Terrorists don't change their spots

On the eve of Zimbabwe's elections, R W Johnson argues that Robert Mugabe never believed in democrac

A great deal of commentary on the unfolding tragedy of Zimbabwe starts from the proposition that President Robert Mugabe and his ruling Zanu-PF had formed, until quite recently, a relatively progressive and enlightened government and that the current slide into anarchy is largely the result of social tensions resulting from the unresolved land issue. This is utterly misleading, and not only because the government could have dealt with the land issue long ago if it had wanted to and is now using it as a smokescreen for a campaign of terror.

The truth is that Mugabe and Zanu-PF were never democrats. They came to power demanding majority rule and were happy to bask in the majority approval they un-doubtedly enjoyed for many years. But every election since independence in 1980 has been marred by Zanu-PF violence against its opponents; and, as is now only too apparent, they have no respect for majority rule if that majority is minded to vote for somebody else. "By my ghost," Mugabe shouts in Shona at his rallies, "I will never allow anyone else to rule this country."

In January and February this year, the Helen Suzman Foundation carried out the first national opinion survey in Zimbabwe for many years. The results, garnered from 1,000 rural and 900 urban households, were striking - 65 per cent wanted Mugabe to step down right away; 69 per cent said they were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the government; only 35 per cent wanted Zanu-PF to continue in power; and 68 per cent lacked confidence that the government was telling the truth. The survey was held at exactly the same time as the constitutional referendum, and it cast doubt on the validity of the referendum result, which showed far lower levels of anti-government feeling. It looked very much as if Mugabe's government had rigged the referendum - yet still lost it.

Opposition feeling had yet to crystal- lise fully. The survey showed Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) lagging behind Mugabe by 30 per cent, but half of the electorate either refused to answer or were undecided. Nonetheless, the auguries for the MDC were very good. Many voters were only just becoming aware of it, and the referendum victory had helped it enormously. The momentum was clearly on its side.

The overwhelming feeling from the survey was that the president and his party had, after 20 years, simply worn out their welcome. Moreover, their concerns were no longer the same as those of the voters. Whereas Mugabe endlessly harped on the land question and inveighed against whites, the survey showed that only 9 per cent thought the land question was the most important issue, compared to 76 per cent who placed economic issues first; 80 per cent said it was not sensible to blame the whites for the country's problems. Overwhelmingly, voters blamed the government not only for the wretched state of the economy, but also for its failure to solve the land question: 55 per cent wanted things to stay just as they were on the land, leaving the white farmers in place, while a further 13 per cent actually thought that white farmers who had left should be invited back.

The survey had a large impact, not only in Zimbabwe, but also internationally. Unfortunately, as the message sank in that the government was facing defeat in the referendum, Mugabe and Zanu-PF fell back on the use of state-sponsored terror to try to change the electoral arithmetic. Only in South Africa are the farm invasions still seen as being about the land issue: elsewhere, they are recognised as a cover for a campaign of intimidation that has included mass beatings, torture, organised gang-rapes and murder.

In a sense, this should come as no surprise. Zanu-PF presents itself as the party that won the liberation struggle, but this is only partly true. Zanu was born with a petrol bomb in its hand: when it split from Zapu in 1963, it established its presence in the Harare townships in the most forceful way possible. The tactics worked - and there were, in any case, no elections to fight. Then, from 1974 on, basing itself in Mozambique, its military wing, Zanla, waged an increasingly successful guerrilla struggle within Rhodesia. While there were firefights with the Rhodesian forces, the emphasis of this struggle was terrorist - the "taking out" of farmers and their families and, even more, the exertion of pressure on the black peasantry to take their side.

Nobody should doubt Zanla's ruthlessness with its own people: villagers who were declared "sell-outs" would have their ears and lips cut off so as to provide a dread, walking example to others.

Inevitably, Zanu's dependence on such methods led to an extreme form of vanguardist arrogance. The party leadership, with no experience of electoral democracy, decided on policy, tactics and strategy, and the duty of the masses was to fall into line behind it. If the masses hesitated, it merely meant that they needed to be "mobilised" and "re-educated".

When, finally, the Smith regime succumbed and agreed to a universal suff- rage election, Mugabe's instinct was to refuse: he had no trust in the ballot box and would rather come to power by the means that had served him so well already. Only after pressure from other party leaders did Mugabe reluctantly decide to go along. Even so, Zanla cheated outrageously. The guerrillas were supposed to be confined to assembly camps so as to allow a peaceful civilian election, but large numbers of Zanla guerrillas continued to roam the villages. In almost a third of the country, Zanla made it impossible for anyone other than Zanu to campaign. In some cases, anti-Zanu activists and candidates simply disappeared - one was last seen having red-hot coals forced down his throat.

This fearsome message was reinforced by outbreaks of violence at every subsequent election. The Helen Suzman Foundation survey found that only 30 per cent of people felt they could criticise the government without fear of violence.

Against this background, it should come as no surprise that Mugabe has again opted for a campaign of terror against his opponents. Mugabe was happy to accept electoral anointment by the majority while it was a majority; now it has ceased to be that, he has fallen back on what serves him best. The terror campaign of 2000 bears all the old hallmarks: the gang-rapes; the systematic beatings; the hut-burning; the terrible re-education sessions with the forced singing of Zanu-PF songs; the torture and the murders; above all, the arrogant assumption that the liberation vanguard knows best and that its will must be done.

What is at stake in Zimbabwe is more than the plight of individuals or political parties. The rule of law, prospects for multi-party democracy and for future development are all on the line. An ageing liberation culture is being broken on the anvil of its own corruption and arrogance; but in its death agony, it is willing to pull down the whole country with it. It may succeed for a little longer, but its demise is now certain. Even if Zanu-PF can somehow terrorise the electorate into giving it a fresh majority, there is no escape via that route. The IMF, World Bank and other donors will want nothing to do with such a regime, the economy will spiral down and, with it, the government. For the sake of Zimbabwe - and in the interests of all democrats in southern Africa - one must hope that ordinary Zimbabweans, hard-pressed as they are, will find the courage on 24 and 25 June to vote for a different future.