As I left one veteran activist’s home in Harare after an evening discussing the forthcoming election, I pointed at the green water in his swimming pool and joked about him not doing much exercise. No, he replied, he used that for his washing and cleaning, along with the contents of plastic containers, filled on the rare occasions there is running water. So limited are supplies, he washes from a bucket each day.
It was a small reminder that life in Zimbabwe remains grim. Things are better than at the last presidential election, in 2008, when the second-worst hyperinflation in history shut hospitals, emptied shops and left people starving as rampant Aids carved its cruel course. The introduction of the dollar stabilised the economy but most people are still unemployed, poverty is endemic and public services are creaking. All the while, a gangster government talks of revolutionary struggle even as it steals vast sums from the country’s diamond and gold mines.
The hastily called election campaign is brief to ensure that Robert Mugabe – now 89 and suffering from cancer, and who has led the country since its independence in 1980 – can sustain the staged rallies that “supporters” of his party, Zanu-PF, are forced to attend. He has softened his language to placate the international community. Yet there are still rants against homosexuals and gibes that members of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change are British stooges. This time around, they are accompanied by sexual slurs against the MDC’s leader, Morgan Tsvangirai; rivals accuse him of sleeping with scores of women since his first wife died four years ago.
There are, of course, rather more serious issues at stake. In the last general election, the MDC won a clear majority, leaving Mugabe reportedly ready to resign. Instead, the generals and security goons who run the country told him to stay and spent weeks manipulating the result to ensure a second-round run-off. They unleashed savage violence that left hundreds of rival supporters dead and thousands injured, and forced Tsvangirai from the ballot.
Foreign diplomats, raising the spectre of the International Criminal Court, forced the warring parties into uneasy coalition with Mugabe as president and Tsvangirai as impotent prime minister. The MDC has been tarnished by the trappings of power. Meanwhile, Mugabe’s gang has milked the diamond mines, earning billions in deals with the Chinese that have fuelled an alarming arms build-up, and has pushed “indigenisation” policies under which white people can, for instance, no longer own beauty salons.
As polling day loomed, Harare had an air of normality – but it seemed fragile, and undercut by fear. I went to the launch of an election special for the hit online comedy Zambezi News, which bravely satirises the propaganda on state-controlled television. A crowd of young professionals laughed loudly; one wore a beret from Mugabe’s clothing line, presumably a supporter. Afterwards, the show’s stars told me they had received warnings from the security forces, not something to take lightly in a country with so many suspicious car crashes.
Mugabe, who despite everything craves respect, is desperate to be seen to win on 31 July so he can have the last western sanctions against him lifted. Most were suspended after a referendum on a new constitution in March – a worrying sign of weakening resolve against a resolutely repressive regime. As I revealed at the weekend with a dossier of leaked intelligence documents, his party has tried to rig the ballot with the help of an Israeli technology company and the Chinese government, funded by dubious diamond firms and businessmen. With this has come the usual intimidation of voters, misuse of patronage and preparations to unleash terror.
If Mugabe wins, will the world rubber-stamp a blatantly stolen election – especially amid growing indications of tawdry deals with some Southern African countries that are providing observers? Even then, there is no guarantee that the factions fighting to succeed Mugabe can be held together. There are already rumours of China and Israel backing different groups, and of violence between rivals to come.
Yet if the MDC wins, as would almost certainly be the case in fair elections, few expect this regime to concede power. So will the generals just unleash their militias again? Or would they mount a coup under the hardline defence minister, Emmerson Mnangagwa? Sadly, only one thing is certain: this wounded nation faces more turmoil as it struggles to emerge from the darkness that has engulfed it for too long.
Ian Birrell is a contributing editor for the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday