Friday, August 02, 2013

Zimbabwe: Age is no drawback in the Republic of Mugabwe

Age is no drawback in the Republic of Mugabwe

1 August 2013

Source: ISS

Peter Fabricius, Foreign Editor, Independent Newspapers, South Africa

I spent a few days just before the elections in the Republic of Mugabwe, just across the Limpopo, not to report but as a guest of local editors and media freedom activists. Nevertheless it was impossible to avoid talking about what were then the imminent 31 July elections. I call it Mugabwe because it used to be named after the arch-imperialist Cecil John Rhodes who founded the country during the 19th century. Now it might just as well be named after the arch-anti-imperialist who ousted the last white ruler in 1980 and has ruled the country ever since. And because is a state largely dedicated to the power and glory of this grand chef, Africa’s last remaining liberation war hero president.

In one of the independent newspapers was a framed copy of an old poster which quoted the police chief saying that President Robert Mugabe had been appointed by God. The implication of course was that only God could remove him from office. That belief gives a peculiar flavour to elections. Unlike in most other countries, elections in Mugabwe, it seemed, are not really about giving the people an opportunity to choose their leader. They are essentially a ritual re-affirmation of the potency and popularity of Mugabe. That means the opposition must be given what looks superficially like a fair chance of unseating him. But in the end Mugabe must always win.

Maybe I’ll be proven wrong over the next few days and Mugabe’s main ‘rival’ Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), will finally oust him at the third attempt. After all he bested him in their last contest in 2008, before the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) unleashed its full violent power against his supporters to cow him into withdrawing from the second round of elections and giving an uncontested victory to Mugabe. In the power-sharing unity government which the Southern African Development Community (SADC) persuaded Mugabe to go into with Tsvangirai’s MDC and the smaller MDC, Mugabe and ZANU-PF retained all the hard power, leaving the MDCs to perform chores like keeping the economy, the schools and the hospitals ticking over.

One of the big questions about the current elections is whether Mugabe will take the iron fist out of the kid glove. The elections went off peacefully. But many Zimbabweans recalled that the first round of the 2008 elections was also peaceful – but not the second. Judging by Mugabe’s rare display of charm on the eve of voting, he expected to win on the first round this time. He gave a public assurance that he would step down if he lost the election. Presumably he was struck by the irony of the tremendous publicity this statement of the seemingly obvious generated.

Most Zimbabweans and diplomats I spoke to felt sure Mugabe and ZANU-PF would win again this time, probably on the first round. Certainly they had created the opportunity for doing so with a voters’ roll that excluded tens of thousands of voters mostly in the MDC urban strongholds, mainly because the registration process was rushed to meet the 31 July election date. And the voters’ roll conversely also contains tens of thousands of ghost voters, some well over 100 years old, according to the few analysts who have seen it. All those ghost voters could very well have come out to vote for Mugabe and ZANU-PF on 31 July, if called upon.

However even some MDC sympathisers in civil society suspect that Mugabe may not need them, or not many of them. His violent land reforms since 2000 may have sabotaged the economy and benefitted many Mugabe cronies. But thousands of small farmers also got bits of farms seized from white farmers and they and their families will surely vote ZANU-PF. And Mugabe’s indigenisation policy, promising his supporters also a slice of white businesses, has apparently resonated with many young Zimbabweans, even if that policy too is proving destructive economically.

But of course ZANU-PF’s policies have always been about short-term retention of power rather than long-term investment in the economy. And so the ZANU-PF local government minister Ignatius Chombo stole a march on the MDC which controls the cities, by cancelling billions of dollars of arrears in water bills for city dwellers. This was a promise unlikely to be kept – because it would probably cripple the cities – though it no doubt bought some votes. It is also true that Tsvangirai and the MDC did not do their cause much good by their performance in government, which also contributed to the likelihood of a first round victory for Mugabe.

And Mugabe probably needed a first round victory because he didn’t want to have to resort to violence again, with many more election observers from the African Union, SADC and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) in the country this time, on the lookout for a repeat of 2008. The second round election violence in 2008 was so grim that even many opposition Zimbabweans said they would almost prefer Mugabe to win on the first round than to go through another second round campaign.

One almost detected an underlying and unspeakable hope by many opposition sympathisers that Mugabe and ZANU-PF would win because the implications of a Tsvangirai-MDC victory were so uncertain and unnerving. The generals are still on record as saying they would not serve Tsvangirai. The implication is that they would carry out a coup if he won. More than once I heard the sentiment expressed that ‘democratisation is a long-term process’, implying that the country would not yet be ready for it in these elections.

I did not feel the tension and the anxiety, the electricity in the air one would have expected if people really believed Tsvangirai and the MDC would win – or, perhaps that should rather be, if Mugabe and ZANU-PF allowed them to win – with the huge uncertainty that would usher in. Mugabe’s age really showed in this campaign. Since the MDC parties have been in government, Zimbabweans now know that their great leader often dozes off in cabinet meetings. And during the election campaign they discovered – courtesy of the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation which faithfully transmitted his every word – that his speeches had become even more rambling than before, interspersed with longer pauses and following an even more tortuous logic.

Mugabe partly rejuvenated himself vicariously by taking his much younger wife Grace with him on the campaign trail, more or less repeating his messages with greater vigour. And his campaign posters carried almost unrecognisable photographs of him taken more than 20 years ago. But he was not able to disguise his age completely and that surely counted against him.

One of the voters on the roll, presumably the oldest, is Nhlanhla Khumalo, a soldier whose date of birth is registered on the roll as 15 August 1885, making him 127 years old. So the people presumably need not fear if they have re-elected a president this week to continue ruling the Republic of Mugabwe until he is 94 – and then perhaps to run again. In Zimbabwe, clearly, age is not a disadvantage.