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10 April 2000

The long war against democracy

The real battle in Zimbabwe is not against white farmers. Mugabe's target is a black middle-class co

By Stuart Weir

Comrade Dzikamai Mavhaire MP hobbles towards me, badly injured, down Union Avenue, Harare. He is with two friendly Zanu-PF MPs. I express my concern about his injuries as he enters the old colonial Parliament building of Zimbabwe, where, remarkably, a portrait in oils of Ian Smith still hangs.

Mavhaire, formerly a powerful Zanu-PF provincial officer, has been “blackdogged” twice, my companion tells me. He was removed from party office for proposing that the Zimbabwe president should be limited to two terms in office, outraging MPs loyal to Mugabe. Mavhaire was suspended and, in addition, was twice knocked down in the street by official-looking trucks: “black-dogged” in the vernacular.

This side of the Mugabe regime’s brutality tends to be overlooked by the media which has concentrated on the lawless occupations of white-owned farms and the bloody suppression last weekend of a white farmers’ march by a gang of thugs (who emerged from the Zanu-PF headquarters in Harare and returned there afterwards). But for years now, Zanu-PF thugs have been engaged in a campaign of physical and psychological intimidation of political opponents, strikers and all who displease the authorities.

Just a week before the farmers’ march, another gang of thugs, some wearing Zanu-PF T-shirts, tried to disrupt a 20,000-strong rally organised by the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) at Bindura Showgrounds. They beat Douglas Sarumere, of the MDC, and others with beer bottles, iron bars and knobkerries, and destroyed his car and two lorries. Sarumere says that the provincial governor was with the gang, but disappeared when things got violent. Another activist was attacked after the rally and has since been reported dead.

The beatings and violence are intended to frighten dissenters and rebels and warn off everyone else. Margaret Dongo, the sole independent MP in the Zimbabwean Parliament who stood against Zanu-PF in Harare and won a re-run after exposing vote- rigging against her, was fire-bombed when she attended a rally for an independent mayoral candidate near Harare. The independent candidate was beaten near to death.

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Three years ago, a gang of men, reliably supposed to be from the security forces, tried to throw Morgan Tsvangirai, the formidable trade unionist who now leads the MDC, out of his 10th-floor office window. He was then organising protests and strikes against economic policies that were ruining Zimbabwe and pushing the price of basic foodstuffs, notably sadza (maize), beyond the means of ordinary Zimbabweans. Thugs also attacked a trade union demonstration against rising food prices, just as other gangs savagely beat people campaigning for a “no vote” in Mugabe’s referendum in February.

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Zimbabweans believe that the notorious Central Intelligence Organisation has long been deeply involved in this strategy of intimidation. They also believe that those prominent in the democratic movement in Zimbabwe are under constant surveillance. Mugabe has also long been cultivating the menacing rage of his storm- troopers, the paid war veterans and their younger adherents who are now at the forefront of the occupation campaign. One of their leaders went under the sobriquet “Hitler” during the liberation struggle. For several years their marches in Harare have been calculated to strike fear into the hearts of the people; their latest anti-farmer rally in March was not only for Zanu-PF but against the “saboteurs” of the MDC. It is hard to know where the reckless violence that Mugabe has unleashed will end. But his purpose should not be mistaken.

Ever since independence, the president has neglected the land issue and shared the best of the white-owned farms that have been taken over among his cronies. Mugabe simply sees the land issue as a populist cause around which he can retain power and beat off the MDC. He hoped that by making land an issue during the referendum he would smuggle through proposals to extend his personal power. He failed, but still believes he can foment sufficient anger, confusion and fear to win the delayed parliamentary elections and carry on as president. The elections, which may be held in May, will certainly be violent.

White farmers are Mugabe’s scapegoats. His real enemy is the democratic movement in Zimbabwe, whose challenge to his autocratic rule represents a real threat which is consistently underplayed by the western media. This is partly because western journalists tend to see the MDC as a conventional political party and do not perceive its strong roots in an urban black bourgeoisie that is committed to modernity – from baseball caps, all-in wrestling and the best rock music in Africa to liberal democracy.

From independence, Mugabe’s consistent aim was to merge state and party into a one-party state under his rule. In the 1980s he forced Zanu’s sole rival, Zapu, to capitulate through a cruel campaign of murder and torture in the villages of Matabeleland, the stronghold of Zapu supporters. His Fifth Brigade, trained by North Koreans, slaughtered thousands of men, women and children. Mugabe did become head of a de facto one-party state, but in 1990 his own party blocked constitutional changes designed to legalise his power permanently.

But his apparently impregnable position began to crumble just as the Berlin Wall fell, symbolising the end of totalitarianism in the Soviet empire. A severe drought and recession in 1992, structural adjustment policies, at first domestic then imposed from outside, high inflation and a forced devaluation in 1994 impoverished Zimbabwe. The incompetence, violence, greed and corruptions of the Mugabe regime can hardly be exaggerated, but western capitalism has also played its part in the destruction of a naturally rich country.

At the 1990 elections, the Zimbabwe Unity Movement (ZUM) put candidates up against Zanu-PF and met with intimidation and violence. But while the poor in rural Zimbabwe still backed Mugabe, the intellectuals and bourgeoisie of Harare and Bulawayo began to piece together a democratic resistance. Other states in sub- Saharan Africa were removing their tyrants; why should not Zimbabwe? Courageous men and women in human rights and other pressure groups fought back against the arbitrary party-state. The trade unions, which had remained separate from Zanu-PF, organised the workers in Zimbabwe’s small formal economy. Churches of all denominations backed the growing demands for democratisation and the organisations that advanced them.

In parliament, the Speaker, Cyril Ndebele, promoted a parliamentary reform committee, which, while carefully avoiding a direct challenge to Mugabe, debated constitutional change at public meetings throughout Zimbabwe, took evidence from the most vigorous pressure groups and finally issued a forward-looking report on strengthening the state’s accountability to parliament in May 1998. A parliament dominated by Zanu-PF accepted the report. Zanu-PF MPs were increasingly willing to vote against the control freaks at the centre.

Finally, the MDC was formed and a democratic alliance began to press the case for constitutional reform. Mugabe at once created an official reform commission that embarked upon a huge programme of public consultation, taking evidence in every province. The people’s will was clearly for curbing his powers, limiting his term of office and strengthening parliament; less palatably, it was also as homophobic as Mugabe himself. But, last year, Mugabe’s followers on the commission unilaterally imposed their master’s proposals and solemnly presented them to the president. These were the basis for the referendum that Mugabe hoped would legitimise his continuing hold on power.

Mugabe is now deep in trouble. Zanu-PF is more unpopular than ever, the stench of corruption hangs over his regime, the economy is disintegrating, a harsh devaluation looms. The never-ending fuel shortage daily reminds the public of his blunders and corruptions and the hated military intervention in Congo-Kinshasa. Even the once loyal rural population no longer trusts him. And a thoroughly documented report on the 1980s massacres in Matabeleland and the Midlands by a Catholic commission has revealed how bloody the birth of Mugabe’s regime was.

The MDC knows it can win the May elections. But Mugabe will fight dirty. He means to use the state security apparatus and the lawless war veterans to scare off rural opposition and to rig the electoral process. The Zanu-PF politbureau remains loyal, or at least silent. But at the larger Central Committee meeting in March, delegates neither stood up for nor cheered Mugabe as he entered the hall. Bolder comrades suggested he should make his future political plans clearer – in other words, asked when he would retire. The courtiers are already jostling for the succession. The Mugabe regime is close to its end. The danger is that, just as it was born in blood, it will die in blood.

Professor Stuart Weir is director of Democratic Audit, University of Essex, and an international consultant on democratisation