Foreign Policy Blogs

Zimbabwe’s Election Year

Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai

[Image From SW Radio Africa]

Zimbabwe no longer occupies a great deal of space in international media coverage. Even in South African media the neighbor north of the Limpopo has returned to secondary status, on the backburner but not on the boil.

And it is true that things in Zimbabwe are not what they were for much of the last decade, when historic rates of hyperinflation, general economic calamity and scarcity, and political violence were daily features of a country descending into chaos. The 2008 election process reaffirmed that when all else fails, President Robert Mugabe would simply resort to violence by proxy, unleashing the thugs among his so-called “war veterans,” increasing numbers of whom may not have even been alive, never mind toted a gun in combat, when Mugabe helped lead the fight against white rule in the 1970s. The economy has stabilized, though it is still precarious for ordinary Zimbabweans.

And political violence is not as frequent an occurrence, though this might be for two related reasons, the first being that previous violence has rendered most Zimbabweans too frightened to speak out. And the second reason being that violence is a weapon that is as effective when used in the form of threats rather than bludgeoning and shootings.

More to the point, 2013 is to see an election in Zimbabwe. This means that we will soon see the lengths to which Robert Mugabe, increasingly showing signs of his characteristic pugnaciousness, will go to maintain the power that he sees as rightfully his. We know he has no plans to step from a sinecure he sees as his for life. And we know that he is not happy with the arrangement that has his ZANU-PF sharing power with the Movement for Democratic Change and its leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who serves as a neutered Prime Minister in the coalition government. We also know that reform talks between the two parties, who rarely seem to work together on anything, have sputtered if they ever really commenced.

So what does this mean for this year’s elections, which may or may not happen in March? We can safely say that it does not bode well, especially since Reginald Austin, the head of Zimbabwe’s Human Rights Commission, recently stepped down from his post “in protest at the lack of independence and resources given to the commission” and expressed his belief that he would promptly be replaced by a ZANU-PF supporter. The Human Rights Commission is charged with addressing the country’s human rights problems, including (especially?) political violence.

I suspect that as the elections approach, whenever that may be, we will see increasing violence coupled with dueling narratives about “security” from ZANU-PF and with accusations from the MDC and human rights organizations about thuggery from Mugabe’s supporters, some of them in uniform, others operating in the shadows, where threats of violence are most ominous, and often most effective. The opposition accusations will almost surely be the most accurate (not that MDC supporters are not above their own use of violence and coercion — victims of vice are not automatically granted virtue) but the overwhelming sources of political violence this year will come from Mugabe’s side with the sole purpose of ensuring him another few years in control of a country that he sees as his own private fiefdom.

The violence is likely to be especially effective when coupled with bureaucratic mechanisms that are geared simply toward making it easier for ZANU-PF supporters and harder for those from MDC to cast ballots. And on top of it all, one does not get the sense that the MDC is quite as mobilized as it has been in the past to overthrow their wily, resilient despot.

All of this is a recipe for an election year in which events might not reach the point where the world’s gaze is consistently drawn toward Zimbabwe. But it should be.



Derek Catsam

Derek Catsam is a Professor of history and Kathlyn Cosper Dunagan Professor in the Humanities at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin. He is also Senior Research Associate at Rhodes University. Derek writes about race and politics in the United States and Africa, sports, and terrorism. He is currently working on books on bus boycotts in the United States and South Africa in the 1940s and 1950s and on the 1981 South African Springbok rugby team's tour to the US. He is the author of three books, dozens of scholarly articles and reviews, and has published widely on current affairs in African, American, and European publications. He has lived, worked, and travelled extensively throughout southern Africa. He writes about politics, sports, travel, pop culture, and just about anything else that comes to mind.

Areas of Focus:
Africa; Zimbabwe; South Africa; Apartheid