A step into the unknown

Published in the New Statesman (July 26th, 2013)

As I left one veteran activist’s home in Harare after an evening discussing the forthcoming election, I pointed at the green water in his swimming pool and joked about him not doing much exercise. No, he replied, he used that for his washing and cleaning, along with plastic containers, filled on the rare occasions there is running water. So limited are supplies, he washes from a bucket each day.

It was a small reminder that life in Zimbabwe remains grim. Things are better than at the last presidential poll, in 2008, when the second-worst hyper-inflation in history shut hospitals, emptied shops and left people starving, while rampant Aids carved its cruel course. The introduction of the dollar stabilised the economy but most people are still unemployed, poverty is endemic and public services are creaking. All the while, a gangster government talks of revolutionary struggle even as it steals vast sums from diamond and gold mines.

The hastily-called election campaign is brief to ensure that Robert Mugabe – now 89 and suffering from cancer, who has led the country since its independence in 1980 – can sustain the staged rallies that ‘supporters’ of his party Zanu-PF are forced to attend. He has softened his language to placate the international community. Yet there are still rants against homosexuals and jibes that the opposition Movement for Democratic Change are British stooges. This time around, they are accompanied by sexual slurs against the MDC’s leader, Morgan Tsvangirai; rivals accuse him of sleeping with scores of women since his wife died four years ago.

There are, of course, rather more serious issues at stake. In the last election the MDC won a clear majority, leaving Mugabe reportedly ready to resign. Instead, the generals and security goons that run the country told him to stay and spent weeks manipulating the result to ensure a second round run-off. They unleashed savage violence that left hundreds of rival supporters dead, thousands injured and forced Tsvangirai from the ballot.

Foreign diplomats, raising the spectre of the International Criminal Court, forced the warring parties into uneasy coalition, with Mugabe as president and Tsvangirai as impotent prime minister. The MDC has been tarnished by the trappings of power. Meanwhile, Mubabe’s gang milked the world’s biggest diamond mines, earning billions in deals with the Chinese that fuelled an alarming arms build-up, while pushing ‘indigenisation’ policies that mean white people can, for instance, no longer own beauty salons.

As polling day loomed, Harare had an air normality – but it seemed fragile, and undercut by fear. I went to the launch of an election special for the hit online comedy Zambezi News, which bravely satirises the propaganda on state-controlled television. A crowd of young professionals laughed loudly; one wore a beret from Mugabe’s clothing line, presumably a supporter. Afterwards, the show’s stars told me they had received warnings from the security forces, not something to take lightly in a country with so many suspicious car crashes.

Mugabe, who despite everything craves respect, is desperate to be seen to win on July 31 so he can have the last western sanctions against him lifted. Most were suspended after a referendum on a new constitution in March – a worrying sign of weakening resolve against a resolutely repressive regime. As I revealed at the weekend with a dossier of leaked intelligence documents, his party has tried to rig the ballot with the help of an Israeli technology company and the Chinese government, and funded by dubious diamond firms and businessmen. Alongside this has come the usual intimidation of voters, misuse of patronage and preparations to unleash terror.

If Mugabe wins, will the world rubber-stamp a blatantly stolen election – especially amid growing indications of tawdry deals with some southern African countries who are providing observers? Even then, there is no guarantee that the factions fighting to succeed Mugabe can be held together. There are already rumours of China and Israel backing different groups, and of violence between rivals to come.

Yet if the MDC wins again, as would almost certainly be the case in fair elections, few expect this regime to concede power. So will the generals just unleash their militia again? Or would they simply mount a military coup under the hardline defence minister Emmerson Mnangagwa? Sadly, only one thing is certain: this wounded nation faces more turmoil as it struggles to emerge from the darkness that has engulfed it for too long.

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