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

Zimbabwe Poll Augurs Ill for Africa

In the wake of the election, some African leaders will feel they no longer have any obligation to increase democratic space.
By IWPR Srdan

Africa passed through a major historic and developmental threshold, replete with huge dangers for the continent as a whole, following Zimbabwe’s recent parliamentary election.


It has become increasingly clear that yet again Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe managed to rig massively, with huge cunning and ruthlessness, the outcome of an election that has given him a two-thirds majority - which, in turn, permits him to change the constitution in any way he wishes.


He won 78 of the 120 directly elected seats - and appointed another 30 directly - in spite of having engineered an economy that is shrinking faster than any other on earth, accompanied by the world’s top inflation rate, which for a while topped 600 per cent.


It could be described as something of a miracle that he managed to secure a democratic landslide despite having given his people eighty per cent unemployment; food shortages that are causing deaths by starvation; and a collapsed health service that has seen life expectancy fall to 33 from 58 at independence and which is unable to help a population so widely infected with HIV that 500 Zimbabweans die each day of AIDS.


The fraudulent poll spells more disaster for ordinary Zimbabweans while enhancing the riches of the avaricious military men, corrupt civil servants and bent judges Mugabe has gathered into his inner circle.


However, analysts, journalists and a wide range of other people who care about Africa know that Zimbabwe’s election was less a test of Mugabe’s credibility and reputation – which are already beyond repair – than the standing of other leaders on the continent, and most particularly that of Thabo Mbeki.


Mbeki, president of Zimbabwe’s powerful neighbour, South Africa, stunned the international community when a few days before the March 31 poll in Zimbabwe he proclaimed from the steps of parliament in Cape Town, “I have no reason to think that anybody in Zimbabwe will act in any way that will militate against the elections being free and fair.”


That paved the way for Mbeki’s labour minister, Membathisi Mdladlana, leader of the official South African government election observer mission, to declare the poll, which had yet to take place, free and fair within 30 minutes of his arrival in Zimbabwe.


Mdladlana told reporters in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare, including local journalists who had been detained and beaten up by Zimbabwe’s police, that too many people had concluded in advance, unlike himself and his president, that the poll would not be free and fair. “Those people are a problem and a nuisance,” he said. “But nobody attacks them. Some of us are fed with their lies.”


Welshman Ncube, secretary general of the Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, the country’s main opposition party, accused Mbeki and Mdladlana of taking partisan stances that are “an affront to the ideals that guided liberation struggles across Africa”.


Ncube added, “The South Africans have let us down. History will judge them very harshly indeed. They have sanitised the illegitimate regime of Robert Mugabe and ZANU PF. The South African government continues to go out of its way to act as the servant of ZANU PF repression against the Zimbabwean people’s struggle for democracy and freedom.”


What is extraordinary and puzzling about Mbeki’s stand, apart from the long-term damage it will cause South Africa, now shorn of its historic romantic gloss following the departure from the political scene of Nelson Mandela, is that he and other heads of state of the 14-member Southern African Development Community,SADC, southern Africa’s most important regional grouping, spent a huge amount of energy seven months ago drafting guidelines for free and fair elections at a summit in Mauritius.


The document was even signed by Mugabe, and it won worldwide acclaim.


Yet it is now clear it was all a charade. Mugabe had no intention of applying the guidelines. It is equally clear that neither Mbeki nor the other SADC leaders intended calling him to account. Cynical SADC governments can now exploit the gaping holes that Mugabe has driven through the protocol.


In the end, however, South Africa and the SADC are already paying the price in terms of lost credibility in the developed world, where they should have important roles to play in negotiating a better deal for the struggling nations of Africa and particularly for the legions of the poor.


The immediate obvious damage, following the rigged election, will be the collapse of enthusiasm for helping Africa at the G8 summit in Scotland in July and for British prime minister Tony Blair’s Commission for Africa. Few of these powerful governments will dare ask their electorates to take seriously all Mbeki’s rhetoric about an African renaissance. Far from having moved forward, Africa seems to have moved back a decade after Mugabe’s victory. A clutch of African leaders will read the signs and feel they no longer have any obligation to increase democratic space.


First in the queue will be Angola’s president Eduardo dos Santos who must hold parliamentary elections next year. It is a safe bet that he and his ruling MPLA party have watched events in Zimbabwe with interest and Mugabe’s box of tricks will look attractive to a party wanting to stay in power, especially knowing no one of any power in the region will ask difficult questions.


And the prime victim of this disaster - and it is a major disaster - will be Mbeki’s much touted doctrine of delivering good squeaky clean governance in Africa in return for better terms of trade with the developed world, debt relief and increased aid. Investment in South Africa - already slack because of the country’s bewilderingly complex ownership and licensing rules and the accompanying mountain of bureaucracy, together with Mbeki’s perplexing denial of the scale of his country’s AIDS crisis - will not accelerate.


Pius Ncube, the outspoken Roman Catholic Archbishop of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s nearest equivalent to South Africa’s renowned Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu, has observed that Mbeki “would be booed in the streets” if he was ever to ask ordinary Zimbabweans what they thought about his views on their country. “The people of Zimbabwe have no respect for Mbeki. They don’t know why he is supporting Mugabe. They don’t understand it,” he said.


Asked what he thinks of Mugabe, the Archbishop said just before the election, “He’s a very, very evil man. The sooner he dies, the better.”


The assault on Mbeki, who is as prickly about criticism as Mugabe, does not only come from without. His South African Communist Party and Congress of South African Trade Unions, Cosatu, partners in the so-called tripartite governing alliance with the African National Congress are furious with the president. Both were refused permission by Mugabe to send observers to the election, and when a Cosatu delegation was manhandled and turned back from Harare after trying to meet fellow Zimbabwe trade unionists, the Cosatu leadership was condemned by the South African government for not respecting Zimbabwe law.


One South African newspaper columnist agreed with Archbishop Ncube. “I’m afraid the only thing we can do is wait for the Grim Reaper to take Mad Bob,” David Bullard wrote in Johannesburg’s Sunday Times. “Why He hasn’t done so already is anyone’s guess, but my informants tell me that not even Hell itself is in a hurry to receive Mugabe.”


And in a searing editorial, the Mail and Guardian newspaper, the ANC’s most valiant media defender in the heyday of apartheid, said, “South Africa has lost the high moral ground. Democracy has been sacrificed by both the South African and Zimbabwean governments. In its place, there is a slavish adherence to democratic form without its substance.


“Mbeki’s support for Mugabe has hurt his international reputation. The new Africa – represented by Mbeki’s New Partnership for Africa’s Development and a revitalised African Union – is another loser.”


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