The Zimbabwe Crisis, What Crisis: Can We Learn from History?


On the 30th of July 2018, Zimbabwe will be holding its first elections without founding president Robert Mugabe-deposed by a military coup- and his nemesis Morgan Tsvangirai, who passed away on 14th of February 2018. These elections have become very significant not only for Zimbabweans but also offers the Southern African region an opportunity to resolve the ever elusive and prolonged ‘Zimbabwe Crisis.’ Therefore, the 2018 elections are about resolving the electoral legitimacy that has always been haunting previous elections in Zimbabwe. It is hoped that resolving this electoral legitimacy question will offer Zimbabweans an opportunity to rebuild the country again, after 38 years of disastrous policies. The most encouraging thing is that the rhetoric of the ruling party and government has de-radicalised, with the opposition getting access to rural areas, where previously it never had. However, events on the ground are already pointing to a disputed election and elongation of resolving the electoral legitimacy question. At the centre of this simmering electoral impasse is the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, (ZEC), a supposedly independent and constitutional body. In response to the perceived partisan nature of the elections commission, the leading opposition, MDC Alliance has upped the pressure through a series of protests and radical statements. The elections will be observed by domestic, regional and international observers and both ZANU PF and MDC Alliance have been competing for either the support or endorsement of their views by these observation groups. For the ordinary Zimbabwean residing in the country, the question is will these elections end the international isolation of the country and offer improved opportunities? While to those in the diaspora especially those with limited opportunities, the question is, will the elections restore the hope to return home? But also, for the Southern African region, the question is whether the elections will end the electoral impasse and bring economic and political stability to the region?


Inside Southern Africa’s lounge room.


Zimbabwe has experienced prolonged multiple series of crises since the late 1990s that have led to massive de-industrialisation and very limited opportunities for its citizens. The crisis in Zimbabwe is something that has become too glaring for everyone and is now the lounge room of its neighbouring states. Actually, the state of affairs is best captured in African National Congress Secretary General, Gwede Mantashe’s observation in response to former president Mugabe’s demeaning of the personality of Nelson Mandela:

…the media has reported there are 2 million Zimbabwean citizens in the country…The crisis in Zimbabwe is not something we have to research, we meet the crisis in the streets of Joburg (The Citizen Newspaper, 09 September 2017).

Indeed, Zimbabwe’s neighbours have had to shoulder the burden of its crisis, and with a looming electoral dispute they almost likely to continue doing so. The dimensions of the crises range from disease, infrastructure, political to economic, among many other forms of crises. One evident result of the Zimbabwean crisis has been the massive emigration of its citizens to other nations, in particular, those within the Southern African region. The Zimbabwean crisis has created a challenge of undocumented migrants (economic and political refugees) in Southern African countries. Almost every young or graduating Zimbabwean dreams of emigration, but geography, opportunity and financial means has meant that the majority of these Zimbabwean migrants end up within neighbouring countries. Whether you are in Quelmane (Mozambique), Kapiri Mposhi (Zambia), Swakopmund (Namibia), Mbeya (Tanzania) or Manguzi (Northern KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa) among many other places in Southern Africa, you are most likely to find a Zimbabwean. Most of them, are economic refugees seeking better livelihoods. In certain instances, this has seen tensions erupting between Southern Africans and Zimbabweans.


What Crisis?


In 2008 after, Zimbabwe had gone for more than 2 weeks without releasing elections results- believed to have been won by Morgan Tsvangirai of the opposition, MDC-, T former South African President, Thabo Mbeki was quizzed on the crisis in Zimbabwe and this to say:

…There has been a natural process taking place and we are all awaiting the ZEC to announce the results, and there is also the matter of the court case,…The body authorised to release the results is the ZEC. Let’s wait for them to announce the results… (Mail and Guardian Africa, 12 April 2008).

President Mbeki is further reported in the same publication to have stated that, “If nobody wins a clear majority, the law provides for a second run. If that happens, I would not describe it as a crisis. It’s a normal electoral process in terms of the law of Zimbabwe” (Mail and Guardian Africa, 12 April 2008). We may speculate on the exact reasons of President Mbeki’s response, which is a subject for another day, but with benefit of hindsight, a better response could have come. This became apparent when ZANU PF unleashed a retaliatory reign of terror on citizens, While President Mbeki and his SADC compatriots were in denial on the existence of a crisis, ‘Operation Makavhotera Papi’ (whom did you vote for), where citizens were terrorised in the rural areas wreaked havoc. This was especially in ZANU PF strongholds that had switched allegiance to the MDC in areas such as Hurungwe, Mudzi, Mutoko among many other areas. It was only after the withdrawal of Morgan Tsvangirai citing massive violence on his supporters, that SADC sprung to action.


The Challenge of History on African Institutions


In 1994 the African Union, including the United Nations spend time debating whether the events in Rwanda resembled a genocide or not? Hundreds of thousands of people were killed in an ethnic cleansing war of Tutsis by Hutus. In Lesotho, there have been unending cycles of military coups and militarised politics, whilst SADC and AU have been dithering. Lesotho has never experienced stability in its politics as non-action comes from African institutions. The events in Zimbabwe are not unique but mirror a general problem facing African institutions. In 2015 army chief Maaparankoe Mahao was murdered and SADC called for the prosecution of the murder suspects. This provoked stiff resistance from the military elite and the then government of prime minister Pakalitha Mosisili. Even after the coming in of President Thabane, this was never followed. Up until to today Lesotho remains in an unending political crisis. Similarly, in Zimbabwe, President Mugabe disregarded the SADC Tribunal and rendered it dysfunctional on a technicality after it ruled against his Land Reform programme. In response, SADC decided to hide under the doctrine of sovereignty and that it is a voluntary club. The result was that Zimbabwe continued on a path of anarchy and crisis until now. The late Morgan Tsvangirai and the MDC have persistently complained of the role of the military in politics, where President Mugabe, ZANU PF and the Zimbabwe National Army fervently denied the ever involvement of the army in politics. However, a read of Justice Khampempe’s report on the 2002 presidential elections validated the opposition’s claims and finally confirmed by the events leading to the coup of 17 November 2017. The military came out crystal clear that it had an interest in Zimbabwean politics and now they are in charge.


Lest we forget: The Military is not a Democracy.


The government of President Emmerson Mnangagwa has spiritedly attempted to ‘camouflage the camouflages’ behind its administration, with charm diplomatic offensive in the region and the western capitals. Expensive and massive public relations campaigns have been launched under Zimbabwe’s is open for business, caliche that resonates with most in the West and Business. Surely, the diplomatic charm offensive has started to bear fruits as there have been shifts in the international community and emerging consensus to give ZANU PF a chance. This is not a bad idea, maybe, it could be another biblical Saul to Paul on the Road to Damascus.

It is not with any doubt, that this election is coming close to seven months after a military coup by a military that has persistently been a problem in Zimbabwe’s politics since independence. The hard and painful truth is that Zimbabwe has been a de-facto military state or what Professor Sabelo Gatsheni Ndlovu terms ZANU PF rules via an alliance of a nationalist-military oligarch. It is the military that has been ruling in Zimbabwe and General Chiwenga’s statement on the 13th of November 2017 sum up the missing figures in the Zimbabwean power equation.

The military is not a democracy and operates on the logic of command (read coercion), whereas civilian affairs operate on the logic of persuasion (read consent). It has to be borne in mind that the people need to constantly exercise their rights as to how they want to be ruled in a free, fair and credible manner. So far, the conduct of ZEC- the scandal on postal voting, controversy on voters’ roll availability and auditing, ballot paper printing and security features, breaching of BVR server and arrogance of commissioners- points to an underhand role (read military) trying to subvert the people’s will at all cost.


Can we Learn from our mistakes?


The question that begs to Zimbabweans, SADC, AU and International Community is whether we can learn from our mistakes? There is the talk of a free, fair and credible election because there is no naked violence and peace as in previous elections, a positive and commendable point. Todd Moss and Jeffrey Smith in their article ‘Even before the vote, Zimbabwe’s election is not credible’ argue that because there is no blood on the street it does not mean the elections are free, fair and credible. They further identify eight ways in which the vote has already been rigged, hacked or altogether stolen. However, beyond the brutality narrative, the elections are taking place-considering postal voting-when credibility has been lost.


The Elders came, and their visit has incited resentment form the opposition and its supporters. They released a statement that appears measured under normal circumstances, but in a polarized and deeply divided propaganda laden societies like Zimbabwe, the brouhaha that came after is no surprise. Maybe, if the elders could have taken a cue from the European Union, by dispelling the spin of their statement by certain political interests, it could have gone a long way in building confidence in supposed healing institutions. History matters and surely, the Elders could have done it differently. SADC has said it will not endorse a sham election and that they are in Zimbabwe for a free, fair and credible election. That is a commendable step by SADC and hope the AU and especially, Western observers (read Britain) will adopt a similar approach.

Once upon a time

It is important for regional and international actors that once upon a time the genesis of the Zimbabwean crisis centred on a Crisis of Governance. The reason why Zimbabwe plunged into a crisis is that of the internal demand for social change and transformation, hence the rise of the opposition MDC. Therefore, if these elections fail to address the electoral legitimacy question, Zimbabwe will continue to be ‘mired in transition’. A continued crisis means, SADC continuing to see the crisis in their lounges and not reading or researching about it as observed by ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe.


There is still Hope


All hope is not lost and SADC, AU, Britain in particular and the international community can put pressure on responsible authorities to implement the administrative actions that can salvage the election. These bodies have something that the Zimbabwe government wants badly, badly and very badly:

This election is about restoring international re-engagement and legitimacy; that is where we are. It must be flawless, it must be transparent, it must be free, it must be fair, it must meet international standards, it must be violence free and therefore it must be universally endorsed because it is an instrument of foreign policy… It’s about re-engagement and legitimacy; we are playing politics at a higher level.

The message has to be loud and clear that sovereignty and legitimacy can only be earned from the people, through a free, fair and credible election. Yes, there is no blood on the streets and the villages so far, good step, but let us go further the other steps.


Tamuka Chirimambowa is a PhD (Development Studies) candidate based at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa

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