nthposition online magazine

The big steal in Zimbabwe

by Stephen Chan

[ politics | opinion - may 08 ]

When Robert Mugabe remarried, his new wife was immediately christened Amazing Grace by Harare wits, who were astounded by her sudden expertise in jewellery. She is more Amazed Grace today, having pleaded with her husband to acknowledge defeat in the elections and step down gracefully both for his own sake and that of the family. Mugabe did consider that, having become tired and depressed at what he, and all his ZANU-PF party, knew was a defeat.

Word from the Americans was sent up from the South Africans that he would be guaranteed an untroubled retirement, something reiterated by the opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai in the frenetic secret negotiations immediately following the elections. The Americans were prepared to guarantee that Mugabe would not be summonsed before the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Mugabe and Grace would have lived well in their various resplendent homes in Borrowdale Brook, the elite suburb of Harare where power and water cuts never intrude the tree-strewn idyll of ostentatious architectural bling favoured by the Zimbabwean rich and corrupt. Highly corrupt. Most Hollywood stars don’t live like this. Even now, as citizens scour shop shelves for basic foods, it is possible to buy a jacuzzi with built-in water-proof television screen from Harare’s top furniture store – or a great glass dining room table surmounted on a fish tank. The great and bad of Zimbabwe seem to watch their citizens as if they were captive fish, going nowhere fast.

But the election results affected the self-confidence of ZANU-PF badly. They were sure they were going to win and, in their arrogance, had no Plan B. The hastily-improvised slowdown in announcing election results, until presidential results came to a complete standstill, was a tactic thrown into the mix to buy time; to ‘reverse engineer’ the results so that a run-off between Mugabe and Tsvangirai would be declared a necessity; and to prepare to unleash the ‘dogs of war’ to condition the electorate. In this case it would be literally the ‘dogs of war’, with veterans commanded by regular army officers in disguise.

However, the Zimbabwean Politburo was badly divided. Its five-hour marathon session to consider the results swayed one way, then another. Some wanted a concession of defeat, accompanied by hard bargaining for post-election immunities and privileges from the opposition. But the triumphant military-led hardliners were uncertain of how far immunities could guarantee their futures. Mugabe might not have been heading for The Hague, but some of them – particularly those who commanded the slaughters in the western Matabelelands of Zimbabwe in the 1980s – would be.

To an extent, and Simba Makoni, in his advertisements, made this point: Mugabe is as much a captive of his hardliners as he is their leader. Makoni’s own defection from ZANU-PF was never really a defection as such. It was a break from the hardliners only. He was, and is, the technocratic face of ZANU-PF, perhaps even the humane face, ZANU-PF-lite.

But the electorate was not persuaded by Makoni’s late entry into the ranks of the critical and disaffected. They were very much persuaded by Tsvangirai’s persistence and record of brave endurance over several years of opposition. Everyone knows his faults but the electorate wanted to reward his integrity – that quality being in astoundingly short supply in a Zimbabwe of great concentrated wealth and huge poverty and deprivation. The sheer grind of existence, with people wandering almost aimlessly about in the vague hope that they will find food for their families, and that they will have enough money to pay for it, has become a street spectacle in all the cities.

As a frivolous example, I could find coffee. On my first day in Harare, eleven days before the election, a cup cost me Zim$50 million. When I left Harare, four days after the election, it cost me Zim$70 million. Given the deterioration in the political situation since then, it would now cost significantly more. An unskilled but experienced worker, lucky enough to be in employment, earned about Zim$700 million a month in March 2008. That person could therefore, that month, buy 10 cups of coffee.

Perhaps Robert Mugabe has invented the ‘Harare diet’ and will sell it as the latest fad for the Hollywood stars his elite are assiduously copying.

My own figures and their extrapolations had Morgan Tsvangirai winning more than the 50% required to claim the presidency. As the parliamentary results began coming through, with aching slowness, it was clear that the ZANU-PF majorities were being increased to sometimes absurd margins, and the opposition majorities were often declared to be very narrow indeed. The idea, even in those early days, was to be able to say that the popular vote went to ZANU-PF, even if the parliamentary seats went narrowly to the opposition. That popular vote was to be reflected in the presidential figures. But it was not to be. Even that kind of tampering was not enough to present a win for Robert Mugabe. Now, the ‘scam’ to ‘recount’ not only a number of disputed parliamentary votes, but the presidential votes in that same constituency is designed to prompt a belated announcement that a run-off will be required.

The prospect of a run-off was being shouted from the ZANU-PF rooftops long before any sign of an announcement of formal results. There are a lot of people running scared in ZANU-PF, and their time-honoured tactic is now to start running violent. The time this has taken, however, has allowed ZANU-PF to formulate a reluctant Plan B – and this has been with much South African pressure applied. The discourse is slowly changing to a ‘power-sharing’ government, and the behind-the-scenes arguments are over the share-out. Morgan Tsvangirai (rightly) seeks the presidency, but ZANU-PF wants at least a time-limited Mugabe continuation in office, perhaps with Tsvangirai to inherit the mantle, but only after all the ZANU-PF vested interests have been consolidated for a future resurgence. This will have nothing to do with a democracy of the people – who would have had their country and their electoral victory eaten away from them by a party that has exhibited such a lack of grace that even an arch-sceptic like myself is amazed.