less strident – perhaps in preparation for the possibility of President Mugabe winning his seventh election on the trot.
The EU’s Ambassador to South Africa, Roeland van de Geer, said they would lift sanctions if SADC observers deemed the poll free and fair.
“If the process goes well, we will suspend (sanctions) and I am sure they will be removed. We don't have the right to continue with that if the elections are acceptable. If the outcome of the elections is clear, is accepted, who are we, all Europeans, to say (no)…”
Washington’s top diplomat in Harare, Bruce Wharton had also struck a conciliatory tone, saying after a meeting Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa on the election eve, “I am excited to hear you speak about peace and calm which matches what we are seeing and I would want to congratulate the people of Zimbabwe for that.”
Not that President Mugabe and his party are overly concerned by what the West thinks. On July 30 he told a press conference that for him what mattered most was that Zimbabweans became complete masters of their own destiny. As political analyst Dr Blessing Miles-Tendi put it: “He (Mugabe) is still fighting the liberation struggle …. that's the fight of his life, that's who he is.”