Zimbabwe goes to the brink

The "Big Man", last of the independence leaders, never seriously contemplated defeat writes Alec Rus

As starry-eyed supporters of the Zimbabwean opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) queued to vote on Saturday 29 March there were far too many police around for them to dare make their feelings plain. So, instead, a series of irreverent text messages hummed from polling station to polling station across the country.

"Bob 23 verses one to five," started one, a spoof of Psalm 23. "Mugabe is my shepherd I shall not work. He makes me to lie down on park benches. He leads me to be a thief, a prostitute, a liar and an asylum-seeker. He restores my faith in MDC. He guides me in the path of unemployment. Though I walk in the valley of Zim I shall still be hungry!!!"

"Do you know anyone with a pick-up truck?" ran another. "I have a client who I want to move. He is moving this weekend from State House to Kutama [Mugabe's rural retreat]."

For almost 24 hours the same giddy mood prevailed among supporters of the MDC. Few celebrated publicly. Most in Harare walked home from the polls - almost everyone walks in Zimbabwe these days to save the cost of a standard bus fare, Z$40,000 or about US$1, equivalent to a tenth of a standard labourer's monthly wage - keeping their voting preference to themselves and their close friends. But increasingly people dared to dream that, after 28 years in power - and three disputed elections in the past eight years - the "old man" was finally on his way out.

Such optimism reached fever pitch after a pre-dawn press conference on the Sunday morning following voting, when Tendai Biti, the puckish secretary general of the MDC, strode to a podium and informed bleary-eyed diplomats and journalists that his party was comfortably ahead. But, for watchers of state television, it all came to a juddering halt a few minutes before midnight on Sunday night. ZBC was playing an unbelievably bad movie premised on Jim Hawkins running into Long John Silver in the Caribbean 20 years after the Treasure Island escapade and falling in love with his daughter.

Suddenly Long John et al vanished off the screen to be replaced by the expressionless features of a correspondent at the state-appointed Zimbabwe Election Commission (ZEC).

The presenter quickly introduced Judge George Chiweshe, chairman of the ZEC. He had last been seen that same day as he was chased across the lobby of a Harare hotel by outraged MDC supporters demanding to know why he had not released any results. This time he was on safer ground. He was in the election command centre in central Harare.

People who were complaining about the time it was taking to verify the results should be patient, he told the nation. "It's an involving and laborious process. It takes time for results to filter through." And as for "stakeholders" (read the MDC) who had ventured to release early results: "The commission would like to reiterate that it and it alone is the sole legitimate source of all results."

Innocents in the world of Zimbabwe's ruling Zanu-PF party might have struggled to understand the import of what developed into a 20-minute ramble. To the MDC, however, the message was all too stark. After 24 hours of seemingly being stunned into silence, the authorities had returned to the fray: Mugabe and Zanu-PF were not going to go easily.

Party insiders say that Mugabe was startled by the initial returns from polling stations, which made it clear he was heading for defeat.

For the previous 12 months his senior aides had stacked the odds in his favour. In March last year they gave orders to agricultural equipment companies to have large numbers of rotivators, and rather smaller numbers of tractors, ready for March 2008. These were duly rolled out with great fanfare to small farmers in impoverished rural communities in the weeks leading up to the 29 March vote. Food aid was doled out to party supporters and, according to a dogged Human Rights Watch researcher, Tiseke Kasambala, denied to MDC supporters. The ZBC churned out endless encomia to the president, or the Fist of Empowerment, as he is called on election posters.

Meanwhile, day after day, giant rallies of happy, smiling people greeted him on the campaign trail, presumably reassuring him that the opposition talk of economic implosion had not been accepted by his loyal people.

As the New Statesman went to press it was clear that despite Zanu-PF's advantages it was all but impossible for it to deny the MDC had won and also that insiders in the ruling party were realising there was no way to massage the outcome. A projection by an independent survey group underlined the difficulty the ZEC would have in issuing results giving Mugabe victory. The findings gave Morgan Tsvangirai's MDC 49.4 per cent, with Mugabe 41.8 per cent.

This suggested that the MDC leader was below the 50 per cent-plus-one vote mark he needed to avoid a run-off, but the MDC's results suggested he had enough votes to avoid a run-off. In short, Mugabe had been beaten.

He was not going to go without a fight. On Sunday night he met the "securocrats" of the Joint Operations Command, the body of security, intelligence and military chiefs who in recent years have increasingly dominated policymaking. According to some accounts of the meeting, some dared to take a "dovish" stance and suggest that the veteran autocrat should consider reaching an accommodation with the MDC.

The ultra-hawks urging an immediate declaration of a state of emergency were believed to have been talked out of such a drastic response. But what is widely believed to have been the final decision was hardly conciliatory. It was to stall for time, order the ZEC to dribble out results slowly and see if they could not end up "fixing" the election in the counting process, a senior former Zanu-PF official said. Not long afterwards, the ZBC interrupted Treasure Island 2 or whatever it was and introduced Chiweshe into Zimbabwean living rooms.

The phenomenon of a long-serving independence leader being rejected by his people has been seen before in Southern Africa. Kenneth Kaunda, the veteran Zambian leader with a penchant for waving handkerchiefs, was unceremoniously dumped by the electorate in 1991. Then, in 1994, Hastings Banda, the eccentric Malawian tyrant, suffered a similar ejection from State House. Both ultimately accepted their lot.

In recent weeks both Tsvangirai and Simba Makoni, Mugabe's other challenger, a former finance minister, have tried to tempt Mugabe to bow out gracefully. Both indicated to me in interviews that they would not seek to humiliate the former hero of the independence era if he lost.

Clinging to power

But while Mugabe was unwilling to follow the lead of these regional predecessors - Harare legend has it that he laughed scornfully when he heard that Kaunda had lost power through the ballot box - increasingly, as the days passed after the elections, MDC optimism grew that a deal would be struck with some of the more conciliatory generals loyal to his regime. They would then, the MDC hoped, aided by support from regional leaders, persuade Mugabe to step down.

The smart money among diplomats and regional analysts is betting that even if Mugabe does finagle his way back into power and cheat Tsvangirai of his apparent victory, he cannot hope to last long in office. Makoni's defection, while not backed in public by many senior cadres, reflects an increasingly mutinous sentiment within Zanu-PF. While inflation on paper is a "mere" 100,000 per cent, economists expect it may be 500,000 by the end of this month.

Whatever happens, Mugabe's aura of invincibility has been destroyed by the dramatic events of the past week.

An extension of his rule, even by, say, six months, would be a disaster for Zimbabwe. Yet more desperate people would flee across the southern border to join the between one and three million who have already crossed into South Africa. Infant mortality, illiteracy and all those other statistics that made Zimbabwe in Mugabe's early years in power the envy of sub-Saharan Africa would continue to rise.

In short, the spoof Psalm 23 would suddenly seem rather unfunny. At the time of writing it was still possible that Mugabe would try to dig his heels in one last time. But there was a sense that one of the last of Africa's "Big Men" independence leaders was on his way out.

Alec Russell is Southern Africa correspondent of the Financial Times

Zimbabwe in numbers

100,000+% rate of inflation

Z$100,000 = £1.70

Z$6.6m official cost of a loaf of bread

Z$15m black-market cost of a loaf of bread

37 average life expectancy

80% unemployment rate

15.6% of population is infected with HIV/Aids

75% of doctors emigrate after earning medical degree

45% of Zimbabweans are malnourished

5.9m registered voters

9m ballots printed by Electoral Commission

Research by Jax Jacobsen

This article first appeared in the 07 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, British jihad

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit: monbiot.com/music/

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood