Zimbabwe’s Post-Election Violence: The Defeat of the People’s Mandate for Change
Peter Godwin’s The Fear: The Last Days of Robert Mugabe recounts the events in Zimbabwe following the 2008 general elections there. The elections- though subject to widespread tactical corruption, rigging and intimidation- resulted in an overwhelming majority for the MDC. The Movement for Democratic Change- its full title- was formed in 1999 at Rufaro Stadium in Harare, Zimbabwe’s beleaguered capital city. The MDC’s official website states: “The MDC was then formed on the basis of carrying on the struggle of the people, the struggle for jobs, decency and democracy, equal distribution of resources, justice, transparency and equality of all Zimbabweans.” This fundamental of their manifesto poignantly indicates that this struggle of the people had been suspended during the intervening years between the end of the civil war and the party’s inception. These years having been characterised by a tyrannical one party state, the collapse of the country’s agriculture and public services, terminal inflation, and widespread violence against those tribally or politically adverse to ZANU-PF- Mugabe’s party- and its enforcers.
The MDC party has been subject to pro-Mugabe motivated attacks since its inception. It did after all win only four less seats than ZANU-PF, the ruling party, in the first election it contested, its attempts to mobilise grass roots support for democracy and change proving highly successful. The aftermath of this election saw coordinated violence against MDC candidates, members, voters, administrators, you name it. As has every election battle they have fought since.
The party describes fascism as its number one enemy. It describes itself as “the party with a heavy heart”.
The 2008 election was monitored by the SADC, the South African Development Community, among other external agencies. The MDC website states: “South African President Thabo Mbeki was the facilitator and overseer of the electoral process that went on under relatively free and fair conditions.”
This election saw MDC voters mobilised en masse, despite the consistent threat of violence, imprisonment and displacement they face at the hands of the army, CIO, police, youth league and veterans from the 1971-79 civil war, all allied with ZANU-PF. This threat was fully realised in horrifying proportions following the 2008 result. The second clause in the book’s title: “The Last Days of Robert Mugabe”, communicates the expectation of the author and his compatriots following the stark 2008 election outcome. The first clause: “The Fear”, expresses the reality faced by the country’s advocates for change. The aftermath of the election saw political violence against MDC supporters on a scale comparable to the Matabeland massacre in the early eighties. Hundreds were killed and thousands displaced in both instances. The country’s failing hospitals brimmed with those subject to the 2008 purge, which has been filed under the term “politicide” by the international community: the attempt to purge a country of a certain political affiliation. Beatings, torture, and arson are frequent features of the stories of abuse recounted by the victims Peter Godwin encountered.
Thabo Mbeki, one of the ANC’s lead figures in the fight against apartheid, responded to the onslaught of post-election violence by posing arm-in-arm with Mugabe for the cameras and announcing “There is no crisis in Zimbabwe”.
Elsewhere in the book, Godwin observes that South Africa could use its economic power to end Zimbabwe’s suffering in weeks. But the SADC instead puts pressure on both sides to achieve a compromise, or, put more accurately, a betrayal of the people’s mandate for change. Faced with the post-election violence and the announcement of a run-off election vote to decide the outcome for good, the MDC leaders balk at the prospect of continued attacks against their voters. The violence would only increase if MDC supporters were seen to repeat their crime by voting again for their favoured party. The other alternative is civil war, and the atrocities on both sides that go hand in hand with it. To save spilling more blood in a country already severely scarred by frequent massacres of its populace, the MDC agrees to form a GNU with ZANU-PF. This “Government of National Unity” is a means to pacify the perpetrators of politicide in the country by maintaining them in power. It does, however, defeat the voice of the nation, by returning the party so obviously unwanted by its subjects. The reader is confronted with the difficult decision faced by the MDC and asked to consider if their choice is inevitable or whether they are choosing to sleep with the devil, and for their own gain.
In the wake of the post-election violence, other African leaders, many themselves at the head of corrupt and repressive regimes, shrink from challenging Mugabe’s position. The only other alternative to the GNU presented in Godwin’s retelling is the intervention of the international community: “Attempts by the UN to impose sanctions against Mugabe for his bloody election crackdown fare just as badly. The proposal before the Security Council includes an arms embargo, and a travel ban and a financial freeze on Mugabe and a dirty dozen of his top officials who are considered to be the main architects of the violent campaign there, including Chiwenga and Shiri. But it is vetoed by two permanent members, China and Russia, together with Vietnam and Libya. South Africa, to its eternal shame, given the support that the ANC received from the UN in its struggle against apartheid, joins them in voting to protect Mugabe.” p. 187
The book is a collection of Godwin’s experiences and encounters with the people of Zimbabwe, from ordinary members of society to those at the forefront of the MDC’s battle, such as Roy Bennett. Towards the end of the book, when the momentum established by the election result and the anticipation of Mugabe’s downfall has slackened and ZANU-PF’s grip on power remains, the pace slows. Events are shown to be cyclical and the cycle near impossible to break. Here Godwin visits Matabeland South and those leftover from the Matabeland massacre of the eighties. The chapter is entitled “If Ever We Should All Die, It Will Be Forgotten Now”, a sentence spoken by a survivor of the atrocity perpetrated by ZANU-PF. Godwin’s visit is a chilling depiction of how such an atrocity can go unaddressed for so long, its perpetrators still in the seat of power, free to re-enact their crimes. Will another twenty five years pass without the post-election violence being formally adjudicated against?
This chapter raises important questions about transitional justice, and the balance between retribution and progression, which resonate across our world. When does the right to justice expire? Can it be carried forth into the next generation? This is a crucial point in the issue of refugees and the right of return, and the trying of war crimes. Godwin writes: “Even though the Matabeland massacres were perpetrated twenty-five years ago, they still loom large to the people here – an unrequited tragedy that shattered their society, and festers at the heart of everything. Roy Bennett reckons that what happened in Matabeland remains Mugabe’s biggest motive for holding on to power: he fears that if he leaves office he will become victim to what the Shona call kudzorera pamavambo – retributive justice, the real blood-revenge, the kind that doesn’t need the Hague to happen”. P. 279
At the end of the chapter Peter Godwin’s sister and travelling companion, Georgina replies when asked why she is crying: “It’s everyone here. They’ve all been abandoned. No one gives a fuck about what’s happened to them, they’re completely alone.” P. 284
Quotes from the book on key issues:
“Zimbabwe now leads the world in number of orphans per capita - produced by Aids, poverty, health-care collapse, and a repressive ruler, indifferent to the plight of his people.” P. 285.
“The Zimbabwe dollar’s hurtling collapse – the fastest currency collapse of a nation at war the world has ever seen.” P. 211
On the contry’s post-election cholera epidemic: “The country is being ravaged by an epidemic of cholera, an utterly preventable medieval disease that hasn’t been seen on any scale here in modern times....Before it ends, the epidemic will have stricken a hundred thousand - killing four thousand of them.” P. 209-10
On women subjected to rape, often gang-rape: “Betty Makoni, director of Girl Child Network in Zimbabwe, has compiled a list of over eight hundred names, and these, as they say in Zimbabwe, are just the ears of the hippo. There are many, many more beneath the surface. Women who will never get help, and most of whom will die, untreated, of Aids. And no one has been prosecuted for these rapes.” P. 193
On international law and the situation in Zimbabwe: “Under the new legal principle of ‘universal jurisdiction’, South African courts could prosecute any of the perpetrators that come onto its territory, but the National Director of Public Prosecutions there has so far resisted requests to investigate torture in Zimbabwe. The UN Security Council could task the International Criminal Court to investigate and prosecute the perpetrators of Zimbabwean crimes against humanity - but that’s unlikely because those two trusty human-rights champions, Russia and China, are bound to veto it, just as they vetoed previous action against Mugabe. But the International Criminal Court Prosecutor has the power to initiate proceedings on his own. Raising awareness of the horror of Mugabe’s crimes will help in both these efforts.” P. 190
Edition quoted from: 2010, Picador, London.