On a clear spring afternoon in Harare in mid-May, South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki, paid a call on Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s beleaguered dictator, six weeks after Zimbabwe’s tumultuous elections on March 29 in which opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai claimed a clear victory over Mugabe. Mbeki had been largely silent as Zimbabwe descended into chaos. In mid-April, while Mugabe’s handpicked Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) refused to release the final vote count, and Mugabe’s War Veterans marched through the streets in an intimidating display of force, Mbeki had stood hand in hand with Mugabe outside the presidential residence in Harare and denied that the country was in “crisis.”
In recent days, however, as evidence grew of widespread beatings and killings of supporters of Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Mbeki had found himself under attack in the press and at odds with members of his own party leadership. Jacob Zuma, the chairman of the African National Congress and Mbeki’s likely successor to the presidency of South Africa, had criticized the delayed vote count and said that an April raid on MDC headquarters made the country look like “a police state.” The Johannesburg newspaper Business Day revealed that Mbeki had several years earlier ignored a report by two South African judges describing widespread cheating by Mugabe’s ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU- PF), in the 2002 parliamentary election. Now, with the electoral commission’s official results showing that Tsvangirai had defeated Mugabe by 47.9 percent to 42.3 percent—necessitating a runoff election—Mbeki faced mounting pressure to support a free and fair second round.
And yet, when Mbeki stepped off the plane on May 9, it appeared to be business as usual—smiles, embraces, and hand-in-hand stroll across the tarmac. At their State House meeting, according to those close to the proceedings, Mbeki gently prodded Mugabe to declare an early date for the runoff. Then he suggested, diplomatically, that Mugabe should find a way to end the violence. It didn’t matter who had instigated it, Mbeki said. Mugabe controlled the police and the army, and they could stop it.
Mugabe told Mbeki that the situation was under control, and that Zimbabwe’s own laws would deal with it. The tone of the meeting was “chilly,” I was told by one close observer; but Mbeki made no demands, and left without receiving any commitments. Since then, Mbeki has kept his distance from Mugabe. “It appears that he’s washed his hands of the whole thing,” the source said.
Mbeki’s inaction is hardly surprising. Since Mugabe initiated his catastrophic “land grab” in January 2000, turning over four thousand white-owned farms to putative veterans of Zimbabwe’s independence war and to cronies, the South African president has failed to address forthrightly both Zimbabwe’s subsequent economic collapse and Mugabe’s many human rights abuses. Clinging to an ineffectual policy of “quiet diplomacy,” Mbeki stood by as Mugabe accelerated his violent land reform program. He then said and did little as the dictator unleashed thugs to intimidate voters and stuffed ballot boxes to guarantee electoral victories for Mugabe’s ZANU-PF.
Mbeki has given the dictator and his inner circle political and diplomatic support in many forums, including the United Nations, even as the rest of Zimbabwe’s population suffers the consequences of economic collapse. Over the past eight years, agricultural production in Zimbabwe has fallen by four fifths, unemployment has risen to 85 percent, inflation has risen to an annual rate of more than one million percent, and three million Zimbabweans have fled the country. (The current population is estimated to be 12 million.) Most, ironically, have gone to South Africa, feeding the xenophobia that climaxed on May 19 in an explosion of violence. Since then dozens of people have been killed and more than 25,000 displaced.
After a week of silence on that issue, Mbeki on May 26 denounced the xenophobic attacks as an “absolute disgrace.” By then, however, his stature inside South Africa had sunk to a new low: party elders sharply criticized him for being out of touch, and the Sunday Times, a leading Johannesburg newspaper, called for his resignation in a front page editorial. “Mbeki has demonstrated that he no longer has the heart to lead,” the Times said.
Theories abound about what may bind Mbeki to Mugabe: a reverence for the Zimbabwean dictator as the last living founder of the African liberation movement; personal distaste for Tsvangirai; a reflexive suspicion of the MDC as an agent of Western governments; fear that an MDC victory could embolden the opposition in South Africa and undermine the ANC. (“Mbeki is a ‘scion’ of liberation movements. There is no way he can dump President Mugabe at this critical moment,” said Campion Mereki in an opinion piece published in Zimbabwe’s Herald newspaper, the ruling party’s mouthpiece.) Whatever the case, Mbeki’s seeming blindness toward widespread intimidation of MDC voters, displacements of thousands of people, and the terrorizing of teachers, election observers, and party activists has undoubtedly worsened an already desperate situation. It is now “next to impossible,” according to one top-ranking MDC official I spoke to, that the second-round election can be carried out in a free and fair manner.
If Mugabe wins the election on June 27, his victory will represent, in part, the last, desperate gambit of a regime that long ago lost any shred of legitimacy. But it will also demonstrate how the possibility of genuine electoral change turned into a continuing nightmare—a nightmare of open, repressive brutality—thanks, in large part, to the refusal of Mbeki and other African leaders to intervene (with the exception of Ian Khama of Botswana, who has provided quiet support for Tsvangirai). This abdication of responsibility bears consequences not only for the future of Zimbabwe under the apparently unhindered violent rule of Mugabe, but also for the possibility of some minimal kind of multinational African concern for protecting democratic processes and human rights.
The current crisis in Zimbabwe was set in motion last fall, when Mugabe, who commanded guerrilla forces in a six-year independence war against the white-minority regime of Ian Smith, and who has ruled the country since independence in 1980, announced that he would run again for his country’s presidency. Until that time, it was widely assumed that Mugabe, who is eighty-four, would retire to a $15 million villa in the northern suburbs of Harare in mid-2008, and pass on power to one of several possible heirs in waiting, including Vice President Joyce Mujuru, a former independence war hero known as “Comrade Spillblood.” His candidacy was ratified at an extraordinary party congress in December 2007, despite subdued protests by senior party officials who, according to news reports, called the vote a “fraudulent process” marred by “blatant intrigue and manipulation.”
At the time, Mugabe’s reelection seemed all but assured. It was widely assumed that the ZANU-PF would resort to the same tactics—voter intimidation, ballot-box stuffing, and falsified tabulations of the final vote count by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission—that it has used in three previous elections this decade against the Movement for Democratic Change, led by Tsvangirai, a former trade unionist. Tsvangirai said the MDC was a “liberal” party, committed to restoring civil rights and ending corruption.
As the election neared, Mugabe’s prospects for victory began to dim. In February 2008, Simba Makoni, a British-educated economist and secretary for economic affairs of the ZANU-PF, announced that he was making an independent run for the presidency. He accused the ZANU-PF of failing to deal with the country’s deepening poverty, and of fueling hyperinflation through the uncontrolled printing of Zimbabwean dollars. Makoni was then expelled from the ruling party and denounced as a traitor, but his breakaway candidacy was the first evidence of disaffection at the top of the ZANU-PF.
At about the same time, the MDC, which had been weakened by a split along tribal lines in October 2005, began showing renewed vitality. On March 11, 2007, Tsvangirai had been grabbed by police and savagely beaten with truncheons and iron bars; he suffered a concussion and several fractures. “His left arm was shattered, he had seven stitches across his skull, his entire body was black and blue,” one of his advisers, a former British army officer, told me. “The combination of the beating, and the physical and moral courage he showed, won him the sympathy of the nation.”
Thus there was a sense of possibility in the air when I arrived in Zimbabwe three days before the March 29 election. As on three prior visits, I came in on a tourist visa: the government had banned almost all Western journalists from entering Zimbabwe to cover the elections. On the way to downtown Harare, I passed a mile-long row of campaign posters for Mugabe: unsmiling visage, eyes hard behind thick frames, fist raised, the slogan proclaiming “Our Nation. Our Sovereignty”—a reference to the ruling party’s now- shopworn argument that the Movement for Democratic Change was a puppet of Great Britain and the United States, and sought to roll back Zimbabwe to the days of white-minority rule. Every one of these posters, I saw, had been defaced by a splatter of black paint. (The Herald that week announced a citywide manhunt for those who did it.) I checked into the York Lodge, a colonial-style guest house tucked into the outskirts of town, which was filled with both Western correspondents and staff members of the National Democratic Institute, a US pro-democracy organization that was quietly training independent election monitors ahead of the vote.
I attended Tsvangirai’s last rally, in Chitungwiza, a dozen miles south of Harare, before 15,000 MDC supporters at the city’s football stadium. Stylishly attired in a tan panama hat and a white Cuban guayabera covered with a green palm tree motif, Tsvangirai, who is fifty-six, addressed the excited throng in Shona, the main tribal language of Zimbabwe, punctuating his speech with riffs in English. He led the crowd in Shona victory chants and traditional Zimbabwean songs; at the end of his thirty-minute talk, he danced a celebratory two-step across the podium, bobbing, weaving, and spinning as the crowd roared. Tsvangirai is a charismatic campaigner and the mood of the crowd was jubilant.
One man I interviewed, Patrick Nyengera, had just returned from his birthplace, Gokwe, in rural Midlands province, and had been astonished by the disenchantment shown for the dictator there. Rural areas in the north, central, and eastern regions of Zimbabwe had long voted overwhelmingly for Mugabe’s ZANU-PF, which controlled the distribution of food as well as information, and terrorized opposition supporters during past electoral campaigns. But “now it’s gone over to the MDC,” he told me. “Mugabe made so many promises and none of those were kept—there is no dip for the cattle, no food, the shops are empty, they are closed. There’s nothing to buy. Support for him is just dropping away. There are some Mugabe supporters out there, but just a few.”