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So what’s a post-coup pre-election like? Zimbabwe’s Democracy after Mugabe – Phase I

You take a chance when trying to get an afternoon fill-up in Harare these days: a return for the next sunrise is likely. As Elphias (let’s call him that) the petrol attendant told me the bad news I said “That’s not very good for ZANU-PF before an election is it”? We proceeded to have an energetic and entertaining conversation. He thought Nelson Chamisa and his Movement for Democratic Change Alliance (never mind its sometimes fractious blend of many parties:[1] the one-man shows are what matters to most) would take it. “This is not like the old Mugabe days: this new president will welcome Chamisa in.”

Lovemore, a car-park guard in the next suburb had a slightly different view. Yes, he said, Chamisa will win, but the results might well be rigged. The people would be unhappy, and would demonstrate their displeasure. Then the soldiers will be ordered to stop them.

I asked: “Do you have lots of friends who are soldiers?”

“Of course, many. They are suffering””

“Will they obey their orders?”

“No. Of course not. They will not shoot their brothers and sisters.”

pic by David Moore

This would be tantamount to mutiny. Then, as Nqobizitha Mlilo (in 2005 the University of Cape Town SRC president, then the MDC-T spokesman in South Africa, later a Gauteng-based human rights lawyer, and now the MDC-Alliance candidate for the Chirumhanzu Zibagwe constituency, just vacated by the current First Lady Auxilia Mnangagwa), put it: ‘Zimbabwe has given Southern Africa its first land grabs, its first coup, and if ZANU-PF acts against the people’s clearly displayed anger at faulty elections, we might well see a mutiny. The soldiers could revolt at being ordered to act against the people’s will’.

The professionalism of some of the senior soldiers[2] heading up the state may well be tested as never before.

As one veteran of Zimbabwe’s wars gone by[3] put it, if the serious senior soldiers know this they will make sure no one has access to the armouries. Then perhaps the politicians and some other soldiers would have to fight it out among themselves – because it’s far from certain they are of one mind. After all, ZANU-PF is the product of a long, long tradition of what scholar-activist John Saul called the “wasting internecine battles of petty-bourgeois politics” during Zimbabwe’s war for freedom.[4] Henry Kissinger, the then American Secretary of State, although no friend of Saul had similar thoughts. When handing over his remit to Cyrus Vance soon after the late-1976 Geneva Conference, which among other things introduced Robert Mugabe to the world and much of the party that he would lead soon after, Kissinger compared the Zimbabwean nationalist leaders to bickering Harvard faculty members. [5] (Other of his cynical aphorisms include “academics fight so much because the stakes are so little” and “power is the greatest aphrodisiac”.) It could well be that après Mugabe le déluge (“after Mugabe, the storms” – as King Louis XV of France put it about himself in the middle of the 17th century).

In the meantime, however, there is an election – one of many milestones to a country’s democratic progress – to be run, with a victor to be selected who will hopefully represent the will of the people as closely as possible. Aside from the novelty of a post-2000 Zimbabwe seeing the face-off between candidates who are neither Mugabe nor Morgan, there is a coup with which the democratic process must reckon. Very few of them result more than renewed authoritarianism. Will this one be any different from the trend? Will the winner of the popular vote actually be allowed to win, or will some of his votes be uncounted and the ‘winners’’ over-counted?

Elphias’ and Lovemore’s predictions may well be as good as those making a living from this sort of work – if the elections are ‘free and fair’, or ‘credible enough’ or whatever the observers’ criteria are when the bar is low and the assembled candidates are under it too.[6] The eminent Stephen Chan says ZANU-PF will win, as the state-run press reported gleefully and the opposition resented.[7] He has been wrong before[8] as is the case with so much academic writing on this beleaguered country’s past and present.[9]

The more reliable Afrobarometer/Mass Public Opinion Institute poll, released at the end of last week[10], has Nelson Chamisa, leader of the patched together MDC-Alliance, gaining on Emmerson Mnangagwa, beneficiary of the November coup that placed him to the top of ZANU-PF’s and the country’s pedestal.[11] If the respondents were to cast their ballot for president a month ago Mnangagwa would have taken 40% of the votes and Nelson Chamisa would have gathered 37%. The still undecided or not-saying potential voters were at 20%. Split that and you get a 50/47 race. Furthermore, the MDC-Alliance momentum has been building since then.[12]

Candidate Mlilo, with Maria, near Driefontein Mission Photo: David Moore

It’s very, very close and a result (unless jimmied) could well be a run-off. And run-offs remind people of 2008, when at least 170 Zimbabweans were killed and thousands beaten or burned.[13] The survey has the mid-forties’ per cent of the 2,400 interviewed fearing cheating, military intervention, and violence.

In April 2008, given the 47-43 deadlock just past the Ides of March, the regional interlocutors faced the decision of pushing the Mugabe regime into a Government of National Unity (GNU) or letting the run-off proceed: the choice led to almost predictable consequences. What will the regional and international power-brokers advise (or pre-empt) this time?

If all goes bottom up perfidious Albion’s widely suspected support[14] for the revived ZANU-PF will be put to the test. The Brexiters have only shifted Tony Blair’s amoral moralism – it and its ‘western’ allies’ ‘donor destruction’ almost killed the MDC and its civil society partners with post-1999 kindness – from one ‘all but Mugabe’ policy to another. This might be the last chance for the managers of their empire’s decline to make their mark.

In the meantime, and to the nitty-gritty of the economic crisis that will face whoever ends up with the task of moving Zimbabwe out of the world’s bottom, the main parties’ manifestoes offer little to those in civil society who have survived too much tenderness and its turning-off and wish to combine social and liberal democracy for a new dispensation. Both the MDC Alliance and ZANU-PF policy ideas have fantastical elements. One wonders where the proof is in ZANU-PF’s pudding of 822 houses a day for five years,[15] not to mention its campaign claim that twenty billion dollars of investment have been promised. As economist Rob Davies[16] puts it, the MDC-A promises[17] are as chimerical as their opponents’. It would take an average of 17.4% growth every year between 2019 and 2029 to reach the what the manifesto’s Holy Grail of a ‘nominal’ (meaningless because measured in prices regardless of inflation rates) $100 billion GDP in ten years. China’s miracle never approached those levels. Remember, Davies cautioned, those searching for the Holy Grail never found it.

This election, however, does not rest on rational economics. Like many others it is a near religious experience.[18] In Zimbabwe’s case aside from its democrats’ battles it’s a trial for the ‘west’s’ move away from its long post-Cold War haul to liberal democracy back to a cool embracing of soft (perhaps ‘competitive’ or ‘electoral’ authoritarianism[19]).

One can only hope this election will illustrate the recklessness of this separation of ‘order’ and ‘democracy’ – but by positive moves rather than negative examples. As one well-informed wag prone to cryptic commentary put it: “whatever happens this wasn’t a good idea”. Stay tuned for phase II.

David Moore, is a Professor of Development Studies and Visiting Researcher, Institute of Pan-African Thought and Conversation, University of Johannesburg







[7] [

[8] africa_democracy/chan_mugabe_4450.jsp> (3 November 2013) --- in Moore: Death or Dearth of Democracy in Zimbabwe?

[9] Reading Zimbabwe internationally: Little errors, larger truths --- and Moore -- Five funerals, no weddings, a couple of birthdays: Terry Ranger, his contemporaries, and the end of Zimbabwean nationalism – 24 October 2013–3 January 2015


[11] ... Moore ‘A Very Zimbabwean Coup: November 13-24 2017 – Context, Event, Prospects’, Transformation, forthcoming August 2018.









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