On the fifth anniversary of Tonderai Ndira's death, how much has changed in Zimbabwe?

Amid all the bloodshed of Zimbabwe’s 2008 election, it was the murder of the 30-year-old Tonderai Ndira that caught the international media’s attention. He became a symbol for the country's political struggles. Five years on, Zimbabwe is transformed, but

The shadows were lengthening when Tonderai Ndira and his two friends huddled around a table in a suburban Harare garden, and started singing in their native Shona. The words were lost on me, but their intensity wasn’t. When they’d finished, Tonderai translated: “That one is all about I'm dedicated to liberate Zimbabwe, so you should not cry when I get killed.” That was March 2007.

At dawn on 14 May, 2008 - not long after Robert Mugabe had lost a first-round Presidential election to his bitter foe Morgan Tsvangirai - Tonderai slept while his wife Plaxedes made porridge for their two children at their home in the impoverished township of Mabvuku, east of Harare. Around eight armed men wearing masks and dressed in plain-clothes barged in and pulled him from his bed. “They’re going to kill me,” Tonderai shouted to his wife, as they dragged him outside, still in his underwear. His children watched from the doorstep as he was shoved into a truck and driven off.

A week later, in a Harare mortuary with bodies on the floor and failing electricity, Cosmas Ndira recognised his brother’s decomposing remains only by his height and his distinctive wrist bangle. According to the post-mortem, he’d been asphyxiated.

Amid all the bloodshed of Zimbabwe’s 2008 election, it was the murder of the 30-year-old Ndira that caught the international media’s attention. In death, the tall, charismatic youth leader for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party, who had been arrested 35 times - more often it’s said, than anyone in the country’s political history - became known as ‘Zimbabwe’s Steve Biko’. Like South Africa’s anti-apartheid icon, he had made the ultimate sacrifice for his country’s freedom.

I first met Tonderai in 2004 and on my regular trips to Zimbabwe he would take me to places which were otherwise off-limits, and introduce me to people on the front-line of the country’s political struggle.

His laid-back manner and languid, reggae man, dread-locked style masked an unshakeable resolve, and an antenna highly tuned to danger. To Zimbabwean activists his deeds became legendary: once when the police were hunting for him he joined the search party without them realising who he was, and twice he escaped custody by jumping out of a truck. But during the febrile days in 2008 when Mugabe’s long reign appeared to be drawing to an end, the regime’s desire to eliminate its enemies took on a new urgency.

Today [14 May], on the fifth anniversary of Tonderai’s abduction and murder and with another election looming, much has changed in Zimbabwe: Tsvangirai and Mugabe are in an uneasy power-sharing agreement, the devastated economy has been revived, a new - albeit flawed - constitution has been agreed, some Western sanctions have been lifted, and Zimbabwe and the UK recently held their first bilateral talks in more than a decade.

Deep political fault-lines remain, but for all its messy, difficult compromises, the accommodation between Tsvangirai’s MDC and Mugabe’s Zanu-PF has improved the lives of many ordinary Zimbabweans. This year’s election could as easily see this relative stability continue, or herald more violence and repression. Yet at some point, past crimes must be reckoned with, and the country’s culture of impunity stretching back more than 30 years finally broken.

When Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980 after a seven-year civil war between Ian Smith’s white minority regime and the guerrilla forces of Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo, an amnesty was granted and no-one was held accountable for the many atrocities committed. Some Rhodesian intelligence and army officers even moved seamlessly to work under the new government - led by the very people they had recently tortured or tried to kill. In 1988 another amnesty was granted, this time for those guilty of the Gukurahundi massacres, in which around 20,000 civilians were murdered by government forces in Matabeleland, western Zimbabwe.

The course of this history isn’t about to change. Last October the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC) was set up to investigate human rights abuses. But its remit was limited to crimes committed after 2009, and in January its chairperson resigned because of its lack of credibility and independence.

Speaking at Tonderai’s funeral, Morgan Tsvangirai demanded justice for the victims of state-sponsored violence: “We can forgive all other things, but I think we would have stretched our humility too far if we forgave this. Mugabe and his cronies are always preaching about sovereignty. They should know that no sovereignty is greater than giving people the right to live,” he said.

Five years on, as Tonderai’s friends and family gather in Mabvuku to remember him, his status among many Zimbabweans as a national hero is secure. But as long as his killers – and the many other perpetrators of political violence in Zimbabwe – evade justice, the “sovereignty” Tsvangirai spoke of remains an illusion.

Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and his wife Elizabeth Tsvangirai in 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.
Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.