You will be assimilated
23 December 2014 01:52 (South Africa)
Opinionista Sisonke Msimang

This is what you call 'an African solution'?

  • Sisonke Msimang
Zimbabwe is in need of a Plan B. No amount of Africanising will dress up the truth. As currently practiced, African standards, certainly in respect to elections and democratic governance, basically suck.

A few weeks ago I expressed a deep suspicion about the idea that we need African solutions for African problems. I am not naïve. I understand that there is a long-standing legacy of colonial interference in our affairs that necessitated a rethink of our orientation. Instead of looking outward the architect of “African solutions”, former president Mbeki sought to ensure that we first looked inwards to ourselves for answers.

But the truth is that, with the exception of Botswana, the African response (AU and SADC) to the shambolic manner in which the Zimbabwean elections were conducted has been a stark and embarrassing illustration of how wrong-headed the “African solution” to the Zimbabwean crisis has been. In other words, when Africa lets you down, you need to have a strong Plan B.

Increasingly, Zimbabwe is in need of a Plan B. No amount of Africanising will dress up the truth. As currently practiced, African standards, certainly in respect of elections and democratic governance, basically suck.

Let me say that with a bit more finesse. The legal and policy framework governing elections at the SADC and AU levels is clear and well articulated, but our institutions have demonstrated a stunning inability to play by our own rules.

This is all the more frustrating when one recognises that observing an election is not rocket science. By its own account SADC had a team of close to 600 people on the ground in Zimbabwe monitoring queues, listening to the airwaves and assessing ballot counting. That’s 1200 eyes observed the truth. Their task is described in the 2004 SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections. No doubt this document was written by the very intelligent and educated Africans who staff regional and continental bureaucracies. It outlines, in detail, the conduct expected of the SADC observer mission as well as the responsibilities of the member state holding elections. The AU Guidelines are similarly robust.

So what happened? How did we come to the mealy-mouthed mediocre SADC conclusion that the election was “free and peaceful”? How did strict adherence to the guidelines result in a lily-livered announcement that the regional bloc can only assess the fairness of the election after 30 days? Clearly, neither SADC nor the AU took their own African rules seriously when they issued their statements on the elections.

It is worth reading the SADC Observer Mission Report in its entirety. The report is essentially a list of very serious problems that compromise the quality of the electoral outcome in fundamental ways, followed by a get-out-of-jail-free card that seems completely disconnected from the analysis that precedes it. It is the equivalent of a psychologist suggesting that a patient has florid mania and is on the verge of suicide and then recommending that the best course of action is that she try to think positive thoughts to avoid jumping off a bridge.

In an interview this week former president Mbeki argued with typical stubbornness that the future of Zimbabwe “cannot be decided in Washington or London”. He insisted that Zimbabweans’ futures must be decided by Zimbabweans themselves. Mbeki continued his tradition of pretending he was not the architect of the Global Political Agreement, and in so doing sought to sell the idea that Zimbabweans entered the Government of National Unity freely. Of course, he ignored the six-week delay in the announcement of the election results in 2008, which brought the country to a standstill. In essence, he chose to ignore the fact that in 2008 Zimbabweans decided their future and Zanu-PF didn’t like their decision.

It is disingenuous for our former president to suggest that this election was also decided in Zimbabwe. The truth is that both the GPA, and the GNU it gave rise to, were Pretoria’s solution to the crisis in Zimbabwe. In classic Mbeki style an elite deal was hatched to calm the waters and buy everyone time to regroup. Don’t get me wrong; I actually think that given the circumstances the GPA and the GNU represented inspired diplomacy. Had the commitments in the GPA been seen through and supported consistently to their logical conclusion we would be toasting Mbeki and the government of President Zuma.

Instead, South Africa prevaricated. It waxed and waned and was outfoxed by the old fox. The free and fair elections envisaged in the GPA did not materialize because outside brokers have not been impartial or committed enough. It wasn’t the British and the Americans sitting around the table with the Zimbabweans over the past five years, it was the Africans. It is Africans and their solutions that Zimbabweans must blame for this mess.

I have as little time for the West as any good pan-Africanist, but the reality is that this election does not represent the will of the Zimbabwean people. It represents the will of Zanu-PF. There are real questions about what the actual outcome of the election would have been if Zanu-PF had not tampered with the voters roll and printed additional ballots. I am not convinced that the MDC would have won, but that isn’t the point. The point is that Zanu-PF’s vote rigging has been authorized and approved by African institutions and government in service of a really bad African solution.

Where does this leave Zimbabweans? Bizarrely, it leaves them in the unenviable position of being the most blamed victims on the continent. It has been fascinating to watch the victim blaming that has taken place in the past few days. Zimbabweans have been pilloried and accused of being meek. They have been told countless, patronizing times that “you get the leaders that you deserve”. The critics have deepened the growing myth of the “mild-mannered” Zimbabwean. This myth has been constructed as a scapegoat. It allows African political operators to suggest that if the most affected are not unhappy, if they are not protesting, then how can anyone else help them.

It’s a good argument, only it isn’t true. It’s a factually inaccurate argument that insults the many activists who have been beaten and killed over the years. It undermines the reality of the thousands who have been forced out of the country for their political views. It pretends that the draconian Public Order and Security Act (POSA) was just a dream, that people weren’t arrested and beaten simply for sitting in a room, talking.

The myth of the meek Zimbabwean does a huge disservice to the Zimbabweans who stay on and fight. It makes a mockery of those young Zimbabweans who track SADC processes in good faith and meet with legions of journalists to brief them in the hopes that the story of their country will be heard and respected.

As the MDC runs to an illegitimate court, and Zanu-PF digs in for another round of factional fights, the good people of Zimbabwe are being eminently sensible. They have decided to simply carry on. There have been no parties to celebrate Zanu-PF’s victory. Nor have there been protests mourning MDC’s loss.

Zimbabwean’s have shrugged these elections off, refusing to get agitated about the inevitable. They know that they will live to fight another day. Zimbabweans have a lesson to teach us all. They have refused to buy into the elections hype. Instead, with quiet certitude and painful dignity, Zimbabweans have rejected Africa’s solution with the contempt it deserves. DM

  • Sisonke Msimang
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Sisonke Msimang writes about money power and sex. She lives in Johannesburg where she pretends to be the mistress of her own destiny.

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