Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

South African Observer Role Under Fire

Credibility of regional states invited to monitor the election is "on the line".
By IWPR Srdan

The International Bar Association has issued a powerful warning to South Africa’s president Thabo Mbeki and his 13 fellow heads of state in a powerful regional grouping, saying their international credibility is on the line as Zimbabweans go to vote in this week’s parliamentary election.


The government of South Africa and the Southern African Development Association, SADC, to which it belongs, are among those invited to send observer missions for the March 31 ballot, while anyone liable to be critical of the conduct of the vote such as most European states has been barred.


The statement by the association, IBA, which represents law societies and bar associations around the world and works to uphold the rule of law, says that President Robert Mugabe’s ruling ZANU PF government has used brutality and torture to instill fear into the populace for so long that it no longer even needs to employ violence on a wide scale.


“The mere presence of the repressive forces has become enough of a threat to hold the citizenry in a state of suspicion and tension," said the statement by the London-based IBA.


Referring to this month’s Human Rights Watch, HRW, report on the March 31 election, "Not a Level Playing Field", the IBA says the history of violence as a tool of repression by the Mugabe government, coupled with the application of repressive laws, have set “such a precedent, that the ruling party’s thugs and the state’s police and Central Intelligence Office spooks only need to make an appearance to prevent ordinary Zimbabweans from speaking their minds freely, from holding meetings and from exercising their democratic right to vote for whomever they choose".


It is in this broader context of violence and a repressive legal framework that the poll must be judged, the IBA argues. The report goes on, “Seen in this light, the much-publicised lower levels of violence preceding the upcoming parliamentary elections – as compared to elections held in 2000 and 2002 – take on an entirely new meaning.


“ There is a 'continuity’ between all these elections. The violence preceding the 2000 and 2002 elections was well-documented. Zimbabweans therefore know that the ruling party’s recent threats to withhold food aid from or ‘deal with’ those who have voted for and who are thought to have voted for the opposition Movement for Democractic Change (MDC) are not empty.“


The IBA notes that during HRW’s visits to Zimbabwe in December 2004 and in February this year, the researchers found "high levels of intimidation", particularly in rural areas. The report documents cases where people were beaten or detained for wearing an MDC scarf or for holding meetings; and threatening visits by ruling party loyalists to households in rural areas or townships to ask about residents’ party affiliations.


Quoting HRW’s chief Africa researcher, Tiseke Kasambala, the IBA said background events in Zimbabwe raise “the spectre of post-election violence’’.


“The government is determined that these elections be seen as peaceful," said Kasambala. "It’s almost a tactic on the part of the government. They know there was widespread violence in 2000 and 2002, therefore they only need to threaten people. Intimidation is more than enough to get people to stay home or vote for ZANU."


Similarly, Brian Kagoro, who chairs the Zimbabwe Crisis Coalition, explains this point graphically,“If your house has been burnt on several occasions, it is not necessary for it to be burnt again. All that is necessary is the presence of those who have the capacity to do so. Where a government has used the past four years to create a climate of political intimidation, killing and trauma, free and fair elections are simply not possible."


The IBA noted that the authorities have made some improvements to electoral systems in an apparent effort to adhere to the SADC’s guidelines and principles for democratic elections.


However, it warns that some of these changes need to be seen in context. For instance, the ballot boxes will be made of translucent material, in line with recommendations for fair elections. But some rural chiefs are telling people that the see-through boxes will allow officials to see who they voted for.


“Some of the changes are seen as positive, but now they seem to have a negative twist to them," said Kasambala, adding that because of the negligible extent of voter education, many Zimbabweans are still not aware that their vote is secret.


Joseph James, president of the Zimbabwe Law Society, said he does not believe the government has made any real effort to comply with the standards set by the SADC.


“The essence of these guidelines is that there should be fairness to all the parties taking part in the elections, and that people should be able to exercise their democratic right to vote in an atmosphere which is free and fair,” said James.


Instead, he said, “selective application of the law” continues, and the authorities are still using legislation such as the Public Order and Security Act and repressive media laws. “Foreign observers need to see how the laws of this country are applied by the executive in order to appreciate the issues,” he added.


Michael Clough, HRW’s advocacy director for Africa, said the credibility of the SADC and South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki are "on the line" in these elections, noting that the reports compiled by their observer missions will indicate the extent to which they have taken significant pre-election factors into account.


Arnold Tsunga, the executive director of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, agrees that these elections will show whether the SADC, and South Africa in particular, are committed to the standards they have set themselves, or whether these principles merely reflect what regional heads of state want to hear.


Tsunga said people need to see behind “the appearance of quietness and the appearance of falling levels of violence".


Fred Bridgland is IWPR’s Zimbabwe project editor based in Johannesburg.