Mugabe, Mbeki, and Mandela's Shadow

Mugabe, Mbeki, and Mandela's Shadow

Mini Teaser: Nelson Mandela's successor is providing vital help to the illiberal and undemocratic regime in Zimbabwe.

by Author(s): R.W. Johnson

Not Free, Not Fair

By this stage the June 2000 parliamentary election campaign in Zimbabwe was in full swing, with a tremendous increase in war veteran and Zanu-PF violence. Not infrequently, MDC candidates were attacked and subjected to such gross intimidation that they were unable to enter their constituencies at all, let alone campaign. The Electoral Supervisory Commission saw its functions usurped by government, international monitors were systematically blocked and hindered, the state-owned media denied the opposition air time, and right up until the eve of the election the opposition was denied knowledge of where polling booths would be placed. Even after the election the opposition and the public were denied access to the voters' roll. Whites were often barred from voting.

It is difficult to know what effect many of these barriers to democratic expression had, but there is no doubt that the violence and intimidation worked. An exit poll conducted by the Helen Suzman Foundation found that 32 percent of voters thought that some, most or ali voters in their constituencies had been intimidated into voting against the party they really preferred, and 12 percent admitted that this had been true of their own vote. These figures were confirmed by the major national survey carried out by the Helen Suzman Foundation in September-October 2000: 31 percent and 13 percent, respectively, gave the same answers to the same questions. Moreover, this survey showed that large numbers of opposition voters said that they had not voted either because they had been too scared to do so or because their identification cards had been confiscated by Zanu-PF thugs. Since it was humiliating or dangerous to make such admissions, these figures should be regarded as very conservative ones. The Foundation esti mated that in a properly free election the MDC would have won 58 percent of the vote and between 87 and 91 of the 120 elected seats, instead of the 57 seats it actually won.

Strobe Talbott, the U.S. deputy secretary of state, visiting Johannesburg in early May, expressed strong concern about the Zimbabwean situation: "Africa's friends ... look to the SADC to do everything it can to encourage free and fair elections and to insist on an end to the violence." The United States, he promised, was ready to help Zimbabwe, but "we cannot and will not offer support in a climate of violence, lawlessness and intimidation."  The fact that this was headlined by the South African press as a ringing endorsement of Mbeki's position had less to do with Talbott than with the fact that the press was now under strong pressure to report Zimbabwean events in a way that would not overly embarrass Mbeki.

Thus, while the international press (and Johannesburg's Weekly Mail and Guardian) carried full accounts of how Mugabe's war veterans had established "torture clinics" to deal with election opponents, and of how gang rape had been deployed as a deliberate intimidation tactic against nurses, schoolteachers and pupils, such details did not get into the mainstream South African press--which also did not print the horrific pictures of opposition activists forced to sit naked on red-hot stoves. Business Day's long-standing correspondent, Michael Hartnack, could not get his reports of Zanu-PF atrocities into the paper, was accused of having "an anti-Mugabe agenda", and resigned from the paper. (It tells one not a little about the current South African climate that the foreign editorship of Business Day--the business community's house magazine--is held by a man who pled guilty in a German court to spying for the Soviet Union.)

Most of the South African press gave no publicity to a Suzman survey, held in March, showing that 63 percent of Zimbabweans believed it was "time for a change" and only 36 percent wanted ZanuPF to continue in power. The Foundation's June exit poll survey met a similar fate--despite the fact that both surveys received wide publicity in the international press. Instead, most of the press treated another Mugabe victory as a foregone conclusion and gave occasional space to articles suggesting that the MDC was really run by white South African interests.

All of which focused increasing interest on whether the outside world would pronounce the elections free and fair. A "not free and fair" verdict would clearly embarrass Mbeki, leading to further questions as to how he could support an antidemocratic regime. It was, accordingly, apparent from a long way off that strong pressure would be applied to ensure a "free and fair" verdict, whatever the facts on the ground. The Victoria Falls Summit had shown that the other countries ruled by liberation movements--Angola, Mozambique and Namibia--could be relied upon to take this view. Indeed, Nujoma was such a strong Mugabe supporter that he stood happily by while Mugabe, on a state visit to Namibia in May, called on Namibians to stage land grabs from white farmers there, too.

South Africa is, by a huge margin, the dominant state within the SADC, and it was immediately understood by the smaller SADC members that it would be unwise not to support the Mbeki line. Thus, for example, the continuous attempts by the MDC leader, Tsvangirai, to meet SADC leaders and put his case before them always came to naught; Mbeki's line that only state-to-state relations were acceptable was observed by all SADC members. Yet once the elections were over, Tsvangirai was to meet at least once with Mandela and with members of the Botswana cabinet.

Ironically, even while Zambia's Frederick Chiluba and Mozambique's Chissano gave Mugabe strong support, advertisements simultaneously appeared in the Zimbabwean press trying to tempt white farmers to settle in Zambia and Mozambique--Zimbabwe's white farmers are known for their productivity and entrepreneurship, and such qualities are in short supply in southern Africa. The logic of the situation was well understood by Pakalitha Mosisili, the premier of Lesotho, the country's poorest and most fragile ministate. He flew into Harare in order to offer support to Mugabe in terms so slavish as to achieve the near-impossible target of surpassing the standard set by Mugabe's chief propagandist, Jonathan Moyo.

Some observers were beyond Mbeki's influence, however. The American delegations from the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI) were, like many others, hemmed into their rooms in Harare's Meikles Hotel, effectively forbidden by one government restriction after another from leaving the capital to observe the election. Like all other international observers--and even journalists--they had to pay a special $100 fee to Mugabe for being allowed to observe, and had one obstacle after another thrown in their way. In the end both pulled out before the election (as did the team sent by the UN), since they simply were not allowed to do their job. The head of the NDI delegation, Alex Ekwueme, Nigeria's vice president from 1979-83, announced that conditions for a free and fair election simply did not exist. The IRI delegation pronounced the elections to be "the worst we have ever seen."

Similarly, the EU observers--the largest of all the observer missions--excoriated the manner in which Mugabe had undermined democratic choice at every turn, as did Amnesty International, the Zimbabwean Human Rights NGO Forum, the Southern African Legal Assistance Network, and a host of other monitoring and observer groups. The Mugabe government argued bitterly that it did not need or want all these foreigners coming to observe its election, and it tried hard to prevent the election monitors trained by local Zimbabwean NGOs from deploying themselves around the country. In the end less than a quarter were able to do their job.

The key point made by NDI, IRI, Amnesty and the other groups was that, irrespective of what happened on polling day, the election could not be adjudged free and fair because of what had happened in the months before it: the violence against and intimidation of the opposition, the refusal of fair media access, and the multiple administrative irregularities in the organization of the election itself. It seemed clear, for example, that the electoral register included the names of many dead or bogus voters, creating huge opportunities for electoral fraud. But the government would not allow anyone to examine the register, even though it was constitutionally bound to do so.

The advance conclusions that the elections could not be free and fair were naturally not congenial to Mbeki, so on June 12, 2000 he gave an exclusive interview to the pro-government Independent Group press, in which he insisted, "We want free and fair elections in Zimbabwe. We are against stolen elections." But, he added, no one could have any idea at this stage whether they would be free and fair; such opinions were wholly speculative. This pretense of neutrality was doubly bogus. It disregarded the wave of human rights atrocities occurring just across the border, as well as the close alliance that now existed between the ANC and Zanu-PF.

A Zanu-PF delegation led by John Nkomo, the Zimbabwean minister of home affairs, had been greeted with great warmth by the ANC secretary-general, Kgalema Motlanthe, in Johannesburg just a fortnight before. The ANC sided unequivocally with Zanu-PF, issuing a communique in which the parties announced they had "reached common ground on resolving Zimbabwe's land crisis." In particular, the ANC supported the Zanu-PF demand that Britain should give financial aid for land reform without any conditions about violence, transparency or the rule of law. The meeting dispelled any lingering doubts that might have existed: the ANC was already committed to assessing any Zimbabwean election that returned Mugabe to power as free and fair.

Essay Types: Essay